In America, an unwanted pregnancy can be a terrifying endeavor. When deciding whether to continue the pregnancy or get an abortion, pregnant people are faced with myriad societal pressures that can make them feel helpless. This feeling of helplessness is compounded by the fact that abortion, an often painless and simple procedure, is portrayed by the media as serious, life-altering and dire. TV shows that portray abortion, including Friday Night Lights, Degrassi High and Grey’s Anatomy, convey that abortion is a highly tense, emotionally fraught topic, and that the decision to get an abortion is difficult and traumatizing.
While for some people, the choice to get an abortion is exactly as terrifying as these shows make it out to be, for many, it’s no big deal. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly 15 out of 1,000 American women have had an abortion. Most of them did not describe their experience as emotionally or physically traumatic. A 2010 study on abortion at the University of California, San Fransisco found that people “felt more regret, sadness and anger about the pregnancy than about the abortion, and felt more relief and happiness about the abortion than about the pregnancy.” No credible studies have found that an abortion increases your chances of developing a mental illness or experiencing a “negative psychological change” later in life.
Until recently, TV has struggled to portray abortion outside of an emotionally charged lens. One recent show to change that trend is Bojack Horseman. Bojack Horseman is a bizarre, edgy Netflix original that handles dark topics like depression and alcoholism, with brash and often absurdist humor. The 2016 episode “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew” applies Bojack Horseman’s gritty-yet-lighthearted humor to abortion. “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew” follows teen popstar Sextina Aquafina through her very public abortion story. She announces her decision to get an abortion on Twitter, releases the sexually-charged music video “Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus,” and livestreams the abortion in an educational pay-per-view special. The underlying irony of the story is that Sextina isn’t actually pregnant. Her social media coordinator, the show’s main character, Diane, accidentally tweeted about her own decision to get an abortion from Sextina’s account. Sextina decides to roll with the mistake, appointing herself as a leader of the pro-choice movement. Sextina’s brazen fake abortion story occurs alongside Diane’s similarly liberated, but less absurd abortion.
Diane sits in an abortion clinic with her husband while Sextina’s “Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus” plays in the background. Diane is disappointed with the song, stating that it “gives the pro-life movement fuel” with lines like “I’m a baby killer” and “Aliens inside me/gonna squash it like Sigourney.” Diane’s views on the song are countered by a teenage girl waiting alone in the clinic. The girl is empowered by Sextina’s lyrics, telling Diane that the lyrics are meant to be read as a joke, and explaining that “Getting an abortion is scary. And when you can joke about it, it makes it less scary, you know?”.
Bojack Horseman’s humor does not shy away from the real, serious issues faced by people who get abortions. Diane has to pass through a picket line of anti-abortion protesters in order to get to the clinic, and the doctor providing the abortion is legally required to give Diane twenty hours of cute puppy videos (Diane’s husband is a dog, and the fetuses are puppies). This parodies laws in 14 U.S. states forcing women to get an ultrasound before they have an abortion. But the picket lines and puppy videos don’t factor into Diane’s decision to get an abortion. Diane perseveres through the political measures meant to prevent the abortion with a level of boldness that pales in comparison to Sextina Aquafina, but is far more assured than what we usually see on TV.
Bojack Horseman asks us to enter an empowered world where people are free to take abortion lightly. While the audacity of Sextina’s “Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus” doesn’t belong in the real world, the calm empowerment of Diane certainly does. Bojack Horseman deals with the sensitive subject of abortion without falling into the trap of morose seriousness, choosing to represent an abortion story without trauma. Many people who get abortions in America do not have the heart-wrenching experiences portrayed by most TV shows. Bojack Horseman’s light-hearted, humorous portrayal of abortion is empowering, healthy and accurate.