Abortion in The Media

“Theres nothing I can say 2adequately prepare u. But if theres 1 ep u can watch live, this shld perhaps be the 1. #NoSpoilers #NoJoke #Scandal.” (Kerry Washington, Instagram). This cryptic Instagram caption from Kerry Washington intrigued and confused fans as they geared up to watch season 5, episode 9 of Scandal on November 19, 2015. What followed was one of the most controversial episodes that the show had ever aired. This episode that I have chosen to analyze took a risk by depicting Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, having an abortion. This paper will examine my corpus, my research process and approach, along with my hypothesis and the results of said hypothesis.

Abortion is a topic that is not frequently displayed on television because of what a sensitive subject it is. Many women face abortion each year, and they should not feel as though they are alone. According to an analysis done by researchers at the Guttmacher Institute, “Nearly one in four women in the United States (23.7%) will have an abortion by age 45… just published in the American Journal of Public Health. By age 20, 4.6% of women will have had an abortion, and 19% will have done so by age 30.” (Jones).

No matter how taboo of a subject abortion is, placing it in certain situations on television can be extremely important. Shonda Rhimes is known in her field for many things, but one in particular is that she is not afraid to push the boundaries of what is considered “safe for television.” She pushed barriers, broke down walls, and in the end portrayed abortion in a way that was classy and factually correct. The backlash that came with the episode was to be expected, but, the good that the episode did most definitely outweighs the bad.

In terms of my corpus, I knew that I wanted it to be in depth so that I could gather as much information as possible. Analyzing the episode, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” was extremely important. I especially took a very deep look at the abortion scene specifically so I could look for any details that would help me to better understand the episode. To get a better idea of the public opinion of the episode, I went to Kerry Washington’s Instagram from the day that the episode aired to see the comments. I conducted one-on-one interviews with 50 women to ask them questions pertaining to the episode and then I went to the internet. My primary sources came from websites such as Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Revelist, etc. The secondary sources I used were from the University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons, Sage Journals, and the American Journal of Public Health. By gathering so much research, it made things a bit easier, and in turn made my argument more solid.

I took three different approaches when it came to my Theoretical Framework and Methodological Approach. As far as textual analysis, I used the “Baby It’s Cold Outside” episode of Scandal, and then my primary sources as well as the scholarly articles. The Instagram comments from Kerry Washington’s post from the day of the episode made for a great use of discourse analysis. Then came the lengthiest approach, but one that gave me a wealth of information, ethnography. I felt that the best group to interview would be women ages 18-60, with a variety of sexual preferences, and of different ethnic backgrounds. Because the interviews were about this scene specifically as well as their opinion on the depiction of abortion on television, I decided that whether or not they had seen the show was not important. These in-depth interviews helped me shed a light on what this episode meant to people, and what they took from it.

Framing and putting together my hypothesis were somewhat difficult because I wanted to make sure it covered all areas, I felt were important. This specific episode of Scandal brought to light an important societal issue and started a much-needed conversation throughout Hollywood and the nation. The positive impacts outweigh the negative backlash the episode, Shonda Rhimes, and ABC received.

In 1930, any television show or movie was required to have a “seal and a number from the Motion Picture and Production Code Administration.” This rule was named the “Hay’s production code,” and it basically stated that there were certain moral requirements that every show must uphold. Some of the topics that were off limits were, “rebellious behaviors, such as drugs, prostitution, kidnapping, abortion, or anything of the like. This essentially caused television to ignore current events and political issues because they could have been seen as too provocative.”  In Hollywood and on television it was understood that most depictions of any sort of family life would be what people may see as ideal, or perfect, instead of flawed in any way. Hay’s production code was quite strict and when taboo topics such as abortion were shown, it was controversial. (example of why).

After the Roe V. Wade made the decision to legalize the right for women to choose, while it did not change things entirely, it did alter them. The decision was as follows: “this right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a women’s decision whether or not to terminate her Pregnancy.”

Just before the Roe V. Wade decision was made, one of the first legal television abortions was portrayed on the show Maude in 1972. In the show, a character finds out that she is pregnant and because she is 47, decides to get an abortion. Still such a controversial topic, this plotline was portrayed over two different episodes. Because abortion was still so off limits for television, there was not a single commercial break within the two episodes. This occurred because not a single advertiser was willing to pay for advertising because they felt that viewers would not react well.

