MTV's '16 and Pregnant' exploits teen moms but addresses abortion with dignity

By Sarah Seltzer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 7:00 PM

As a feminist and an avid television-watcher, I love and admire dramas such as "Friday Night Lights" and "Mad Men" 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 conversation-starter for 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 adolescents who chose 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 her own mom why 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, they wake up for feedings and nighttime cries, or are scolded by their parents when they don't. They live in a double hell of being a new parent and an angsty teen.

For each story to have a compelling arc and be an effective warning about risky behavior, these young women have 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, they may 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, when MTV 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 tear-jerking 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" - was palpable 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 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 post-abortion 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" and supplement 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.

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