Sen. Wendy Davis’s Fierce, Fictional Counterpart: Tami Taylor

connie_brittonplanned_parenthood_texas_tee_ornFollowing Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis’s epic filibuster of the state’s proposed abortion bill, and in the heat of Gov. Rick Perry’s ongoing push to pass the legislation, Planned Parenthood has done something wonderful: It partnered with Connie Britton, the woman behind TV goddess Tami Taylor. The result is a joint campaign to support reproductive rights in Texas and a T-shirt with the acronym WWTTD and the wise words, “What would Tami Taylor Do?”

For those less familiar with NBC’s former series Friday Night Lights, and most importantly with its shining star Tami Taylor, a brief description of both: With a tenderness and intelligence rare to network television, the show followed the high school football team of the fictional Dillon, Tex. Its most interesting storylines often transpired off the field, and likewise its best characters were usually the ones only tangentially related to the team–the ones whose stories intersected with the town’s pathological football culture but were informed more meaningfully by its desperate poverty, evangelicalism and provincialism. Such was the case for Tami Taylor, wife of Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), high school guidance counselor, principal—and the show’s resident feminist.

Tami’s feminism was appropriately subtle and, in a town like Dillon, with a particularly Texan brand of sexism, better done than said. Done, that is, through her persistence to work despite her husband’s livable income and to talk about sex with her uncomfortable, adolescent daughter. Done through her unwavering compassion for her students, through her dedication to their education regardless of their gender, race, economic status or reputation. Her closeness to Tyra (Adrianne Palicki), another of the show’s incredible female characters with a reputation for promiscuity, anomalous intelligence and little chance of upward mobility, was testament to that. Though Tami sported the nickname, “Mrs. Coach,” she was indisputably her own person. And though she may not have declared her feminism, she performed it exceedingly well.

Perhaps Tami’s most laudable feminist moments occured in the latter half of Season Four, when the show tackled abortion. It did so with very little precedent: As The Week’s timeline of abortion on television illustrates, in the few shows that have addressed abortion at all women usually end up backing out or conveniently miscarrying. The exceptions are few, but Friday Nights Lights was great at being exceptional. In the episode, “I Can’t,” Becky (Madison Burge), a terrified student, approaches Tami about her unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. In a vulnerable and nuanced exchange, Becky confronts the reality of her situation and expresses her apprehension—for her own future and for the future of her child.

Becky: I have an appointment for my abortion tomorrow. My mom knows. She’s coming with me.

Tammy: Good.

Becky: Why do I feel so weird?

Tammy: Because it’s a hard thing. This is a hard situation. Have you thought about what you want?

Becky: We don’t have any money. I’m in the 10th grade. It was my first time. I threw it away, and I don’t want to throw my life away. It’s just really obvious that my mom wants me to have this abortion because I was her mistake and she has just struggled and hurt every day and she wanted better. And I knew better. And I was just thinking forget about what she wants, what do I want? Maybe I could take care of this baby. And maybe I would be good at it and I could love it and I would be there for it. And then I just think about how awful it would be if I had a baby and I spent the rest of my life resenting him … or her. Do you think I’m going to hell if I have an abortion?

Tammy: No honey, I don’t.

Becky: What would you tell your daughter?

Tammy: I would tell her … to think about her life, think about what’s important to her and what she wants and I would tell her she’s in a real tough spot and then I would support whatever decision she made.

Becky: I can’t take care of a baby … I can’t.

And she doesn’t. The next day, Becky’s mother takes her to a clinic. The writers handled the scene between Becky and Tami with tenderness and grace. Becky is young—her reminder that she’s in the 10th grade is particularly upsetting—and her fear is real. The dialogue isn’t dulled by the over-simplified political platitudes that occupy so much time and space in our national abortion debate. Becky is sincerely conflicted: manifestly afraid, lonely and overwhelmed, simultaneously excited by the prospect of responsibility for another life and horrified by what that would mean for her own future. The scene is a nonjudgmental and sensitive examination of her choice. But underlying her deliberation is the understanding that she does have a choice, that she has access to whatever reproductive health care she needs and to the care and support of people like Tami Taylor. That is truly exceptional.

And, even in a fictional world, not without consequence. Following allegations that Tami advised Becky to seek an abortion and subsequent calls for her termination as principal of Dillon High, Tami defended her actions with unwavering conviction. To a berating school board member she responded:

This girl came to me, she was scared, she was desperate for an adult to listen to her. I gave her options and I listened. That was my responsibility to her as a principal and as a human being.

Unfortunately, the rest of the town didn’t see it that way and began a vicious campaign to overthrow the Tami Taylor regime. Finally, rather than admit defeat masked as a public apology or cost the school board thousands of dollars in law suits, Tami volunteered to leave her position and become a counselor at East Dillon High, the much poorer counterpart to Dillon High and populated predominantly by students of color. To the end, her sense of principle remained unwavering.

In October, 2012, after presidential hopeful Mitt Romney co-opted the Dillon Panthers’ rallying cry, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” Britton cowrote an awesome condemnation of the candidate’s policies towards women, charging that they did not align with the show’s values:

Dillon is a classic American town filled with hard-working, middle-class Americans, who just want to lead productive, healthy lives. And the women we represented on the show—the women we are in real life—are like the millions of women across the nation. Women who want to make our own health care decisions. Women who want to earn equal pay for the work we do. Women who want affordable health care.

Texas Senate Bill 5 (succeeded by H.B. 2) is an aggressive attack on precisely those women. It represents a real-life incarnation of the conservative world that Tami Taylor occupied but didn’t fit into. It represents this world’s fear of women’s agency and empowerment, its disinterest in the complexity and validity of their decisions and its inability to listen. Fortunately, though, Wendy Davis looks increasingly like the real-life counterpart of Tami Taylor: a feminist beacon in a vast ocean of reactionary politics. A woman who believes in basic fairness, compassion and choice.

Behind the trend of anti-abortion legislation sweeping the country is another trend: male politicians debating and deciding on women’s bodies. But the more we talk about these men, the more they and their ideologies dominate the story of women’s health. Fictional women such as Tami Taylor, and real women like Wendy Davis and Connie Britton, are reminders that the War On Women is not one led by men against submissive victims. Women are active fighters in the battle over their bodies and have voices in their own stories.

Image of T-shirt from Planned Parenthood

Comments

  1. Article quote: “Behind the trend of anti-abortion legislation sweeping the country is another trend: male politicians debating and deciding on women’s bodies. ”
    **************
    Very true; just as it was in the 19th century, when the majority of male politicians kept insisting that “women don’t want to vote.”

    I think a lot of conservative male politicians today have the same archaic mindset of the male politicians who existed two centuries ago. We voted to make sure one of them stayed out of the White House. Now women have to vote strongly and decisively to kick the rest of them out of the offices of power, like Governor, Senator, and Congressman, in many states.

  2. Great post! My only criticism is that I hate the phrase “the war on women”. I think that phrase does more harm than good, and will instantly turn off huge swaths of people to examine the content. Also, compared to what some women in other parts of the world have to contend with, using the term “war” to describe the situation in this country just doesn’t feel right. My two cents, love your writing!

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