“The Secret Life:” Abortion, Guilt, and Bad Dialogue

Sarah Seltzer

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.

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.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

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.


News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.