Sex & Relationships

'Reality' Show Lets You Decide If Women Get Abortions?

A new show lets viewers weigh in on whether the characters have abortions. Is it a smart way to spark discussion about abortion, or tone deaf and callous?

A new web show called "BUMP+" is stirring up controversy and conversation about abortion. It's a "fake" reality show in which three actresses portray women facing unintended pregnancies. These characters, entirely fictional, have agreed to appear on a reality TV show and let the public weigh in on what they should do about their pregnancies: keep it, terminate it, adoption? The creators of the web series say they will pick what happens to "contestants'" pregnancies based on viewer response.

It's not exactly what we pro-choicers have always dreamed about: a decision left up to a woman, her doctor, and a vast and anonymous internet audience. When feminists say we want more realistic portrayals of abortion in the movies and on TV,  we don't mean reality-show realistic. My body, everybody's choice?

BUMP+ aims for more than just controversy however; it seeks to, in the words of its creators, spark an honest, Obama-style "common ground" dialogue about the choice based on women's reality rather than ideological scuffling. The tag-line: 

"In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court gave women a choice. Thirty-seven years later, we're giving them a voice. BUMP+ is a provocative web series from Yellow Line Studio that follows the fictional stories of three women facing unintended pregnancies."

As someone who writes constantly about the weird avoidance or squeamishness surrounding abortion on TV and the movies, I'm not opposed to this kind of show in theory. Zooming in on women's lives can often really illuminate what reproductive freedom is all about. A brilliant example is the essay collection "Choice" from a few years back, in which women wrote about every angle of reproduction, from abortion to adoption to surrogacy to miscarriages to regular old pregnancy, and it became clear that there is no one-size fits all rule for such intimate decisions. And that's what the show's creators claim are trying to do--brush off the rhetoric, leave us with the stories. 

But there are a few barriers to this goal. The show's format -- a fictional reality show with traditional actors playing reality show contestants -- has a couple of meta-layers between real women's stories and the audience. Reality show contestants are not there for us to empathize with, as a rule; they're there to make us feel superior. Most importantly, the show doesn't merely follow three women with unexpected pregnancies, but it allows viewers to weigh in on whether they're going to carry their pregnancies to term or have abortions.  The show has already gotten major backlash from both sides for this supposed callousness. 

"So let me get this straight: two dudes, yet again, come up with a TOTALLY novel way of framing a debate that fundamentally affects women and that novel method turned out to be wholly insensitive?" said a commenter at Jezebel. While over at FOX news, a commenter wrote "This is the height of depravity and one more sign that America has truly lost it's [sic] way...How sad that the killing of the unborn has now become "entertainment."

However, when I called Bump+'s Director, Chris Riley, he wanted to emphasize that although the show seeks viewers' input, there' no up-or down American Idol style vote on these women's futures (whew). "We have shot multiple endings, and we've shot 50 hours of which we'll only see about 75 minutes. So in post-production we'll have a lot of latitude to shape things in terms of what happens and the input we get, but as characters these women will fully make their choices on their own," he said. 

Another potential criticism from our end, Anna North at Jezebel noted, is that reality TV shows seem to exist for the purpose of watching women conform to stereotypes. "The general overarching premise that producers look for as they create all of their shows is drama, not necessarily other human emotions," says Jennifer Pozner of Women in Media and News, who is writing a book about gender and reality TV. "Even if women on these shows don't act like head cases, editing makes them seem as if they are." 

At first glance the three characters on Bump+ seem like these typical reality show stock types--after all, they're all pregnant women who have decided to broadcast their decision on a reality show. "Hailey" is somewhat out to lunch, a woman who's had several abortions already. "I get pregnant really easily!" she chirps. According to Hailey, a fetus becomes human "when it comes out, I guess?" "Denise" is a childlike woman with two kids who eats all the clinic's red Starburst candy even though the nurse says it's for younger patients. Later, we learn she may be in an abusive relationship. While her situation couldn't be more serious, her single-minded sweet-tooth, high-pitched voice, and insistence that she is made for stardom make her an odd object of empathy. Finally we have "Katie," who seems more mature than her counterparts--but her pregnancy is a result of her adultery while her husband serves in Iraq. They are all white and fairly generically thin and pretty. 

Riley urges viewers to have patience with the characters, admitting that the reality show format was a move designed to accommodate their budget and an attempt to be provocative and get attention. He says that the women's stories will win out and win us over. "Yes, if this were real, it would be outrageous," from either perspective, he admits. "For the women to volunteer to be on the show, that's not a likable move. That is a challenge we have. But we as writers have a tremendous amount of affection for these characters. What will happen over episodes is that viewers will come to see them as more and more three-dimensional." He says we'll see explanations for their behavior that make it hard to condemn them or mock them the way we might with other reality TV show characters, and notes that Bump+ has many women writers and they have borrowed from real women's stories to build their characters. 

"Nobody's going to be hitting anybody over the head with a folding chair," he says. "From those who oppose abortion, I hope it creates more sympathy for kinds of real dilemmas people find themselves in." 

Audience members who oppose abortion, says Riley, have been far more vocal on the site, most taking a civil tone, but all urging the fictional characters to keep the pregnancy. This skewing is the natural outgrowth of any kind of common ground efforts that try to mediate between one group of people who embrace the idea of telling women what to do, and another group committed to letting women make the decision for themselves. Thus, the show has elicited outrage on the right wing, bringing droves of curious anti-choicers to the site to see the scenarios in question--where it's just produced baffled shrugs in the reproductive rights crowd. 

"We do want to find ways to reach out to more pro-choice voices and invite those kinds of personal stories to be posted," says Riley. "There's stigma attached to those stories, but we hope online there's enough anonymity for that to happen," he says. He says that the moderators and Bump+'s stated mission of respectful discourse has provided a safe space. He notes that there are specific "pro-life" commenters who have been revisiting the site seeking to understand the pro-choice side, but not finding many people who disagree with them. 

Personally, talking to Riley definitely softened my skepticism of Bump+, though not enough to give it my ringing endorsement yet. The characterization of the abortion debate as equally polarized on both sides is problematic. It's hard not to get frustrated by the idea that common ground is something new or fresh when our community has been stuggling for decades to reduce unintended pregnancies, support mothers and give women a voice. But I am going to check out future webisodes and see if the show's writers live up to their goals, and I encourage any brave yet gentle souls who want to share their opinions and experiences to so, so that we can help this fake reality show can live up to the word reality. 

Sarah Seltzer is an RH Reality Check staff writer and resident pop culture expert. Sarah is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Bitch, Venus Zine, Womens eNews, and Publishers Weekly among other places. She formerly taught English in a Bronx public school.