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.

My Super Sweet 16

Mysupersweet16“It’s Shika, bitch.” A burst of glitter dances off the screen to reveal this week’s featured sixteen-year-old on MTV’s series My Super Sweet 16. It’s the network’s teenage answer to inexplicable hits like Toddlers in Tiaras and Jersey Shore, a visual escape into the real lives of entitled teenage girls. Reality TV remains popular with teens and particularly girls. It’s a way to see outside of their own social circles into the glam of someone else’s. But for all the show’s ritz and drama, it’s worth a shot for teenage girls to question why this thing is on the air.

On the face of it, there isn’t much wrong with following around a teenager in party-planning mode, chronicling her journey from little girl to the momentous and sexy destination of womanhood. The coming-of-age for girls event is widely celebrated in American culture, reaching everywhere from the sweet sixteen itself, to the religiously grounded bat mitzvah, to the culturally significant quinceañera. There’s a lot to be said for gathering friends and family in a show of mutual support for girls as individuals, a celebration that’s totally separate from the only other big celebration in life: marriage. That said, this isn’t really what’s going on in My Super Sweet 16. And the effect is profoundly damaging.

Today was my first experience with the show, and aside from the major feminist red flags of excess, vanity, entitlement, and overall bitchiness running rampant through the docudrama, the most glaring pitfall about the show is its mode of delivery. The show is billed as reality TV—a term I use very loosely. It’s fairly common knowledge these days that all reality TV is just a big, scripted mess that only exists because some TV producers stumbled upon a gem with shows like The Real World that underpaid aspiring actors to fumble through some day-to-day drama while purporting to be “just living” in front of the camera. Most adults are familiar with the drill: Executives churn out these shows faster than most of us can watch them, and when you compare today’s reality TV with that of the nineties, it seems that the production value is steadily decreasing. The drama is all staged, and the people in the show are just acting, a dimension that seems particularly transparent when you have to find high-school-age contestants. Everything feels fake, and the scripted drama fails to land, giving the educated adult viewer little reason to believe that what she is seeing is real or even worth taking in.

For kids, though, it isn’t quite as clear cut, and that’s where the damage comes in. While it’s valid for girls to want to see other girls their age starring in their own TV shows—as a nod to the fact that their voices are being heard on an international scale—it’s manipulative for adult executives to market a disingenuous product like My Super Sweet 16 to them. Many teenagers are smart enough to see through the facade (that the diva who demands a $150k diamond necklace isn’t really as diva-ish or unreasonable as she performs on screen). But, the show is insulting to those girls in its assumption that it will be viewed as “reality.” In addition to selling girls short, shows like this one do a disservice to the girls who don’t fully understand the show’s fabrication by showing them that it’s okay to be not only entitled and demanding but also cruel and shallow in the pursuit of getting what you want (the party). It takes the positive ideas of something like a quinceañera, a celebration of coming of age and a loving tribute, and uglies it up into a falsely progressive world where the girl is taught to get what she wants using extremely negative means. In the Yashika episode specifically, the party’s theme is Diamonds Are Forever, a campaign that could just as easily be a corporate-driven ad placement (I’m looking at you, De Beers) as the misguided infatuation of teenage girls who are not only tied up in the idea of matrimonial diamonds but also have zero regard for the cost—not to mention the politics—of owning something that exists only to bestow value on its wearer.

More than the obvious damaging content (the diva, the fake drama), the peril ultimately lies in the fact that this is what MTV thinks of their teenage girl market. With all of MTV’s experience breaking out as a new and subversive media outlet for teenagers, this is how they see half of their market?

Sixteen Going on Married

“Lo, and behold, you’re someone’s wife, and you belong to him.” The phrase coos through Julie Andrews’s lips with a buttery smoothness that almost makes me forget what I’m hearing. After all, it’s a comfort to sink into a classic. Musicals were never required viewing at our house, but after seeing my first real Broadway show in middle school (well, “touring-cast Broadway”) I was hooked for life. Ragtime, Little Shop of Horrors, even Disney’s recycled and inflated stage venture Beauty and the Beast—I was dying to see them all. Yet somehow, even while scribbling “Brett and Erin 4-eva” on my planner’s margins during free period one afternoon, I failed to engage with The Sound of Music as it blared from a roll-away TV at the head of the classroom.

