The Ultrasound That Roared: On Abortion, Humor and Censorship

Several US newspapers have refused to print a series of comic strips dealing with abortion rights and transvaginal ultrasounds. What does this mean for our critical thinking skills?
Publish date:
March 13, 2012
abortion, comics, gender politics, inappropriate humor

Garry Trudeau’s daily comic strip “Doonesbury” has been in print since 1970 -- well before I was born -- and even in the years when I was reading newspaper comics on a regular basis it was always a little over my head, wedged as it was between the pleasantly unchallenging Peanuts and the silly shenangians of Garfield.

Doonesbury always seemed to feature boring adults making dry comments on current affairs, something that might appeal to me now, but which at the time was boring with a capital bore. Nobody ate any lasagna and then fell asleep! Where’s the humor in that?

This week Doonesbury is in the news for doing what it’s always done -- taking on political topics -- but this time the target is abortion, specifically those pesky transvaginal ultrasound requirements that appear to be sweeping the nation like a wacky new dance craze, only instead of dancing there is partial nudity, possible discomfort and a medically unnecessary dose of humiliation.

The strips depict a woman’s experience trying to get an abortion under the new legislation, humorously referring her to a “shaming room” where “a middle aged, male state legislator” will attend to her humiliation momentarily. Subsequent strips will refer to the ultrasound wand and evidently make the connection between state-mandated ultrasounds and state-sponsored rape.

In response, several newspapers have either declined to run the strips at all, to only run them online, or have chosen to temporarily relocate them to the opinion pages, ostensibly where controversial topics can roam free.

Political cartoons are at least as American as apple pie and invasive TSA screenings; Benjamin Franklin is credited with popularizing the form in the mid-1700s. Early newspaper cartoons were always explicitly political, and the innocuous family-friendly comic strip most of us are familiar with is in fact a relatively new invention.

Thus, Trudeau’s strip is not so much upending a chaste American tradition as it is keeping with comics’ satirical origins. The newspapers that have chosen to pull the strips reference their “graphic” nature, as it seems the strips coming later this week continue to double down on the problems of this law. But some of the newspapers that have chosen to run them cite the same reasons; in the Washington Post, which will be running the strips, comics blogger Michael Cavna asks why:

Debbie Van Tassel, assistant managing editor of features at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, tells Comic Riffs that she and other top editors have decided to run next week’s strips... “We didn’t deliberate long,” Van Tassel tells Comic Riffs. “We all agreed that some readers will be upset by them, mainly because they appear on the comics page, but also because of the graphic depiction of a transvaginal sonogram.”Van Tassel cites the larger journalistic context in which “Doonesbury” appears. “This newspaper deals with those issues routinely in the news sections and in our health section,” she tells us. “Our page one today, for example, carries a story about the movement by women legislators across the country to curb men’s abilities to get vasectomies and prescriptions for erectile dysfunction. I haven’t heard of any objections to that story yet.”The Plain Dealer also believes “Doonesbury” deserves a long satiric leash. “Garry Trudeau’s metier is political satire; if we choose to carry ‘Doonesbury,’ we can’t yank the strip every time it deals with a highly charged issue. His fans are every bit as vocal as his critics. We are alerting readers to the nature of the strips so they can decide whether to read them next week.”

Using humor and/or satire to confront sensitive subjects is always a tricky business; some folks will always be offended by it, no matter what side they’re on. Satire has a long legacy because it invites its audience to think critically about the repercussions of politics, even as they’re laughing about them, and in my opinion it’s simply short-sighted to suggest that humor cannot occupy the same space as thoughtful, passionate criticism, even in circumstances that are horrific.

Also, by rendering these circumstances into absurdity -- the comics refer to the ultrasound probe as a “shaming wand,” really! -- satire can make their problems apparent even to folks resistant to straight-faced assertions.

Of course, even the opposition has problems with laughter as political catalyst; a spokesperson for Texas governor Rick Perry, who supports the Texas ultrasound law, told The Miami Herald:

"The decision to end a life is not funny," Frazier said. "There is nothing comic about this tasteless interpretation of legislation we have passed in Texas to ensure that women have all the facts when making a life-ending decision."

The Miami Herald, it should be noted, has chosen to print all of this week’s strips but Friday’s, which is evidently the most offensive of the lot. All those print-reading folks are going to face a hell of an unresolved Thursday cliffhanger, I guess.

While moving Doonesbury to the opinion page is probably apt -- indeed, I’m not sure why it doesn’t always reside there -- the decision by many papers to refuse to run these strips at all is troubling.

The American press has long struggled with maintaining the perception of neutrality, even while most of us know each newspaper has a perspective and a bias, no matter how hard it may work to obfuscate it. In times like this, that effort seems especially wasted; other nations (Hi, UK!) don’t bother to pretend that their news outlets are all equally unbiased and pure, and they seem to get along fine.

It is almost impossible to cover politics without betraying some bias, even if that bias is only evident in what editors choose to print.

But what is most upsetting to me about this decision is that it suggests we are incapable of having this conversation, that some subjects can never be openly discussed, can never be joked about, can never be unpacked and argued. Abortion and contraceptive rights are issues central to the lives of millions upon millions of American women, and still news anchors stumble over saying the word “transvaginal” and "The Daily Show" and "Saturday Night Live" solicit laughs exploiting our shared discomfort with discussing our vaginas (and what goes into and comes out of them) in public.

Have you EVER heard the word “vaginal” spoken so often in the public discourse? I expect kids in elementary school playgrounds nationwide are taking to calling each other “transvaginal probes” as an insult, like we used to call (oh, who am I kidding, we still do) each other “douchebags.” It’s not the vaginas that are funny, ultimately; it’s our weird puritanical fear of saying the word “vagina” that is funny.

But getting back to it: By refusing to run these comic strips, many newspapers have decided their readers need their protection from difficult ideas that challenge their comfortable notions about women’s health and their right to privacy; by deciding what is and isn’t “funny,” these newspapers are instructing their readers on how to understand these issues, and, to some extent what to think -- or what not to think.

Frankly, it is not the job of the press to coddle their audience’s delicate sensibilities. It is the job of the press to communicate both bare facts and individual opinion, humorous or otherwise, and to allow their readers to decide where they personally want to stand.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I sure don’t want the press to get in the habit of deciding what I can or cannot handle reading. I’d rather make that determination for myself. How about you?