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.