The Complicated World of “16 and Pregnant”


This week, the second season MTV’s runaway hit “16 and Pregnant” came to a typically dramatic end, with a young mother who had to be taken in by her boyfriend’s family — after her own mom lost interest in parenting her. A night after the final episode aired, we were treated to a special reunion show hosted by TV’s favorite therapist, Dr. Drew Pinsky. Millions of viewers watched as young mother after young mother broke down, saying things like “I don’t feel like a teenager anymore” and lamenting absent dads, moms, boyfriends, and a life of balancing child-rearing with making school and finances work that was harder than anything they imagined. They urged viewers not to believe that getting pregnant would convince an errant lover to stay around while Dr. Drew reminded us of the social costs of teen parenthood, statistically speaking. On the whole, the message couldn’t be clearer: don’t do it.

And yet, as the show ended, their newborns were paraded out by moms and partners, and the participants waved these infants’ hands at the cameras while the credits rolled, returning the babies to the spotlight. So what is going on here? “It’s addictive, so it must be exploitative,” a friend of mine who watches “16 and Pregnant” — and “Teen Mom,” its spinoff — joked. 

Entertainment or Education?

Combining the kind of shouting, eye rolling and misty-eyed reconciliations typical of Reality TV “wrapup shows” with a ton of pop-psychology about “changing the cycle” and poignant reflections, the Dr. Drew special exemplified the identity conflict at the heart of the show. Yes, there’s a PSA or two about abstinence and contraception with every episode, but there are also ads for “The Hills” and “Jersey Shore.” So what are we watching? A genuine attempt to educate the public, or a chance to offer up contestants for our consumption, dangling before them the carrot of fame?

I live-blogged the very first episode of “16 and Pregnant” for RHRC two years ago. Each week since, the series has focused on a different teen mother-to-be before, during and after the birth of her newborn. The show effectively demonstrates the brutal reality faced by these youngsters, with their money troubles, family troubles, health problems, relationship problems and the biggest problem of all: a lack of time to get it all done. “16 and Pregnant” has gotten props from advocacy groups for showcasing a serious side to the hip network’s reality fare. It’s meant to be a cautionary tale, say the folks at one of my favorite punching bags, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, whose philosophy for programming is that seeing teen parents struggle on TV equals automatic birth control.

The widely popular series gets weekly attention from entertainment blogs which have nothing to do with social issues, and has also spawned lively debate in the feminist community. Most of the this centers around the following questions:

  • Can a TV show actually prevent pregnancy?
  • Does it take advantage of its particularly young stars’ vulnerable position in life?
  • Does it actually glorify its young stars’ difficult condition by giving them instant celebrity and stardom?
  • Why does a show obsessed with the terrors of teen parenthood never depict the reality of abortion, given that many teenage pregnancies actually end at the clinic ?

All of these questions are hard to answer — just scan the comments thread at any of the above posts and you will see a thousand differing responses from feminist-minded viewers. But after catching up on the show with a marathon session (which quite frankly left me empty inside) I pondered the show’s effect on non-feminist-minded viewers. I wondered whether the educational message the show purports to embrace actually reinforced misogynist stereotypes for most of its audience, giving them the satisfaction of watching young, sexually active, often financially or culturally disadvantaged young women suffer, and suffer some more. That is the nature of reality TV, after all. Does the tradition of mocking and judging the “characters” on this genre of program go so deep that viewers will simply pat themselves on the back for not being like these women, then turn off the TV?

Reinforcing Norms

MTV reality shows are particularly notorious for a kind of distancing, ironic relationship between viewer and stars. “16 and Pregnant,” still features dysfunctional families, melodramatic relationships, fights, breakdowns and voice-overs which create riveting entertainment. The “reality” of the shows is manipulated to create a cast of victims, heroes, villains and a slew of confrontations and drama.

A reinforcement of racial, gender and class norms is hugely important to the reality show aesthetic as well. While there is some diversity in the backgrounds of the teen parents on “16 and Pregnant,” many of them clearly come from situations where they struggle to make ends meet (after all, if a teen mom could hire a nanny, it wouldn’t provide the drama the show needs to keep running). The onus is always on the teen fathers to “support” the family as well. Yes, some of the young moms are put-together and have loving, accepting families, but then they have some other setback. There’s a voyeuristic “see how the other half lives” aspect to the show which feels like the inversion of MTV’s other show with “16” in the title, “My Super Sweet Sixteen.” In the latter, viewers gawk at ultra-rich adolescents, often female, as they exercise their financial power to the point of absurdity. In this situation, we watch young women without privilege as life’s tribulations continually get them down. 

