Commentary Media

Where’s the ’16, Parenting, and OK’ Reality Show?

Gloria Malone

The media’s bad job of reporting on teenage pregnancy and parenting has real-life consequences and effects on teenage families, including depression and generational poverty. By removing these stereotypes, and changing to more positive story lines and outcomes, people in the media can make it easier on teens to create thriving families.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

While they might never admit it, I firmly believe the negative ways in which the media—television, film, print journalism—portrays teenage pregnancy and parenting influenced how the adults in my life treated me after I told them I was pregnant.

When I became pregnant at 15, the adults in my life believed my life was over. In addition to explicitly stating this to me, they began to treat me differently and even stopped helping me look into colleges because they believed I would not finish high school.

These stereotypes about teen parents also affected my self-image and already low self-esteem. Thankfully, over time I was able to overcome my self-doubt and my family members got over their issues and started supporting me. But not every teen has the same experience. The way the media represents teenage pregnancy and parenting has real-life consequences and effects on teen families, including depression and poverty because of lack of support from society. By moving away from these stereotypes, and featuring more positive story lines and outcomes, people in the media can make it easier on teens to create thriving families.

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From films to public service campaigns, the representation of teenage parents is often inaccurate, sexist, classist, and racially biased. In order to change this, we must first examine the ways in which people in the media are doing a bad job and then look at how they can do better.

The media often focuses on female teens and their “inability to say no and keep their ‘legs closed.'” Public service campaigns like the one from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy have featured the words “cheap,” “dirty,” and “used” across photos of young women to emphasis the narrative that pregnant and parenting teens are associated with these characteristics. Along the same lines, the New York City Human Resource Administration’s pregnancy prevention ads featured a young Black child asking her mother, “[C]hances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” “Are you ready to raise a child by yourself?” the ad asks, putting all of the blame and responsibility on the mom. These narratives absolve teen boys of any responsibility for the sexual activity that resulted in pregnancy.

“Inferring that a young mother is promiscuous, that a young father just won’t be there for his child, and that they will forever ‘live off the system’ is harmful,” explained Marylouise Kuti, a former teen mother and young parents’ advocate who is part of #NoTeenShame, a national advocacy campaign—of which I am a part—that helps to counter the negative narratives of teenage pregnancy and parenting in society.

When teen pregnancy and parenting is presented as a “female problem,” the financial obligations and responsibilities are placed solely on the woman. If the pregnant and/or parenting teen is a Black or Latina female, these stereotypical narratives are compounded with racialized biases: long-term poverty, single motherhood, and low education achievement. While white pregnant teens are often awarded celebrity status (i.e., they seem to more often become the “stars” of MTV’s teen parenting shows), pregnant Black and Latina teens frequently see themselves and representations of their families in hurtful public service announcements.

Furthermore, as youth advocate Natasha Vianna told Rewire, “One of the biggest problems with the way teen parents are portrayed in the media has to do with where the media chooses to start the story. Teen pregnancy and parenthood has almost always been framed as the beginning of the end of a young person’s life, so we don’t get to hear much about what their lives were like before pregnancy—especially if their lives were much harder than [they are] now.”

In choosing to begin the narrative at the time of pregnancy, and ending it at the time of the child’s birth, shows like 16 and Pregnant do not show viewers what the life of a teen who is pregnant actually is. We see the shame and stigma the teen experiences, the birth of the child, and in some cases adoption, before the show ends, as if that’s all there is to teen pregnancy and parenting. The lives of the parents beyond the pregnancy are ignored unless they are sensationalized for programs like MTV’s Teen Mom series. But even these shows are unrealistic, for several reasons, including the mostly all white cast of cisgender, heterosexual, and predominately middle-class young women. All of these women are also getting paid thousands of dollars to be profiled and have their lives edited for public consumption. From season to season the living conditions of the mothers improve because of the MTV salary the women are receiving. The shows also seem to highlight the most stereotypical, hurtful teenage family stereotypes: the problematic “baby daddy” drama, the “party girl,” and the irresponsible and disrespectful teenage mom.

