We Heart: The Web Series Using Humor to Smash Abortion Stigma

The media has an abortion problem.

According to a Vox Media poll, a majority of Americans think abortion is less common than it is: 61 percent of Americans believe that fewer than one in five women get abortions, even though the reality is that one in three will. But people don’t just think abortion is uncommon—they also largely, and falsely, believe that abortions are dangerous. 80 percent of people polled said that childbirth was safer or about as safe as abortion; in reality, the rate of death for every 100,000 women who has an abortion is 0.27, while the rate of death for every 100,000 women who go through childbirth is 17.8.

People tend to underestimate the frequency of experiences they hear less about, and abortion stigma keeps women who receive abortions quiet. But in many ways, our misnomers about abortion aren’t about a lack of representation—they’re about widespread media misrepresentation. 15.6 percent of women who undergo an abortion onscreen end up dead, even though women have a greater chance of dying when they get their wisdom teeth removed than when they get an abortion. Only 11 of the 22 abortion plot lines that occurred in 2017 ended with an abortion actually being obtained.

It is these exact negative depictions and misrepresentations that inspired CTRL ALT DELETE, a comedic video web series about the normalcy of abortion.

Roni Geva and Margaret Katch have both had abortions themselves—but not surprisingly, neither of them ever felt like they related to the portrayals of abortion experiences depicted onscreen. They set out to change that, launching a seven-episode video anthology based on women’s real-life abortion stories. Although each story has been slightly fictionalized and reformatted, both women wanted to keep the stories as close to the truth as possible. They believe it is critical to represent real women’s experiences and the humor and ordinariness that occurs in each and every one.

With the help of an all-female crew, CTRL ALT DELETE was released episodically on Facebook in 2016 and quickly garnered over 100,000 views. Since then, the series has been featured in eight film festivals and won three awards, including Best Comedy at Chicago International REEL Shorts Film Festival.

Ms. sat down with Geva and Katch for an interview via Skype to discuss their groundbreaking and class-ceiling breaking project.

This was actually a book of dirty Russian phrases. Photo: @joshfingerhut

A post shared by ctrl alt delete (@ctrlaltdeleteshow) on

How did you get your start in film? Has feminism and women’s issues always been an integral part of your practice/life?

Katch: Both of our backgrounds are going to be very similar. We both have our degrees in acting. We did it professionally in Chicago, for a long time which is where we met originally. That’s really where we came from. I mean, feminism in general has always been a huge part of my life, but not necessarily the work I was doing, because I wasn’t creating my own work for a long time. It was important to me as a way of living and its always been important to me because equality is huge. When we started creating stuff together, which was about three years ago, we immediately knew that we needed to make projects about subjects that people don’t talk about—and we were specifically interested in issues surrounding women.

Geva: My background, like Margaret’s, is in acting. I have been a huge feminist since I was a little girl. My parents once got called into school because my teacher asked what’s the difference between men and women and I said: ‘Men drink coffee and women drink tea and that’s the only difference.’ When I was in college, I had the amazing opportunity to start a showing of The Vagina Monologues. And I was a freshmen. And so my friend and I went around to all our theater teachers if they would be in it, and they were like, sure. So there we were, me and another freshman, directing these 50-year-old women in The Vagina Monologues. It’s been a huge part of my life. So then when I graduated, my first gig was writing a sketch comedy show and starring in it. It did really well. It was called The Arab/Israeli Comedy Hour, because I have always wanted to use comedy to deal with combative issues. So that was my intro into making political art. But it never felt like political art, it always felt like a conversation that we need to have—and no one is going to talk about it unless we’re laughing about it.

And the rest of the history is I met Margaret and we lived happily ever after.

When did you first get the idea to make a web series about the normalcy of abortion? Once you had your idea, how quickly did it come to fruition? Were there any moments during production that were particularly emotional to film?

Katch: When we were starting to write a feature, we discovered that it was going to take a really long time and we wanted to work on something in the meantime. So Roni was like what do you want to make a project about? And I was immediately like: abortion!

Geva: And I immediately said: only if it’s a comedy!

Katch: And I immediately said of course! And I just had this vision about how I wanted it to be, which is amazing because that’s actually how it turned out. As soon as we started collaborating we knew we wanted to create work that dealt with subjects that made people uncomfortable—not in a combative way, but to normalize subjects that we think are important.

Geva: Basically it started by us going on Facebook and we said “we’re doing a project and if you want to share your abortion story we would love to hear it.”

Katch: We also reached out to several women who we knew had had an abortion, and, of course, ourselves too.

Geva: So from interviewing the women to actually writing the stories, that didn’t take very long. And we actually self-funded the first two episodes we shot.

Katch: Yeah, so we came up with the idea in March and we actually started filming in May.

