America’s Next Top Misinformed Teenager

Sultry summer night? Time for really, really bad TV.
During the summer lineup, the characters get more wooden, the contestants more
outlandish, the judges more rude.

And for those viewers with a craving for locker room
confrontations and math class drama, there are no popular teen programs on the
air, leaving an eager audience for ABC Family’s new show, "The
Secret Life of the American Teenager

But "Teenager" is not just another teen
dramedy: it’s a poorly-scripted warning about the perils of unplanned
pregnancy. The show centers around the lithesome and wide-eyed Amy who, after
her first, brief, not-clearly consensual sexual encounter, manages to get
pregnant. But our heroine lacks the maturity to divulge her condition to her
parents, the baby’s father, or her sweet new boyfriend.

Lest we think one pregnant-teen-scare show is enough, NBC
has its own "reality" show that sends the same message. "The Baby Borrowers" gives a
group of teen couples the chance to care for real children, to demonstrate to
them and the word that they aren’t prepared for parenthood.

It’s no coincidence that both shows are, according to their
websites, affiliated with The
National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy
, a group that
espouses a "can’t we all agree that teens being pregnant stinks, regardless of our position on abortion?" mission.

In keeping with this ethos, neither show appears to want to
get into the mechanics of preventing
pregnancy, or to explain exactly kind of behavior is risky, preferring
instead to frighten us with the consequences.

Condoms, abortion, the pill and emergency contraception are given either
perfunctory or zero mention on each show, proving that the producers don’t
respect the teenagers in the audience enough to level with them about the
spectrum of choices they’ll face in actuality.

I wouldn’t mind television that veered into didacticism if
it preached the truth. But instead of truthful, "The Secret Life of An American
Teenager" is full of one-liners that overemphasize kids’ sex obsession. My
guess is that this verbal voyeurism is meant to scare parents, particularly
since it’s a group of very young-looking actors constantly uttering the word "sex" (amusing, since most teens we know would be using more colorful euphemisms than
ABC Family allows).

The producers’ point no doubt is that sex is on kids’ brains
even if they seem to be too young,
and you’d better have "the talk" with them before it’s far too late. Good point. But what exactly to say during such talks? Parents who
struggle communicating about sex with their kids will not get much guidance
from a show that has trouble mentioning the words "birth control."

Borrowers," meanwhile, quips that it’s "not television; it’s birth control." Aside from being unscientific, it’s silly. But this reality show fares better than its dramatic
counterpart, if only because the show is so narrow and unabashedly

The show’s formula is this: teen couples are handed a baby
or toddler or preteen to care for while the borrowed kids’ parents watch on
closed-circuit TV. The child cries and misbehaves. Some teens gamely rise to
the challenge, which all but guarantees that they’ll have a major meltdown on
the next episode. At the end, they agree that they have a lot of growing up to
do before they can start families.

As one mother says, watching her son pee on the couples’
couch, "this is what sends them running to the condom aisle."

The show is cute, if repetitive, and tries gamely to avoid
gender and racial assumptions, putting all its teens on equal footing. But it’s
interesting that NBC focused on stable couples who eagerly want to start
families together. Perhaps the message is, if they can’t do it, other teens sure can’t.

Our concern when it comes to teen pregnancy isn’t
just about couples like these, who have entered serious relationships (and most of
whom are, we assume, already having
regular, safer sex) but also for teens like "American Teenager’s" fictional Amy
— whose parents and teachers have failed to in any way explain the importance of
sexual agency and responsibility.

It’s the abstinence-only mentality: focus on teens’
immaturity and the consequences of unsafe sex, without anything in
between. The in-between is the
kind of controversial territory the networks hope to avoid. MTV may be advocating safe sex, but MTV is already a target of the right

And yet, if MTV does it, why should it be that hard for ABC
Family? It’s disappointing that "American Teenager," in particular, uses teen
sexuality to titillate and suck in viewers while trying so hard to paint its
characters — "sluts," Christians, jocks and studs alike — as a bunch of naive
slaves to their hormones.