And yes, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” is the song that did it. Forget for a second that I was thirteen and nowhere near my current feminist desire to claw apart anything that told me to get married for a living. The song just felt a little ahead and to the side of itself. Why was this sixteen-year-old girl listening to some “older and wiser” boy croon on about his superiority? Why was Maria assuring Liesl tenderly that soon she too would be chosen for marriage? I lacked the vocabulary to spell out why this song rubbed me the wrong way, but it still felt obvious that something crucial was out of place.

To be fair, The Sound of Music is a historical piece that’s widely divorced from the politics of the twenty-first century. Then too, the iconic movie adaptation hit the scene in 1965, when the average American feminist was still dressing like a dowager and shunning the Lavender Menace. Given the franchise’s time, it’s unsurprising that “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” would strike an essentialist note for girls. But instead of dismissing the song’s message as a relic of a crappier era for women, it’s worth analyzing what’s going on in the scene and questioning whether girls should watch it today without being asked what it means.

The reprise between Maria and Liesl is particularly annoying to a feminist critic. It’s an assurance, from the older to the younger, that soon all of Liesl’s boy woes will end. Right now, Liesl is obviously “waiting for life to start,” poised to “jump up and go” when this boy is ready to take her time and company seriously. Inevitably, even if he doesn’t ask her to marry him, someone will. If not next year, then the one after that. And then, she’ll be his.

It’s not the marriage or romance itself that upsets me but the idea that it’s all been laid out for her. The implication, spelled out clearly, is that marriage will be Liesl’s vocation. Because she has to wait for a boy to ask for her hand, her lot rests in staying put—and trying no to be too fidgety—while she waits for someone else to give her the okay to start the next phase of her life.  A lot of movies aimed toward children and families work hard to sell the idea of compulsory marriage, and girls internalize the message most when they’re being told, directly, that marriage is the thing they’ll grow up to be best at. A boy today might view this same sequence and gather that he’ll need to get married, but he learns from the exchange that he decides when and whom to ask. A girl assumes the passive role, learning from this oldish movie that it’s probably a good idea to sit still and wait. Further, the sequence, at its face value, puts the idea of marriage at seventeen or eighteen on a girl’s radar in the first place, leaving boys at least an extra year or two to go and be bachelors (like the earlier part of the song suggests) while girls stand idly by and wait.

So why is all this a big deal? I like to think that most girls today are educated enough to spot the dated concepts without flinching, but I think the most damaging part is how a message like this flies right under the radar for most people. More than a few women I know saw this movie before they were old enough to talk, and reached adolescence with the songs already memorized. When a message is internalized and repeated in a sing-song mantra before an age when reason and critique come into play, it’s a little late to go back and re-program.

A girl might not grow to adulthood thinking she is required to get married by eighteen, but I feel like these messages seem to find a back door in women’s brains. Some years back, I was single and bought my first house, inviting my then-roommate to come and rent a room from me. She excitedly obliged, but when we went furniture shopping to get the things we each needed, she balked a little. “I’ll just get, like, a plastic set of drawers from Walmart,” she said, taking her hand off a polished wood dresser. “I mean, what if I get married?” She didn’t even have a boyfriend but was waiting for the Big Day before buying anything nice or permanent for herself. It was like she was afraid to set up shop and live her life as the established, successful adult she was because, as an un-married person, she wasn’t supposed to. Not yet.

Of course, it’s totally up to her where she keeps her underwear, and it’s entirely possible that I’m reading too far into my friend’s frugality (although she did ultimately walk away with a nice mattress and a pine dresser). It just gave me pause to think about how this woman in her late twenties felt like she had to live a sort of temporary, disposable life until someone emerged from the shadows and gave her permission to start living, like Liesl two years or so from her duet with Maria. My roommate’s hangup probably didn’t come from The Sound of Music, but the movie does present an idea for girls to come along and absorb like scented lotion. The Message comes from all over, but when placed in a popular movie, inflected by Rodger and Hammerstein, and trilled to girls by the would-be nun herself, it’s as catchy as it is ensnaring.