How An Animated Comedy Showed The Big Problem With News Coverage About Abortion

The Netflix series BoJack Horseman recently released an episode in which a major character decides to get an abortion, serving as a rare example of a comedy show that both tackles the topic of abortion and explicitly addresses the social stigma surrounding the medical procedure, including how abortion conversations in media are dominated by anti-choice men.

The third season of the Netflix series BoJack Horseman, which depicts a cartoon world populated by both human and animal characters, includes an episode centered not just around a character’s abortion but also around the stigma that can be associated with the procedure itself. In the episode titled “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew,” released in July, a human character named Diane chooses to get an abortion after discussing her unwanted pregnancy with her spouse. Diane’s celebrity ghostwriting client accidentally becomes involved, sparking a media discussion about abortion within the animated world.

The episode touches on some of the real-world aspects of obtaining an abortion, including protesters at the clinic, state-mandated ultrasound requirements, and informed consent laws. The show’s take on abortion stigma has garnered praise from TV critics who have called it “refreshing” and “a bracing counter-programming to the way discussion around abortion occurs in the media.”

A.V. Club’s Les Chappell also noticed the episode satirized abortion cable news conversations overwhelmingly dominated by men. In the episode, a news program on “MSNBSea” featured a discussion about Sextina Aquafina’s abortion by a panel of “old men in bow ties” (and a whale voiced by Keith Olbermann) who feel pretty confident about their “unbiased” opinions on abortion. Earlier in the episode, the whale news anchor asked, “Is Twitter an appropriate forum to be discussing a sensitive issue like abortion? Wouldn’t a better forum be nowhere?” Chappell wrote, “it nails the worst part of abortion debates, how they’re so often had by those who have no business talking about it.”

Although played for satire, the scene is pretty true to life in its commentary on the male dominance of abortion conversations in news. A Media Matters study of 14 months of cable news discussions about abortion found they included overwhelmingly male hosts, correspondents, and guests, and featured more anti-choice voices than pro-choice. In fact, from January 1, 2015, through March 6, 2016, 62 percent of cable news figures engaging in abortion-related discussions were men. In that time period, there was only one appearance by a group representing or advocating for reproductive rights for women of color across all three major cable networks.

These limited types of discussions, just as on BoJack Horseman’s “MSNBSea,” can ultimately fuel conservative misinformation about abortion and about women’s health more generally, as well as perpetuate stigma about the procedure.

Stigmatizing silence or misinformed statements about abortion are not limited to the types of news coverage portrayed on BoJack Horseman, either. The entire premise of the episode is unusual.

Abortion plotlines on true comedy shows are rare, according to Gretchen Sisson, a researcher at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), which produces the Abortion Onscreen project analyzing abortion stories in TV and film since 1916. According to ANSIRH’s research, 20 American TV shows featured a discussion of abortion in 2015, but all of these shows were categorized as dramas, or as a mix of drama and comedy like HBO’s Girls. Sisson explained in an email to Media Matters that, while TV comedy shows may make jokes about abortion, they rarely feature a character actually contemplating obtaining one. “Only about four percent of all abortion TV plotlines -- where a character is making a decision about an abortion -- occur on comedy programs,” explained Sisson. “Most TV abortion stories occur on dramas, shows that mix drama and comedy, and science fiction or horror programs.”

In fact, one of the few other examples of a comedy show -- also a cartoon -- featuring an abortion was a 2009 episode of Family Guy. Fox refused to air the episode because of its subject matter.

The current state of abortion discussions in media coverage and in popular entertainment ultimately serves to reinforce misinformation by shrouding the topic in confusion and secrecy. BoJack Horseman’s rare approach to highlighting the realities women experience when choosing to undergo the common medical procedure -- and the persistent stigma media perpetuate about the decision -- takes an important step in shifting the discussion.