“She Did It to Herself”: Women’s Health on Television and Film

“She Did It to Herself”: Women’s Health on Television and Film

[Spoiler alert for PBS’s Mercy Street] Like just about every other Civil War historian out there, I’ve been following PBS’s new period drama, Mercy Street, pretty closely. The show, which aired its season finale on Sunday night, was innovative compared to other shows and movies on the war: it included plotlines about the health of women and escaped slaves right alongside old classics like amputations. The most prominent example was the story of Aurelia Johnson, a contraband slave who is raped by a hospital steward who had promised to help her reunite with her family. Aurelia becomes pregnant and chooses to end the pregnancy.

House servant Belinda Gibson gives Aurelia a tincture of pennyroyal, a common emmenagogue. But Aurelia is too desperate to wait for the concoction to work. In a powerful scene, the audience watches as she touches various items on a counter that she could use to induce an abortion, finally grasping a slender metal rod. But, inevitably, the procedure goes wrong: Aurelia punctures the wall of her uterus and begins hemorrhaging.

Pennyroyal illustration from William Woodville, Medical Botany (London: James Phillips, 1793), via Wikimedia.
Pennyroyal illustration from William Woodville, Medical Botany (London: James Phillips, 1793), via Wikimedia.

It was a powerful plotline, to be sure: a raped fugitive slave desperate to control the reproductive capacity of her own body. It seems to intentionally serve as a symbol of the sexual terror wielded in the slaveholding South. I should have appreciated its inclusion in the show, but for all its innovation, this plotline irked me. Why on earth did Aurelia, already terribly mistreated and separated from her family, have to nearly kill herself in order to induce abortion?

As I recently wrote for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, it was common for nineteenth century women — including enslaved women — to regulate their menstrual cycle through the use of herbs like pennyroyal. The restoration of menses (what we might today call abortion) was a practice that dated at least to the time of the Greeks, and carried no taboo before quickening in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy, when a fetus could be felt moving. Aurelia could have been portrayed taking Belinda’s pennyroyal preparation and going about her business. Instead, she nearly dies of blood loss after trying to end her pregnancy with a metal rod. Why?

This has long been a complaint of mine when it comes to depictions of women’s health on television and in film. Scenes of childbirth or abortion are the worst offenders. Natural parts of a woman’s life that generally occur without incident are portrayed as dangerous or horrifying, with some notable exceptions, such as the abortion scenes on Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and Obvious Child.

Sybil on Downton Abbey, Season 3, Episode 4. (PBS)

Childbirth in television and film, like Aurelia’s abortion on Mercy Street, is also often depicted as traumatic and inherently dangerous. In The Walking Dead, for instance, Lori Grimes goes into labor, almost immediately seems to know there are complications, and then dies of blood loss when she insists on an impromptu c-section. Lady Sybil died a horrific death from eclampsia after the birth of her daughter on Downton Abbey. Padme, mother of Luke and Leia in the Star Wars series, dies in childbirth even in a futuristic society where severely burned men can be reborn as cyborgs, hands can be rebuilt, and human beings can survive being frozen in carbonite. (I mean, seriously.)

Childbirth and abortion have been a part of life since time immemorial, but they’re still not treated like normal parts of the human experience. Instead, they are portrayed as dangerous, perpetuating the idea that women’s bodies are mysterious, frightening, and fragile. Moreover, it’s difficult to have strong female characters when they are always at the mercy of their inferior biology. Aurelia is a victim of her reproductive capacity, saved only by the medical prowess of a white doctor.

While Mercy Street is innovative in many ways, its portrayal of women as the victims of their own reproductive organs is old-fashioned. How much more revolutionary (and, dare I say, accurate) might the series have been had the writers taken a cue from Shonda Rhimes and Olivia Pope, let Aurelia swallow her pennyroyal, and simply never mention that unwanted pregnancy again?

Further Reading

Reagan, Leslie. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine and the Law in the United States, 1867-1973. Berkley: University of California Press, 1997.

Riddle, John M. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Featured image caption: Aurelia Johnson in episode two of PBS’s Mercy Street. (PBS)

Sarah Handley-Cousins is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the University at Buffalo. She is author of Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (UGA, 2019) and a producer of Dig: A History Podcast.

3 thoughts on ““She Did It to Herself”: Women’s Health on Television and Film

    • Author gravatar

      I’ve had that same thought about Star Wars! I completely agree with your observation about how women’s reproductive functions are treated in literature/storytelling arts. I suspect some of the effect is literary — think of how many children’s novels are about orphans. The author gets the parents out of the way to tell a tale of self-discovery. Reproduction is central to life, so it sits at the crux of more than one standard literary trope. But it also seems to spill over into more mundane representations of reproduction, such as reality TV shows. It promotes really distorted intuitions about the dangers of birth/miscarriage/abortion etc.

    • Author gravatar

      Thank you for expressing this scene in your blog and stating it so well. As a docent at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, with a Ph.D. in history and an avid interest in the American Civil War, I was thrilled to hear that the series Mercy Street was going to be picked up by PBS. However I have been greatly disappointed in the series thus far. The writers/producers have mucked so much with history and the characters and all is weaker and less interesting for it. Regarding why the writers had Aurelia try to self-abort the baby via sharp implement rather than via pennyroyal, my hunch is they wanted to heighten the drama. If she had just menstrated and miscarried it would not have had the gruesome Hollywood shock value. Dr. Foster, the white doctor would not have discovered that the black laborer Samuel Diggs was actually trained and skilled as a surgeon. It was Diggs who had the skilled hands to perform the surgery at the instruction of the white Dr. Foster whose own hands were still shaky from his morphine addiction withdrawal. It likely gave the writers an excuse for Aurelia to be even more vulnerable while she recuperated from the surgery and for her confide in Diggs why she had gotten pregnant in the first place as she was wanting the steward’s help to find her son Gabriel. SPOILER ALERT Because of this confidential information, Diggs finds Gabriel and mother and son are reunited at the end of episode 6. My hunch is mother, son and Mr. Diggs will be family in the next season. All this aside, you are absolutely right that the writers choice of action ultimately diminishes Aurelia as a strong can-do-it-myself character and paints woman’s reproductive organs as bloody and taboo.

    • Author gravatar

      Fantastic discussion. I have been reading Irvine Loudon, “Death in Childbirth,” and he reminds us that 95% of deliveries in the past were normal, but we only hear about the abnormal because that’s what the medical profession wrote about. That being said, my impression is that abortion was much more dangerous in the past, especially because herbal remedies did not always work and surgical interventions could go very badly if not performed by a skilled practitioner. Either way, an important discussion of how TV can pathologize female bodies.

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