author – activist – faculty – mom
[SPOILER ALERT – but only if you’re way behind on Quantico & Scandal] If you’ve been following this blog for any period of time, you know that I am an avid TV watcher, particularly of shows with strong female protagonists. And that, as a writer, I’m a very critical watcher, turned off by clichés, obvious plot devices, and unbelievable character motivations. So most recently, I got excited about the ABC show Quantico. This drama follows the charismatic Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra who as Alex Parrish (a role originally written for a white actress) through her FBI training at Quantico and then assignment to catch a domestic terrorist planting bombs in New York.
Chopra herself identifies as a feminist, and I’ve been enjoying many parts of the show that offer strong feminist themes. In particular, the handling of casual sex early in the season was really refreshing. Alex Parrish is not only lacking in regrets about a casual sexual encounter she had with another trainee, she isn’t even concerned about keeping it private. The message is so strong and clear that women being sexual have nothing to be ashamed about.
Recently, however, in Episode 10, they fell prey to one of my pet peeves: Unrealistic Reproductive Choice Syndrome in Media (URCSM – pronounced “irksome”). In these scenarios, whether due to fears of political backlash, or their own politically conservative views, writers often create plots as if the shows take place in a parallel universe where abortion apparently doesn’t exist. I wrote about this in the past during the show “Smash,” where one of the main characters, Ivy Lynn was so ambitious that she backstabbed other women and slept with the director. Yet later, when she became pregnant by said director—a drunken, sexually harassing, mess of a man—she inexplicably chose to have the baby and, presumably put her career on hold. It made no sense. Similarly in the film Knocked Up, I had to invent a Catholic Church scene in my head to explain why the ambitious protagonist who’d just gotten her big break in TV was going to have the baby with a slacker pothead from a one-night-stand. It’s just not believable as far as character.
Here’s the latest URCSM installment from Quantico. Natalie Vasquez is one of the trainees at Quantico, and Alex’s rival in work and love. In episode 10, Vasquez discloses the following about her backstory: she had been in an abusive relationship with a man, who was not physically but emotionally abusive, threatening her life if she didn’t let him control her. And then when she found out she was pregnant, she decided to keep the baby, and manufactured fake physical evidence on her body of fake physical abuse in order to win in court. In the story, she decides to keep one of the fake scars to remind herself of what she’s been though. Clearly, there are so many problems with this from a domestic violence storytelling perspective. In the episode, the story comes out when her fake scar is discovered.
Vasquez is lauded as heroic in protecting her daughter, etc. However, I just don’t buy it. Her motivation seems muddled at best. Vasquez is extremely ambitious. She wants to be an FBI trainee, so it’s hard to imagine her deciding to keep an unwanted pregnancy in the first place, even if the partner hadn’t been abusive. One might imagine that she could have moral objections to abortion. But she’s in training to be an FBI agent. She clearly doesn’t have any problem with shooting and killing, she’s drawn as ruthless and cutthroat. So there’s no character foundation for her to have strong moral objections to abortion. Perhaps the presumption is that because she’s Latina, she’s supposed to be Catholic, and opposed to abortion on those grounds. But between 17-20% of women having abortions in the US are Latinas. Including me in my 20s. So that doesn’t hold water, either.
So those are just general issues for ambitious Latina women having unplanned pregnancies. But then the writers include the issue of domestic abuse, which increases the URCSM factor exponentially. Any woman in an abusive relationship with a scary controlling man, knows that having a child with him will link her to him permanently. So it’s also completely absurd to imagine that in the moment when she’s trying to get away from him that she’s going to keep her unplanned pregnancy by him. It’s especially muddled, because supposedly she uses the child as her motivation to leave the relationship. It just makes no sense. But more than muddled, it is actually a critical erasure. Because one of the reasons the extreme right wing fights so hard to restrict abortion access for women is because having a child and becoming a mother plays a massive role in increasing women’s vulnerability to be dominated by individual men and by society’s sexism overall.
There are many ways that male domination attempts to control women and girls. Childless women can be told if you don’t act right, no man will want you, and other loved ones and society will shun you. Childless women can also be threatened with and targeted with all sorts of violence. Women with children are impacted by all of the above, and in addition, our love for our children is leveraged against us, making us more economically, emotionally and socially dependent and more vulnerable to male domination. I personally can attest to a massive increase in the amount of sexism in my life after becoming a mom. Which is one of the many, many reasons having safe and legal abortion is so important. (It’s important to note that women who choose not to have children are also made to feel less than and excluded in our society, as well).
In an anti-URCSM move, my writing hero, Shonda Rhimes wrote a quiet and subtle abortion into last season’s “Scandal.” Olivia Pope is pregnant by the president. He is becoming increasingly controlling in their relationship. She terminates the pregnancy and doesn’t even tell him. This rings emotionally true for Olivia’s character, and for the state of the relationship.
In contrast, in Quantico, the abusive baby daddy/fake scar/custody battle seems absurd and unbelievable. Worse than that, it muddles he realities of abusive relationships that women face every day. There are certainly reasons that a woman would choose to have a child in an abusive relationship. Perhaps if we had a deeper look into Vasquez as a fully-formed character, this backstory could be drawn in a way that would make sense. But Quantico has a large ensemble cast, and limited character development. A number of the plots twists are unbelievable. But this one is worse than that, it reinforces the following myths and stereotypes: women lie about abuse, surviving abuse is a badge of honor, abortion isn’t an option, and martyrdom is admirable.
What a shame. Quantico has many good qualities. I’ll keep watching for a while, but I’m losing that loving feeling.