Message Gets Lost

In the midst of this twisted emotional dynamic between the viewers and the participants on such shows the educational message gets totally lost. These young women aren’t really there to teach us a lesson, but to entrance us with their stories. Condom usage was emphasized a bunch by Dr. Drew in the “reunion” show, but given recent studies that show how often unplanned pregnancies come from a failure to properly and effectively use contraceptives, it felt like far from enough. The fact is, we all know that scaring teens rarely deters them from common behaviors. As Amanda noted in a recent podcast, frightening kids about the horrors of teen pregnancy isn’t the only way to go:

…Instead of scare tactics, how about more positive ads? Maybe show women holding up their contraception method of choice and saying things like, “This pack of pills kept me from getting pregnant from age 16 to when I went off it at 30. Which means I got to finish school, get that dream job, and have a baby when I wanted with the love of my life.” Or, “If it wasn’t for these condoms, I don’t think I’d be traveling the world in my gig as a marine biologist.” Or whatever. Demystify the contraception, clarify that it works, and show the benefits of using it.

But a positive message wouldn’t bring people to the channel. After watching one young woman after another break down in public tears, usually due to the neglect of a father or a boyfriend or her own mistakes, I began to consider whether the show’s popularity comes from the way it allows us to watch people perform traditional gender roles, and it satisfies a problematic need to see sexually-active girls from underprivileged backgrounds punished and essentially broken. Judging from the comments online castigating the young mothers on the show, that may be the case. It’s the philosophy behind the anti-choice movement, and no number of glib announcements about safe sex and prevention can overwrite that underlying message.

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Follow Sarah Seltzer on twitter: @sarahmseltzer

  • cmarie

    It would be interesting to know the age and gender of the people who make up most of the audience.  In regard to the four questions:

     

    1. Yes, if an audience member directly identifies with a character to the point that she/he adjusts their level of sexual activity or (more likely) use of birth control to avoid pregnancy.

    2. Yes

    3. Yes

    4. First because its called “16 and pregnant” not “16 and used to be pregnant”.  I can’t imagine a program that follows a young woman for nine months after an abortion- the only question would be – “did you do the right thing”?  Once she’s answered that question the show’s pretty much over unless they plan to come back every week for the rest of the season and ask the same question again and again.  Unless her answer changes at some point its not going to keep much of an audience. 

  • sschoice

    cmarie, per Wikipedia MTV presents shows “aimed primarily at the 12 to 34 year old demographic” One might assume “16 and Pregnant” to have more women watching it than men at least in relation to other shows on MTV. While it’s possible that this show has viewers that are attracted by it’s content who are different from that demographic average or who don’t usually watch MTV (like the movie “Juno” was said to be popular among adults who might more likely be like the couple who adopted Juno’s baby than high school students similar in age to Juno herself) it’s likely the show is intended for teens of that age and their peers.
    .
    On point 4: To realistically, supportively depict a woman considering abortion, A TV show/movie/story needn’t focus primarily first-person on a woman choosing abortion real-time at the point where she chooses to have an abortion or has the procedure. It could take any number of perspectives, including perspectives of her peers, her boyfriend, her parents, medical professionals, or really potentially anyone who is possibly involved, supportive or not.
    .
    It could also NOT involve the woman in question eventually choosing abortion, but if it included peers who did choose it or who would have been supportive of her if she had, it could also be considered realistic and supportive of her right to choose whether or not to terminate, which of course gives her the option to go either way.
    .
    And the program needn’t follow the woman in question nine months after having an abortion to answer the question “did you do the right thing” because if the woman thinks she did the right thing the show wouldn’t second-guess her, but rather it might show how her choice of what she thinks is the right thing affected her life — or perhaps “how you did and how you are doing the right thing.”
    .
    The biggest problem a show like “16 and Pregnant” might face if it potentially depicted a minor who chose abortion is showing her going on to do well in school and on her SATs, or graduating and being admitted to a competitive college or university, or really any of the things which “16 and Pregnant” depicts as very difficult if not nearly impossible for a teen who chose to at least willingly risk getting pregnant, is that it would be hard to explain to advertisers, if not just anti-choice activists, who would say the show is promoting abortion, promiscuity, communism, street racing, or anything else besides buying stuff which is of course is the primary reason that MTV and it’s advertisers are in business.
    .
    And that’s why “16 and Pregnant” isn’t likely going to depict a young woman realistically considering abortion and having one, at least not as a realistically common proportion of situations depicted, because if it did it would be difficult to not show how many, if not most, teen women who choose abortion end up better off by many measures than those who don’t make (or can’t make) that choice.
    .
    We’d like to see a program on MTV argue that isn’t fair for the young women who want to be pregnant and have children which they retain custody of in relationships they think are supportive and committed. We’d like to see the kind of advocacy come down as MTV policy, and not just as a marginalized dissenting point of view, if and when it is EVER aired, that BOTH CHOICES should be equally available and supported for women regardless of age. But in practice that sort of reproductive justice just doesn’t happen either on or off MTV, and some states — especially states which are relatively conservative and for various reasons, like issues with economic growth and being less willing to facilitate relatively young and poor people to have children — many states are finding overwhelming support to deliberately make the choice of a minor either having an abortion or retaining custody and raising a child EXTREMELY difficult.
    .
    And that’s not “The Real World” that we expect to a documentary to address on MTV anytime soon, either on “16 and Pregnant” or any other program.

