A recent quote from Mindy Kaling, the writer/creator/star of Fox’s The Mindy Project, raised an interesting question: is abortion too serious a subject to address in a half-hour sitcom?
The issue came up in an interview Kaling did with Flare magazine. It has particular relevance because Kaling plays an OB/GYN on her show, which is set in an OB/GYN practice. But, in a parenthetical aside, Kaling makes it clear that the show has no plans to address abortion, one of the most common reproductive health procedures in this country: “It would be demeaning to the topic to talk about it in a half-hour sitcom.”
Now, I have no idea what Kaling’s personal stance on reproductive rights is. So I also have no idea if her words reflected her own beliefs, the stance of the network, the sentiments of other writers and producers on the show, or some combination of all those elements. I also don’t know if this was part of a longer answer, and if some context is missing.
But the basic idea of a sitcom not being the appropriate place to talk about abortion rings false, if only because some of the most iconic sitcoms of all time have addressed a whole range of controversial social and political issues. And they have done so in ways that are neither “Very Special Episode” one-offs nor soapboxing that rings false to the world that the shows inhabit.
All in the Family may be the most famous example of a sitcom that addressed relevant topics with humor and intelligence, but it’s far from the only one. Shows as diverse as M*A*S*H, The Golden Girls, Good Times, Murphy Brown and Dinosaurs all tackled serious topics ranging from war to divorce, poverty to single parenthood to climate change. Both Cheers and Blossom featured main characters that were recovering alcoholics. The lead female characters on Friends and Seinfeld led equally, if not more, adventurous and judgment-free sex lives as their male counterparts, and openly discussed contraception. While not every individual episode has held up well with the passage of time, many succeeded in combining social commentary with more traditional sitcom tropes and humor.
And the same can be said of shows that addressed abortion. Sex and the City and Maude may be the most famous examples, but as Erin Gloria Ryan pointed out at Jezebel, Facts of Life, Roseanne, and Scrubs all had episodes that involved characters discussing abortion. While not all of those characters had had abortions, the very fact that they were talked about made a powerful statement about just how common this decision can be.
Of course, the television landscape, and business, has changed immeasurably in the years since All in the Family and Roseanne, and even since that episode of Scrubs aired in 2006. And that change may be best summarized by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy (which, like The Mindy Project, airs on Fox). Several years ago, the network refused to air an episode of Family Guy that had an abortion plotline; after the episode was finally released on DVD, MacFarlane discussed the controversy in an interview with The New York Times. “Times have really changed,” he said, and the network’s decision to not air the episode “is, unfortunately, probably correctly based on people’s current ability to handle and dissect controversial narratives, which is far less than it was in the ‘70s. … People in America, they’re getting dumber. They’re getting less and less able to analyze something and think critically, and pick apart the underlying elements. And more and more ready to make a snap judgment regarding something at face value, which is too bad.”
Whether you agree with MacFarlane’s assessment that people are getting dumber, he makes a valid point about how dangerous it is to make snap judgments, and to refuse to think critically about a subject — not just abortion, or reproductive rights, but pretty much any cultural or political issue.
This isn’t to say that the Family Guy episode was rife with deep thoughts and layers of nuance about reproductive rights, or that if The Mindy Project addressed the topic it would automatically make for good television. But the television sitcom can be a uniquely powerful medium. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Cosby Show, and Will and Grace didn’t invent the concepts of, respectively, women in the workplace, successful and highly educated African Americans, and gay attorneys in monogamous relationships; but all three shows helped move these representations from outliers to mainstream by presenting families and individuals that were relevant and relatable. For that matter, the sitcoms mentioned above that addressed abortion did so in ways that were organic to their shows. So it’s not a foregone conclusion that The Mindy Project couldn’t do the same, if the desire was there.
But in his Times interview, which was conducted in 2010, MacFarlane makes a point that is still relevant four years later, when he discussed his network’s reaction to a half-hour comedy addressing abortion: “It’s tougher for them to defend, I think, when it’s a comedy. I’ve got to believe that if this were an episode of ‘House,’ it probably would have aired. That’s not just Fox, that’s all the networks. I’ve always thought that’s maybe a policy that should be revisited, because it undervalues the power of comedy to make a statement that is a power that is at least as profound as the power of a live-action drama.”
Sarah Erdreich is the author of Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her family.