During the third season of Netflix's BoJack Horseman, Diane Nguyen, the frumpy, bespectacled heroine of the series, is going through something of a quarter-life crisis. To alleviate her feelings of malaise, she experiments with a number of potential fixes, with varying degrees of success: couples therapy, a career as a brand manager for Hollywood celebrities and, in one episode, an Ecstasy-like drug called Gush.
(Editor's note: Spoilers ahead for the third season of BoJack Horseman.)
One thing Diane has no interest in trying, however, is being a mother — which is why she has an abortion after finding out she's pregnant midway through the season.
Unlike most other characters on TV who have contemplated an abortion, however, Diane doesn't experience a change of heart and opt to keep her baby, resulting in a tear-jerking, season-long character arc; nor does she find out that, whoops, false alarm, she's not actually pregnant after all. She makes the decision to terminate her pregnancy, and ultimately goes through with it — which, even in 2016, makes BoJack Horseman one of the most progressive and revolutionary shows dealing with the abortion rights debate today.
From the very beginning of the episode, Diane is clear that she is not interested in having a child. "We always agreed we didn't want kids unless a streetwise but soulful teen needed a place to live as he waited for his Juilliard audition," she says to her husband, golden retriever Mr. Peanutbutter.
When she accidentally tweets out "I'm getting an abortion" from pop star Sextina Aquafina's account, Aquafina becomes an accidental poster child for the pro-abortion rights movement, choosing to broadcast her (fake) abortion live on-air and releasing a cheerfully violent pro-choice single, "Get Dat Fetus Kill Dat Fetus."
The episode explores the predictably vociferous responses from white, male anti-choicers, infuriated by Sextina's flippant attitude toward abortion. It also skewers the oppressive state laws governing abortions in the United States, from requiring women to view an ultrasound to making them listen to the heartbeat ("or heartbeats, if you're having a litter," the doctor says.).
Yet BoJack Horseman is most successful in its treatment of Diane's choice to have an abortion as not really much of a choice at all — at least, not for her.
That was intentional, according to showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg. "For Diane, we really wanted to tell a story about a woman who knows what she wants to do and she does it and it gives her some feelings, but she never has doubt about it," he told the Daily Beast.
To understand how subversive this attitude really is, one need only look at pop culture depictions of abortion. As seen on shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation or Everwood, the choice to have an abortion is usually depicted as a gut-wrenching one that sexually promiscuous young women are forced to confront as the result of their poor sexual choices. In the unplanned-pregnancy comedy Knocked Up, for instance, abortion is only referenced in the cutesy shorthand "schm-schmortion."
Even ostensibly progressive feminist shows (like Murphy Brown, which was praised for its treatment of abortion even though its eponymous character didn't actually use the word on-air) have failed to tackle the reproductive rights debate head-on. Some shows have eschewed openly discussing the decision-making process behind terminating a pregnancy — either by sidestepping it entirely (as was the case with The Mindy Project and Jessa's last-minute period in Girls) or by having the character undergo a last-minute change of heart and choosing to keep the baby.
In some cases, the decision to continue a pregnancy can be crucial from a character development perspective: When Miranda, the cynical, career-oriented lawyer on Sex and the City, gets pregnant with her ex's baby, she decides to keep the baby despite it not being the "right time." Her choice opened up a crucial conversation about motherhood and the demands of a working woman's biological clock.
Yet it is rare to see a woman on TV unambiguously admit to knowing that abortion is the right decision for her — even though it is often the case for women in reality. An estimated one-third of women in the U.S. will terminate a pregnancy during their lifetime. While some shows and movies like Scandal and Obvious Child have made a concerted effort to capture the non-dramatic, remorse-free reality of abortion, BoJack Horseman takes it a step further by presenting the story of a woman who is pregnant, has an abortion and doesn't regret it for a second.
The show's casual, regret-free attitude toward the reproductive rights debate is refreshing, but BoJack also doesn't forego nuance in order to make a point. Abortion is an issue that stirs up complicated emotions in people, women in particular. Nowhere is that more evident than in the conversation between Diane and Princess Carolyn, a career-driven woman in her 40s.
"I am sorry you're so fertile and in a sexually active, loving relationship and now you don't want a family," Princess Carolyn sarcastically tells Diane. "I'm sure that's really hard for you." Later, Carolyn admits that her frustration with Diane stems from her frustration with her own life choices: "I have given everything to get where I am, and I am not about to throw that all away."
While Diane might not have regret about her decision to terminate her pregnancy, Princess Carolyn regrets her decision to not become pregnant at all. The show makes the point that both of these feelings are equally valid, as is Sextina Aquafina's decision to go through with it when she gets pregnant for real at the end of the episode. The scenario is played for laughs, as Diane and Princess Carolyn scheme to hide her pregnancy so as not to blow her cover, but the message is clear: Every woman's decision to become or not become a mother is equally right and important, even Sextina Aquafina's.
What makes BoJack Horseman's treatment of abortion so revolutionary is that it makes it clear that the pro-choice debate is ultimately, first and foremost, about choice: the choice to become a mother or not to become a mother, the choice to make that decision guiltlessly and the choice to feel small pangs of regret over it.
All too often in the heated dialogue over reproductive rights, that choice becomes obscured by emotions, political correctness and personal biases, which in the past has rendered our culture incapable of speaking openly about abortion at all. In one half-hour episode, Bojack Horseman makes the case for the pro-choice movement as a movement for choice, loud and clear — and makes us laugh while doing so.