According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 86 percent of mothers who give birth out-of-wedlock are teenagers. MTV’s show “16 & Pregnant,” which has only been on air since June 2009, is already reflecting the rapid boom in teenage pregnancy across various cities in America. Since the early eighties MTV has been considered somewhat of a cultural phenomenon for American adolescents and its depiction of gender has a strong impact that continues to this day (Holtzman 2000).
Created by Morgan J. Freeman (director of teen shows Dawson’s Creek and Laguna Beach), the show “16 & Pregnant” has been said to be guilty of exacerbating, normalizing and even glorifying teen pregnancy. Perhaps, it’s just reflecting a current social dilemma occurring amongst female youth. Each week a new episode revolves around a different girl struggling with the challenges of teenage pregnancy. The network presents these characters as “real”, plucked from the grips of reality, validated and “chosen” to represent some sort of normalized or otherwise glamorized middle-class identity of teenage motherhood.
The show depicts women’s roles that are often typified to include traditional gendered norms of heterosexual relationships, marriage, motherhood and femininity. “16 & Pregnant” serves as a platform to broadcast what is seen as a stereotypical American culture that is now engulfing teen girls everywhere. The social identities MTV presents reinforces those of traditional female roles and gender norms and attempts to establish a new model for pregnant teens in a modern age.
Just by airing the show, MTV is assimilating new ideas of teen pregnancy into American society. Historically, there has always been some sort of unspoken Christian tradition that has governed American women’s birth rights; that one should not get pregnant out-of-wedlock. Today, however, teenage pregnancy is so rampant that families are forced to deal with the situation in a positive manner, often honoring the decision the child has made in regards to keeping and raising the newborn child (Gallagher 2009).
In a 2004 survey, the Parents Television Council reported that MTV is the most watched program for those between the ages of 12 and 19. Studies showed watching MTV created a more liberal attitude toward pre-martial sex. Teenagers who watch MTV receive messages about sex that are likely to sway their own behavior. MTV is shaping the identity of the “teenage mom,” a pregnant 16 year old high school student whose uncertainty about motherhood is due to the fact that she views her pregnancy as the consequence of a selfish action that was ultimately unavoidable.
16 & Pregnant” normalizes sexual behavior that eventually forces teenage girls into the traditional gender role of the “grieving mother”, one who is forced to take care of a baby while struggling to support herself (Schmidt 2009). The first episode of “16 & Pregnant” takes place in Chattanooga, Tennessee and documents the life of Maci who gets pregnant by her first boyfriend, Ryan. For Maci, adoption and abortion were never an option, she figured she made the decision to have unprotected sex so now she must deal with the consequences.
At one point during an argument in the show, Ryan yells out, “If we didn‘t have a kid, we wouldn’t be together,” and it’s clear from watching the that the two are still just teens. Maci struggles to take care of her newborn child, who, once born, requires constant attention and deals with the turmoil of trying to get Ryan involved in the relationship of fatherhood. The “teen mom” is now a stable identity offered up on the MTV network to heterosexual female youth; a child who is forced to mature and deal with adult realities as an accepted way of life.
The show is sending a message that it is normal for teenage girls to deal with such serious issues as: birth control, adoption, abortion, marriage, and finances, further cementing these issues into the female identity at a young age. Maci symbolizes that it is now acceptable for a sixteen year old girl to be a dedicated mother in America. Episode two introduces Farrah, a cheerleader from Council Bluffs, Iowa who juggles school, work and cheer practice. Her life becomes a lot more complicated when she finds out she is pregnant.
Farrah’s best friend turns on her spreading nasty rumors, forcing Farrah to finish school online. Farrah’s ex-boyfriend, also the baby’s father, begins to harass her after he finds out she is pregnant which leads her to change her number. “I would have never lost my virginity to someone I believed would treat me like this,” Farrah exclaims about her ex-boyfriend. Farrah struggles with single motherhood and has to deal with a judgmental parent who looks down upon her decisions.
Episode two again reinforces traditional American cultural eliefs of female gender roles by portraying the woman as the single mother, ultimately responsible for the child, showing the girl dealing with emotional problems while trying to hold the family together, tasks and situations often associated with femininity. These images become engrained on a young viewers minds and being sixteen and pregnant becomes just another fad for young girls to consider. “MTV has a long history of reflecting the lives of our viewers with compelling reality stories,” says Tony DiSanto, MTV’s president of programming.
The program’s featured girls come from rural Mid-Western or Southern states, usually from small, working-class towns, in attempt to appeal to teenage girls of the same background. The implicit message at the center of the series’ class prejudice implies that working-class girls from middle America, should opt to have a child because it’s as good a road to character development as working on the high school yearbook (Bellafante 2009). The show reinforces the stereotype that a woman is at least a good mother, if not anything else and displaces the identity of “teen mom” onto middle American teenage girls.
16 and Pregnant” seems to, above all, incite viewers to working-class voyeurism, given how many cliches of lower-income American life are exploited. It could be possible that other MTV shows, are themselves, responsible for increases in teenage pregnancy. Shows such as “The Hills” and “The Real World” both portray the loose sexual morals of a younger generation, which eventually leads to an adoption of those ideals from the show’s younger viewers. Researchers at the Rand Corp. say they have documented for the first time how such exposure to sexual content on TV can influence teen pregnancy rates.
They found that teens exposed to the most sexual content on TV are twice as likely as teens watching less of this material to become pregnant before they reach age twenty. This means that if teenagers think having sex is the “norm” they will continue to engage in it. “The relationship between exposure of this kind of content on TV and the risk of later pregnancy is fairly strong,” says Anita Chandra, a behavioral scientist. “Even if it were diminished by other contributing factors, the association still holds” (Bellafante 2009).
So, is it in fact MTV who is esponsible for the abundance of pregnant teens it is helping to exploit? One thing for sure is that such a program like “16 & Pregnant” is endorsing and sanctioning teenage girls as hyper-sexed individuals. So, why does a television show have such an immense impact on the female identity? Sociologist Chris Barker’s study of British Asian girls’ television viewing practices in the U. K. suggest that soap operas provide young women with resources to discuss issues that may not be sanctioned within some of the religious and cultural spaces they inhabit (N&K 2008).
Nayak and Kehily, authors of Gender Youth & Culture (2008), would argue that this theory could be applied to teenage girls and reality television shows in the U. S. By watching these shows the conceptualization of “appropriate femininities” are derived. These shows allow young girls to make moral and ethical judgments about what they see and refashion gender values to suit their own identities (N&K 2008). The girls in “16 & Pregnant” largely conform to the values of normative femininity in their search for romance, marriage, and long term happiness with a male partner
In the end, MTV is glamorizing the life of a teen mother and cementing its identity in a society where sex at a younger and younger age is already becoming the norm. “16 & Pregnant” is perpetuating the normalization of traditional gender roles by portraying young girls who have already been forced to take on such general notions of femininity and female identity. The young, unwed mom has now become a new identity for young girls to aspire to. Popular culture and the ways in which it is consumed forms a key site for the learning of gender identities, and MTV is the designated teacher.
Courtney from Study Moose
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