A Look at MTV’s Sixteen and Pregnant

This week I encountered another MTV gem for the first time: Sixteen and Pregnant. The episode I watched dealt with Iowa teen Farrah, a high school cheerleader. The show chronicles her trip from teen with a boyfriend, to single mom.

At the opening of the episode, Farrah announces in voice-over that she will be tackling the pregnancy solo. As she thinks through her options—keeping her baby or putting her up for adoption—Farrah goes against her ever-logical mother’s recommendation of adoption. From this point forward, it’s all on Farrah, with a little support from her family.

“I don’t want to sound needy, but how much…would you help a little bit?” Farrah asks her mother one night after staying up with the fussy baby. Wanting to teach her daughter independence, Farrah’s mother steps back and leaves the ball in her daughter’s court. As a single, first-time mom, Farrah realizes she’s bitten of a hefty amount of physical and emotional stress that is much harder to tackle than she’d hoped.

As the episode progresses, we see Farrah arguing with her mother, the accused “control freak” who believes she is doing her best for her daughter and granddaughter. The whole thing sets Farrah into tears more than once, and her sign-off reveals a less-than-happy ending to the show along with a hopeful ideal of the future. Through it all, the young mother is happy that she is now raising her child. She knows that it’ll be a long road, but she’s committed to teaching her daughter everything she needs to know.

“I want her to know what’s a good relationship and what’s a bad relationship,” says Farrah, of her new daughter, Sophia. The baby’s father had been the jealous type, and Farrah broke it off when she learned of her pregnancy because she herself understood the difference between having a jealous boyfriend and being alone. This feminist inclusion surprised me, based on my expectations formed by the other MTV reality shows I’ve seen. It struck me as progressive to show a teenager who not only grapples with being a single mother but does so at her own choosing, with the understanding that tackling parenthood alone is better than forcing a two-parent situation with an abusive or jealous partner.

On the other hand, Sixteen and Pregnant as a whole seems to follow the typical scripts about teenage pregnancy: that teenagers underestimate the work and responsibility involved in caring for a child (as with Farrah’s episode), or that having a baby even within a happy, committed relationship isn’t as easy as it looks (as with another episode, featuring teenage Tennessee mother Maci). The episodes seem to touch on good and bad, focusing on parenting hardships like scraping together enough money for the baby, and making decisions about personal schedules as well as the very choice of how the baby will be raised. When comparing the show to a documentary-style piece, The Gloucester Eighteen, it’s interesting to note the holes that MTV leaves in the pregnant teen narrative. The most striking difference to me was that in the Gloucester profile of eighteen girls who became pregnant during the same school year, most seemed to be of middle or working class, while the MTV girls are—unsurprisingly—from affluent families. The MTV perspective shows well-made-up girls of means (is that—yes! A smokey eye and updo in the delivery room!) making choices about whether to keep their babies, working desk jobs while still in high school, going to college as a matter of course, receiving free daycare from family, and driving around in nice cars that they didn’t necessarily have to pay for. One girl featured on MTV gets a two-level apartment with her boyfriend—noting that she had to save up for the microfiber furniture—and another girl lives in her poshly decorated bedroom on the upper floor of her parents’ slickly restored Council Bluffs bungalow. The teens featured in the Gloucester documentary, however, have jobs at places like bait shops and Dunkin’ Donuts. They have to quit high school, while the MTV girls I saw both went on the accelerated track to graduate and head off to college. Finally, coming from more affluent means, I presume the MTV girls had more access to information about safe sex than one Boston-area girl featured in Gloucester, who lacked any information about sex and became pregnant at twelve.

All of this is not to say that MTV didn’t try to convey how hard teenage pregnancy is. There are moments in the show that seem to glorify pregnancy just a little bit—having a fun baby shower with lifelong girlfriends, or announcing that the teenage boyfriend has proposed with a rock bigger than most adult women receive. But for the most part, the intent seems to be to get teen viewers to walk away during the credits, going, “Soooo glad that’s not me.” It’s just that maybe there’s more to illustrate than the plight of cheerleaders who have well-off parents and the prospect of working at the lucrative family business, sans professional skills or college education. They hit on the basics of teen pregnancy prevention—letting girls know that babies are money sponges, watching a girl tearily smear her eye makeup after realizing she can’t take her baby to the gym—but they fail to mention the important stuff that can keep girls from being thrust unwittingly into that situation in the first place: the politics of sex ed in US school systems, or the availability and affordability of child care. The tone of Sixteen and Pregnant feels less ridiculous and ever so slightly less scripted than other reality fiascos, so it seems to me that MTV has undertaken an earnest push to nip teen pregnancy in the bud. The MTV website does offer information about safe sex and links to a Bedsider.org video describing available birth control methods, but none of that is mentioned at any helpful length in the show itself. I think to make this show stick with teenagers—I mean, as something beyond a fun soap opera experience—MTV would do well to mention more prevention than dwelling on the financial and energy-driven side of going to bed a teen and waking up, a mom.

