For the past couple of months, since I’ve had some time on my hands, I’ve been watching a lot more television. One of the more intriguing/embarassing habits I’ve picked up in that vein is watching the 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom series on MTV.
I’ll admit, I watch it with the aspect of someone visiting the zoo at times, which I’m rather ashamed of. The experience being depicted is pretty foreign to me. In high school, I lived in a political setting where abortion was more or less legal (Canada simply has no prohibition against it as of R. v. Morgentaler, which was decided by the time my peers were having sex), and discussed as a viable option, frankly – I still remember Erica going to the clinic on Degrassi quite vividly. And I was sort of among the kind of teenagers who were paranoid about ruining their college futures than they were embarassed/uneducated about birth control. I can remember only one teen pregnancy in my suburban high school, and it was rather a special case – a math genius girl (winner of several provincial contests, if I recall correctly) who suddenly began dating what I can only describe as a greaser, married him at 16, and promptly popped out a kid. She was thrilled; everyone else, confused. Another girl got pregnant shortly before graduation, but that was that. And in Canada, while not universally the case, it is possible to receive enough government assistance to go to university – a good one, not just what we call a “college” – and have your child in care during the day. (Both of those young women did, though I’m not sure what they’re doing now.)
This week’s episode focussed on a girl named Leah who, after breaking up with a boyfriend of a couple of years, embarked on a monthlong fling and suddenly fell pregnant. With twins, as it turns out! Her newly minted babydaddy, Corey, seems to mean well. But both of them are overwhelmed with a high-risk pregnancy at such a young age, and unsurprisingly, they don’t really know each other. And what follows is an hour and a half of sheer hell for them and really for the viewer. They can’t get along, they have two very tiny children, and they are both still surprisingly immature. Heartbreakingly, yesterday Leah issued a video blog in which she apologized for looking like a “witch” on the show. I haven’t seen any commentary on last night’s episode yet, but I imagine some judgmental assholes on the internet do in fact think this. The young women on this show, obviously, are offering themselves up for a world of criticism on the internet. No better object than a mom AND a slutty teenage girl all rolled into one for the assholes of the world! It’s like Judgment Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July all at once!!
For what I hope are obvious reasons I’m not real interested in talking about whether these young women are good mothers or bad mothers. Having known tons of people with moms who were young and moms who waited until the socially acceptable age to procreate, I actually suspect it makes very little difference in emotional terms. (Some people are natural at nurturing children; others aren’t. In material terms, however, it makes an ENORMOUS difference.
Many of the young women on this show seem to live with their parents in houses plainly left over from the boom in the sense that they are generally oversized and gorgeous in contrast to certain other class markers – most of the parents appear to do shift work, for example. Some of the young women do move out, but as most seem to lag behind on finishing high school,
The young men on this show are near-universally a disaster. Every once in awhile you’ll get a mensch who steps up and grows up along with his baby’s mother – like the first season’s Tyler – but by and large they behave like boorish children. One kept harassing the pregnant girl while she was in labour with idiotic jokes. Another charmingly sent the mother of his child the following text message after she had given birth:
no i want u to feel like the most worthless stupid [bitch or cunt, can't tell] in the world u better beleive [sic] its so over for the rest of ourlives ya fat stretch mark bitch tell me where and wen [sic] to sign the papers over for that mistake
I mean, damn. That’s what I‘m gonna pearl-clutch about. What are people teaching young men?
There’s been some discussion about whether these shows can be said to be helpful to young women. I guess it depends on how you define both “helpful” and “young women.” The show is utterly terrifying in many ways, in terms of being relatively explicit about how long labour lasts and how painful it is, and then showing how the young women, upon giving birth, are more or less quickly forgotten by their friends. I suppose the instillation of fear can be called “help.” But the depiction of these pregnancies is usually relatively context-free. We aren’t, for example, ever told household incomes, or whether or not the young people in question have health insurance. Social assistance programs and/or lack thereof are never mentioned. Breastfeeding isn’t usually discussed. Usually you won’t even be told the cost of diapers. Shmushmortion only comes up if the pregnant young woman chooses to mention it, usually in the context of, “I could never do that.”
So the show, such as it is, sort of suffers from being as context-blind as the anti-choice movement is. It doesn’t actually depict the realities of young motherhood – it simply dresses them up as emotional hardship. Usually the women will say that they love their children, which they often say with an overall air of fatigue and disconnection. I mentioned that to another feminist I was speaking about this with recently and she noted, “Yep, they’ve probably got that one well-rehearsed for friends and family.” And she’s probably right. 16 and Pregnant is all theatre with little documentary purpose.
That said I’m still watching next week.