Popular culture has a crucial role to play in countering the message sent by the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade: that pregnant women do not have bodily autonomy. New genres of abortion stories give us narratives that we need in this moment and for the long fight ahead.
A sea change in popular representations of people accessing abortions began around the time that Donald Trump became the Republican presidential nominee. Sociologist Gretchen Sisson notes that in four months in 2016, four television comedies represented abortion, while only one had done so in the preceding 32 years. As Sisson asserts, this signaled “a profound shift in our cultural understanding”.
Since then, a host of abortion road narratives and comedies have appeared everywhere from the big screen to YA fiction, joining the documentaries and dramas that have long shaped cultural conceptions of abortion. The newer genres of abortion stories emphasize the seeker’s agency and bodily autonomy, and they represent the procedure itself as healthcare that provides immense relief and opens possibilities otherwise foreclosed.
Abortion road narratives include Rachel Lynett’s play, Abortion Road Trip (2016); the films Grandma (Paul Weitz, 2015), Little Woods (Nia DaCosta, 2018), Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman, 2020), Unpregnant (Rachel Lee Goldenberg, 2020), and Plan B (Natalie Morales, 2021); and three YA novels published in 2019, Jenni Hendriks’ Unpregnant, Sharon Biggs Waller’s Girls on the Verge, and Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s All the Bad Apples. Two-thirds of these abortion road stories are also buddy comedies.
In 2017, Sisson asserted that “the potential of popular culture to communicate new, progressive, feminist stories about abortion, rooted in reproductive justice, is real and urgent” (253). Realizing that potential is all the more pressing post-Roe v. Wade. Millions of Americans now find themselves in the “medical exile” that Irish people long endured – until the 2018 national vote that repealed the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which had essentially banned abortion (Greaney).
“The referendum on the repeal of the eighth amendment was won by narrative,” asserts Rebecca Anne Barr. Kathy D’Arcy, the editor of the 2018 Irish anthology Autonomy, describes the “pivotal” role played by “powerful stories of young women taking the decision to travel for necessary abortion care and feeling relieved afterwards.” While stories of those who could not travel were also important, Irish women’s abortion road (and sea and air) narratives played a central role in the success of the “Repeal the 8th” campaign.
Soon after, the “abortion road trip” emerged as a new genre in the US (Kumari Upadhyaya). These narratives reflect not only the legal, economic, and social barriers to abortion access that are insurmountable for many people, but also the agency and complex humanity of the people who struggle to overcome them. Perhaps most importantly, the successful resolutions of the protagonists’ quests challenge the cultural narrative that it is abortions – rather than barriers, bans, social stigmas, and anti-choice protestors and propaganda – that cause isolation and trauma, and that the trajectory of anyone obtaining an abortion is towards a singular, tragic end.
The use of road narrative conventions to frame stories of individuals attempting to access reproductive care might seem counterintuitive, as the broader genre tends both to center on men’s quests for freedom and to deny others’ agency and autonomy. As Vanessa Vaselka argues, the story of a woman on the road is generally fated from the beginning: “The prohibition against quests for women combines with traditional sexual prohibitions (when she transgresses, she falls) to create a road narrative with no possibility beyond rape and death.”
In short, although in dominant Western narratives the road offers (cis, hetero, white) men independent selfhood, it promises others violations of their bodily autonomy, not a path to attaining it. While abortion road narratives–from the dramas Little Woods and Never Rarely Sometimes Always to the comedies Unpregnant and Plan B–include the very real threat of sexual aggression and violence that young women, in particular, face on the road, they also show women successfully defending their own and others’ bodily autonomy en route to its ultimate guarantor: abortion access.
American abortion road stories are revolutionary because they stake a narrative claim not only to agency and bodily autonomy but also to full political subjectivity for people whose national mythology has long denied it. Dr. Deborah Paes De Barros asserts that American road narratives are “concurrent with notions of Manifest Destiny”; they “enact our national drama and examine the very mythology of freedom”.
