'Girls,' 'Sex and the City,' and abortion: How two shows tackle a thorny topic

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Image Credit: Jojo Whilden/HBO

Sex and the City‘s series finale aired eight long years ago. But for better or for worse, HBO’s former flagship remains pop culture’s default point of reference for any entertainment aimed at women. Write a movie or TV show about ladies interacting, and it’ll inevitably get compared to SATC. Make your main characters single female urbanites, and the comparisons get even easier. And if your show is a sexually explicit, half-hour comedy featuring four young, white, female New Yorkers that happens to air on HBO? Well, in that case, you’re just asking for it.

HBO’s Girls hasn’t shied away from acknowledging its glitzy predecessor. Creator/writer/director/star/key grip Lena Dunham has said that her program couldn’t exist without Carrie and co. In last week’s premiere, a character named Shoshanna also took the liberty of revealing which SATC character she thinks she most resembles. (By even bringing this up, Shoshanna proves that she’s a Charlotte.) And last night, Girls boldly went where SATC had gone before by centering its second episode around a main character’s theoretical abortion. The episode proved that while Dunham’s series is, in some ways, indebted to Sex, it’s also an entirely different animal.

Generally speaking, Sex and the City wasn’t afraid to tackle taboos. So it’s surprising that the show avoided the topic of abortion until halfway through its fourth season. In an episode called “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda,” workaholic Miranda realizes that a chance encounter with an ex-boyfriend has left her with a bun in the oven. She has no intention of keeping the baby. When she reveals this to the gals at brunch, sexually liberated Samantha announces, “It’s less than a desirable situation, but it happens. We’ve all been there. I’ve had two!”

Samantha’s flippancy aside, the episode treats abortion with sensitivity. Miranda acts outwardly confident about her decision, but secretly isn’t sure she’s doing the right thing. Carrie also reveals that while she doesn’t regret having an abortion at 22, she’s never quite felt the same since. Though the redhead ultimately decides to keep the baby, her choice doesn’t feel like a cop-out — the series is supporting a woman’s right to choose while acknowledging that abortion is complicated and fraught. The only facet of the episode that really feels off is a goofy, unnecessary subplot about Samantha lusting after a $4,000 Birkin bag.

SATC uses Samantha’s quest for a Birkin as comic relief after a lot of heavy abortion talk. But in Girls, the abortion talk is the comic relief. The show’s second episode, “Vagina Panic,” is partially set in a Manhattan health clinic. Shoshanna, Marnie, and Hannah have shown up to support their fourth friend, flighty, pregnant Jessa (she’s the Samantha of the group). But Jessa’s too flaky — and too frightened — to go to the clinic herself. She spends the afternoon drinking White Russians and hooking up with a stranger as her friends leave her increasingly angry messages like this: “Uh, hey. You’re pregnant when you don’t want to be. So you might want to come have your abortion now. Thanks.” Instead of segregating humor from the episode’s central issue, Girls finds humor in that issue itself.

And while both shows use frank language, Girls pushes the envelope by inserting the word “abortion” into its dialogue whenever possible. On SATC, the term itself is uttered just three times; otherwise, it’s merely implied. Girls, however, has its characters say “abortion” 11 times. Dunham may be trying to shock viewers into laughing; she also may be trying to desensitize us to the word, thereby erasing some of the stigma it carries. Either way, her show’s characters — from their attitudes to their language — are more daring than their Manolo-wearing ancestors. Her show also isn’t afraid to tackle abortion from the get-go, rather than waiting four years.

But though the Girls are bold, they’re also woefully ignorant. None of these young women has much experience with sex, let alone its consequences; Hannah, the show’s Carrie equivalent, tries to figure out if she has an STD by Googling “diseases that come from no condom for one second,” then comparing herself to the pictures that she finds. Miranda doesn’t go through with her abortion because she’s carefully weighed the pros and cons of having a baby; Jessa, on the other hand, accidentally discovers that she’s either got her period or is having a convenient miscarriage, which frees her from having to choose in the first place. (Unlike the ending of “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda,” this one does feel like a cop-out.)

Girls, then, is a show that’s both more audacious and less assured than Sex and the City. Perhaps this is mainly because its characters are young and sheltered; maybe as the show continues, Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa will start to bear a closer resemblance to Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha. Having watched the series’ first three episodes, this seems unlikely. But either way, it’s unfair to keep comparing the two — as this duo of abortion episodes proves, their similarities are almost entirely superficial. (Well, all but one: Both shows feature some of the most self-centered characters ever conceived for TV.)

Read more:
‘Girls’ premiere review: Exhilarating, fresh comedy, or a Debbie Downer?
Does HBO have a problem with ‘Girls’?
‘Veep': Which character on Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s new HBO comedy gets your early vote?

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