April 28, 2008
Console-ing Passions: Heather Hendershot, Abortion, House, and BSG

One of the panels I was only able to catch part of at this year's Console-ing Passions dealt with the critically acclaimed Sci Fi series Battlestar Galactica. Since I came in only at the end of the panel, I went in afterward in hopes to get caught up on some of the presentation. I was particularly interested in hearing more about the work of Heather Hendershot, one of the presenters in the session.

Heather and I first had the chance to meet when she came up to MIT last November to attend our MIT Futures of Entertainment 2 conference and to participate in Unboxing Television, a gathering of television studies scholars for a small retreat-like session to discuss the current state and future of TV studies and share our current work with one another. I'd long been interested in Heather's work on Christian media and representations of U.S. protestant religion, so the work she presented at Console-ing Passions was particularly fascinating for me.

Luckily, Heather had a copy of the draft of her paper she had with her for the presentation, and I had a chance to read it on my flight back to Boston. Her presentation was entitled "'You Have Your Pound of Flesh': Religion, Battlestar Galactica, and Television's Sacred/Secular Fetuses." Turns out, Heather's work here was on looking at modern representations of abortion in not only BSG but likewise the popular FOX series House. Her work further focuses on BSG as an innovative show in part because of the nuanced way in tackles issues of religious difference and the politicizing of religious beliefs.

My fascination with Friday Night Lights has been fueled in part because the series seems dedicated to integrating religion into the series in a way that neither wholly celebrates nor condemns Christianity but rather attempts to show some of the ways church life enriches and uplifts characters but likewise some of the contradictions of that religion. And, while I have certainly followed and been intrigued by the way House discusses religious issues, I had not realized this aspect of BSG--more often, it is a show cited for playing with political issues in a storyline that acted as metaphor for the current Iraq war.

Heather writes in particular about the depiction of religious issues surrounding abortion, tying it to the original primetime abortion storyline on Maude in the early 1970s. In a footnote, she brings up the fact that the first abortion on U.S. television was on All My Children, but sums up that "daytime drama continues to be the place where the possibility of abortion appears most frequently, though these abortion storylines do not make national news or raise the ire of conservative religious organizations, presumably because daytime television is widely dismissed as inconsequential."

While recent events prove that conservative Christian groups do sometimes pay attention to soaps (more on that in an upcoming post), there's no doubt that cultural prejudices against soap operas often cause treatments of social issues to get ignored in a genre that tackle these issues more regularly than some primetime genres. (That doesn't mean, of course, that daytime often produces a nuanced view of abortion, even if the situation does come up more often. See AMC's revival of the revolutionary Erica Kane storyline as proof of that.)

For those who are interested in how abortion storylines play out on daytime serial dramas, you should seek out more information on the work of Natalie Rose, who I met at the 2007 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference in Boston, where she was presenting a paper about the depiction of abortion in U.S. daytime soaps.



another show integrating the multiple roles of religion into the lives of its characters in meaningful ways is "dirty sexy money." in particular, the last two episodes before the WGA strike, 5 and 12 december 07.

of course, with the youngest son an episcopalian minister, the darlings of park avenue could be further away -- geographically, temperamentally and pretty much every other way -- from fnl's texas baptists (i've always assumed they're baptists, though i don't know that it's ever been stated explicitly).

thankfully, abc picked up dsm, but epidoeds won't resume until this fall. can't wait! unfortunately, these two episodes are not among the few that are available online, and there been no word about when dvds will be avaiable.


Thanks, Lynn, for posting about Dirty Sexy Money. Serves as a good reminder that I should give that show another chance on DVD when it comes out...


re the portrayal of religion in tv show, also wanted to mention "ryan's hope."

in my previous post, "yearning for the world as it was", i alluded briefly to divorce and ryans' catholic faith. as the story continues to unfold, now touching on abortion, impotence and annulment. addressing these issues is the ryan's family priest, father mcshane. there are a lot of ways these stories could have been played, all of them valid and accurate (a priest taking a hard line, exhibiting little concern for characters' pain); but father mcshane, as played by john perkins, brought an agonizing empathy to the task of helping the characters bridge the gap between church law and real life.