  • sschoice

    {intro/Buggles: Video Killed the Radio Star 0:00-0:27/crossfade/Dead KennedysMTV Get Off the Air 0:15-0:32/fade out}

    .

    Sarah asked, among other questions:

    .

    “Why does a show obsessed with the terrors of teen parenthood never depict the reality of abortion, given that many teenage pregnancies actually end at the clinic ?

    .

    Well, in part because it’s MTV’s pattern to not even depict (regularly) the reality of contraception.

    .

    Specifically on “16 and Pregnant”, the only medical/scientific voice has to our knowledge been Dr. Drew Pinsky who has been about as outspokenly pro-choice on minor’s access to abortion as his old “Loveline” radio sidekick, Adam Carolla — by which we mean he’s supportive of restrictions to minor’s access to abortion like parental consent or notification laws. We wish we had some quotes handy to back this statement up, but from statements at least back during the years when he was a host on Loveline it’s accurate to say Dr. Drew was supportive of parental consent and/or notification laws, and thought that judicial bypass processes for minors to get access without parental notification or consent are workable, etc.  If that’s still the case, it’s about as likely that Dr. Drew will host an episode of “16 and Pregnant” that depicts “the reality of abortion” for minors as Amanda Marcotte or Jessica Valenti are likely to appear as guests on a typical show hosted by Adam Carolla.

    .

    MTV has historically had some excellent programming on HIV/AIDS, some of which continues to be produced and broadcast today — they were pioneering in that respect back in the early 1990s both in factual programs and in situations that occurred in early reality TV shows like “The Real World” with Pedro Zamora — but HIV/AIDS was more on people’s minds as a crisis, MTV had a near-monopoly as an outlet for music videos, the web as we know it today didn’t exist, and MTV was threatened in some ways by censorship/rating/broadcast standards efforts and supporting civil liberties efforts and allied causes like HIV/AIDS awareness at that time more served their business interest.

    .

    There’s no “but then again” to lessen the good work that some people did through MTV. Over the years the best known (and well-respected) policy group that has worked with MTV is the Kaiser Family Foundation) which is almost as well-focused and pro-choice as the Guttmacher foundation in the studies they’ve done on reproductive health and young people’s attitudes and behavior.  Kaiser has done numerous cooperative efforts with MTV and consulted in their programs, but the work they’ve done on birth control and abortion, which again is free of anti-choice bias, hasn’t apparently influenced MTV programming much beyond those public service programs.

    .

    What sexual health information MTV does present on rare efforts like “It’s Your Sex Life” a few years ago and Staying Alive today is very good but it’s significance is lessened by the overwhelming amount of oversexualized, commercialized, and self-destructive behavior they air through music videos, reality shows, and other programs from the Jersey Shore to “Jackass“.

    .

    There’s many good examples of programs which – in decades past – addressed abortion and reproductive rights/sexuality issues with the voices of young people in far greater depth and from a pro-choice perspective than anything that MTV has ever broadcast, even produced by independent companies or nonprofits associated with MTV like the Kaiser Family Foundation.  But to learn about them it might be best to turn off the TV, shut down one’s computer, and listen to some archived radio tapes (or maybe dust off a VCR).

    .