As I penned this column at a coffee shop, three
fifteen-year-old girls sat down next to me. One recounted the entire plot of
"American Teenager" to the others, who listened raptly.

I desperately wish that those girls had the option of a teen
show which took an honest approach to teen sexuality — perhaps without being as
darkly realistic as the brilliant and cancelled "My
So Called Life
" or the brilliant and struggling "Friday Night Lights."

But such a show is hard to imagine, not because it’s
impossible, but because of our current climate. Even though teenagers enjoy
watching television about themselves regardless of its quality, the studios
remain too weak to do much but re-tread the same
half-truths and dire warnings
their viewers might find in an
abstinence-only classroom.

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  • harry834

    In trying to please everybody, we short-sell the only people whose needs mattered: the teens. Perhaps its true that adults and parents really don’t have, as a matter of general fact, a real interest in their kids welfare.

    That we have to presume that educators and parents generally have their kids "best interests at heart" is hard to take seriously when they addict themselves to certain ways of thinking to satisfy their own comfort level. Some parents care, others don’t. We know this, but we should realize that caring does not correlate with social status. Highly-paid doctors, lawyers, etc are just as likely to be ignorant, prejudiced parents as the "poor folk". Diplomas do not guarentee against prejudice or ignorance. 

    My definition of ignorance is not really so much about lack of knowledge. Everyone lacks knowledge. Ignorance is about lacking knowledge plus believing with unmovable certainty that your understanding is right, no matter how many well-informed arguments come your way. You are more ignorant if you feel greatly angered by anyone presenting you arguments:

    "How dare you try to tell me how to raise my kid!"

    That is the crux of the social conservative views on issues like gay-straight alliances, doctor-teen confidentiality, and having class curriculums controlled by the school instead of the parents who don’t believe in evolution.

    I want to believe that we can believe what we like with minimal consequence. I enjoy and love the idea of cognitive and emotional liberty – the right to believe and feel what we like even if it is "irrational". That’s one reason I’m a little reluctant to press for boycotting entertainment media. But all the things I’ve seen and said have shown that thinking the wrong thoughts CAN be very consequential. 

    I generally draw my line between a person who makes decisions for only themselves (in which case do what you feel) vs making decisions for others (in which case, know and recognize your uncomfortable facts). I realize that even "self-only" decisions can affect others, and that should be recognized by the self. But I feel we ALL want the right to be left alone, and unfortuanately this includes people who make decisions for others: parents, presidents, priests. We MUST take this self-decision/other-people-decision dicotomy into account at least for general, not-too-complex issues, because this framework is what keeps ourselves free to make decisions for ourselves, but accountable to standards when making decisions for others – which we will all do at some time in our lives.  

  • harry834

    While my studies have driven me to appreciate that the media might not be affecting us as much as is claimed, it would be foolish for us to turn a blind eye to the massive influence of the media.

    So while keeping an eye as to how we are innately programmed, as well as environmentally programmed, lets keep the conversation going and analyze each research study put forth.

    All the while implementing some action in the here and now, because we cannot wait for all facts before taking any action.

    To Sara Seltzer (my favorite soda), carry on the good dialogue.

  • invalid-0

    Although itt’s certainly true that the media plays a huge role in shaping the way that young people think, the single central determiner when it comes to adolescent childbearing is economic inequality. Address this and the motivation to short cut the slower routes to adulthood afforded to more affluent young people is reduced.

    It would also good for the hysterical anti teenage pregnancy (childbearing) mob to remember that reproductive choice includes the option to bear children without being stigmatised for that choice.

    As I’m in the UK (and hardly ever switch my telly on!) I can’t comment of the content of The Baby Borrowers, but as a mother of two, one born when I was a teenager, one in my late twenties, I’d happily make the assertion that you could ‘lend’ a baby or toddler to any childless person/persons of any age and most of them would struggle. Hell, even people who already have kids of their own would struggle!

    It’s no test of anything.