Why Aren’t There More Depictions of Birth Control in Pop Culture?

Pages and pages of feminist ink have been spilled about the lack of abortion scenes on screen, and how that turns abortion into something of a taboo, despite its presence in many people’s lives. This incredibly common procedure is rarely shown outside a tragic context — with notable exceptions including Greenberg, Friday Night Lights, and Obvious Child.

But what about birth control, which is also very much under attack politically? Fifty-five years ago today, the FDA approved Enovid, the first oral contraceptive pill in the world, and 50 years ago this month,  Griswold v. Connecticut affirmed the right to privacy that legalized birth control. Yet today the pill and other methods — along with insurance coverage for them — have become political footballs again. Remember the fight over Obamacare’s no-copay birth control? It’s still echoing through the halls of power.

Right now, Republican senator Kelly Ayotte wants to make birth control over the counter — which would improve its accessibility in theory but also make it costly for many women — while her Democratic colleague, Patty Murray, wants it to be OTC and covered by insurance. “As members of the Senate debate what a future with over-the-counter birth control might look like, some of their colleagues are sticking to the older, more puritanical fights over reproductive rights,” Meredith Clark wrote last week at Refinery29. “On Tuesday, House Republicans issued a proposal that would eliminate all Title X funding, which offers grants for groups to provide contraceptive and preventative health care to low-income women,” effectively cutting off that group’s birth control.

With so much at stake, and so many women using it, why doesn’t birth control appear more often in pop culture? There are many reasons, but the primary one is how it might function in a plot. Condoms and diaphragms often do show up, in novels and even in films (although not nearly often enough) — but other kinds of birth control, whether an IUD, a pack of pills, a shot, a ring, or a patch, are rarely seen, discussed, or  even mentioned. Unfortunately, there’s little interesting or plot-advancing about taking the same small pill every day. Something that by its very nature creates freedom — an absence of risk and worry — isn’t easy to depict in genres that rely on conflict. And on the flip side,  a character forgetting multiple doses of oral contraceptives is hardly as convenient a plot device as scrambling, in the heat of the moment as it were, to find a condom or even worse, having it break. For the latter, think about the absurd scene in Knocked Up which shows the condom being manhandled and ultimately discarded. 

There are a few exceptions, however:

  • In Mad Men‘s premiere, Peggy’s now-infamous visit with the slut-shaming doctor who is nonetheless known as a permissive type who will give women prescriptions for the pill. Unfortunately, it’s too late for her, since she sleeps with Pete too early and ends up pregnant without knowing it.
  • Another great example of non-hormonal female birth control being central to a plot is the infamous Seinfeld episode, “The Sponge,” in which Elaine’s favorite brand of contraceptive sponge is taken off the market. With only a few boxes left, she is forced to evaluate potential suitors based on their sponge-worthiness.
  • In the Romanian  film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, the girls are seen sharing and trading packs of pills on the black market, which explains why so many of them end up getting underground abortions.
  • An episode of 30 Rock featured a pregnancy scare for Liz Lemon that involved a frantic scramble through a stack of birth control packs, in classic Liz Lemon style (as well as multiple tainted pregnancy tests, corrupted by cheese curls).
  • And of course, there’s Loretta Lynn’s song, “The Pill.”

But Lynn’s song was released in the ’70s. Today, the pickings remain slim. One cultural shift, however, has been in writing. Over the past few years, as the pill became a hot topic, personal essays about birth control — loving it, hating it, needing it — have proliferated. In the current era of the first-person narrative, birth control is being normalized in writing. And as that millennial aesthetic, both feminist and confessional, seeps from online essays and lists into broader pop culture, we may be seeing a lot more art about the pill in years to come.

One can hope such a shift will shield birth control from political attack, but I wouldn’t count on it.