Analyzing this episode was the first step in my research process. Shonda Rhimes has tried to tackle the topic of abortion before, she originally did it years before in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Dr. Kristina Yang, played by Sandra Oh chose to get the procedure because she wanted to focus on her career as a cardiothoracic surgeon, and was not interested in having children. This decision was a bit more explained throughout the episode and the only real emotion coming from the choice came from the people surrounding her. When she goes in for the procedure nothing is shown which removes even more emotion from the scene. Comparing these two scenes and episodes made it clear why “Baby It’s Cold Outside” received so much more backlash and was more talked about. There really is not much background information in the episode about what is to come which is one of the reasons why the scene in which Olivia Pope has her abortion is so shocking. Another reason that this scene was so groundbreaking was that when the abortion procedure began, instead of panning away, the camera zoomed in not only on Olivia’s face, but also to the doctor and the procedure she was performing.

There is no denying that this particular episode received its fair share of backlash, so much so that for a while after the episode aired, Kerry Washington took a break from Twitter because of all of the hateful things that people were saying. I sorted through roughly 1,000 comments on her Instagram page to get a view of what people were saying about the episode. Many people were enraged by the audacity of Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington and the ABC Network.

Some of the backlash included the following:

• “Allie_Hewett— “I’m sorry. I just can’t watch this show anymore. How devastating. If you don’t consider a baby inside the womb a life, then shame on you.

• Loretta4060 why pay a doctor when there’s alcohol, staircases, and roller coasters that can help out #mychoicemybody

• Anythingforselenaaa “I thought Olivia pope was supposed to be a strong independent woman… That scene was weak.”

• Yesunibwana “Sorry, this to me was Scandal at its darkest and lowest. I felt like someone punched me in the face. So disturbing. I’m not sure I will be watching any future episodes.”

• Laurenmccoy36- “I’m kissing my baby boy that many said should’ve been aborted. And never watching again.”

There were also many comments that remained positive and gave strong support to Washington and the episode. Some not only gave their support, but their own stories about why this episode was so important to them:

• Cjoellec Without planned parenthood I would not have had a women’s health exam every year, from age 16 to 24, a time when I couldn’t afford health care, and I would not have had birth control. Don’t fall for the heavily edited videos put out by pro-life extremists. Planned Parenthood is an amazing organization that helps women everywhere receive basic women’s health support even when they don’t have the money to afford it.

• Jihantaughtyou I can not believe the shaming coming from women about HER body and HER CHOICE, but it is also fictitious you loony tunes. It’s realistic writing, and superb acting obviously- if Kerry has evoked reaction/emotion out of you holy righteous bitches. See you Feb 11 #Scandal

• Kylekayla2 This episode was strictly about a woman’s rights.

• Plingelinnis – “Thank you, Kerry Washington. I don’t know if you manage your own Instagram, but I needed to say this. Thank you for the naked, dignified portrayal of a strong and capable woman making a tough decision. Only rarely does tv or movies show something close to the women most of us identify with. Real women, with real life concerns. Yes—Olivia Pope is not the ordinary girl next door. But your ability to make the character relatable and multidimensional is truly a feat. I love the show, and I love the message this episode sent. Great writing, great acting, great progress. Lots of love. @kerrywashington.”

An ethnographic approach is a very lengthy and in-depth research option. Family, Facebook, and friends of friends were the 50 women that were involved in the interview process. Each woman was between the ages of 18 and 60 to make sure that there were a range of opinions on the subject matter. Their race, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs were not of as much of a concern as I wanted a variety of information. Insert Questions Asked. Later on in my research I was curious to find out the political beliefs of each woman to see if that may have any effect on their answers. There actually was not much of a correlation between political stance and stance on abortion, which was surprising. The results of my one-on-one interviews were that 83% of participants felt that it was an overall positive episode and impact, 9% felt that it was negative, and 8% felt indifferent on the matter. Paragraphs on primary and secondary sources.

After the episode aired, despite the backlash from the public, there were many positive outcomes. Shonda Rhimes has always been an advocate of Planned Parenthood. On the heels of the episode, Planned Parenthood invited Shonda Rhimes to join their national board, an offer which she gladly accepted. Less than two years later, Shonda Rhimes accepted the Champion of Change award from Planned Parenthood, given to her because of her bravery in media as well as her work with them.

Shonda Rhimes gave attention to a very important women’s issue and started a nationwide conversation about the reality of abortion while striving to make the topic less taboo. It is important because it is clear that many negative articles were pushed to the forefront of the media but when I did just a bit of digging it was clear the message was so much more positive than was originally perceived. This specific scene proved the importance of the accurate portrayal of abortion on television because it started a conversation.

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Abortion in The Media. (2022, Sep 26). Retrieved October 3, 2023 , from

This paper was written and submitted by a fellow student

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