Then there’s the fact that the media often overrepresents adoption, especially when it comes to teenage mothers. “The adoption story line is often used as a way to fix the ‘problem,’” sociologist Gretchen Sisson, whose work focuses on teenage pregnancy, parenting, and adoption, told Rewire. “Teen parenthood and abortion are both very stigmatized. So adoption is kind of the way out and a way for the character to redeem themselves. Before abortion was legal, adoption was a way for white women to ‘undue’ the sins of sexuality outside of marriage. Adoption is used as a solution for teen pregnancy and abortion, when really it is neither of these things.”

In her research (which is not yet available online), Sisson found that less than 1 percent of women in the United States place children up for adoption. However, films and shows like Glee, Juno, 16 and Pregnant, and Saved all had story lines that resulted in a pregnant teen giving their child up for adoption.

Marriage is also often viewed and used as a way to “make things right.” In Riding in Cars With Boys, the protagonist, Beverly, states that she does not want to marry the father of her child, but after an emotional scene with her parents, who feel she ruined both her and the father of the child’s life, she reluctantly agrees to the marriage. Characters on MTV’s shows Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2 have also experienced pressure from family members to marry the father of their child, as if that’s their only option.

I can attest to this dynamic playing out in real life: When I became pregnant at 15, many people expected me to marry the father of my child since he “got me pregnant” and “marriage would make it right.”

If one does not give their child up for adoption or marry the father of their child (if the father did not leave them already, as the narrative goes in the media) the identity oft given to parenting teens is one of a desolate existence for both mother and child. Whether it is losing all of ones friends, being disowned by their family, being kicked out of school, or being sent away by family, teenage mothers simply do not have positive narratives of themselves in the media, and the negative effects of this are very real.

Teenage mothers have the highest rate of postpartum depression than mothers 20 and older, they are often forced out of school by illegal policies or because of bullying from staff and students alike, and they or more likely to experience social injustices because of age, race, and social economic background, which present unique barriers to social welfare assistance.

Media has a responsibility to accurately and holistically represent teenage families, especially teenage families of color. There simply is not enough positive representation free of gas-lighting when it comes to teenage families. All teenage fathers are not absent from their family’s lives; teenage parents are more likely than non-parenting teens to obtain their GED; and not all teenage mothers are kicked out by their parents or have as their end goal in life to attend college and get married.

To be sure, teen parents face several hardships since many teenage parents are already living in poverty before they become pregnant and face barriers to finishing their education, finding and obtaining work, and finding stable housing if they are in a situation that does not allow them to stay in their initial place of residence. However, teenage parents also often say their children served as a catalyst for them to do better in life, finish their education, stop mismanaging money, and get serious about discovering who they are as a person and what type of contributing member of society they want to be. Not only are teenage parents capable of love, compassion, and good parenting—the parents of the pregnant and parenting teen are capable of the same through supporting, loving, and encouraging their child to remain determined to reach the goals they had before becoming pregnant and after having their child.

There is no doubt in my mind that I am a better person today because I had my daughter at age 15. When my family began to unlearn the false narratives about what my teenage pregnancy would supposedly do to the family and myself, they began to show love and support.

Why aren’t there examples of that in the media? Where’s the 16, Parenting, and OK show to help teens see the decision doesn’t have to lead to destitution?

While the media has taken on the role of “teaching” about teenage pregnancy, mostly through shame and stigma, media makers need to acknowledge they are influencing how gatekeepers—including school administrators, health-care providers, and other adults in a young person’s life—perceive and treat young pregnant people. That was my experience, and I know through my work that I’m not alone.

We have to start asking ourselves, as former teen mother and #NoTeenShame member Christina Martinez recently mentioned to me, “What if we were to surround young parents with messages of hope, support, and encouragement? How might that alter the confidence in which they approach their role as parent?”

If my family and high school guidance counselor had responded to my decision to carry my pregnancy to term and parent my child in a more positive way from the get-go, with tips on planning for my future and for my daughter’s future, I may have experienced a more healthy and positive pregnancy. And so I ask, how are others preparing teens to live the life they want for themselves and their families? We can and must do so much better.

CORRECTION: A previous version of the article misspelled Marylouise Kuti’s name. We regret the error.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.