16 and Pregnant

Jessica Grose has a great piece up on Slate today about the MTV show 16 and Pregnant, asking whether it actually deters teenagers from pregnancy or whether it’s simply exploitative (or both). I’ll admit to watching (and enjoying, at least partly) the first season of the show, but after watching the Janelle episode that Grose mentions, I’m increasingly disturbed. No doubt teen pregnancy — and hey, any pregnancy — is tough, and that shouldn’t be whitewashed. But 16 and Pregnant seems to be falling to the trap of adapting itself to cliches and stereotypes about teen pregnancy. And while it’s a good thing to encourage girls who aren’t ready for a baby to avoid pregnancy, it gets a little trickier when you’re making an example of other girls. And as Jessica says, despite the fact that the babies’ fathers are largely total jerks (if they’re around at all), it’s the girls who are on the receiving end of the abuse and finger-wagging from the viewing audience.

In addition to all of that, 16 and Pregnant really only looks at one side of teen pregnancy — the part where the pregnant girl decides to give birth (in one episode the couple places the baby for adoption). Jessica Valenti points out that abortion is almost entirely absent from the conversation, despite the fact that a third of all teen pregnancies in the United States are terminated. I would imagine that, understandably, not a lot of 16-year-old girls want to discuss their abortions on MTV, since there is such intense stigma and shame surrounding the procedure — but surely there’s a way for MTV to incorporate the full reality of pregnancy-related decision-making into the show.

Thoughts? Do any of you watch it?

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26 comments for “16 and Pregnant

  1. Caroline
    February 22, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    I watched the first season, but admit I commenting without having watched since then. Although I agree about the issues with perpetuating stereotypes (are these girls’ getting pregnant by immaculate conception?) – I have worked with teens who adamantly want a baby because they think it will solve all their problems. With that, I do think there is some merit in showing with teen’s peers that having a baby really is hard, your boyfriend will not become more committed, etc.

    BUT, from what I saw on the first season, the realities of the girls’ they showed were girls’ whose parents had large houses, (and not to say that teen pregnancy doesn’t effect all types of teens), it would serve this purpose better if they somehow (although hard to imagine happening..), showed a teenager managing by herself, getting food stamps, etc.

    On a side note, I got really frustrated with the disempowering maternity care the girls’ received, the high rates of inductions, apparent lack of breastfeeding support, poor support to birth in other positions besides on one’s back, not putting the babe on the mother’s chest right away, etc.

  2. SweetT
    February 22, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    I’ve watched it, both the specials, and series. IIRC, two of the girls’ parents’ had large houses, one of the girls was searching for gov’t assistance and get her GED, and then the other girl gave her child up for adoption and was living w/ her bf’s mom, not in what looked to be an affluent situation by any means.

  3. Kat
    February 22, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    I agree with Caroline, I watched and was on the fence with my opinion of the show, but it did seem that the girls who were shown were a bit on the privileged side. It didn’t seem representative of what many teens have to deal with.

  4. February 22, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    I’ve only seen 1 episode. I watched it with my 16 year old daughter who is a holistically trained doula. (trained with me 2 years ago when she was 14) We saw the Janelle episode I think, the NC one, the surfer girl? What struck us: No birth classes? No breastfeeding classes? No mandatory teen parenting classes? Nothing like that? No Lactation counselor? The whole episode seemed to just lightly skim the surface of what pregnancy really is.

    That, and how unbelievably horribly the grandmother in the show was treated and how quick MTV was to focus on that as a plot device in the show, instead of other things that might matter more in the big picture.

  5. lemur
    February 22, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    In all honesty, the “sister” show Teen Mom is probably the most realistic depiction of being a teen parent.

  6. joytulip
    February 22, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    I haven’t watched it, but it seems the majority of my 10th grade students do. I recently gave a journal assignment asking them to write about how media influence their behavior. Quite a few girls, and one boy, mentioned the show by name as an example of lessons what not to do in life.

  7. Shelby
    February 22, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Don’t mean to de-rail, but the phrase “gave up for adoption” kind of grates on me. It makes it sound like adoption is a kind of flippant, “do it then it’s over” type of decision. I’ve heard people say “placed for adoption” which fits way better, in my opinion… and maybe less dehumanizing of parents and child?