Geva: And then we used those two episodes to cut together and produce a sizzle reel, and then we did crowdfunding through seed and spark and we raised about $15,000, which was amazing. So that fundraising was during June and then we shot the rest of the episodes for a week in September. All together it was pretty quick. And let me think, was there anything emotional on set?

Katch: Ya know, there was nothing fraught on set. I think the emotions that were there, were mostly joy. People were so excited to be a part of this project and so excited to be telling these stories. I don’t think anybody got sad or upset or uncomfortable.

Did you deliberately decide to base the series off of true abortion stories?  What aspects did you choose to fictionalize? The story? The characters?

Katch: We never thought about writing a fictionalized story. We always wanted to bring to light stories that were inspired by real women, because we wanted to show real women’s stories. How common it is. But more than that, the breadth of different women who have the same experience. Because it’s not just a teenager. The largest percentage of women who have abortions are actually married with children already. And that’s just not something that’s ever shown. We specifically wanted this to be based on true stories, so that we could show REAL experiences. Because if we fictionalized the whole thing, people could say “oh, you just made these stories up.”

Geva: And to add to that, we have created a half-hour version of this show, because we ultimately want to take this from a web series to a television series. And that half-hour would focus on the clinic and the people who work at the clinic. And every week, there would be people coming through the clinic getting an abortion. And in my ideal universe, I would love to continue harvesting more abortion stories from people who’ve had them. If one in three women has an abortion in this country, then my goodness, there’s a lot of stories to be told.

Katch: The fictionalizing came just to make sure each story was a story with a beginning, middle and end. To make sure there was a good arc. To make it a narrative. But almost everything was based on real people, real dialogue and real experiences.

Why do you think using comedy is important for the portrayal of this issue specifically?

Katch: Because comedy allows people to talk about subjects in a way that many other forms of expression don’t allow. Comedy brings things to light, in a way that is really relatable. I mean, that’s what got people okay with things like interracial marriage, because of I Love Lucy. Homosexuality with Will and Grace. Transgender people with Transparent. Because comedy itself is so brilliant at allowing the subject to come into your life in a way that is not an affront, that is not aggressive. When we laugh together, we can actually talk about things better.

Geva: I would also just add that one of my favorite things about comedy is the way it lowers peoples walls. There’s certain subjects that are brought up, and immediately the walls go up. But if you make a quick joke, it takes people off guard, because they’re not expecting you to make a joke about this heavy subject. And all of a sudden you can be like “hey, I just made a joke and here’s something poignant about it.”

Katch: However, it’s different than just making a joke. Because making a joke about something that people find to be a really difficult subject can actually alienate them further. So I think it’s less about making a joke about it, and more about finding humor in the situation or experience.

Geva: And a good example of that would be The Big C. It’s about cancer and it uses humor. That laughing through crying experience, which allows us to connect as human beings. It’s like, oh, you’re just a human, I’m just a human, let’s have a conversation. Which is what we’re trying to do.

CTRL ALT DELETE is coined as a series depicting the normalcy of abortion. What constitutes normal to you? How have other depictions of abortion failed in this task?

Katch: So most—and there are still not very many—but most depictions about abortion are centered around a teenager who is very fraught about the decision that she is making.

Geva: Recently, I would say in the last two years, television has resisted that narrative by showing abortion in a different way. I think the depiction in Glow is really good. The depiction in My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which was about a woman deep in her career, not some young person freaking out. In Scandal. It’s starting to come into a more “we’re going to talk about it” era.

Katch: But I would love to see a time where there is no need for an abortion episode—because abortion is just a normal thing. Like shows don’t say “the episode where they have sex,” because there are so many times where that happens. That’s normal to us. I would love for abortion to be something that just happens, because it is actually something that happens. And I think something that TV still hasn’t shown is a mother with kids having an abortion.

Were there any issues related to abortion, besides depicting a more normal experience, that you specifically set out to address in this series?

Geva: I wouldn’t say with this series. This series is very much about the woman who gets the abortion and her experience. When we wrote our pilot for the half hour show—it’s been written, not filmed—we wanted to make it about the relationships of people who work at the clinic. That addresses other issues—like how do you keep an abortion clinic open,where do they get the funding, are the people who work there under duress or not and how does that address their personal relationships. So that’s all in the longer half hour version.

How did you choose the title CTRL ALT DELETE?

Geva: I am cheeky and, ya know, Ctrl/Alt/Delete on a computer erases the whole thing so…

Katch: And when I heard that I gasped and was like “Yes! That’s it.”

Has the feedback been generally positive? Is there a specific story, or aspect of the series that resides with viewers more so than others? Have you found that the series speaks to any specific demographic? 

