Pregnant on Primetime

24 Jan

After Lifetime’s debut of the original movie The Pregnanacy Pact, the verdict is in: America has a cultural fascination with sensational pregnancies—and the more controversial, the better (remember Octomom?).

The timeline could be said to start on April 10, 2007, with the premiere of Discovery Health’s (later, TLC’s) Jon & Kate Plus 8, which followed the beleaguered parents of one pair of twins and another set of sextuplets.  The late-2009 divorce made headlines everywhere; meanwhile, viewer-ship skyrocketed to 10.6 million for the episode announcing the couple’s separation—talk about sensation.

Next to come was 17 Kids and Counting (as of today, the count’s up to 19) in September 2009, documenting the surprisingly tranquil Duggar household (the only marital problems I can posit seem to be the ongoing quest for more names starting with “J” for the ever-increasing Duggar brood).  A handful of one-hour specials aired starting in 2004, but publicity shot up once Michelle Duggar’s number of kids could be rounded up to 20.  (Just one more, Mom…)

On the fictional front, The Secret Life of the American Teenager brought teen pregnancy to ABC in a big way.  With a middle-aged Molly Ringwald, a theme song titled “Let’s Do It,” and possibly the most obnoxiously didactic dialogue I’ve ever heard, “Secret Life” succeeds 7th Heaven (no surprise there: they had the same producer) as the only show on primetime to exceed The 700 Club in painful moralizing—the best way I can describe the cast is as sermons with legs.  From the New York Times: “ ‘Secret Life’ doesn’t take the fun out of teenage pregnancy, it takes the fun out of television.”

To be honest, I want the three minutes of my life back that I spent writing that paragraph above—the program is probably the worst show you’re not watching (at least, I sincerely hope you’re not watching).  The reason I mention it is that “Secret Life,” despite its abysmal reviews, still has millions of viewers.  The only explanation I can offer is the guilty pleasure hypothesis: pregnancy is something of a taboo subject in a country where the spirit of Puritanism yet lingers around social discussions (or lack thereof) about sexuality.

In any case, summer 2009 saw MTV’s 16 and Pregnant bring some reality to the issue of teenage pregnancy—the spin-off series Teen Mom continues to document the lives of the young women from the first series.  And for every insult I paid “Secret Life,” Teen Mom gets a thumbs-up (about the number of thumbs the Duggar kids have all told).  Of the four, three of the young mothers are exceptionally admirable (one still insists on going out clubbing all night, but 3 out of 4 ain’t bad):

Maci devotes every ounce of attention to her son Bentley, even when her (loser) fiancé doesn’t lift a finger to help; she’s about as responsible as I can imagine any mother of any age to be.  Amber doggedly pursues her GED while caring for baby Leah; and Catelynn made the tough choice of giving her daughter up for adoption with considerable grace.  The hardships of being a teen mom come across loud and clear—but the heroines are a lot more admirable than Molly Ringwald’s fictional daughter.

Which brings up to the most recent depiction of sensational pregnancy on television: Lifetime’s The Pregnancy Pact, based off of the June 2008 news story about a supposed “pact” between 18 girls at a Gloucester, MA high school to get pregnant and raise their kids together.  While the existence of such an agreement was never proven, the media had a field day, capitalizing on the cultural fixation that makes us shake our heads in disapproval while at the same time glued to the television screen.

Lifetime’s fictionalized account raises the issue of this sort of hypocrisy and more.  I was personally pleased to see a blogger-turned-investigative-reported take center stage, but that’s ultimately less important than the interesting question The Pregnancy Pact raises about America’s sometimes-contradictory cultural values.

Sara, our protaganist, is the daughter of no less than the Family Values Committee president, and it shows—“All I need to make me happy is to get married and have kids.  That’s all I want.” she insists, when blogger Sidney (who was the little sister in Hocus Pocus the last time I saw her, by the way) questions why such a bright girl would want to get pregnant so young.

It seems like a contradiction on Sara’s part, to be so traditional in her values and yet ignore the injunction to abstain, but there’s just as glaring a paradox in the rhetoric of such as the Gloucester “Family Values Committee.”  Unmarried pregnancy is a mistake, but babies are a gift from God?  Something of a ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ sort of outlook, I’d imagine, but confusing nonetheless.  It confuses Sara and her Gloucester friends, at least.

The Pregnancy Pact does get a bit pedagogical toward the end, but I’m willing to forgive in this case—the message isn’t the “Secret Life” sort of Teenage Pregnancy is Bad; Don’t Have Sex.  Nor is it simply a blanket call for contraceptives in schools.  In this case, the idea is a little more subtle:

“I’m beginning to see that talking about this is a good thing,” Sidney’s ex-boyfriend admits at one point, to which she responds.

