How comedy is speaking up about abortion

How comedy is speaking up about abortion

It remains a contentious and emotive issue – but, despite opposition, comedians are determined to break taboos and speak their minds, writes Alice Jones.

Comedy has a long and noble history of busting taboos but is every subject fair game for humour or are some too serious to joke about? What about abortion, for example?

 Women’s voices are getting louder and no topic is off-limits – Saskia Schuster

In 2019, it remains a contentious and emotive issue: a YouGov-Cambridge Globalism survey in May found that 46 per cent of US citizens thought abortion was unacceptable (in the same poll, only 17% of British people said abortion was unacceptable). Beliefs aside, it has the potential to be a traumatic topic for some who have undergone the procedure.

More like this:

–       Facing up to the world’s male monsters

–       Hollywood’s new kind of love story

–       The stories that shaped Toni Morrison

Nevertheless the comedy world is increasingly addressing the issue frankly. On TV, a wave of sitcoms and comedy dramas have featured abortion storylines. Meanwhile, on stage female stand-ups are tackling the topic head-on.

How comedy is speaking up about abortion
View image of (Credit: Austin Nelson)

Saskia Schuster, controller of comedy for the UK’s ITV network and founder of 50:50, an initiative to address gender imbalance in comedy, ascribes the change to an increased number of women in comedy, as well as the #MeToo movement and global marches for women’s rights.

“Women’s voices are getting louder and no topic is off-limits. It’s no longer a lone woman on a comedy bill bravely tackling subjects considered sensitive. There’s confidence in numbers and that has recently led to a groundswell of topics we can own,” she says. 

“We’re now ‘allowed’ to menstruate, masturbate, orgasm, enjoy sex, object to bad sex, get STIs, have fertility treatment, miscarriages and even abortions. And given the trend over the last few years to use comedy as therapy, to use laughter to counterpoint pain, a complicated subject like abortion is no less likely to be a topic for comedy than mental health, toxic masculinity or sexual abuse.”

On the Fringe

At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a number of performers have been making their views – and experiences – heard. One of these is US comic Jena Friedman: her new stand-up hour Miscarriage of Justice is a sharply satirical and frequently despairing look at the state of US politics – and, in particular, where Friedman believes it leaves women. In one section of the show, she imagines what life in America might be like for her hypothetical future daughter, “Baby Roe”, named for the 1973 Supreme Court judgement, Roe v Wade, that made abortion legal in the United States.

I’m trying to find humour in stuff that I don’t find funny – Jena Friedman

There are jokes about periods, pregnancy, miscarriage and abortion – not “comfortable” topics for comedy, she admits, but when she vows to keep on talking about them, a cheer goes up.

“I could do a whole show about abortion,” says Friedman, a former joke writer for David Letterman and Daily Show producer. “I’m trying to find humour in stuff that I don’t find funny, all the things I’ve been afraid to talk about, because it’s important to get it out and tell people about how bad it is. We’re in this weirdly critical moment.”

How comedy is speaking up about abortion
View image of (Credit: Steve Ullathorne)

Elsewhere at the Edinburgh Fringe, the British comedian Tiff Stevenson opens her show, Mother, a smart exploration of gender expectations and the pressure on women to have children, with her “origins story”, about leaving school at 17, becoming pregnant and having an abortion. “I was woefully unprepared to be a mother, so I exercised my choice,” she says, to whoops from the front row. Meanwhile, in A Womb of One’s Own, a comic play by Claire Rammelkamp, four identically dressed women act (and dance) out her experience of having an abortion as a student.

A transatlantic topic

Away from the Fringe, the latest show from American stand-up Michelle Wolf, which she has been touring in the US and the UK, devotes a blistering section of her set to abortion. She previously addressed the topic in her notorious White House correspondents’ dinner address in 2018,  poking fun at the hypocrisy of a number of politicians whose public stance is anti-abortion, “you know, unless it’s the one you got for your secret mistress”. Three months later, on her topical Netflix show The Break, she performed a ‘salute to abortion’, in which she dressed up in a stars-and-stripes leotard, threw handfuls of glitter into the air and yelled “God bless abortions and God bless America!” The Break was not renewed for a second season. 

The new prevalence of abortion as a topic for comedy is not surprising, given the headlines. In the UK, during his campaign for the Conservative party leadership in June, the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt declared that he was in favour of halving the legal time limit for abortions from 24 weeks to 12. Last month, the UK parliament voted to liberalise access to abortion in Northern Ireland; 99 MPs, including the new foreign secretary Dominic Raab, voted against it, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not vote. The leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, immediately called for the “insidious” decision to be reversed.

In the US, more than 30 states have introduced some form of abortion ban this year. In May, Alabama lawmakers passed a bill to ban abortion outright. Since 2013, 275 clinics have closed in the country, leaving more than 11 million women more than an hour’s drive from an abortion facility.

How comedy is speaking up about abortion
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

In the face of such legislation, comedy is being used as a weapon. “The political environment is so extreme and the policies that we are seeing proposed in a lot of states are so aggressive and dangerous – it’s not to make light of them and the impact that they will have, but it is to point out the hypocrisy, the absurdity, the misogyny that’s involved in this narrative,” says Gretchen Sisson, a research sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies the role of abortion in popular culture.

