How "Dear White People" Handled All Sides Of The Abortion Debate

The episode brings new layers to the pro-choice narrative. “I wanted you to feel the loss,” said show creator Justin Simien. (Spoilers ahead.)

Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson) is arguably Dear White People’s most complex and compelling character. She’s bougie like Hilary Banks (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) and Whitley Gilbert (A Different World), but not light-skinned. She’s ambitious with big career goals and a boss attitude to match, like Mary Jane (Being Mary Jane) and Molly (Insecure), but from inner-city Chicago instead of the suburbs. She’s calculated, classy, driven, and was on a meticulously mapped-out path to greatness until, in her episode in Season 2, she finds out she’s also pregnant.

“We were talking about different things we could talk about with Coco, and one of the things that Coco is dealing with is an alienation with her past because of her present; imposter syndrome [happens when] certain black folks leave wherever they are from and become who they are,” Dear White People creator Justin Simien explained to BuzzFeed News, adding, “There’s just like a stripping and erasure of what their history is and their background. So we thought it would be interesting to put her in the same situation that her mother was in.”

Coco becoming pregnant is particularly gut-wrenching because no character had to overcome more obstacles to get to Winchester University than her — she grew up in a violent neighborhood, was the first in her family to go to college, and has no financial or emotional support from her parents. The idea that all the work she did to get there could be erased by one incident — which could land her back in the same place she worked so hard to get away from — was devastating. And while it may feel slightly stereotypical to make the character from the 'hood also the one who gets pregnant, Coco’s particular history adds to the nuance of the abortion debate because she herself is the result of an unplanned pregnancy insofar as her mother decided not to get one.

The writers of the show made a point to show both sides of the internal conflict women are faced with when an unplanned pregnancy occurs. Initially, we see Coco go back and forth about what means more to her: the plans she’s made for her future or having a baby. The episode shows her going to the clinic and then leaving because she can’t do it. The audience then sees a storyline play out in which Coco leaves college to continue her pregnancy at home. She names the baby Penelope and the child grows into a teenager who ironically gets accepted into the same university as her parents. The episode flashes forward to Coco and Troy (Brandon P. Bell) dropping Penelope (Diamond White) off for college at Winchester, where Coco hopes Penelope can live out the kind of ambitious life she once imagined for herself. Troy is identified as the baby’s father earlier in the episode. (The two broke up at the end of Season 1 and in this sequence he’s married to someone else, evading the fantasy that they’d somehow reunite because of the child.) And then suddenly the scene snaps back to Coco at the clinic, revealing it was all a daydream she had while waiting for her name to be called. The episode ends with her going through with the abortion after all.

“Seeing her fall in love with Penelope, seeing her be the kind of mother she never had, seeing her speak life and love in a way that her mother never did for her, knowing that she would have had utter joy being someone's mother, and then knowing that she made a choice not to have it — that shows you what kind of sacrifice she made,” Robertson told BuzzFeed News.

Robertson also noted that she was glad the writers didn’t imagine Coco as a bitter mother who ended up resenting her child for making her give up her dreams. Instead, they chose to portray Coco as having a different type of happy ending, because that’s still what it ends up being for a lot of mothers who decide to keep their baby.

For Simien, making viewers believe that Coco keeps the baby for most of the episode was vital in showing how difficult a choice it can be, especially for the women who choose to terminate their pregnancy. He felt it was the best way to humanize the issue. “I wanted you to feel the loss,” said Simien. “I think television shows present, or even sometimes in the culture the reason why we debate about it — you don't realize the woman has gone undergone something incredibly traumatic. You don’t just go in and get an abortion. It's never like that. It’s a gut-wrenching decision; it's a gut-wrenching process.”

It’s also a traumatic process that a lot of black women have to face alone. In this season, Troy goes through an identity crisis and abandons his good-boy image, scholastic responsibilities, and overall ambition. He is literally skipping class to smoke weed through a bong in the middle of the day when Coco attempts to tell him about the baby. His personal downward spiral made her decide he couldn’t handle a baby or an abortion.

This entire plotline is one of the reasons Robertson was up for an abortion episode involving Coco — it’s an experience that many black women go through but often don’t get to see portrayed on television. The most recent and major example on TV was when Olivia Pope got an abortion on Scandal. The scene was particularly polarizing because it showed Pope on the table getting the procedure, which is extremely rare for any show regardless of the character’s race.

While Dear White People didn’t show Coco getting the actual procedure, the lengths they took to show her weigh both options sets the show apart. We never got to see Pope wrestle with the decision to get an abortion or the emotional distress that may come from having to make such a tough choice; instead, we just see her soldier through it with no insight into what’s going on in her mind or heart. Even in the CW’s, and later BET’s, series The Game, the audience only finds out in the fifth season that Melanie got an abortion seasons earlier — and they never show her go through it. There was also the character Bird, who terminated her pregnancy on the Showtime series Soul Food, but her internal conflict wasn’t acted out for the audience the way Coco’s is on Dear White People.

Coco is also the youngest of this television trope and thus the only one to show it from the perspective of a college student. And according to Robertson, many were thankful to see their story told this season. “I’ve had so many black and brown girls send me notes saying [things like], ‘I made this decision in college and I chose to have my baby, and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me...I totally identify with the struggle that Coco had to make the choice.’ And then there were some women who were like, ‘I was in my third year of law school and I got raped and my family was telling me I had to have a baby and I chose to have an abortion.’ There are just so many stories,” she said.

While it’s clear the episode’s focus was displaying both sides of abortion from a woman’s perspective, they did give a nod to a more contemporary political debate. In an attempt to comfort Coco about the pregnancy, her roommate Kelsey notes that at least they’re in a state that allows her to make the hard choice she has to make, unlike several others. The two then take turns listing states where having an abortion would be difficult, if not near impossible. “[The episode writer] Njeri [Brown] wrote that line because she's shady and hilarious like me and I loved it,” said Simien. He added that this won’t be the last we hear of Coco’s abortion. It’s not going to magically disappear from her experience now that the decision was made the way TV magic often makes people believe. “Just like Reggie [Marque Richardson] after his encounter with a cop was not over, just like with Lionel [DeRon Horton] coming out, it's a story that is not over. I'd like to definitely explore the ramifications of that choice,” he said.

Marcus Jones contributed additional reporting to this story.

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