Sex and Stuff

In 2013 I was designing the cover for the book Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, an interfaith collection of memoir-style essays, and threw out a hail Mary to my art director: Was the anthology still looking for submissions? When I heard that the editors were still hungry to find work by emerging authors, I forced myself to write something and send it in. It was an opportunity to at least be seen, to have my personal writing read by editors who matter. Gearing up for a polite rejection note, I scribbled out thousands of words, refined them into a story, and hit Send. What I got from the editor a few days later surprised me.

Congratulations. Encouragement. Acceptance. I would be in a book.

Over the next few months I worked closely with the anthology’s editors, Susan Tive and Cami Ostman, to polish my work into something that would flow effortlessly to our readers. The author–editor experience was nothing I hadn’t seen before. This time, though, my nerves tensed a bit with the realization that I was working with a personal story—not to mention the complex idea of sex.

I open the essay with an account of playing author in my mom’s library, using one of her many romance novels as my pretend life’s work:

“One day I held a reading before a corps of taffeta-clad Barbie dolls and cracked open a volume at its midpoint to a randomly selected paragraph. I was new to reading but the best in my class, so I wavered only a little as my tentative, little-girl voice visited the subjects of thrusting manhood, supple breasts, and coming together as one. My face grew flush, and I gently closed the book, blushing in to my appliquéd teddy bear sweatshirt.”

My mother’s library had been my first primer on sex, with a few romance novels like that one, plus a litany of scientific books she’d consulted heavily in college, while I was still little. I looked up to her and knew that those books meant business, so whenever I got the chance I crept into the library and took down a book. And that’s how I came to understand the mechanics of childbearing, breast feeding, and impressing hunky gents named Darius or Raul. With the word itself unspoken in the house, I had turned to print to fill in the blanks. Only slightly later, I turned to TV, noticing the word cropping up from The Simpsons to Seinfeld—two shows that my brother and I were allowed to watch, as non-religious Midwestern kids.

What I learned, I didn’t really absorb. I knew that sex was a thing, and if forced to think about it, I pictured something similar to what Sloane Crosley recounts in I Was Told There’d Be Cake: a sort of nebulous private act, between a mom and a dad, where the woman wears sexy lingerie and heels. I didn’t even need sex until I began to see it being sold to me from everywhere. As a Victoria’s Secret subscriber, my mom brought in a new catalog from our mailbox every few weeks, and I often flipped though with what began as sheer curiosity and became increasingly inquisitive as I grew older.

In high school, when sex began to matter, I was taught at school a comprehensive program that covered everything from the How/Why to the And Then: consequences that ran the gamut from pregnancy to a positive HIV test. In the company of my second-period peers I sat through taped after-school specials that showed the consequences of having sex, or the ills of getting “too serious” in high school. My mom briefly mentioned sex, but only after I’d been dating my boyfriend for a while, and only then to tell me which specific brand of condoms to stay away from.

“Don’t use that kind. They break!” she’d said in a stage whisper, with a similar tone used for such phrases as “Doing…that” (having your period) or “Going potty” (explosive diarrhea). She’d always communicated the information but done so under the pretense that she was being spied on, that speaking normally would trigger the hidden microphones and catch her on tape saying something embarrassing about the human body. I knew I could talk to her, but like any other news outlet available to kids, she unwittingly communicated that certain topics weren’t spoken of too freely.

So started my primer to sex. The rest, I learned from religion, which I made a fixture in my life at age fifteen. The messages seemed to come from everywhere, but never in a useful way. Sex was scary, weighty, and irrevocable. It spoke volumes about who you were as a person. Coming from that background, an ultra-conservative person had to switch gears, upon marriage, to thinking of sex as a beautiful act. I too had to forget everything I’d been taught and learn to think of something dirty as something that was not only clean but ordained as almost a sacrament.

