I’ve been watching Afterlife on BBCAmerica, and I’m quite impressed with a few elements.
First, the main character of Alison Mundy is a troubled person. Instead of looking like a Barbie Doll we’re told is unhappy, she doesn’t stand up quite straight and walks with a bit of a shuffle. Her hair and makeup are straight out of the 80’s, like she learned to do that look and never learned another. Her age (forty, going by the actress) shows. She is not TV thin. In short, I don’t see actress Lesley Sharp in there: I only see Ali.
This is so important: when we insist on putting female actors’ appearances ahead of what their characters should look like, we make it extra hard for female actors to show their skills, be liked by fans and be perceived as valuable by the people who decide their salaries. And of course, how many shows actually feature middle-aged women leads who actually look like middle-aged women? Particularly awkward ones who haven’t got their lives together.
The reason Ali’s unhappy is that she’s a medium. She is constantly haunted by spirits, many of which want to send messages to people who consider Ali a scam artist if she tries to deliver them. A recent episode called “Daniel 1 and 2” dealt with a young boy thought to be mentally ill. But it turns out he’s actually been haunted his whole life by a spirit – a slightly older boy who aged along with him. Ali had never seen anything like this spirit, which struck her as neither alive nor dead – just empty. In the end, the spirit proved to belong to a fetus Daniel’s mother had aborted long before she met Daniel’s father – a vicar with staunch anti-abortion beliefs – back when she was a troubled teenager who didn’t know what she was doing.
Two really refreshing things happened with this storyline.
First, when the mother finally acknowledged the abortion in front of everyone (which was all the spirit wanted), she stated regarding the abortion: “What I did was not wrong; but not acknowledging it was.” Between this text and the fact that the spirit departed in peace after merely being acknowledged, the show quietly but unabashedly presented abortion as a valid choice.
Second, when the mother said she’d kept this to herself for so many years because she didn’t think her husband could accept it, he confirmed her suspicion, saying he just couldn’t live with someone who could do something like that (of course, as someone who’s physically incapable of doing something like that, he must feel unassailable in his seat of judgment). Did she crumble or cry? No: she said, “Then I guess you can’t live with me.” Off he went, and that was that.
It may sound from my description like the mother had no regrets about the abortion. That’s not the sense I got. She defended the choice to abort, but I was left with the feeling she regretted the choices she made that caused the unplanned pregnancy. Perhaps she would have made better choices if she lived in a society that spoke openly about the realities of sexuality instead of keeping it hush-hush to accommodate the sensibilities of people like her vicar husband. Perhaps if she’d grown up hearing the truth about what she’s entitled to expect from a partner, about how sex has never once solved a problem and frequently causes them, about how every individual has the right to say when they will and won’t have sex, how sex can be made less potentially problematic if you pick one of several sets of sensible rules and follow them… I can’t list it all here but there is so much more to the topic than “have sex or not” and “abort or don’t”.
It was ultimately silence that caused this tragedy. Just as in real life, it’s silence that allows cycles of abuse and bad (defined at the personal level) choices to continue instead of being weeded out. The vicar in this story isn’t serving his own cause; he’s defeating it by addressing only the final choice in the sequence and none of the factors that led up to it.