The Complicated World of “16 and Pregnant”

Sarah Seltzer

"16 and Pregnant" rests on the same philosophy behind the anti-choice movement, and no number of glib announcements about safe sex and prevention can overwrite that underlying message.

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?

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I live-blogged the very first episode of “16 and Pregnant” for Rewire 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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