Trend: Young TV mothers -- When it comes to pregnancy, new storyline's on ''90210'' and ''Melrose Place'' prove abortion to be TV's last hurdle
This is how far we’ve come: When Lucille Ball was pregnant in real life and on I Love Lucy in 1953, she wasn’t even allowed to utter the word on the air; instead, she was ”expecting.” And that in itself was a first, because no character on TV had ever been expecting before. Four decades later, when Gabrielle Carteris, 33, who plays 19-year-old college freshman Andrea Zuckerman on Beverly Hills, 90210, decided she and her husband wanted to start a family, she went to producer Aaron Spelling to plan for the future in a modern, businesslike way. ”I wanted to discuss ways my being pregnant might be part of the story line,” Carteris recalls. ”I didn’t want to have to hide it, and I didn’t want to be temporarily written out.” Spelling, she says, was receptive, and an agreement was made for Andrea to conceive — albeit accidentally, by her boyfriend (later husband), Jesse Vasquez (Mark Damon Espinoza) — too. ”That night I got pregnant,” says the efficient Carteris, who is due in May, just days after shooting wraps for the season.
This is how far we haven’t come: If any character on television represents the kind of highly educated, career-minded young woman who — after deepest soul- searching — might decide to terminate an accidental pregnancy, it’s Andrea Zuckerman. She is, indeed, exactly the kind of young woman who would have made the agonizing but very real choice of abortion a believable and powerful drama for 90210 to pursue. In fact, going through with an abortion for Andrea might have been television’s most valuable representation of what the word pro-choice actually entails.
Look, I could argue the other way: Andrea’s decision to keep the pregnancy — or, as ”pro-life” supporters would fervently amend, to have the baby and not to kill it — could also be read as a positive message about a teenage woman who is determined to accept her responsibility and incorporate a child into her life with the same enlightened, independent maturity she has brought to all her other 90210 plotlets. (Oh, lucky Andrea, to have a boyfriend — a lawyer- to-be, yet! — who will stand by her. To have friends who will stand by her. To have family who will stand by her.) But that is not the point.
The point is that the option of abortion — which is, after all, still legally available to women in this country — is the last pregnancy-related taboo left on TV. ”I happen to be pro-abortion,” says veteran producer Aaron Spelling, for whom 90210 has been a sweet success. ”But, I must say, we are on domestic TV.”
What about Bea Arthur on Maude? you say. True, Maude had an abortion more than 20 years ago. But she was a 47-year-old grandmother at a time when 47 was considered nearly as inappropriate an age for childbirth as the technologically enhanced late-50s are now. That was also the sexually active 1970s — and no other character on prime-time television has had an abortion since. ”That would probably be the one subject that would be hardest to do today,” says Maude‘s creator, Norman Lear, who is not known for avoiding hot topics in his series. ”When we did the abortion episode, nothing happened. The show went on the air and there was a flurry of reaction and that was it. Today, the networks know for sure that they’d get (Operation Rescue founder) Randall Terry and every other screamer of that ilk all over them. Why would they do that? It’s not good business.”
Today, good business concentrates on the dramatic possibilities inherent in the dilemmas of single mothers: Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen); Jackie on Roseanne (with Laurie Metcalf incorporating her own real-life pregnancy); Molly Dodd (Blair Brown). Today, good business permits a character to make a speech asserting her right to choose abortion — but network executives won’t risk the ire of advertisers or anti-abortion groups by having her act on it. ”Nobody is discounting abortion as an alternative in the right circumstances,” says 90210‘s creator, Darren Star. ”But it’s a very touchy issue. (Advertiser pressure) is definitely an issue in creating a story.” The result: TV’s preferred method of terminating pregnancy story lines is through the cheap magic of TV miscarriages, as Amanda (Heather Locklear) experienced last season on Melrose Place.
The pro-choice Carteris says she doesn’t know whether she herself would have kept a baby had she become pregnant in college. (She knows, one assumes, that a 2-month-old fetus, all of 11 2 inches long, would not have ”kicked” her into making the decision, as it supposedly did Andrea.) ”The best thing is that we didn’t make abortion a negative concept,” she says. She also endorses the drama’s stand on contraception, which is so subtle you probably missed it. ”At first,” says Carteris, ”(the writers) wanted [the story] to be about a condom that failed. But we didn’t want to give that message to viewers.” Unprotected sex was the sober solution.
Andrea Zuckerman is due to have her baby. Meanwhile, thousands of real women just like her will continue to choose to have an abortion. Ironically, Spelling has created another opportunity for a character to do the unmentionable, this time on Melrose Place: It turns out that Jo Reynolds (Daphne Zuniga) is pregnant by Reed, the evil ex-convict boyfriend she recently killed in self-defense. Surely she’ll act on her options and end this pregnancy — or will even the lying, cheating, scheming, sexually daring neighborhood of Melrose Place play it safe?