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16 and Pregnant: cautionary tale or something more?

February 23, 2010


16 and Pregnant is, honestly, a pretty easy first examination. It has appeared in the media what seems like constantly, from a negative rant in the New York Times, to a glowing review in Salon from a former teen mother. I was turned on to the show when my friend Michelle came to stay. Bored when I was at work, she turned on to find Catelynn and Tyler debating the pros and cons of giving their baby up for adoption. She, naturally, immediately alerted me of this artistic excellence, and from then on I’ve been hooked.

This, again, is not something to be proud of. I am teased for making sure the DVR is set Tuesday nights at 10pm. People indulge me when I talk about watching it, turning it into a mocking anecdote, “You know Meredyth watches 16 and Pregnant?!”. But apart from the occasional schmaltz and drama, this show is a relatively accurate social commentary. I have never been a teen mother (being in my 20s, the moment has passed me by), but I paid enough attention in health class to know that nothing good could seemingly come from it.

The show manages to pair the good with the bad. It is realistic. It is often heartbreaking, and sometimes it is enough to make your ovaries twang a little. My boyfriend, a die-hard progressive, expressed doubt about the show, because surely it only shows the positive side of teen pregnancy to discourage abortion. On the other hand, a conservative friend has expressed his doubt about the show, saying it only shows the negative of what it is like to have a child so young when many people make it work.

That is the brilliance of this show. It lacks that agenda, and aims simply to chronicle teen motherhood. People have criticised it for not showing abortion as an option. This is not the show’s purpose. The show chronicles the journey of teen pregnancy, and depending on the decision, motherhood that follows.

This being said, the show is produced in partnership with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy. Teen pregnancy rates are on the rise for the first time in a decade. The message in the show about using contraception is clear. Maci, the most admirable mother from Season 1 states that abstinence is the only 100% way to prevent pregnancy, and one she wished she employed. They also champion condoms, the Nuvaring and Depo Provera. 

The show is criticized for being a cautionary tale. Jenelle in the first episode of Season 2 is a case in point for this argument. A North Carolina beach babe, she chooses to have her son who she can dress up like a doll and take to the beach. When he is born, and proceeds to cry and needs to be fed, as infants are prone to do, she leaves him with her mother every night, simultaneously cursing and threatening to run away, while continuing to party. It emerged, after the show aired, that she smoked marijuana while pregnant, and after her son was born. She has been the victim of a public smear campaign, as people rally against her on message boards, blogs, and her personal MySpace and Facebook accounts. 

I feel for these girls, having a baby at any age isn’t easy, and at 16 when you’re still trying to figure out your own life, being responsible for creating another is truly difficult. Some girls, like superstar Maci from Season 1, you cannot help but have whole-hearted admiration and respect for. She stepped up, went to college, worked, dealt with her crumbling relationship and made raising her son look easy and enjoyable, while reminding us that although it may be the latter it is definitely not always easy. And the aforementioned Catelynn and Tyler were the most heartbreaking of all. The teens from Michigan fought their parents, who wanted them to keep their baby. Insisting they wanted a better life for her than they could possibly provide, they gave her up, and showed us the grief and loss that comes from making a selfless decision. 

Cautionary tales? No, I don’t think so. Teens will always get pregnant, and even if young girls have resolve, there will always be a young guy determined to break it. The show is an honest portrayal, an eye-opener. There may be joys that come with motherhood, but be prepared that they come with a price. Only you, whether you be 16, 20 or even 30 know if this price is worth paying. This isn’t reality tv, it’s social commentary, addressing what is often a real problem in our society. It doesn’t preach, it documents and allows you to draw your own conclusions. Maybe this is why I see it as a positive step in programming, and something that has a valid place on our TVs.

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