Claws' masterful subversion of the abortion storyline
You can picture it without much effort: a rusty bed, a young woman in distress, a callous doctor who points out the absence of the responsible man. Since Dirty Dancing deployed the abortion storyline in 1987, not much has changed.
That's what makes the most recent episode of Claws, the bombastic series centering on a five-woman squad of manicurists juggling their salon business with an increasingly outrageous money-laundering side hustle, so special. "Cracker Casserole," the second episode of the show's second season, subverts each of these long-held abortion tropes with its storyline centered on stripper-turned-nail technician Virginia (Karreuche Tran), who opts to have an abortion with the full support of her loving boyfriend Dean (Harold Perrineau).
Virginia isn't distressed. She's not alone. Her character enjoys a healthy dose of sexual pleasure and isn't slut-shamed for it. As she says it, she and Dean "just made a mistake." And Dean, who is autistic, agrees: "We're not ready to have a kid." It's as plain as that — and it's yet another example of how Claws manages to straddle the line between ridiculous and sincere while earnestly defying stereotypes.
These are two adults making a mutual, intensely personal decision. The two opinions they deemed to matter were theirs and theirs alone, and through that they felt at ease with the outcome. Though Dean's sister Desna (Niecy Nash) does have some choice words about Virginia "riding bareback" with her brother, there's enough love and respect between the two women — as well as among the rest of their squad — that she stands by Virginia's decision. Their friend Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes) even accompanies Virginia and Dean to Planned Parenthood, rather than shy away into detached support.
True to Claws' form, "Cracker Casserole" even manages to infuse a little levity into a daunting event like having to navigate through a crowd of angry protesters just to get to the front door of the clinic. Clearly underestimating the mob, Virginia merely opts for flat shoes instead of her usual sky-high heels, while Quiet Ann and Dean are wearing hockey masks and toting water guns as they step outside. It's not until this moment that Virginia realizes that her decision to terminate her pregnancy is now subjected to the court of public opinion, which extends far beyond her friends at the salon.
But while the audience may be struck by this recognition showing on Virginia's face, what we hear playing throughout the scene — with the volume turned way up to drown out the yells from the crowd — is rapper Awkwafina's feminist anthem, "My Vag." The juxtaposition of Awkwafina's unapologetically vulgar and decidedly womanly bragging with the suffocating judgment from the assembled crowd illustrates the genuine combination of doubt and audacity a woman is forced to feel when she has an abortion. Even Virginia, who feels confident in her decision, is expected to justify her rights to a sea of combative strangers. The effect is arresting.
What's more, the whole scene lasts but a few minutes. That's one of the most interesting things about the episode: that it doesn't feel the need to spend a ton of time elevating the significance of Virginia having an abortion. Instead, it is while Virginia is quietly awaiting the procedure in the hospital when the episode really shines, as the rest of her crew launches into a conversation, told through a grid screen, about their own experiences with abortion and unplanned pregnancies. Polly (Carrie Preston) reveals that her dad raped her babysitter, who then had an abortion. Quiet Ann laments that she got pregnant when she was 14 and her parents gave her baby away. Jennifer (Jenn Lyon) says she had two abortions and "didn't think twice about it."
The point is that unplanned pregnancy and abortion is common, and defies age, class, race, and circumstance.
Virginia is a half-Asian-American, half-African-American ex-stripper who, by typical screen guidelines, should have been ostracized, stereotyped, and shamed into oblivion. Just seeing a woman of color with a supportive man by her side experience an abortion onscreen is a profound statement, let alone to see it done with such nuance. Virginia's relationship with Dean remains airtight even after the abortion — so much so that after the procedure, he proposes to her with a ring pop. It's an equally awkward and surprising moment, as Claws chooses to show a woman's life immediately progressing into genuine happiness after she goes through an abortion, rather than have her be haunted by her decision for some indeterminate amount of time.
In fact, Virginia is in such a great mood after the procedure that she struts through the still-steady mob outside the clinic and announces that she and Dean are getting married. Thinking that the news means Virginia changed her mind about the abortion, the protesters rejoice — until she proudly states, "We still D&C'ed that, bitch!" All the while, she's sucking on her symbolic ring pop.
For Claws, a series that has consistently given agency to characters that rarely get voices on screen, "Cracker Casserole" is characteristically bold and provocative. Virginia isn't perfect — but she's not a damsel either, and that's what makes her story worth telling.