Katch: Yes. So, women between the ages of 25 and 40 are the ones who tend to be the most interested. The feedback has generally been very positive. I’m actually surprised by how little negative feedback we’ve gotten. We’ve had some, mostly from men. There have been a couple of women who commented about why they disagree with abortion. But no woman has been like “die, you’re going to hell”—those are all made by men. Women are more willing to have a conversation about it. I thought there would be an onslaught of negativity like that, but there’s been an onslaught of positivity.

Geva: People will also come up to us at festivals, more women than men, and say “I didn’t know I needed this in my life.” Which is really touching to me. The stories seem to be really relatable and digestible to a lot of people.

You chose to have an all female crew, the reason being that “women are not given the first shot behind the camera.” How did having an all female crew influence the making and the outcome of the series?

Katch: I love collaborating with women, because there seems to be no ego. There’s very much a collaboration. I’m not saying that all men are ego-built, but I think in general, women tend to be more collaborative. So not only do we get things done more quickly, but Roni and I are always open to hearing more ideas, if they’re better than our ideas, and so that just made for a very warm, inviting environment that just expedited the process.

Geva: Each of them came up to us at a separate point and said “I have never worked on a crew like this, this is awesome. Whatever you do in the future, please invite me, even if it’s low money, I’m here, I’m with you forever.” Which was just incredible. I’ve been on many sets, and to each its own, but I love working with all women. They’re so efficient! They’re so efficient, holy cow.

Katch: We got done early, because they were so efficient!

Geva: I would also add that women do two things intrinsically: We are basket weavers, which, Margaret spoke to that, it was such a sweet collaboration. And by sweet, I mean cool. But also, women take care of each other. So everyone took care of everyone else on set. I don’t think there was ever a moment where someone felt unsafe or scared to voice their opinion. And, again, no ego—if we didn’t know something we could just turn to a crew member who did and just say go, do your thing. And they could, because it was that kind of space.

CTRL ALT DELETE is receiving a lot of commendation. Congratulations! When you first posted the series, did you think it would garner such a massive response?

Katch: We had no idea what kind of response we would garner. We had no expectations around that. But so far, we’ve gotten into nine festivals and gotten three awards, and we were delighted about it. We had no idea what kind of views or acclaim we would get online, we just had no idea what to expect, but we had hopes. We wanted everyone to see it, because we wanted everyone to see these experiences.

Geva: I would say, again, we didn’t expect anything, we had high hopes and zero expectations. Which is how we try to live our lives in general, so we’re delighted when things go our way. We hoped for it to start going viral, and it is—kind of. We’re getting there. But the biggest thing is that we wanted as many eyeballs on it as possible to educate people about this issue.

People don’t know anyone who has had an abortion—well of course they know someone, but they don’t know that they know someone who has ever had an abortion. And that’s the thing. They’ll never know why we’re fighting so hard to make sure it’s legal and safe and affordable. They’ll never know that unless they see it. And I know this is a big hope to aspire to have, but I would love for everyone to say “I know someone who’s had an abortion, or I know someone who runs a clinic, because I watched CTRL ALT DELETE.”

Katch: And then, once it’s normalized in society, the politics will fall out.

What’s next for you and for CTRL ALT DELETE? Will there be another season or will you be embarking on a new project? If so, will it be separately or individually?

Katch: Both. All of the above. We would love to make a season that is based on the web series. What we would love more than anything would be to take the half-hour pilot we’ve already written and find a producer that’s brave enough to put it on TV. We also are planning on releasing an unscripted travel show, which is basically the two of us going around to a bunch of places in Los Angeles, which is totally unrelated. We also wrote another pilot and we also wrote a feature based on another subject. So a lot of stuff in the works!

Geva: We pretty much schedule our lives around our work schedule.

What is your message to any woman who wants to get an abortion?

Katch: Make sure you do not call a hotline that is actually an anti-choice hotline. I made that mistake and just found a random hotline online and they were like “are you avoiding the child?” Which was horrible. So yeah, my advice would be reach out to someone, make sure you have an ally that is legitimate and pro-choice. Also don’t delay—just do it!

Geva: If you can afford the good drugs, do that. Woman are amazingly strong and able to withstand extraordinary pain, but still—if you can afford the good drugs, do it.

Katch: And also, VOTE!

You can watch CTRL ALT DELETE here.

Tiernan Hebron is a Los Angeles-based activist and writer and an Editorial Intern at Ms. Her work has appeared in LA Magazine, ATTN, Feministing, Galore, Tribe de Mama, LadyClever, Elite Daily and Adolescent. Tiernan is a sexual and reproductive rights peer educator for Amnesty International and manages digital communications for DIGDEEP and the Los Angeles Black Worker Center. You can find her being very opinionated on Instagram.

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