Exploring the portrayal of reproductive rights in mainstream TV shows, from The Witcher to Jane The Virgin

When it comes to reproductive rights, modern-day TV tends to favour the straightforward, plain-speaking approach.

Aditya Mani Jha July 26, 2020 09:28:11 IST
Exploring the portrayal of reproductive rights in mainstream TV shows, from The Witcher to Jane The Virgin

When it was announced that Henry Cavill would headline The Witcher, the Netflix show based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy novel series of the same name (a good example of the ‘swords-and-sorcery’ sub genre), the average movie buff would’ve expected a bunch of things (based on Cavill’s career and the books) — high-octane action, plenty of magic and a certain Game of Thrones-Lite sensibility. The Witcher delivered on all of those fronts, as expected.

Few would’ve predicted, however, that the show would attempt high allegory, as it did in its third episode, ‘Betrayer Moon’; the episode’s two main storylines work as an extended riff on reproductive rights and the long history of men ‘playing God’ over female bodies.

A womb removed, a womb occupied

Exploring the portrayal of reproductive rights in mainstream TV shows from The Witcher to Jane The Virgin

Anya Chalotra as Yennefer of Vengerberg | Image from Twitter

In 1210, Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), a quarter-elf sorceress (who has deformed facial features and a hunchback, which we are told comes with elf ancestry) is about to ‘graduate’. Her instructor Tissaia (MyAnna Buring), the Rector of Aretuza, tells her that she can choose to remake her body in an ‘ideal form’ upon graduation — the cost being she will never be able to have a child of her own. Bear in mind that the newly graduated sorceresses are each assigned to a king, to be their advisors and Yennefer has her eyes on the powerful king of Aedirn. When she’s assigned to Nilfgaard instead (thanks to Stregobor, a powerful wizard and a cunning man) Yennefer angrily confronts the man who performs the ‘transformations’ for all graduating sorceresses and goads him into giving her a new, conventionally attractive body through a combination of surgery and Elven magic. She then charms the king of Aedirn at the graduation ball (in defiance of Tisssaia) and before the night is over, she is his new advisor.

In 1263, Geralt of Rivia (Cavill), the titular Witcher, has been hired by the Kingdom of Temeria to subdue but not kill a ‘striga’, a monster who Geralt refers to at one point as “an overgrown abortion, a creature who’s known only rage and hunger” — it’s actually a woman cursed to become a flesh-eating monster during the full moon. The striga was an unborn child of incest — Temeria’s King Foltest impregnated his sister Princess Adda, who died carrying the child. Enraged at Foltest and her death, the knight Ostrit (who was in love with Adda) curses him using an Elven charm, but the curse hits her unborn child instead, making her a striga. Geralt must keep the striga out of its crypt till dawn for the curse to reverse (the crypt is therefore a ‘dark womb’ for the monster).

Exploring the portrayal of reproductive rights in mainstream TV shows from The Witcher to Jane The Virgin

Henry Cavill as The Witcher | Image from Twitter

It’s not just the plot elements; it’s how The Witcher cuts in and out of these two storylines that signals its ambitions. Consider Yennefer’s transformation: the ‘surgeon’ tells her at the beginning, “You are nature’s first draft. Lucky for you, I am the final artist.” We later see him making red-coloured outlines on her face, much like a plastic surgeon’s pre-op mapping. He even tells her that she’s “crazy” to undergo the procedure without anesthetic herbs. But that’s exactly what Yennefer does — naked and shackled, she watches the surgeon rip out her womb, burn it to cinders, and slather her with a paste that includes the womb-powder, even as he chants in Elven. All of this happens within a literal ring of fire, on a Shakespearean ‘qayaamat ki raat’ (apocalyptic night) — much like the night when Geralt is fighting the striga near her crypt, over fifty years later.

The two sequences are intercut, raising the dramatic tension until Yennefer’s primal scream resembles the striga’s — finally, Geralt dives into the crypt and seals it shut magically, while Yennefer emerges in her new form, having broken her shackles (one womb removed, another occupied). Both of these women undergo physical transformations they didn’t ask for (Yennefer, we are told again and again, is not okay with the cost of transformation). In their own ways, they push back against the men who seek to control their bodies (the striga, before being captured, disembowels Ostrit, the man who placed the curse in the first place).

Yennefer wants good looks as a means to an end; she clearly rejects the idea of vanity at a couple of places in the episode. “I want to be powerful,” she says. In order to gain this power, she has to use her ‘manufactured’ looks as currency, and she does it expertly. This is certainly an underdog fighting back, but the show is also careful to place Yennefer in a morally grey area, especially with the suggestion that it might have been her who provided Ostrit with the Elven striga-curse, all those years later (before his death, Ostrit confesses that it was a woman, a magus who could speak Elven).