And I’m of the opinion that this sort of attitude applies just as strongly outside the Gloucester city limits—as long as we’re watching these shows behind closed doors, we might as well admit what tv producers already know: we need a cultural outlet for dialogue about sex, pregnancy, and the things society tells us are aberrant.  At the risk of being didactic myself, I’ll quote Lifetime’s crusading blogger Sidney Bloom:

“What we need to do now is have a real conversation.”

It may not be a coincidence that the mysterious exploding pregnancy rate happened in Gloucester, after all—old Nat Hawthorne set The Scarlet Letter in Massachusetts for a reason: that Puritan mindset doesn’t die easily.


14 Responses to “Pregnant on Primetime”

  1. sparks123 January 24, 2010 at 7:14 pm #

    The teenage programming is truly pathetic. Have you seen “My Life As Liz”? It’s basically a pseudo-hipster version of “The Hills” that portrays rural Texans as a bunch of rubes.

  2. giveitasecondlook January 24, 2010 at 7:59 pm #

    Excellent post. I agree that shows which portray teen pregnancy are most effective as learning tools when they encourage a candid dialogue about teenage pregnancy. I wholeheartedly believe in access to information being the best tool. Thanks for sharing your point of view.

  3. Tara Aarness January 24, 2010 at 11:35 pm #

    Many subjects today are still considered ‘taboo’ or at the very least, not talked about openly. Sex, in any form, is near the top of that list. Thanks for discussing a subject that many would still rather turn a blind eye to.

  4. Webcompanion January 25, 2010 at 4:39 am #

    Thank you for this superb post. You just hit the hammer on the nail as far as teen pregnancy is concerned

  5. Jim Hagen January 25, 2010 at 1:20 pm #

    Do any of these shows point out that a lot of teen (and 20-something) mothers have a second and third child because the welfare system and poor put-upon grandparents are great enablers?

  6. kika January 25, 2010 at 2:38 pm #

    My question is, will these kind of programs reach the effect that are meant to?
    I don´t think so. Teenagers are not interested in getting the message and adults are too busy to explain the real situation.

  7. Anonymous January 25, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    Thank you for being so honest in this post. Although I still feel that teenage pregnancy is a definite sign of depravity…

  8. teeth whitening January 25, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

    Well spoken. I have to research more on this as it is really vital info

  9. Lakia January 25, 2010 at 4:39 pm #

    I actually missed this show, but I heard some really interesting things about it. I think there is a lot going on and there is a fascination with young women becoming pregnant.

  10. jingle January 25, 2010 at 8:07 pm #

    interesting post,
    lovely ideas…

  11. Phil Tyler January 25, 2010 at 9:52 pm #

    If abortion was fully legal and available, it wouldn’t matter how many or who got pregnant.
    Solution, check, win.

  12. stock January 26, 2010 at 3:26 am #

    well pregnancy is a gift of god but in developing nations its rate is really too fast while in some countries like Russia is below normal

  13. brismom May 25, 2010 at 11:55 pm #

    I come from a County of barely over 80K people…you can only imagine how “nearsighted” these people are. I moved away at 18, and when I came back 10 years later, most of my classmates had 2 or more children. By the time I hit 30, they were asking why I was still single and childless,
    yes, you’re reading this and thinking “Wow…she must be an ugly blob!”…but not so…actually I was very “sought out”, as being the most mature and attractive, unmarried famale available.
    My thought had always been…”You can’t have a child, without having a Father”…so I didn’t have any children. I’d met many interesting and successful men, but not any whom I would want to be a “father” to any children I might have.
    Luckily, shortly before my 33rd birthday, I did finally meet a man…and not one I would have “normally’ even given any notice to…and 3 1/2 years after we married, I managed to have a wonderful kiddo, whom has been the Liight of our Life.
    That all sounds so cutesie and squishy…the truth is…I came from a well-to-do family, and I had a great future ahead of me…in the summer before my Sr. year, I got involved with someone whom was in his 3rd yr. Pre-law…I thought we were in-love…and then I realized I had gotten pregnant, despite my birth control.
    He got goofy and enlisted in the Air Force for 6 years (w/o speaking to me, about this decision)…I knew I had a life ahead…and it obviously wasn’t going to include him…so my parents covered for me.
    I have Never forgotten that my little boy would 30 years old, now.
    So…no…I’d never advocate a child, having a child…that is wrong…they haven’t even matured and grown-up, nor fulfilled their potential…that is just “wrong”, on so many levels.
    But I’m also certain that they may have a better conscience, if they gave the child to a couple whom would be wonderful, but are unable to have children of their own. There are SO many of those couples…and SO many people whom seem to “breed” and haven’t a single concern for the children…that’s so sad, and so sick.


  1. Pregnant on Primetime « The Scattering - January 25, 2010

    […] Excerpt from: Pregnant on Primetime « The Scattering […]

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