    Teens around the age portrayed in “16 and Pregnant” were the majority of callers to radio programs addressing these issues (and not simply condemning abortion) to health related radio programs and the ’80s version of “Reality TV” — syndicated call-in talk shows focusing on self-help on psychological/interpersonal or medical issues, and often they covered sexual health-related issues more accurately and comprehensively than much of what has been broadcast since, especially compared to much of MTV’s programming.

    .

    The best known of those shows from the 80s and earlier was Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s radio show Sexually Speaking through most of the 1980s, using first names and making hometown references and station shout-outs (like “I’m listening to you on WXYZ, rock of Peoria!”) that usually identified them personally to their friends and anyone else in the community who knew them and was listening to the program. Teens were also frequently seen on the Phil Donahue’s TV show back in the same era through the early 1990s, which then was broadcast to a much wider audience by over-the-air TV.

    .

    Dr. Ruth and Donahue were the best-known programs addressing these issues back then, but there were others especially on radio that did likewise. The best known mental health-related and medical programs on radio at that time were hosted by Dr. Joy Browne, a clinical psychologist, and Dr. Dean Edell, a physician. Their respective programs were more widely syndicated than they are today (lessened in popularity by cable TV programming and the internet and not so much by politics) and their programs were carried back then on some commercial rock stations due to their popularity with young people.

    .

    So when we think about the origins of MTV and the effect it had on progressive programming on radio and TV which appealed to young people, we think of a lot of efforts that dissappeared with the rise of MTV, sort of like the Buggles sang in the first video aired on MTV, Video Killed the Radio Star.

    .

    Dr. Westheimer, Dr. Edell, Dr. Browne, and others got the mainstream of callers who listened in the late 1970s though 1980s to rock/alternative/AOR radio programming and much of AM talk radio at the time — even in conservative red state America — and they sometimes handled calls from young people about sexuality and medical or interpersonal issues related to contraception and abortion. They did so with a very nonjudgmental & supportive manner – pro-choice, in other words, though there wasn’t much a political issue made of it on their programs at the time.

    .

    If young women and young men can act out in dysfunctional and inappropriately sexualized ways as they do in so much of MTV programming, they can surely talk in a grown-up way about abortion, and probably better than most grown-ups can at least with respect to how it relates to young people. The fact that they don’t and really never have done so on MTV is more to do with how MTV has never put a priority on developing programming that addresses abortion or even birth control issues for young people as similar programs by any measure — by commercial success as well by listener feedback and professional recognition — successfully did at least on radio in decades past, or even today as some other media outlets, like say newsstand magazines like Glamour, do with similarly aged women.

    .

    So it’s maybe not really the case that as Sarah said in her last paragraph “…a positive message wouldn’t bring people to the channel”.  We are pretty sure it could be very popular and engaging, because:

    .

    1) a “positive message” once was the dominant theme of a number of very popular syndicated radio programs which commercial radio stations devoted hours of programming time a day to air, bringing young people to actively participate by going on the air as callers…

    .

    2) because those programs were deemed acceptable to broadcast over the air, often broadcast every day for one or two hours or more in the early- to mid-evening hours, including rock stations with a majority of listeners under 18 years old, including significant numbers of mid-teens — exactly the same demographic that MTV targets…

    .

    3) and because those radio programs are a well-documented part of broadcast history, and they had a profound impact on young people especially in conservative states and communities like ours.

    .

    MTV could do programming like that. It pretends to address those issues through programs that focus mostly on sexually transmitted diseases and now on “teen pregnancy” as dysfunction (if not a disease) but with little or no programming on access to contraception and abortion as an essential part of wellness and reproductive health for young people.

    .

    It’s more than just a business choice that MTV doesn’t do that for it’s viewers, and it’s not a “pro-choice” choice either.

    .

    {fade in/Nirvana: Radio Friendly Unit Shifter 4:25-4:51/outro}

    .

    —southern students for choice, athens

  • cmarie

    thank you for taking the time to answer all that… interesting points!

    I’m anti abortion (with obvious exceptions rape… etc) but I’ve learned a lot from this site.  I tend to hang out at blogs where I disagree with everyone else (yes there are sites out there where I’m the liberal/progressive!) but this is the only site where I’ve never had a comment hidden or deleted and believe me I’ve written some unpopular ones.  This willingness to publicize even critical comments is really remarkable and rare.

    Surprisingly one character on 16 and pregnant did place her baby for adoption but it doesn’t seem to me she is being treated well by the people who adopted the baby as far as contact etc.. is concerned.  Even with that story line, the arguments within the family got pretty ugly.  I’d also be surprised if they brought up abortion too.