‘Dirty Dancing’ Led the Way in Depicting Abortion—If Only Other Media Would Follow

A new study shows how today's TV doesn't measure up to past depictions, often exaggerating abortion risk and how easy it is to get care.

When Penny (actress Cynthia Rhodes) has an illegal abortion and resulting complications, the other characters in Dirty Dancing model true support and make sure she gets the medical help she needs to survive. Movieclips / YouTube

Thirty years ago, a low-budget film with no major stars came out in theaters. Despite many producers calling it a “negligible piece of junk,” that film became a huge hit. Today, Dirty Dancing is a cult classic. Just last month, it was re-released in theaters for a special anniversary run.

It’s also one of the most iconic films whose plot line wouldn’t exist if not for a character’s abortion. What makes Dirty Dancing’s portrayal so unique, and how do today’s on-screen abortion depictions compare?

For those who haven’t put on a slinky dress and tried to imitate its dance moves, a quick recap: Dirty Dancing is set in the early 1960s and centers on the summertime romance between teenage Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) and her Catskills lodge dance instructor, Johnny (Patrick Swayze). The romance blossoms because Johnny’s original dance partner, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), is pregnant, and the only day she can get an abortion is the day of an important dance performance. Baby volunteers to take Penny’s place and borrows $250 from her family to help Penny afford the abortion. Johnny teaches Baby how to dance and have the time of her life. In the meantime, Penny’s illegal abortion proves unsafe, and Baby calls in her father, Dr. Houseman, to make sure Penny is healthy and stable.

Dr. Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health in San Francisco, studies portrayals of abortion on film and television, and she explains why this particular representation of abortion is groundbreaking: “Most movies about abortion are about a woman making a pregnancy decision. With Dirty Dancing, the decision has already been made, and the entire plot of the movie is driven by the protagonists’ desire to help Penny access the abortion,” Sisson told Rewire over email.

“No character ever questions Penny’s decision to get an abortion, and even Dr. Houseman treats Penny with compassion, provides follow-up care, and assures her that she’ll be able to have children in the future. This makes it unique among abortion movies to this day.”

Dirty Dancing remains a kind of “gold standard” for cinematic portrayals of abortion, and today’s entertainment media hasn’t maintained that same level of compassion and accuracy. Sisson’s first study of abortion on TV and film was a census of these depictions, and while she and her co-author Katrina Kimport found that abortion did appear frequently on screen, it was often portrayed in problematic ways, most notably as much more dangerous than it is in reality.

Sisson and Kimport’s most recent study of abortion on television, published in February, is a deep dive into the content of these abortion depictions. After examining 89 television plot lines over ten years, the authors found that only 42 percent of television shows depict barriers to accessing abortion. This is especially egregious given the current landscape of abortion access in the United States, where during the last seven years, politicians have passed more than 330 new restrictions on abortion. These restrictions, such as mandatory invasive ultrasounds, lengthy waiting periods, denial of insurance coverage for abortion, and all-out abortion bans, undoubtedly keep people from accessing abortion care. It’s irresponsible for media portrayals to ignore or downplay this reality instead of exposing it for what it is: discriminatory denial of access to health care.

Even when TV shows do portray barriers to abortion access, almost none of these barriers prove to be insurmountable for fictional characters. Most characters can overcome barriers like locating an abortion provider and paying for a procedure. We know this isn’t the case for real Americans trying to access an abortion today, when a network of organizations called abortion funds exists to help people afford the cost of an abortion and ancillary costs like travel, lodging, and child care.

Shows like The Good Wife and The Secret Life of the American Teenager took on abortion stigma as a barrier to seeking the procedure, showing characters fearing relationship or reputation damage as a result of others finding out that they even considered abortion. Current scholarship on abortion stigma finds that many women do worry about judgment and condemnation from their communities. What’s disappointing about these depictions, however, is that they rarely show friends and family supporting the characters considering abortion. This gives viewers no blueprint for how to care for the real people in their lives who’ve had abortions.

What could account for the skewed and inaccurate portrayals of what it’s like to get an abortion in the United States today? Like she uncovered in an earlier study, Sisson found that the majority of TV characters choosing abortion were wealthier and whiter than abortion patients in real life. This conspicuous revision of the abortion patient population may misinform the U.S. public about the kinds of people who have abortions while also alienating prospective and past abortion patients.

Renee Bracey Sherman, senior public affairs manager at the National Network of Abortion Funds, shared how the media contributed to her understanding of her own abortion experience: “When I had an abortion, I hadn’t seen anyone on TV who looked like me who’d had that experience. Seeing a Black woman having an abortion would’ve changed everything. Maybe I would’ve had more courage to talk to my parents and tell them I was having an abortion. I probably would’ve shared my story earlier. I would’ve known what to expect when having an abortion.”

Analyzing how media such as film and television portray abortion is crucial to understanding abortion’s place in U.S. culture. Entertainment media is one of the public’s key sources of information about abortion, and these depictions provide implicit or explicit social cues about both the reality of access to abortion services and how to treat someone who’s had an abortion.

Sisson elaborated on the media’s role in conveying information about abortion: “People believe that abortion is less common, easier to access, and more risky than it actually is. Television and movies have the ability to challenge this misinformation and create new cultural narratives about abortion that more closely reflect the diverse realities of women seeking abortion in the United States.”

Even though you may not turn to shows like Jane the Virgin or Jessica Jones to get information about abortion, the truth is that a fictional portrayal of abortion can influence the way the public understands what it’s like to access an abortion and whether they support or judge a friend who’s had an abortion. These on-screen depictions have the potential to reach broader and more diverse audiences than any traditional pro-choice advocacy campaign, and to share messages that go beyond politics.

Obvious Child proved to audiences that abortion can be hilarious. In Grandma, abortion brings family members closer together. And, of course, in Dirty Dancing, an abortion led to a legendary coming-of-age romance. It’s time for our TV shows to catch up to these movies and show the reality of abortion access in the United States today.