About 20 minutes into the pilot episode of Hulu’s “Shrill,” the millennial writer at the center of the story has an abortion.
Annie, played by Aidy Bryant of “Saturday Night Live” fame, doesn’t dwell on her decision to terminate her pregnancy. And after a roughly two-minute scene that shows Annie undergoing the procedure with her best friend at her side for support, she barely mentions it again — save for a few passing references and one awkward encounter with her boyfriend’s mother that’s played for laughs.
If her abortion marks a turning point, it’s only because of what Annie does next: She takes charge of her life, confronting her faltering relationship and standing up to her dismissive boss at a Portland alt-weekly.
As abortion rights face continual political challenges, the scene in “Shrill” seems groundbreaking in many ways. But what might actually be significant is how “Shrill” is just one of several shows that have taken a matter-of-fact approach to portraying abortion in recent years.
In 2015, “Scandal” shocked viewers when Kerry Washington’s iconic Washington fixer Olivia Pope had an abortion, which served as the show’s de facto reveal that she had been pregnant in the first place. The following year, “Jane the Virgin’s” omniscient narrator informed viewers that Xiomara — mother of the CW dramedy’s long-chaste protagonist — had what Jezebel later dubbed “a chill abortion.” In the years since, shows including “Claws,” “Sex Education,” “Dear White People” and “GLOW” have tackled abortion in similarly frank (and increasingly comedic) ways.
It’s no surprise that “Shrill,” based on Lindy West’s 2016 book of the same name, has an abortion scene. West, a co-creator and writer on the show, devotes several pages of her memoir to her experience of getting a medical abortion in her late 20s. She also co-created the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign, which encourages women to talk openly about their abortions.
In an interview, West said the “Shrill” writers shared an early draft of the scene with Planned Parenthood, which offered some feedback on the process — down to what a provider might say to a woman getting a first-trimester abortion. “It was really helpful in making sure that scene is not sensationalized at all,” West said.
In addition to making sure the scene was authentic, West said, the writers wanted to avoid tropes that they had seen in other TV story lines about abortion — namely that it’s a necessarily dramatic decision or one that leads to regret.
“This is a pivotal moment for [Annie] in her life but not in the way that abortion is usually treated as a pivotal moment,” West said. “This isn’t an agonizing decision for her. It’s a complicated decision because her life is complicated and her relationship was complicated.”
While it’s a short scene, West notes that “it’s maybe the first time that Annie sets a boundary for herself and thinks about what she wants and makes a choice.”
As Annie later tells her caddish hookup, Ryan, the pregnancy ostensibly would have ensured a long-term connection between the two of them. “I really thought about having a baby with you and that you would have to take me out to restaurants and treat me like a normal girl,” Annie says. “And then I just started thinking I shouldn’t have to … trap you into treating me like I’m a human being.”
There has been a noticeable shift in abortion story lines in the past 15 years, said Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist who studies fictional abortion portrayals in television and film through Abortion Onscreen, a project of the University of California at San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health research program.
In the early to mid-aughts, Sisson said, a typical plot would involve a woman discovering she was pregnant and then agonizing over what to do. In some cases, characters change their minds in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, or consider an abortion but ultimately suffer a miscarriage.
“We don’t really see that as much anymore,” said Sisson, who had not yet watched “Shrill.” “A lot of times when a character gets an abortion, the story is not as much about the decision-making process — it’s either the process of obtaining the abortion or what it means for their relationships and their career goals.”
Sisson said shows have also explored stories around the people women tell about their abortions. On “Jane,” for example, Xiomara struggled to tell her devoutly Catholic mother that she had an abortion. In “Shrill,” Annie tells only her best friend, Fran, before having the procedure.
Sisson cites Shonda Rhimes as influential in the shift in how abortion stories are told on TV. Rhimes, who reportedly battled with ABC executives to get the “Scandal” scene aired, had previously featured multiple stories involving abortion on her long-running medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” and its spinoff, “Private Practice,” which aired its last episode in 2013.
Sisson said it’s only in the past few years that shows in the comedy-drama realm have started to feature the procedure. But she and her colleagues already have several examples to study from this year — including Netflix’s well-reviewed British teen dramedy “Sex Education” — and she said there is an increasingly wider range of stories being told.
“We have a lot of material to look at, and I think that ‘Shrill’ is going to be an important part of that picture,” Sisson said.