In an interview with Huffington Post Live, Mindy Kaling clarified that she “misspoke” when she said it would be “demeaning” to talk about abortion during her show. “I said that I thought it would demean the issue of abortion to talk about it on sitcom. What I should’ve said was my sitcom… Many incredible shows have dealt with in it in a way that I really admire. Roseanne is one of them. I should’ve said for now. I don’t know that that would be the case in the show, and I don’t want to lock myself into never talking about it.”
“It would be demeaning to the topic to talk about it in a half-hour sitcom.”
That’s what Mindy Kaling said when, in an interview with Flare magazine, she was asked if she “plans to address the American right’s current war on abortion.” This is just one line in the entire story, and maybe what Kaling meant was “I don’t want to talk about the political war on women’s rights on my thirty-minute reimagining of a modern romantic comedy.” But so far, in the first two seasons, The Mindy Project has yet to include any storylines or characters or jokes that touch on abortion at all. (For what it’s worth, it took Girls all of two episodes to want to go to there: “How could she ruin the beautiful abortion that you threw?”) This wouldn’t necessarily be worth noting, except that this is a show that has covered just about every other reproductive health issue.
One of the most standout things about The Mindy Project is the way its setting has allowed for stories that explicitly deal with women’s health. Dr. Mindy Lahiri has given The Talk to many teenage girls. She’s handed out condoms at a high school. She’s an advocate for birth control, even though she is not exactly vigilant about remembering to take hers (“When I need to take a pill, I look upon the windowsill…”). Even though The Mindy Project has that typical TV relationship with employment, wherein characters are more likely to be seen flitting in and out of their offices than actually doing their jobs, the fact that Dr. Lahiri is an OB-GYN has meant that whenever a plot does involve real work, the work involves reproductive health and education.
As others have already pointed out, plenty of half-hour shows have addressed abortion before. There’s nothing in the format that inherently prevents stories about difficult topics. Why couldn’t one of Dr. Lahiri’s patients need an abortion? How would that be demeaning, exactly?
We don’t have a problem, pop culturally, with people making too many inappropriate abortion jokes. We have a problem, pop culturally and beyond, with people not talking about abortion at all. We struggle with just acknowledging it as a standard medical procedure, that many, many women will need at some point in their lives. Stigma and shame flourish in silence. By not talking about abortion we contribute to that silence and, by extension, perpetuate the stigma and shame surrounding a legal medical procedure that one in three American women undergo. That silence is what makes women who are part of this vast population feel completely alone. Not speaking of a thing gives that thing power, power to be terrifying or, possibly worse, power to be misunderstood. How many politicians talk and legislate about abortion with a stunning degree of illiteracy? Would they be able to get away with that if we were more literate ourselves? Abortion isn’t Voldemort. We shouldn’t be afraid to say it. We shouldn’t be so wary of making jokes about it.
Omitting abortion entirely from the world in which The Mindy Project takes place, which is, again, a gynecologists’ office, gives the impression that there is something “other” about abortion, something forbidden and unacceptable. As I asked in a story noting the rarity of a movie like Obvious Child, the Jenny Slate comedy in which her character gets an abortion, what are we so afraid of acknowledging: that women have choices, and make them?
When I spoke with Jenny Robespierre, writer-director of Obvious Child, at the time of her film’s release, she spoke about this culture of silence that we have around abortion and why it’s so harmful:
“I don’t really think it’s just in the movies,” said Robespierre. “I think in our culture, in general, it’s an unspoken word and an unspoken stigma surrounding that decision.”
“It’s very disappointing that it’s a taboo subject when millions of women need to have abortions, and have safe procedures,” said Slate. “Obviously, it’s not great for us right now. Women’s rights are under attack. That doesn’t mean that every abortion is a tragedy or a victory. Sometimes women have abortions and just move on. I liked that about the movie: Donna has an abortion, and it’s normal.”
Television is maybe the most intimate form of entertainment we have: it is in our living rooms every night, on our laptops that we watch in bed before we fall asleep. And seeing a character go through something on TV has a way of normalizing whatever that something is.
Also, The Mindy Project is fantastic. If I heard Kaling wanted to take on abortion in her show, I would not worry, at all, about the episode being demeaning. I hope she changes her mind.