While the generic expectations of the dominant road narrative “provide license to the hero and his Bildungsroman,” they tend to reduce women to “diversion, scenery, and support for the hero’s quest,” to “objects rather than subjects” (Paes De Barros). Conversely, texts by “women writers from various cultural and social backgrounds have used the matrix and formula of the road narrative to… rewrite the mythical ‘open road’ as a textual space in which powerful regimes of gender, cultural and social difference are destabilized” (Ganser).
Abortion road narratives variously expose and destabilize the anti-abortion regime’s misogynist, classist, heterosexist, and racist underpinnings – though the latter two challenges are weakened by the genre’s over-representation of white women as the abortion seekers and queer women and women of color as their companions and guides. Of the abortion road stories I’ve listed, only Hulu’s Plan B features young women of color in both central roles; it is also the only instance in which the goal of the road trip is not an abortion but rather the morning-after pill. (The local South Dakota pharmacist cites the “conscience clause” to refuse to sell the over-the-counter medication.) It is important for popular culture to reflect the experiences of people of color and poor people, who are the most likely to suffer the devastating immediate and long-term consequences of state abortion bans (Branigin and Chery).
The physical, psychological, social, and economic well-being of anyone who chooses to end a pregnancy should never depend on their ability to travel. But while it does, we need popular narratives that affirm the agency and autonomy of people who seek abortions. Abortion travel stories framed as road narratives or quests do just that, whether they are fiction or non-fiction. (The New Yorker’s recent story of “A Texas Teen-Ager’s Abortion Odyssey” is a good example of the latter.)
The fact that the protagonists of abortion road narratives obtain the object of their quests does not minimize the challenges, threats, and hardships that they experience along the way – reflections of the real-world barriers that millions more people now face and that all too many will not be able to overcome. We all the more need popular stories of abortion journeys that incorporate the relief and resolution of comedy, stories with positive, hopeful endings that reflect the actual outcomes of legal abortion care for almost everyone able to access it (Rocca et al.).
Barr, Rebecca Anne. “Repealing the Eighth: Abortion Referendum Was Won by Narrative”. The Irish Times. 31 May 2019.
Biggs Waller, Sharon. Girls on the Verge. Henry Holt and Co. 2019.
Branigin, Anne and Samantha Chery. “Women of color will be most impacted by the end of Roe, experts say.” The Washington Post. 24 June 2022.
D’Arcy, Kathy. Interview. The Stinging Fly. 10 May 2018.
Fowley-Doyle, Moïra. All the Bad Apples. Penguin. 2019.
Ganser, Alexandra. Roads of Her Own: Gendered Space and Mobility in American Women’s Road Narratives. 1970-2000. Rodopi. 2009.
Greaney, Aine. “The Shame And Peril Of Living in a No-Abortion State.” Cognoscenti. WBUR/NPR. 11 June 2019.
Hendriks, Jenni. Unpregnant. Harper Teen. 2019.
Kumari Upadhyaya, Kayla. “How The ‘Abortion Road Trip’ Movie Became An Instant Classic.” Refinery29. 20 October 2020.
Lynett, Rachel. Abortion Road Trip. 2016.
Paes De Barros, Deborah. Fast Cars and Bad Girls: Nomadic Subjects and Women’s Road Stories. Peter Lang Inc. 2004.
Rocca, Corinne H., et al. “Emotions and Decision Rightness Over Five Years Following an Abortion: An Examination of Decision Difficulty and Abortion Stigma.” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 248. Online. 2020.
Sisson, Gretchen. “From Humor to Horror: Genre and Narrative Purpose in Abortion Stories on American Television.” Feminist Media Studies, vol.19, no. 2. 2017.
Taladrid, Stephania. “A Texas Teen-Ager’s Abortion Odyssey.” The New Yorker. 13 June 2022.
Veselka, Vanessa. “Green Screen: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why It Matters.” The American Reader, vol. 1, no. 12. Online. 2012.