This post contains spoilers from Netflix’s Dear White People.
“Coco, how did this happen?” “Sex. Sex is how this happened.”
Those are the words of Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners, in the fourth episode of Dear White People‘s newest season on Netflix. Just minutes before she revealed her pregnancy to her roommate, viewers saw Coco — the de facto “white whisperer” at her Ivy League college — counseling a white student who was having a hard time because her Black roommate was playing Beyoncé’s Lemonade on repeat while she was trying to study.
We learn that Coco is doing the labor for white people — telling them, for example, that it’s not okay to use the word nappy to describe their own curly hair — a chore she does tactfully so she can climb up the professional and social ladder. But now, she’s forced to confront the possibility of her own labor. As Coco weighs whether to terminate her pregnancy, Dear White People produces a revolutionary episode on abortion.
Television shows — especially critically acclaimed and nuanced shows with massive followings like Dear White People — that tackle abortion have the potential to foil popular conservative messaging that the procedure is shameful and scary.
But, with a few recent exceptions, television’s portrayal of abortion isn’t often rooted in reality. Research by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California at San Francisco found that television characters considering abortion were “mostly white, young, in committed relationships, and not parenting,” a misrepresentation of the actual demographics of people obtaining the procedure in the United States.
Of the more than 78 onscreen abortion plot lines on United States television between 2005 through 2014, a majority were white (80 percent), middle class or wealthy (86 percent), and not already parenting (83 percent). Characters were most frequently in the 30- to 39-year-old age group, and teenagers were disproportionately over-represented according to researchers.
Reality looks more like this: in 2014, a majority (60 percent) of abortion patients were in their 20s; no racial group made up the majority, but people of color obtain the procedure at disproportionate rates; three-fourths of patients were low-income; and a majority (59 percent) had at least one previous birth.
As a 20-something Black woman from a low-income family now attending an Ivy League school, Coco doesn’t check every box, but as Renee Bracey Sherman astutely pointed out on Twitter this week, it is not hard to see why her contemplation of and ultimate decision to get an abortion is a profound piece of media. She reaches the decision on her own terms, while also recognizing her privilege to do so, given that she doesn’t live in states where conservatives have made it harder by law to get the procedure. Coco’s roommate Kelsey tells her, “at least we are not having this discussion in Texas or Kentucky.”
Coco’s experience is vastly different from other recent depictions of abortion, like in HBO’s Girls, in which a well-off white New Yorker, Jessa Johansson, schedules an appointment to get an abortion, but ends up not being pregnant. Or like older depictions, like in ABC’s All My Children, in which Julia Santos (portrayed by a white actor) is raped, gets pregnant, and then has an abortion. In fact, almost 15 percent of the characters contemplating abortion on television had become pregnant as a result of rape. The reality is that only one percent of people who want to obtain the procedure have cited rape as the reason.
“[E]veryone is affected, and often times the women who are most marginalized and who end up seeking abortions more often and later in pregnancy are those who are economically disadvantaged and of minority backgrounds,” said Physicians for Reproductive Health Fellow Dr. Jennifer Conti, and researched abortion in media.
“We continually fail these women in health care access, including contraception and abortion care, so it’s no wonder that we see these differences. Painting a different picture in the media obscures this reality further and invites ignorant policy changes that do nothing to protect vulnerable women.”
Coco gets pregnant because life happened. She had sex with a hot guy she fell for and finds herself in an all-too-common and relatable situation. Now she’s weighing her options against the backdrop that she’s a Black woman in this America.
“I came here to take everything the world denied my mother and dared to deny me,” said Coco, as she and Kelsey sat at the edge of her bed, outlining her pregnancy options. “What could I even give to a full human?”
“You’d be surprised, it could be a relief to not focus on yourself,” said Kelsey, her queer roommate and friend who comforts her throughout the episode, a tribute to queer allies in the abortion rights movement. After all that, Coco gets her abortion uncoerced. And she is confident in her decision, harboring no regret.
Recent, nuanced examples of people of color considering abortion on TV is, by no coincidence, produced by Black people. Shonda Rhimes gave us Scandal‘s Olivia Pope and Grey’s Anatomy‘s Cristina Yang. Even so, realistic and positive representations still have room for improvement.
“Coco, Olivia, and Cristina are career-driven, cold, and a bit narcissistic, driving the trope that people who have abortions are focused on their careers and themselves over everything else,” Renee Bracey Sherman, a reproductive justice activist, told ThinkProgress in an email. “Still, these characters don’t fit the demographics of the nearly 60 percent of women who have abortions and are already parents, but do change the way we think about who has abortions and the complex lives of female character of color.”
Bracey Sherman works to destigmatize abortion by changing the conversation about who has abortions; She runs We Testify an abortion storytelling program with National Network of Abortion Funds. Dear White People added to the conversation — in a way that was “revolutionary,” said Bracey Sherman — with its portrayal of Coco. Dear White People does all this without ever actually uttering the word “abortion,” much to Bracey Sherman’s chagrin.
The episode is already quite revolutionary since the character having the abortion, Coco Conners, is a 20-year-old Black college student. Most abortion seeking characters are white, despite the majority of people having abortions are people of color.https://t.co/P2KYMwzoPr
— Renee Bracey Sherman (@RBraceySherman) May 7, 2018
“Perhaps it’s because Coco couldn’t imagine herself needing an abortion, which is a very real experience for some. But I also think it’s important and okay for us to say the word abortion to remind people that it is a normal medical procedure that people have every single day all around the world,” Bracey Sherman said. “I think the writers could have expressed Coco’s anguish over being pregnant when she didn’t intend to be, and have her say abortion aloud.”
Still, the creators deserve credit, especially compared to other shows. Netflix’s previous attempt to portray abortion — on the U.K. dystopian series Black Mirror — was misleading and downright medically inaccurate. On the second episode of the show’s fourth season, Black Mirror conflated the morning-after pill, or emergency contraception, with medication abortion.
CORRECTION: This piece initially identified this episode as the second in the season; it is the fourth episode. This piece also initially omitted part of Renee Bracey Sherman’s last name.
This piece originally said the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health study analyzed demographics of over 300 onscreen abortion plotlines; in reality, it focused on the 78 on television only.