    • February 22, 2010 at 3:00 pm

      Good point, Shelby. I hadn’t thought about that — I’ll change it in the post. Thanks for bringing that up.

  8. February 22, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    I watched most of the first season. I don’t think that upper middle class teens were overrepresented. Maci and Farrah seemed upper middle class, IIRC, the rest of the teen moms ranged from lower middle class to downright destitute.

  9. The Flash
    February 22, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    One of the consequences of choice– of letting it be, unequivocally,t he woman’s sole choice of whether or not she’s going to go through with a pregnancy– is that more of the responsibility does fall on her, in both a practical sense and in an ethical/moral sense. Yes, we should be telling guys to wear a condom so they don’t get a girl pregnant. Yes, a lot of the censure and criticism related to teen pregnancy should fall on the guys. But the opportunity to prevent pregnancy is most prominently with the girls/women at any stage, and particularly in highschool it’s important to underscore that the woman will be likely be without their partner in raising the child.

    Getting teenage dads to be responsible when they’ve had this situation thrust upon them by someone else’s will (Yes, they decided to have sex. Yes, they decided to not use a condom. No, that is not a reasonable way to tell them to look at it. It’s the girl’s option to have or not have the abortion. She’s the one with the last chance.) is a different show, and it’s not a show that leads by example, it’s a show that would just basically yell at the men. Like, the show about the irresponsible teenage girl is the show about the girl whose life is ruined by having a kid in her teens. The show about the irresponsible teenage guy is the show about the dude who is having a TOTALLY ROCKING TIME. The way to communicate something about/to teenage guys has to be very different, and it can’t be by example.

    In fact, it’d have to be by instilling guilt. And by showing how miserable these girls are, or how awful an environment the baby is being brought up in, they’re bascially pushing the guilt-trip on any guy who watches. The assymetries of biology mean that you cannot throw the same kind of censure on both parties, and if the guy wants to abandon the teenage girl, and if he’s a minor, then you can’t force him to be on TV and face how awful his child’s situation is.

  10. February 22, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    I’m not really sure how I feel about the show. I caught an episode for the first time last night.

    It’s not really the content that bothers me – perhaps it is the way entertainment TV seems to make everything trivial.

  11. February 22, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    Seconded that Teen Mom is one of the better indicators for how teen parenthood tends to pan out in reality. I’ve got a lot to say about this show — if I ever get around to it.

  12. Hannah marie
    February 22, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    I have four younger siblings, and four of us five are teenage girls, so I’ve ended up watching snippets of MTV. I saw one whole episode of 16 and Pregnant, it was the one with that girl who was a redhead…and then she was a blonde…idk. Anyways, it definitely did strike me as completely exploitative of the girl, which has already been pointed out. but then at times I found myself criticizing her, too, I guess for her inexperience- which wasn’t actually her fault.

    I don’t know. Sometimes I felt like it was romanticizing the idea of teenage motherhood, and other times I felt it was very moralistic.

    Sorry, this isn’t very coherent because it’s late at night. i just wanted to weigh in cause since it is watched by all my siblings, who are also all pretty close to that age.

  13. February 22, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    If I were ever to write my post — and I won’t, let’s be real — the point I was going to make is how little birth control is discussed on the show. The only reference to ongoing birth control I remember is one of the moms’ moms saying that she thought her teen daughter shouldn’t be on birth control AS A DETERRENT to her teen mom daughter choosing to have more sex.

    To be more real, my folks were terribly outdated when it came to talking to me about sex and birth control. Norplant was the best method I could have chosen post-baby (and it’s off the market today), but pre-pregnancy, the majority of conversations I had about birth control were my parents and boyfriends attempting to keep me off of it. And then TA-DA! Pregnant.

  14. Jessica
    February 22, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    (My apologies if this is too OT) Lauren, Norplant may be off the market, but Implanon is the same idea, and it’s better in that there’s only 1 rod instead of 5. I am very happy with mine.

