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MTV and the “Glamorization” of Teen Pregnancy.

February 24, 2010

MTV’s Sixteen and Pregnant and it’s spin-off, Teen Mom, just might be the network’s idea of best form of birth control ever. Both of these shows follow young women through their pregnancies and the early stages of child-rearing (or, in one case, the process of giving a child up for adoption). It’s a spectacle of the worst of the worst: the deadbeat dads, the freedom you lose, the difficulty in attending school, the financial hardship… Being a teen mom is hard, of course. Both shows to a good job in de-glamorizing teen pregnancy, but I have to wonder, was teen pregnancy ever glamorized in the first place, at least in the past few decades? Behind the intended message of these shows is not so much the de-glamorization of teen pregnancy, of course, but rather the shaming of teenage sex and a crafty narrative wherein abortion does not exist and nobody uses contraceptives (if they work at all!).

It’s interesting to note that, from the start of the first season of Sixteen and Pregnant last spring, many a critic was worried that the should would contribute to the supposed “glamorization” of teen pregnancy.  In popular culture, it goes without saying that pregnant teenagers are portrayed as burdens on society. It’s hard to imagine that any portrayal of a pregnant teenager that doesn’t reduce her to a stereotype and shame her for being sexually active and irresponsible. In that way, then, Sixteen and Pregnant and Teen Mom do offer the viewer a more nuanced portrayal of what it’s really like to be a teen mom. Both shows portray young women struggling with the hardships that come along with teen motherhood to varying degrees of success. I’ll give them that. But what the reality of the content of the show (and what its viewers garner from it) and what the critics assume the (young, female) viewer of the show are markedly different.

The idea that shows like Sixteen and Pregnant, public figures like Bristol Palin and Jamie-Lynn Spears, and films like Juno “glamorize” teen pregnancy seems to stem, at least in part,  from the idea that adults assume teenaged girls are dumb. Subtle forms of sexism and ageism allow for a rhetoric that it would be rational for a teenaged girl to assume that teen pregnancy is glamorous. In reality,  teenaged girls are a lot smarter than adults might think. It goes back to the idea that the masses are ignorant, that they are easily duped into believing what the public sphere wants them to believe. In that framework, then, it’s easy for adults to see why young women would be duped into believing that these popular representations of teen pregnancy are glamorous. Most teenaged girls do not want to get pregnant-  98% of sexually active teenaged girls have used at least one form of birth control.

On Sixteen and Pregnant and Teen Mom, many of the young women admit to not having used protection. Many also admit that their protection didn’t work. Of course birth control does not always work. Of course, I’m even willing to admit, the best way to prevent unintended pregnancies is not have sex in the first place. And, of course, no matter what, teenagers are still going to have sex. The show tries to emphasize the use of protection, I’ll give it that. But, with a few of the young women on the show saying they used protection and still got pregnant, you (are supposed to) get the impression that protection isn’t reliable. I know it freaked me out, at the very least.

With all it’s faults, I have to admit in the interest of full disclosure that I love both of these shows. They are, in fact, one of a handful of shows I actively seek out to watch on TV. I love to fall under the spell of the spectacle. When I watch this show, it’s hard not to be grateful that I’ve never been pregnant. It’s always been instilled in me to not get pregnant until I’m ready.  The difference between the young women on the show and me, however, is that I know if I were to have an unintended pregnancy, I would get an abortion. On both Sixteen and Pregnant and Teen Mom, however, abortion is rarely, if ever, discussed. If it is discussed, it is to say that abortion wasn’t even an option.

Now, of course, the young women on the show are on it because they decided to carry their pregnancies to full term. The point, however, by not giving abortion any lip service, is to silence the reality that 27% of teen pregnancies end in abortion (and, considering that 18% of teen pregnancies are intended, it stands to reason that the number of abortions among unintended teen pregnancies must rise).

I can’t help but wonder if MTV will ever address the issue of abortion in either of these shows. It’s something I always wonder when I’m watching the show, but I can’t help but assume that they really couldn’t. I can’t even imagine the backlash that would ensue if they did. What’s more, I can’t imagine that they would because of the potential danger a young woman might face if she were featured receiving an abortion on national television. And, I can’t imagine it’d make for very compelling television. After all, it’s overwhelmingly likely that the woman would simply feel relieved that she made the decision to abort her fetus. However,  It’s frustrating that it seems impossible for the reality of more 1/3 of pregnant teenagers is ignored.

In an  article on Broadsheet on the subject of abortion on Sixteen and Pregnant Amy Benfer interviews Morgan J. Freedman, the show’s executive producer. He says, in response to if the show would ever do a segment on abortion,

“It’s a constant discussion but we’re looking at how we could cover a story like that in a safe, responsible way.”

If Sixteen and Pregnant ever does a segment on abortion, though, I’ll be in line to defend it against the idea that it’s “glamorizing abortion”. I bet I won’t have to bother, though.

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