TV’s massive hit about teen sexcapades, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” premiered last week with a new potential abortion plotline hanging in the balance, and a huge audience to watch it unfold (contrary to my predictions when it first appeared). While the show’s message about sex is didactic and confused, this seems to be what American audiences want. It is a perfect reflection of our collective cultural hang-ups.
While the media wrings its hands over wealthy Manhattan gossip girls manipulating each other and having threesomes on the small screen, more real, live American kids are actually tuning in to “Secret Life.” The show began two summers ago: young, virginal Amy got pregnant after a one-night stand with bad boy Ricky. After hemming and hawing, she carried the pregnancy to term, while “Secret Life,” created by “7th Heaven”‘s Brenda Hampton, has carried on with the romantic and family lives of Amy and her friends. It airs on ABC Family, the network that still gives Pat Robertson an early-morning soap box. And later this season, “Secret Life” will feature a guest appearance by none other than America’s favorite teen mom-slash-abstinence spokesperson, Bristol Palin.
So it’s not exactly feminist sex-ed. But it does deal with real issues. This season’s major cliffhanger involves Adrian, who began as the “slut” of the group, but is revealed to have a softer heart (shocking!) in tear-stained moments of her own. Adrian ended last season with a pregnancy scare, after a one-time hookup with “nice guy” Ben. The two decided to get some nookie to enact revenge on their respective exes. Adrian loves baby-daddy Ricky you see, while Ben loves baby-mama Amy.
Questions about whether revenge pacts actually motivate teens to have unprotected sex aside, Adrian has been adamant that should she truly be pregnant, she will terminate. During the season premiere, which aired last week, she declared she wasn’t pregnant after all, but by episode two it’s become clear she’s lying. She is still pregnant, and she wants an abortion, and she’s concealed it to protect Ben, who is uncomfortable with abortion and horrified by the thought of an unintended pregnancy. It’s her own business, she says, and it’s tearing him up. What Ben doesn’t know can’t hurt him.
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But “Secret Life” is a primetime melodrama, so of course, by the end of episode two, Ben does know. Now the question of whether Adrian will get an abortion is going to drive each episode, my guess is, for an extended arc. Will Adrian stubbornly go through with it, or will noble Ben swoop in to be the series’ second devoted teenage dad? Tune in to find out.
What’s a feminist cultural critic to do with this series, which despite its somewhat conservative bent, is one of the few shows on television to really dig in to the politics and, err, mechanics of teen sexuality? It can’t be ignored, as it attracts viewers in droves. Plus, its characters mention words like “sex” “the pill” and “abortion” frequently without euphemisms, which seems refreshing, although it’s not quite how real teens talk. The show’s writers do their best to humanize each teen and show all perspectives. One of the characters lectures religious Grace about Adrian’s potential abortion: “It’s between her and God. It’s not for us to judge.” Meanwhile sensitive Ben describes his own horror at Adrian’s unplanned pregnancy: “If she was scared, I deserved to be scared too.” I think we’re supposed to say aww.
Sadly, despite such noble intentions, “Secret Life” falls into a number of common traps, and the fact that it’s poorly-penned, woodenly-acted (I know every critic has used the word “wooden” to describe this show, but it’s unavoidable) and features some of the most immature adult characters on television doesn’t help alleviate those cringe-inducing cliches.
First of all, the show treats the new baby as a prop. Yes, Amy’s baby (John) is frequently mentioned and toted around, but he exists more as an occasional obstacle or bargaining chip than anything else, while Amy, who was briefly cranky and tired, now looks cover-shoot ready and fresh as a daisy. It makes one long for the struggles of the desperate teen moms on “16 and Pregnant.”
Secondly, while the characters are varied in their attitudes towards sex, they fall into real stereotypes. Amy is the good girl who gets knocked up her first time, Adrian is the dishonest promiscuous girl who really just wants to be loved and monogamous, and Ricky is the womanizer with a troubled past. Ben, meanwhile is the “nice” guy who’s hung up on chivalry and honor. There’s even a horny preacher’s son, and a brainy East Asian girl who drops statistics about teen pregnancy to help wisen up her naive friends.
Most dangerous, though, of all the show’s unoriginal aspects is its essential hypocrisy: it tries to educate its viewers about the dangers of teen sex while simultaneously coupling off all of its characters at one point or another until almost none are virgins, half have had pregnancy scares, and the frequency of confrontations in front of lockers involving the phrase “had sex” has increased until unbearable. It’s 90210 with worse acting and a slapped-on message. Thus, one assumes, its wild popularity.
With this series, we’re supposed to be titillated and taught, intrigued and inspired, by a mixture of puritanical messaging and “secret life” suggestiveness. This bewildering mix holds a mirror up to America, where condoms are sold at every drugstore but you’re meant to be embarrassed to buy them. It’s tragic that this show has lured in the audience that many a brilliant TV drama never could. But it’s not surprising. Most TV viewers simply prefer thinking about young people having sex with a mitigating dose of tacked-on moral pondering (sex: should they or shouldn’t they? hmm). They like their socio-political questions in the form of hackneyed soundbites (unplanned pregnancy: is it her choice or his responsibility? hmm).
And so the main question that hangs over this show is not whether Adrian will eventually have an abortion (I’m betting 10-to-1 on a miscarriage or adoption scenario) but whether America will ever wake up when it comes to teens and sex. Something tells me we’re going to have to wade through a lot of drama to find out.