16, preg­nant and on TV

Is MTV ex­ploit­ing or re­spect­ing its teen moms?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY SARAH SELTZER

As a fem­i­nist and an avid tele­vi­sion-watcher, I love and ad­mire dra­mas such as “Fri­day Night Lights” and“Mad­Men” for their gritty de­pic­tions of the truths of women’s lives. I mostly hate (or guiltily en­joy) “re­al­ity” shows that show women in the throes of cat­fights, wed­ding melt­downs or hot-tub li­aisons.

Some­times, though, the melo­drama of re­al­ity TV fea­tures the lives of women, un­adorned. That’s the co­nun­drum posed by MTV’s fam­ily of shows about Amer­ica’s young and fe­cund: “16 and Preg­nant,” “ Teen Mom” and this past Tues­day night’s spe­cial on abor­tion, “No Easy De­ci­sion.”

Each episode chron­i­cles young women strug­gling with preg­nancy and moth­er­hood, nar­rated by voice-overs and scored with pop mu­sic. These shows are tremen­dous hits, of­ten net­ting well over 2 mil­lion view­ers. And as teen preg­nancy num­bers have dropped in Amer­ica, they’re lauded by some as a wor­thy ed­u­ca­tional tool, a con­ver­sa­tion­for teenagers and their par­ents.

It’s tempt­ing to give the genre’s cre­ators the ben­e­fit of the doubt, to be­lieve that they are ded­i­cated to truth and don’t want to glam­or­ize their stars. But that ded­i­ca­tion has a dis­tress­ing un­der­cur­rent. Since “16 and Preg­nant” pre­miered two years ago, we’ve seen vet­eran teen moms land tabloid cov­ers and head­lines for a high-pro­file ar­rest. Nearly ev­ery episode cen­ters on a young woman suf­fer­ing. So it’s hard not to worry that an­other mes­sage may be spread­ing: the pub­lic pun­ish­ing of sex­u­ally ac­tive girls for the sake of scar­ing oth­ers straight. This whiff of sham­ing was, un­til re­cently, com­pounded by the glar­ing ab­sence of an­other set of sto­ries — those of ado­les­centswho­chose to end their preg­nan­cies.

“16 and Preg­nant” tends to fol­low a for­mula that en­sures a mea­sure of af­flic­tion. Each episode be­gins with the pro­tag­o­nist in­tro­duc­ing her life and fam­ily be­fore re­veal­ing that ev­ery­thing has changed ... “ be­cause I’m preg­nant.” The cam­era fol­lows her through pre-natal life, birth and the on­set of moth­er­hood, while “Teen Mom” may later chron­i­cle her child’s first year. At the close of each sea­son, tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity and ad­dic­tion spe­cial­ist Drew Pinsky sits the girls down for a talk about how hard their lives have be­come.

In­deed, “16 and Preg­nant” does not shy away from the bumps and bruises of its stars’ lives: We see their me­nial jobs, their sin­gle-par­ent house­holds and the trau­matic changes they un­dergo. They are alien­ated from friends, forced to quit school and con­fronted with the im­ma­tu­rity of their male part­ners. Boyfriends and fiances flirt with other girls and can’t hold down jobs — in other words, they act like 16-year-olds. Brow­beaten moms make stricken faces when their teen daugh­ters re­peat their mis­takes, and dead­beat dads fail to make amends in time for their grand­chil­dren’s births.

In one of the most strik­ing mo­ments of the past sea­son, Markai Durham, a young mom-to-be (later fea­tured on “No Easy De­ci­sion”), re­ceived a card from a friend list­ing ca­reers and dreams for a fu­ture child. Markai later asked herown momwhy she wasn’t happy about be­ing a grandma, and her mother sadly re­called the card, say­ing, “All I could think of was I had those same dreams [for you].” These are the kinds of mo­ments that hook us.

Dur­ing preg­nancy, la­bor and de­liv­ery, young moms vomit and howl; later, they­wake­up­for feed­ingsand­night­time cries, or are scolded by their par­ents when they don’t. They live in a dou­ble hell of be­ing a new­par­ent and an angsty teen.

For each story to have a com­pelling arc and be an ef­fec­tive warn­ing about risky be­hav­ior, the­sey­oung­wom­en­have to hurt, pub­licly. The show’s em­pha­sis on their anguish, rage and re­grets echoes so­cial at­ti­tudes about women and sex: Women who sin must pay— in a way that their loaf­ing, ne­glect­ful male coun­ter­parts do not. When younger view­ers tune in, they­may in­deed ab­sorb the ed­u­ca­tional mes­sage and use it as an op­por­tu­nity to talk sex with Mom and Dad. But I fear that they may also be watch­ing sex­u­ally ac­tive girls (of­ten from lower-class or dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds) get hu­mil­i­ated.

