On 'Friday Night Lights,' a brave and honest abortion story

By Gloria Feldt
Sunday, July 25, 2010

"I'm pregnant. And I don't know what I'm going to do. And I am. So. Scared."

With those tearful words, Becky Sproles, a 10th-grader in fictional Dillon, Tex., confided her predicament to her friend Tim Riggins in a recent episode of the NBC series "Friday Night Lights."

My visceral memory of the fear and vulnerability of teen pregnancy isn't my only connection with Becky's story. Dillon is based on the dusty West Texas boom-and-bust oil town of Odessa, where, 15 years old and pregnant, I moved with my new husband in 1957.

As chronicled by H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger in his 1990 bestseller "Friday Night Lights," life in Odessa revolves around football at Permian High (go, Mojo!), the school from which my three children graduated. (My husband and I hailed from an even smaller West Texas town, where our football team was truly the only game around; my high school classmates still play the 8-millimeter film of our state championship game at every reunion. Odessa at least had supermarkets and movie theaters.)

Although he is from New Jersey, Bissinger pegged the city's hardscrabble culture, flat landscape and flatlined sense of possibility pretty well. His book has given rise to a 2004 movie and now to NBC's critically acclaimed series, which is in its fourth season.

I watched "Friday Night Lights" out of nostalgia when it debuted, but my attention wandered -- until this season, when Becky's story line brought me back. I feared that the series would treat her pregnancy like a plot point in a soap opera, but I was heartened to find something entirely different. The show has portrayed her options and her choice to have an abortion responsibly, sympathetically, and without histrionics. It has also exposed with unusual honesty and courage the roiling politics of abortion.

My teenage world was very different from Becky's. Since 1957, we've seen technological revolutions from the birth control pill to the Internet, as well as laws expanding women's rights. But for all this progress, the way we talk about women and pregnancy -- in the media and in pop culture -- has moved backward.

Even before Roe v. Wade legalized it in 1973, abortion was common. Most everyone knew of someone who had died from a back-alley abortion, or a child who had been orphaned by one. The abortion rights movement was, as a result, intimately connected to the larger women's rights movement.

Media portrayals of unintended pregnancy and abortion reflected this reality, often showing women as victims of injustice. And Hollywood told straightforward stories, such as that of the brassy feminist title character of the TV show "Maude," played by Bea Arthur. When Maude, the mother of an adult daughter, became pregnant at 47, she went through a difficult process of weighing her options and her values. Like Becky, she decided that she couldn't go through with her pregnancy.

But just when reproductive rights seemed won and settled, antiabortion forces fueled a vicious backlash. And as the emerging political right was turning abortion into a wedge issue, our common reference point was changing. Fewer and fewer people knew about illegal abortion's toll first hand. Making matters worse, abortion all but disappeared from TV, movies and media reports, except as the subject of shouting matches.

As organized opposition to abortion grew more zealous and sometimes violent, stories about sex, childbearing and family formation -- whether reported or fictionalized -- devolved to a point where today, the a-word can't be uttered, let alone considered a real option. Of course, it is still a real option: Although most American women become mothers at some point in their lives, one-third of them also have abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

You certainly wouldn't know that from popular culture. In the 2007 movie "Juno," the title character, a pregnant high schooler, initially plans to have an abortion. But the dismal clinic she visits conforms to antiabortion stereotypes, and Juno predictably bolts. In 2007's "Knocked Up," abortion is jokingly euphemized as "rhymes with smashmortion" -- and the moral of the story is that all a high-achieving woman needs to do to be happy is to stay with the mediocre man who impregnated her and have his baby.

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