  15. southern students for choice-athens
    February 23, 2010 at 1:10 am

    Shelby wrote:

    I’ve heard people say “placed for adoption” which fits way better, in my opinion… and maybe less dehumanizing of parents and child?

    Well, better that also than the older term used, “surrender” for adoption, as in “surrendering” rights. As in “Lady, come out with your hands up…well, with one hand up, you’ve got to use one to hold the baby.”

    One note on “16 and Pregnant”…one thing that makes it really significant that this show about teen pregnancy (minors, specifically) is the only multi-episode show focusing in any way on reproductive rights issues that MTV has had on the air.

    Seriously…and if anyone wants to differ, please post a comment. MTV is well-known for supposedly hard-hitting documentaries on controversial issues, but where sexual health issues are concerned about all they’ve done in depth (accurate or not) has been on sexually transmitted diseases, beginning with HIV/AIDS in the early 90s and going more in depth into other STDs in the late 90s, in part in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation. They have almost never, ever mentioned abortion, and have hardly ever done much in the way of educating young people about birth control.

    This isn’t just a USA thing with MTV, the channel is famous for being aired in over 40 countries with careful attention to detail in how it markets itself in each of those countries (all the better to sell it’s product), but to our knowledge (wish we had citations handy, but trust us, we’ve done our research) they have in no country anywhere given but a fraction of the attention they’ve given to STDs to birth control, much less abortion.

    This is worth noting, and thinking about what one can maybe do about it, as this has the potential to negatively affect public policy regarding abortion and birth control access for young people. If it has any effect it ought to make activists even more motivated to ensure government funding and public support for accessible reproductive health services for young and poor people, but in practice it might make it easier for young people to be complacent about increasing restrictions on access, as has been the case in the USA, unfortunately.

  16. southern students for choice-athens
    February 23, 2010 at 1:30 am

    P.S. – Aside from MTV’s history of minimal coverage of reproductive rights issues, another impression of the show, and the Slate article definitely emphasizes it, is how much the show is focused on deterring teen pregnancy, and not on encouraging teens who do get pregnant and carry their pregnancies to term to do so responsibly, in other words, to get good prenatal care, to get help getting child support if they father is reluctant to give it, etc. It’s not that these issues aren’t mentioned, but they come across as side notes made in the background of a show whose message is more meant, as the Slate article title says, on “Keep(ing) Girls From Getting Pregnant.”

    Probably the host Dr. Drew would say different, that it’s meant to be as educational as the medium and audience might tolerate of educating young people of the importance of prenatal and well baby care, but one doubts that’s talked about nearly as much by young viewers than how so many of the teen moms look and sound like so much poor (pick a color) trash.

  17. ThankGoddess
    February 23, 2010 at 1:37 am

    but surely there’s a way for MTV to incorporate the full reality of pregnancy-related decision-making into the show.

    I’ll not trust the media of the patriarchy for any truth thank you very much.

  18. Probable Infinity
    February 23, 2010 at 8:52 am

    MTV makes their reality shows based on other popular televisions shows/movies. The only reason this show exists is because of the success of the movie Juno and that girl Jamie Spears getting pregnant.

  19. Emily
    February 23, 2010 at 10:04 am

    I’ve only watched the first season, and Teen Moms (which follows some of the girls from the first season). I wonder if it was coincidence or propaganda that the one couple that placed the child for adoption seemed by far the most mature and the most supportive of each other. I cried watching their episodes, especially when the guy was talking about how much he loved the baby and how they were doing this all for her, etc. That may be in part because I have a 6 month old and the heartache of placing a baby for adoption hit me pretty hard.

  20. Emily
    February 23, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Also, I COULD NOT BELIEVE Dr. Drew in the Teen Moms reunion episode giving Maci a hard time for dumping the jackass boyfriend. At least from what’s on the show he has shown over and over again that he has no interest in being a supportive partner or pulling his own weight in the relationship and I thought Dr. Drew saying he thought they could make it was just MEAN MEAN MEAN to that poor girl who obviously already felt guilty about not “making it work” for her son. But really, her only option is to do all the work herself, with or without him. And Dr. Drew suggesting that she should do it with him just pissed me off.