The mis­ery is con­sis­tent whether teens de­cide to par­ent or, like this sea­son’s Ashley, choose adop­tion. Ashley went back and forth about hav­ing fam­ily mem­bers raise her daugh­ter as theirs, even reneg­ing once be­fore fi­nally set­tling on giv­ing up her baby. Her story im­plied that adop­tion is a road not ev­ery­one can take, and yet the third op­tion — abor­tion — re­mained un­ex­plored.

That changed on Tues­day, whenMTV aired its one-time spe­cial, “No Easy De­ci­sion,” at the late hour of 11:30 p.m. It con­tin­ued the story of Markai, who de­cided to ter­mi­nate a sec­ond preg­nancy, and also show­cased two other women’s sto­ries.

Markai’s abor­tion story, as told by the net­work, wasn’t en­tirely dis­sim­i­lar from an episode of “16 and Preg­nant”— lin­ear and dra­matic, filled with tear­jerk­ing mo­ments and mini-catharses as the cou­ple, deal­ing with limited fi­nan­cial re­sources, inched to­ward choos­ing abor­tion for a com­mon rea­son: to be able to give their thriv­ing in­fant daugh­ter the life they dreamed of. “You will never feel my pain,” Markai said to her part­ner, James, across a ta­ble, the day af­ter the pro­ce­dure. “I wouldn’t choose abor­tion as the first de­ci­sion for ev­ery­body, but it was the right de­ci­sion for me,” she added, chok­ing up, at episode’s end.

The tenor of re­spect — or as Pinsky said in the fol­low-up in­ter­view, “ honor” — was­pal­pa­ble from the first preg­nancy test, through Markai’s break­down on the phone with a women’s clinic coun­selor, to an in­cred­i­ble moment dur­ing the fi­nal panel when par­tic­i­pants who had all had abor­tions held hands across the in­ter­view couch. A friend of mine who never misses an episode of “16 and Preg­nant” or “ Teen Mom” shouted in sur­prised joy to see this show of sis­terly sol­i­dar­ity.

The stigma in Amer­ica sur­round­ing abor­tion is even more fraught than the stigma around teen sex­u­al­ity and preg­nancy, but the pro­duc­ers of “No Easy De­ci­sion” clearly made a Her­culean ef­fort to por­tray the young women as peo­ple who had made mis­takes and learned from them (as op­posed to be­ing thought­less and eth­i­cally lax). Yes, there were tears and there was con­flict, and yes, the show’s con­sid­er­ate ap­proach and con­tro­ver­sial sub­ject may not have in­vited the rat­ings bo­nanza of “ Teen

“16 and Preg­nant” echoes so­cial at­ti­tudes about gen­der and sex: Women who sin must pay.

Mom.” But “No Easy De­ci­sion’s” kind at­ti­tude to­ward its par­tic­i­pants — achieved with­out gloss­ing over the an­guished de­tails of their choices— was a wel­come an­ti­dote to the some­times over­whelm­ing tear-and re­gret-fest of the shows from which it sprang.

MTV en­listed the folks at Ex­hale, an em­phat­i­cally non-judg­men­tal postabor­tion coun­sel­ing cen­ter, to spear­head a cam­paign of “ love” for the girls of “No Easy De­ci­sion” — love that they hoped would buf­fer them from the pol­i­tics of abor­tion. And this cam­paign un­der­scores the flaw of the net­work’s sis­ter shows: not enough love and dig­nity, not enough pro­tec­tion for its stars from be­ing made into pub­lic ex­am­ples.

But if MTV can re­peat the feat achieved in the half-hour of “No Easy De­ci­sion” and­sup­ple­ment its story lines with more down-to-Earth seg­ments on abor­tion, or breast-feed­ing, or even the de­liv­ery room, it may be able to truly po­si­tion it­self as a leader in safe-sex ed­u­ca­tion. It’s sur­pris­ing, and a re­lief: The net­work of “Jersey Shore” and the drunken, car­toon­ish an­tics of Snooki— who an­gled to mark the new year by be­ing low­ered in­side a ball at mid­night — is the rare net­work show­cas­ing a frank dis­cus­sion of abor­tion in this coun­try. Sarah Seltzer is an as­so­ci­ate edi­tor at Al­ter­Net and a staff writer at RH Re­al­ity Check, where she cov­ers pop cul­ture and re­pro­duc­tive health.

sarah@al­ter­net.org

MTV

The young stars of MTV's "16 and Preg­nant" show view­ers the dif­fi­cult re­al­i­ties of teen moth­er­hood.

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