Narrative techniques coming full circle

The Witcher’s allegorical approach is both a critique of and a throwback to stereotypical depictions of the ‘caged woman’ from earlier eras — chained patients of ‘hysteria’, female inmates at an asylum or indeed, women in labor. Because when it comes to reproductive rights, modern-day TV tends to favour the straightforward, plain-speaking approach.

Exploring the portrayal of reproductive rights in mainstream TV shows from The Witcher to Jane The Virgin

A still from Shrill | Image from Twitter @THR

Hulu’s Shrill debuted last year with the millennial protagonist Annie having an abortion halfway into the first episode, a notably low-key scene over in a minute and a half, barely referred to again (except for laughs). In 2016, Jane the Virgin dropped the fact of Jane’s mother Xiomara’s abortion in a voice-over — a narrative choice that would’ve been either soundly criticised or glorified to the heavens in the 90s or the mid-2000s, even. As it so happens, the episode fit right in with the ongoing TV era’s general insouciance.

Consider how prime time TV engaged with reproductive rights in the 2000s.

Boston Legal had two separate episodes dedicated to ‘Roe v Wade’, the 1973 ruling where the US Supreme Court declared that the American constitution protected a woman’s right to get an abortion without excessive governmental interference. During these episodes (‘Roe vs Wade: The Musical’ and ‘Roe’, both aired in 2008), the characters make it clear that “abortion is not fun” (‘Roe’ has an actual line to that effect) and therefore, the dominant narrative modes are pontification (James Spader’s Alan Shore on one of his impassioned, interminable speeches) and rhetoric.

Basically, campaign speeches are thinly disguised as dialogue, even if the underlying messaging is progressive (for its time). Boston Legal was a David E Kelley (The Practice, Ally McBeal) show and like Aaron Sorkin’s work, that particular brand of white, male, ‘classical liberal’ polemic hasn’t necessarily aged that well (so many of The West Wing’s speeches, for example, comes across as treacly and naïve in the post-Trump era).

So when Jane the Virgin and Shrill (and GLOW, to cite another recent stellar example) choose the straightforward, easygoing tone that they do, it’s also a political rejection of the early 2000s-era liberal project in America. They’re saying, ‘your words amounted to nothing, it’s time to pass the microphone’ (Sorkin, notably, has asked younger progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to “stop acting like young people”, a mystifying demand ab initio).

Ironically, it’s another James Spader-starrer that has most recently pushed the needle on reproductive rights messaging — the espionage drama The Blacklist.

This cheerfully unrealistic CIA-and-terrorists show took an unexpectedly polemic turn during the seventh season episode ‘Hannah Hayes’, which involves Roe v Wade and male pregnancy. The Blacklist episodes are named after its fugitives, and in this case, Hannah Hayes (Stacey Roca) is a woman who’s kidnapping conservative male governors, senators, lobbyists — any man working on anti-abortion legislation —and keeping them in a prison in her basement. The captives are made to undergo two procedures, one implanting an artificial womb inside them, and another to place a fertilised embryo within that womb. Hayes only releases the captives after a viable heartbeat is registered — the captives are implied to be residents of a state where an abortion is illegal post the heartbeat.

By the end of the episode, we know her motives: she was raped by a man and denied abortion in her home state. Although she came to love her child, her rapist later filed for parental rights once he got out of prison — she snapped, captured and imprisoned him in her basement. She later uses his sperm to impregnate the governor as well as the lobbyist.

Essentially, the episode is a thought experiment — it ‘tests’ a popular piece of rhetoric, ie the idea that ‘if men could conceive, abortions would be freely available for everyone’. Does it work, then? The Blacklist seems to think so, for all of the powerful men impregnated by Hayes are remorseful by the end of the episode (not to mention traumatised), although we don’t see whether they actually stop lobbying against abortion. One thing is clear: they now know exactly what it feels like to lose control over one’s own body, and to have that lack-of-control affect their lives permanently.

‘Hannah Hayes’ works as a wish fulfilment fantasy, whereas The Witcher’s ‘Betrayer Moon’ works both as an ‘instructional’ fable and as a meta-commentary on the florid ways in which Hollywood has engaged with a human rights issue. Standing on opposite ends of the narrative spectrum (one is a pre-modern allegory, the other is literalised rhetoric), they signal a new, aggressive direction for this discourse — and that’s a good thing.

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