  21. southern students for choice-athens
    February 23, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Jill wrote:

    …not a lot of 16-year-old girls want to discuss their abortions on MTV, since there is such intense stigma and shame surrounding the procedure…

    Obviously you’re speaking in generalities, but there’s really not very much difference in helping a typical 16- or 17-year-old, even today’s 16- and 17-year-olds, talk about abortion than there is helping a 19- or 20-year old do likewise.

    There’s many good examples of programs which – in decades past – addressed abortion and reproductive rights/sexuality issues for young people in far greater depth and from a pro-choice perspective than anything that MTV has ever broadcast, even produced by independent companies or nonprofits associated with MTV. Teens that age used to call in frequently talking about these issues (and not simply condemning abortion) in calls into Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s old syndicated radio show Sexually Speaking through most of the 1980s, using first names and making hometown references that probably identified them to their friends, and teens were frequently seen on the Donahue TV show back in the same era through the early 1990s, which then was broadcast to a much wider audience by over-the-air TV.

    Dr. Ruth and Donahue were the best-known programs from back then, but there were others especially on radio that did likewise. Dr. Joy Browne, a psychologist, and Dr. Dean Edell, a physician, were more widely syndicated than they are today and also were carried back then on some commercial rock stations due to their popularity with young people, and they handled a lot of calls from young people about sexuality and medical or interpersonal issues related to contraception and abortion, and did so with a very nonjudgmental & supportive manner – pro-choice, in other words, though there wasn’t a political issue made of it at the time.

    There are issues that make talking about abortion or any intensely personal, moral issue challenging, but there’s really no more reason for a 16- or 17-year-old to fear or be inhibited talking about it than they would be in a similar situation a few years later – at least if they can deal with those fears and social pressures well enough to have an abortion and deal with friends and family, surely a significant number of them would feel comfortable talking about it in some context in a talk show or documentary format. The value judgments that others place on young women choosing abortion (and indirectly on young men who truly play a supportive role) are intense, but not much more for older minors than for young adults.

    If teen women and men can act out dysfunctionally and in sexualized ways as they do in so much of MTV programming, from various reality TV shows to “Jackass”, they can surely talk in a grown-up way about abortion, and probably better than most grown-ups can. The fact that they don’t and really never have done so on MTV is more to do with how all of the parties involved – MTV itself, the production companies and producers who create content for MTV, and the nonprofits who consult with MTV – none of them have ever put a priority of addressing abortion or even birth control issues for young people with the same level of depth and maturity as other channels and media outlets, like say the newsstand magazines like Glamour, do with similarly aged women.

  22. ThankGoddess
    February 23, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    Southern Students for Choice – Athens,

    Thanks for bringing some much needed truth to this commentary.

  23. southern students for choice-athens
    February 23, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    ThankGoddess, You are welcome. :)

    To elaborate a little on the nonprofits that MTV consults with — probably the best known (and well-respected) is the Kaiser Family Foundation, http://www.kff.org which is almost as well-focused and pro-choice as the Guttmacher foundation in the studies they’ve done on reproductive health and young people’s attitudes and behavior. Kaiser has done numerous cooperative efforts with MTV and consulted in many of their programs, but the work they’ve done on birth control and abortion, which again is free of anti-choice bias, hasn’t been used much or apparently influenced MTV programming much if at all.

    While we don’t know of any inside communication between Kaiser and MTV to explain this, we can only assume it’s due to MTV’s preferences or desire to address reproductive health issues in the least controversial way possible, which unfortunately means little or no coverage of abortion issues outside of tragedies that make it into the headlines like the killings of abortion providers over the years, and little coverage even of birth control issues. In a lot of ways MTV programming on these issues resembles “comprehensive” sex education which mentions — barely — abortion and contraception when it’s absolutely necessary, but not otherwise, and not in any sort of positive, integrated way.

    It’s difficult to give an easy answer to this, but with so many more outlets today for video shorts on these issues, it’s easy to imagine some coverage of these issues beginning with spots on something like the Daily Beast or even Funny or Die, and then making it onto some smaller networks like Fuse, and then maybe MTV. There’s many options like that yet to be pursued which might really help change some of these policies which seem ingrained into MTV’s news and public service programming.