Everything that’s happened globally in the last year has made me think I have to talk about it – Tiff Stevenson

For a long time, Stevenson began her set with the same abortion-themed joke, which involved her drinking prosecco while pretending to be pregnant. Over the past decade, she saw the reaction to her mention of abortion change “from shock to solidarity” – particularly in the Republic of Ireland, where abortion was near-outright banned until last year, when the country voted to repeal the 8th amendment (which granted equal right to life to the pregnant woman and the embryo). At that point, Stevenson thought she could stop doing that material. “But it feels like when we have these moments of progress, there’s always a kickback. In the last year, everything that’s happened globally made me think, no, I have to talk about it.”

Can comedy about serious subject matters effect the serious change these comics would like to see? In recent years at the Edinburgh Fringe, shows such as Hannah Gadsby’s international smash-hit Nanette, which tackled homophobia, and Richard Gadd’s Monkey See, Monkey Do, which detailed an assault and the depression and anxiety that followed, have opened up the conversation around sexuality and mental health. Friedman and Stevenson are hoping they can have an equivalent effect.

How comedy is speaking up about abortion
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

“Culture matters. I look at shows like Will and Grace and how quickly the mainstream culture has come on board with things like gay and trans rights and I wonder, can we do that with abortion?” says Friedman, who aims to release her Miscarriage of Justice show as a filmed special in the run-up to the US Election 2020.

“Even if at this moment comedy isn’t changing policy, as long as we have free speech, it’s still cathartic. It’s a moment to connect with people in reality and feel less insane.” 

From stage to screen

Storylines in TV comedy may, by dint of audience reach, have an even greater impact and there have been several prominent examples in 2019. The final series of Veep earlier this year began with a story about White House staffer Amy Brookheimer (played by Anna Chlumsky) eventually deciding to have an abortion after sleeping with her colleague Dan. “This story is far too identifiable to not keep telling it,” Chlumsky told The Hollywood Reporter.

In Netflix’s Sex Education, teenage heroine Maeve’s experience is documented in un-hysterical detail, from her initial appointment (“Have you considered the possibility of adoption?” asks the nurse. “I don’t think anyone would want a pregnant 17-year old,” quips Maeve) to coming round post-operation to a pot of chocolate mousse. Throughout there are jokes; when protesters outside the clinic tell Maeve “God loves you”, she pouts in reply: “Yeah, well I wish he’d worn a condom.”

Shrill, a new comedy based on Lindy West’s 2016 book, whose first series screened on Hulu in the US earlier this year, also featured an abortion scene in its pilot episode, which was remarkable for being totally unremarkable. Over and done with in two minutes, it was barely mentioned again.

There are over a million abortions in the US every year. Women’s experiences are going to run the full gamut – Dr Gretchen Sisson

West, who in 2015 started the campaign #ShoutYourAbortion to encourage women to speak out about their experiences, said she wanted it to be “almost boring television”.

“We talk about it like it’s this really fraught, complicated issue that we have to tiptoe around,” she told Variety. “And I think that does a disservice to abortion care providers and people who have abortions – because it lets anti-abortion people control the narrative.”

This openness is a relatively new phenomenon. In 2010, Partial Terms of Endearment, an episode in the eighth series of Family Guy, in which Lois and Peter debate whether to have an abortion, was banned before it aired by the Fox Network. It was the 2014 indie rom-com Obvious Child – hailed for its realistic, matter-of-fact approach to the topic – that started to move the dial.

How comedy is speaking up about abortion
View image of (Credit: Netflix)

“There are over a million abortions in the US every year. Women’s experiences are going to run the full gamut. And if you open up the range of narratives that we are able to tell, then more women are going to feel comfortable with the experiences that they had and interpreting them however is appropriate,” says Sisson. “Comedy is inherently destigmatising.”

Critics would argue that it goes both ways: if you’re including all narratives, you need to recognise that some audiences view abortion as a violent procedure that involves a loss of life. The desire to see such a perspective on screen was demonstrated earlier this year by the success at the US box office of Unplanned – a biographical drama about a former director at a Planned Parenthood clinic who turned into an anti-abortion activist – which included graphic (though scientifically contested) portrayals of the procedure.

But those who are making the jokes say that the target is the key – and that in the above examples, the humour is not directed at the women, nor their decision to have the procedure, nor the procedure itself. For Stevenson, the subject of her jokes is clear. “People who don’t respect the rights of the individual,” she says.

Open to attack

Speaking out, even humorously, comes at a price. Before Stevenson even began performing her latest show, the anti-abortion group Precious Life called for audiences to boycott it. She now sells tote bags to her audience at the end, emblazoned in pink with the slogan “Boycott Tiff Stevenson”.

“There are a lot of male comics who like one-liners, where there’s nothing of their personal life, no politics, nothing on the line,” says Stevenson. “Part of me wishes I had the luxury of that, but it has to be political. Sometimes I’m resentful of the fact that in order for women to be heard, we have to open up our pain. It would be quite freeing to do something completely surreal, but at the moment, the stakes are too high.” 

I don’t know how much longer I will be able to say this stuff in America – Jena Friedman

At the end of her Fringe show, Friedman thanks the audience and tells them how great it is to be performing at the Fringe. Standard practice, but she really means it. “It feels safer than doing this material in my own country,” she says, at which half of the room laughs. “That’s not a joke,” she adds quietly.

Friedman says that, because of trolling, she doesn’t “know how much longer I will be able to say this stuff in America”; she has been targeted by far-right groups for her material. For now, she is determined to keep talking. 

“Ultimately, the show is an exercise in democracy: to have all sorts of people that might have different views peacefully coexist and laugh together,” she says. “Or walk out.”

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.