Two weeks ago, DirecTV aired an episode of Friday Night Lights (FNL) that very quietly
made a mini-kind of television history. As many writers throughout the feminist
blogosphere noted with approval, the show
depicted a character having an abortion in a very nonpolitical, personal way.
The last onscreen abortion in my memory is Claire’s on Six Feet Under, although that was premium cable. Before
that, as Jessica Grose pointed out on Double X, we had Maude
It’s been a long time, but FNL is the right show to break that barrier.
Ostensibly about football, it’s really about small-town life in Dillon, Texas,
featuring some of the best female characters on TV and an honest take on teen
sexuality. My second column for Rewire, two years ago, discussed a great pro-choice
speech made by an unexpectedly pregnant character on FNL, even as she wavered
about keeping the pregnancy. A year ago, I wrote about a talk between character Tami Taylor and her
daughter Julie, one of the best "sex talks" I’ve ever seen on TV.
My guess is the writers of the show, so committed to exploring tough issues,
have long wanted to tackle abortion. Their move to DirectTV enabled them to
truly face the topic head on, as well as dealing even more explicitly with
race, class, gender and sexuality than they have before.
The "abortion episode" centers around a young girl, Becky, who
is in love with an older character, Tim Riggins. After Tim gently rejects her
kiss due to their age difference, Becky has a brief fling with a boy her age, a
football player named Luke. She realizes she’s pregnant and initially wants to
get an abortion, but wavers when Luke begs her to think her choice through, and
also when she realizes that her mother gave birth to her as a teenager. Tim
finds Becky utterly distraught, and takes her to Tami Taylor, his former
coach’s wife, for advice. Although Tami works at a different school than Becky
attends, Tim knows that the Taylors are one of the more stable families in town
and are used to counseling the youth of Dillon.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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When Becky tells Tami she’s pregnant, Tami, a school principal who was trained
as a guidance counselor, follows counseling protocol, with a tender tone in her
voice. She makes sure first of all that Becky is safe at home and not being
abused. She asks if Becky wants referrals to adoption or teen mom resources.
Becky says she’s not sure she wants to have the baby, and Tami says she can get
her that information as well. When she realizes Becky is safe at home, she
tells Becky the first thing she should do is talk her situation over with her
Becky tells her mother, who flies into a fit–reminded of her own teen
pregnancy–and they proceed forward with trying to get an abortion. The episode
depicts the way anti-choice laws affect this family. Becky’s mother, a single
mom who waits tables to make ends meet, has to take two days off, one for the
initial appointment and one for the abortion because of a waiting period. The
doctor is mandated to tell them about the gestational age of the fetus, which
upsets both women.
Finally, late at night and right before her abortion, Becky comes back to Tami
and asks her advice a final time. The transcript is below, thanks to Melissa
Silverstein of Women + Hollywood.
have an appointment for my abortion tomorrow. Why do I feel so weird?
Because it’s a hard decision. Have you thought about what you want?
don’t have any money. I’m in the 10th grade. It was my first time and I threw
it away and I don’t want to throw my life away. It’s just really obvious that
my mom wants me to have this abortion because I was her mistake and she has
just struggled and hurt and everyday she wanted better. And I knew better and I
was just thinking forget about what she wants, what do I want? Maybe I could
take care of this baby and maybe I would be good at it and I could love it and
I would be there for it. And then I think about how awful it would be if I had
a baby and I spent the rest of my life resenting him or her.
think I am going to hell if I had an abortion?
honey, I don’t.
would you tell your daughter?
would tell her to think about her life, think about what’s important to her and
what she wants and I would tell her she’s in a real tough spot and then I would
support whatever decision she made.
can’t take care of a baby. I can’t.
Becky’s words, "I can’t" are the title of the episode. By its
conclusion, Becky has had the procedure; on the phone she tells Luke "it
was the right choice." For the most part, we’ve watched a character arrive
at this decision from an honest, intensely personal, non-ideological
In subsequent episodes, however, ideology enters the storyline in an unexpected
way. Becky ends up being able to return, somewhat, to normal, mooning over Tim
and trying to figure out what she wants from him. But the ramifications
for Tami from her moment of midnight counsel will continue. Luke’s
mother, an evangelical Christian, shows up to Becky’s house to have a friendly
chat. Becky, happy to talk to any adult who seems caring, tells her the whole
story. Luke’s mom seizes on Tami as the villain, unwilling to blame either
young person or Becky’s mom for what she believes is a terrible sin. She begins
a single-minded campaign to get Tami fired, believing that Tami told Becky to have an abortion. Tami is
her feisty self when the school board meets to discuss what happened, but her
struggle against the anti-choice forces in town are far from over. As happens
over and over again on Friday Night
Lights, Tami will faces a series of conflicts between her personal and
professional integrity one one side and smoothing things over and moving
forward on the other. She has energized the academics at her school, and wants
to be able to continue helping kids without being harassed. This is what the
show is all about–decent people like Becky and Tami, put in hard positions by
life’s unexpected occurrences.
The irony is not lost on viewers: Tami is being accused of foisting her values
on Becky. But she simply listened to Becky and didn’t judge her. Tami certainly
doesn’t have an agenda, while her accusers do
have an agenda for young girls in the town. I can honestly say that it’s
one of the best depictions of the sheer irrationality that enters the discourse
around abortion that I’ve ever seen. This is a small town in the Bible Belt.
There are no militantly feminist pro-choicers milling around to combat the
conservative faction. There are just those who empathize with Becky’s plight
and those who want to tell her what to do.
NBC has picked up this
season of Friday Night Lights for prime time
broadcast in April now that Jay Leno is gone from that time slot. It will be virtually impossible
to broadcast this season without the abortion plot-line, but the show will be
cut down to make room for commercials, so it may be softened. It’s going to be
very, very important to keep an eye on how this series is treated by NBC and
whether it garners protests, because Becky’s abortion will really be momentous
if it gets depicted on a major network.
Friday Night Lights isn’t perfect. It lacks the tight, subtle writing of a
cable show and occasionally its unabashed earnestness leads to stereotypical
situations (quarterback with an addict mom turns to crime to pay her bills,
farm kid’s parents want him to skip practice to help out on the ranch). But
it’s a humane show despite its brutal story-lines, and the incredible casting
and writing make viewers believe in the uniqueness and moral potential of each
character, even the "types." That includes the moral potential of
women who have abortions and help each other have them, and while that
shouldn’t be remarkable, it is. This is the season for feminists to tune in.