America’s Next Top Misinformed Teenager

Sarah Seltzer

Two new television shows warn against teen pregnancy, but don't explain how teens can prevent it.

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.

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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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