I grew to see things differently from what my religion had proposed, and I even branched out to learn on my own, beyond the conservatism of religious discourse and the damage of my ex-husband’s unrealistic porn-bred expectations. I learned to think of sex as something in between those two extremes. And now, on days when I entertain the possibility of someday rearing a child of my own, I like to think I’ll speak above a whisper, and do everything my mother tried to do and more. Just to set the record straight.

A Life in Sticky Notes

“I’m trying to be friends with Lera,” Jenny said to me with gravity. “She’s becoming a prep, so she’d be a good person to get attached to now instead of later.” A few of us sat in an upstairs play room, pajama clad and slathering on layers of glittery nail polish faster than the previous ones could dry. We had a pizza coming. The little brother was off to bed. We were twelve.

To hear me tell about it then, I would say I was the ugly girl with no friends, nothing to say, and zero prospect of getting a boyfriend. Ever. Looking back though, I need at least all my fingers and toes to account for the girls I was close enough with to garner frequent sleepover invites or throw together an impromptu game of night Ditch ’em. I had a handful of girls who made up my Tier 1, or Gold Level, friends—a few I’d known since kindergarten, and one I’d met in the third grade—and there were always others caught in the ebb and flow of middle-school circle hopping. We were a modest but happy grouping, and we looked on as the preppy girls spent summers together at the exclusive town RV club or returned from group shopping trips at the far-away and middle-class posh Fox Valley Mall—the one with an Abercrombie and a Sbarro. We were popular in spirit only—we had friends, but not the “right” friends.

It’s a pretty common story for small-town folk like me. With scarcely a hundred kids to a grade, my fellow grown-ups-in-training and I saw the same set of kids since the days of finger paints and nap time. Once in a while, a new student would move in, and the popular kids would harness the glow of this exotic human being and make her one of them. By middle school, the allure of someone new turned to threat, and new kids quickly fell in with the burnouts—losers, everyone called them. It was just a label, every bit as descriptive as “the kids with blue shirts,” and until I heard the word applied to my best friend, I never gave its meaning a second thought.

“I’m a loser, and I’m fine with that,” Tiffani had said. But she wasn’t. She just saw herself as part of the label because she wasn’t in with the popular kids and didn’t buy into their polos and Doc Martens. Thirteen years old and already she was self-defining based on what the center of power chose to name her. But she was cool. She played softball, painted murals, and slayed everyone at Mario Kart. She was funny and kind, and hearing her use the preppies’ word to describe herself, and any outsider, as Less Than made me want to punch all the polo shirts in the world.

With the start of freshman year, we finally blended with other grades, and the social lines began to blur, but only enough to muddy things. Now, instead of clothing, boy-girl relationships and partying seemed to be the new litmus tests. I started as Band Geek and became Tease when I got my first boyfriend. Eager to ditch the tease, I became Slut—who put out with her boyfriend—and then switched over to Goody Goody when Slut didn’t feel right. I tried my hand at art but dropped it when my mother and I agreed that I had always been Music Girl, not Artist Girl. It was like walking through an air tunnel filled with sticky notes, hoping desperately that facing the wrong way for a second wouldn’t plaster on the words that sounded like insults.

What I realize now—and didn’t then—is that I didn’t have to be any of those things if they don’t fit me. It’s society that scribbles all those words onto tiny fluorescent squares and throws them out to whoever falls in the line of fire. I’m still Band Geek, but now people think it’s sort of neat that I used to run around a college football field in a wool suit and stupid hat, blowing movie themes and Gustav Holst through a hunk of brass. Tease and Slut are more like, “I’m the one who decides who and when.” Goody Goody means I try to be smart and level headed, but I still do things I shouldn’t if I feel like it. Artist Girl doesn’t have to churn out frame-ready sunsets in oils—instead, she can draw up the serious book covers and occasional pot leaf illustration that separate pre-literate eras from ours. And she can do that while getting all sentimental about how Wax Fang’s La La Land is the best album you’ve never heard and then switching gears to bitch about how nobody appreciates Anne Brontë. To live is to embrace every scrap of multiplicity and contention that comes with growing into your own, and if done right, being a total scatter brain can really feel like a win.

So who I was to everyone had a lot to do with relational dynamics. On the same day I could have been a loser, or popular, or weird or funny, depending on who’s watching. Back then it meant everything to have those labels to hold onto, like raking together fistfuls of passable words made you a worthwhile part of the collective experience. But today I’m all those things and none of those things. I’m just a person making her way, pausing now and then to cross out a word and write in my own. My pen, my decision.