Last January, the seminal Roe v. Wade ruling that gave women across the US the right to abortion turned 44. This year, the occasion carries added meaning in light of the Trump administration’s antipathy toward a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body.
Now I know most of our attention will be taken up worrying about women’s basic human rights and the impending nuclear winter, but I’d like us all to take a few minutes to think about Maude. In case you missed it, Maude was a wonderful sitcom that aired from 1972 – 1978 and starred the incomparable Bea Arthur as an outspoken, salt-and-pepper-haired housewife.
First of all, let’s take a moment to reflect on how amazing it was that this ever happened: Arthur was not young when this show aired – her character was 47 – and she spent most of the series expressing her needs in a loud, booming, baritone voice. Even when Maude’s husband is in the room, the focus is almost always on Maude’s struggles to find a meaningful existence in a world that tells her she can’t participate because she’s a woman of a certain age.
Television may be emerging now as a respected art form, but I’d argue that it still isn’t as daring, intelligent, and downright progressive as some of the programs of the 1970s. All in the Family tackled social issues head on, while The Mary Tyler Moore Show followed an unapologetically single career woman. And then there’s Maude.
In 1972, the year before the Roe v. Wade ruling, Maude sparked a national debate when she became pregnant as a 47-year-old grandmother – there had to be a punchline, after all – and decided to have an abortion. Needless to say, this was virtually unheard of on network television (and real life for that matter, though it’s emphasized in the episode that abortion was legal in the state of New York at that time), and the network certainly caught America’s attention for it. An estimated one third of the American population viewed at least one of the two abortion episodes, and the network was rewarded with almost 7000 protest letters and a campaign against it by the United States Catholic Conference.
Despite the protests, the episodes aired at a time when they were most needed, and 45 years later, they stand as the most intelligent treatment of abortion ever aired on television. Sure, the main characters of Sex and the City all profess to have had abortions, but treat the situation as a youthful mistake. Carrie is too ashamed to admit to her partner that she’s even had one, and spends an episode struggling to come clean about it. Abortion is commonly presented as an option in the case of unexpected pregnancy, for example on Friends, but Rachel keeps the baby and even ends up living happily ever after with Ross. Jessa on Girls has an abortion scheduled, but she’s too afraid to go and ends up getting her period while hooking up with a stranger in a bar – while Hannah waits in the abortion doctor’s office. Then when Hannah later becomes pregnant, she keeps the baby despite giving Girls show runner Lena Dunham the perfect opportunity to realistically portray abortion for millions of women.
It seems that 44 years after women won the right to choose, our art is fine with representing abortion as an abstract option, but not all that interested in following the emotional arc of the women who choose to exercise this right. For this reason, we should all watch Maude’s Dilemma today and take a thoughtful look at how abortion is portrayed in popular culture. Lena Dunham’s recent comments that she wishes she’d had an abortion were reprehensible, to be sure, but I believe she was tapping into a very valid gap in the abortion debate: stories of women who have had abortions. Forty-four years on, this is a story that still needs telling, if only to show us that abortion is a valid choice and can be a normal, if not difficult, part of a woman’s experience.