  24. cjb1211
    March 10, 2010 at 1:27 am

    I must admit, I do follow the show. The first season of 16 and Pregnant seemed to be aimed more at addressing the dramatic lifestyle changes having a child entails, especially for a teenager, who under most circumstances are not emotionally prepared and lack the maturity needed to raise children. I felt the effects of that change when I had my first child, and I was 25 and had a supportive involved partner (my husband). Admittedly, the show glosses over certain aspects, but being the friend of a couple of girls who became pregnant in high school, the issue of prenatal care for them was moot since they were covered under their parent’s insurance and received prenatal care. While they don’t show the more clinical aspects of pregnancy, I believe (but I’d have to double check) that there are resources on MTV.com for pregnant teenagers to seek some preliminary guidance.

    I do agree that issues such as birth control and abortion are not the main focus. However, after listening to several episodes, it always seemed to me that the issue wasn’t a lack of education about birth control. Most of the girls mention that it’s not that they didn’t know they could get pregnant if they didn’t use a condom, they just chose not to. I hate to say it, but all the education in the world can’t make up for making poor decision making. If birth control were to be discussed at length during the show, I would hope that strong emphasis would be placed on the fact that birth control is not 100% effective either. This is no reflection of any particular religious belief but an issue of medical fact. I conceived twice while on birth control pills, I took the pills exactly as directed and in a third instance used a condom which slipped off during intercourse. Fortunately, I was in my mid twenties by this time and in a stable relationship (my husband and I were engaged before I became pregnant with our oldest son, we planned our youngest and the others sadly miscarried). There is a reason why the inserts from the pharmaceutical companies never guarantee 100% effectiveness. My story is not unique either. There are many women who for different reasons conceive on both hormonal and barrier methods of birth control.

    I think what MTV is trying to convey to the teenagers watching is not only what you get when you have a baby but what you stand to loose (i.e., there goes prom, a high school diploma in many cases, the carefree lifestyle once accustomed to).

    The second season of the show has disturbed me in certain ways. I’m seeing a higher tendency of young girls in emotionally abusive relationships with their boyfriends. Chelsea and Nikkole’s stories particularly. Maybe I’m biased because of my own education and having known teenage girls in abusive relationships, but there seems to be a chilling lack of confrontation of this issue. The manipulation, degrading insults and attempts to isolate these girls are the ABC’s of abuse, and while the interviewers on the online after show seem willing to address it to a point, it feels too passively dismissed. I am very interested to see what Dr. Drew’s take on these relationships are when they do the end of season episode and if any recommendations for additional help and support are made to these girls.

  25. hannah
    March 16, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    i have skimmed through most of these posts, and i think you guys are all being kind of pathetic towards this show. I’m 16 and pregnant and i watch this show. This isn’t a first time experience for me either, my sister got pregnant when she was 15 and kept the baby, and i have helped raise my niece who is now a happy, healthy 2 year old.
    You people are talking about this show as though this is a show that’s out to get teenagers pregnant. It’s a show to prevent it. Personally, i would HATE to watch a show where girls my age were getting pregnant and then getting abortions. If you’re responsible enough to have sex you should be responsible enough to have, and to raise a baby. There are some circumstances where abortions are neccessary, but in so many cases these girls were just stupid enough to forget about protection, or use the good old ‘pull and pray’ method. It’s not the majority of girls in similar situations to mine sit down and decide to keep their partners sperm in them because being a teen mom looks glamorous. and i know to a lot of girls it does. Because personally, i know a bunch of girls that have gotten pregnant young, and have regretted it. We just don’t think it will happen to us. But if there was a show on MTV that circled 20 year olds getting pregnant, i guarantee that there wouldn’t be a page like this purely for bitching about the show. Yes, we’re stupid, and yes, birth control is easy to come across, and most of the girls my age aren’t ready to raise children. But it’s our mistake, just stand by us and help us if we need it. this time like 300 years ago, girls my age would have been married for 4 years and probably have 3 kids by now. So i think you guys, you ‘adults’, who claim to be responsible enough to take care of kids, should just calm down and be parents.

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