By Dave Andrusko
I found “Beyond the Coat Hanger: What’s Next for Abortion Rights Iconography?” instructive on a number of levels. The story, written by Cynthia R. Greenlee, appeared yesterday on the pro-abortion site rhrealitycheck.org.
Let me check off some of the issues Greenlee addresses.
#1. First and foremost is a deep ambivalence about the coat hanger as a image. Greenlee knows what she is supposed to feel, but as a post-Roe adult woman, ”Instead, though, I only felt unmoved and then unnerved.”
In a sense, the remainder of her article is an elaboration on the next sentence:
For me, and many others born after Roe, the fixation on coat hangers as the prevailing iconography of the reproductive rights movement excludes the possibility of alternatives that are more relevant to current struggles.
And fixation is not too strong a word.
Greenlee quotes many others, whose perspectives might be summarized as “that is so 1970s.” They understand, unlike the older generations of pro-abortion leaders, that time has not stood still. (Greenlee is honest enough to admit that the insistence that all illegal abortions were unsafe is wrong. “[M]any were performed by trained clinicians working outside the law.”)
#2. Speaking of the coat hanger imagery, Greenlee opines, “Even if we stop short of agreeing with the old adage that ‘seeing is believing,’ they [images] can still influence, inflame, and reinforce beliefs—and we should be taking advantage of that. Some activists have begun to pinpoint the problems with the movement’s existing iconography and to propose and create alternatives.”
In English that means…what? That the coat hanger is more about nostalgia than inflaming an audience. Who “seeing” a photo or graphic representation of a coat hanger is going to wind up “believing” that the “right” to abortion is imperiled? It simply is unpersuasive—and patently misleading.
Click here to read the February issue of
National Right to Life News,
the “pro-life newspaper of record.”
#3. But the rub is what takes the place of the iconic coat hanger. You risk coming off as piling on just to mention what is listed in Greenlee’s article: “paper birds—whose flight, [Boston-based artist Megan Smith] says, can symbolize transcending the abortion debate” Smith saw those as an improvement over “the limited repertoire already in use: the astrological female symbol, a silhouette of the uterus (not exactly familiar without a more-than-basic knowledge of anatomy), or the raised fist popularized by Black nationalists.” How about “creative use of fonts or typography rather than us[ing] pictures”?
#4. Wisconsin-based graphic designer Heather Ault “noticed that one political group in particular has consistently cogent messaging about reproductive issues: the anti-choice movement” [that would be us]:
“In 2008, I went to the pro-life march in Washington, D.C. I marched with them, went to workshops. I felt like their signs were good. Their t-shirts were really good; there were so many different pro-life t-shirts you could buy. Almost any design, any personality. I was really impressed. I don’t agree with them, but they knew what they were doing. It was really inspiring from a design side,” she said.
In her view, abortion opponents were and are ahead of the game, designing apparel and billboards that put their messages on American streets.
#5. But if—as is true—so much pro-abortion propaganda (obviously my characterization) treats women as passive victims and ignores children (and men), then why not use images of resilient women and happy children and men? This fits in with the ideas of graphic designer Andrea Goetschius who suggests they may be focusing too much on the brain and not enough on the emotions.
“Do we fall into the trap of trying to intellectualize this and not going for the emotional appeal? If we’re going for the equivalent of the cute baby”—the anti-abortion mascot—”why don’t we show happy and fulfilled women and men?” she asked.
One other item…
#6. By the time Greenlee has finished, it’s pretty clear the designer set is having a tough time coming up with anything to replace the coat hanger, let alone match pro-life efforts. So it was not surprising that in her penultimate paragraph she writes
To this end, the reproductive rights movement can take a page from the corporate and design worlds. Any new consumer product comes with a branding package that’s not just about the text. It’s also about the look: how evocative it is and how it aligns with the message.
Ah, yes, abortion as consumer product. They just need “the right look” to establish their “brand.”
In the final analysis the problem is that only in the minds of militant pro-abortionists is abortion a good, a positive thing. Greenlee says it may take a while ”for the reproductive rights movement to invest money and time in finding new symbols” because
as scholar Rosalind Petchesky wrote in a seminal 1987 article about the fetal image and visual culture, even feminists and pro-choice advocates find it hard to imagine positive images of abortion; we, she argued, “have all too readily ceded the visual terrain.”
That’s because it’s difficult to make separating little arms from tiny torsos visually appealing.