24 April 2009

Teen Pregnancy & The Media

The fear of white, middle-class* teenage girls becoming pregnant is nothing new. What I perceive as new is the openness and the alarmist tones in which it is being discussed by the media. Teenagers are obviously exposed to these images and this discussion. Thus, we, as educators (I’m using that term to apply to librarians in both school and public libraries), must examine how teen pregnancy is currently being portrayed by the media. We must question what this depiction means for, and to, teenagers and ourselves in our role as teacher-guides. I’ve chosen to look at a recent movie, a television show, and three real-life examples. For me, all raise more questions than answers.

The award winning movie Juno, released in 2007 to critical and popular acclaim, is the story of a teenager who becomes pregnant the first time she has sex with her best friend. While waiting in an abortion clinic, Juno decides that adoption is a better choice. Juno is a smart, quirky character who talks a mile a minute and the movie unfolds along with Juno’s pregnancy. We do see the harsh way that Juno is treated in school by her peers, but for the most part, her choices and pregnancy unfold in an easy, uncomplicated manner. There is no discussion of contraception, though Juno and Bleeker (the baby’s father) are both depicted as smart, even nerdy.

Juno’s decision to give up her child for adoption is treated as a lark and there is little time devoted to how exactly she made this choice or why. The characters in the movie can’t even utter the word “abortion.” The choice of adoptive parents seems made on a whim, as she flips through ads in the Pennysaver. (This probably isn’t terribly unrealistic, as developmentally, teenagers are not fully capable of understanding all of the consequences of their actions.) Now, I really enjoyed this movie, but, do we want to present such a movie to our children? Should the portrayal of teen pregnancy be more about the difficulties? Should such a movie also address the topic of birth control? In short, should it be more preachy?

The Secret Life of the American Teenager on ABC’s Family Channel focuses on pregnant teenage Amy and her family. Amy is keeping her child to raise herself. While I haven’t watched much of the show, as I don’t have this cable channel, I find the very active message boards on the website fascinating. People, they seem to be of all ages, comment on specific clips of scenes from the show, often relating what’s happening on the show to what’s happening in their own lives. There is an Advice section, where a lot of questions about pregnancy are posed, but also about sex, dating, and contraception. Stayteen.org, by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, is one of the advice givers. It appears that this website functions as a `clearinghouse for questions, and serves to promote dialogue about teen sex and pregnancy. A few posts describe using this show to talk about these very issues. Can a drama like The Secret Life of the American Teenager really serve this function? Should it? Can educators use it to the same effect? Would educators even be allowed to show this in a school/library setting?

The pregnancies of Nickelodean star, 16 year old Jamie Lynn Spears (in late 2007), and Vice Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin’s 17 year old daughter Bristol (in 2008) created a great deal of controversy. The mainstream media followed both events in great detail from the announcement of the pregnancy to the birth of the child. Both Spears and Palin decided to keep their babies and were, for a while, engaged to the baby’s father. Both managed to spark a national debate over birth control, abstinence programs, abortion and teen marriage. Interestingly enough, it was Spears who drew the most ire. (I wonder if that is because, as an actress/singer, she is perceived as seeking the spotlight and thus has given up all notions of privacy.) Palin, whose mother is a very conservative politician who advocates abstinence as the only form of sexual education for teens in Alaska, was treated much more gently. (As opposed to Spears, this is likely because Bristol Palin was only in the spotlight because of her mother, not because she had somehow chosen it.) What can we learn from these two stories? What can we extrapolate to help guide our teens to make good choices? Are Spears and Palin even viewed as relevant to teenagers, or is the outrage expressed by the media schadenfreude, enjoying the misfortune of others?

Last year’s story of a Gloucester, Massachusetts teen pregnancy pact was an overnight news sensation. Before it was eventually proven false, the major news outlets provided extensive coverage. There were calls to blame Juno, Jamie Lynn Spears and other young pregnant Hollywood stars. Eventually, the principal who started the media blitz, was forced to admit that it was a coincidence that 17 girls at the local high school were pregnant. The sheer number of teens at one school is sad. Again, though, what can it teach us and our teenagers? How can we use this as a tool, not to pillory these particular girls, which is what the media coverage tended toward, but to open a dialogue with teens, parents and educators?

So, is the openness with which teen pregnancy is being discussed such a bad thing? Are girls now seeing images that they want to emulate, as some media outlets have claimed? All the focus is on the pregnancy, less on contraception, or what led them to become pregnant, and little attention is paid to the difficulties of coping with a newborn or the aftermath of adoption. How can we help teenagers and/or their parents to have open and honest discussions about these topics? Can we use these stories, the movies or television shows to open a dialogue? Or, is it, once again, simply about the media’s desire to put before the audience the most scandalous or sensational stories to get the most attention and garner higher ratings?

*The way that minority and low-income teenage girls and pregnancy is portrayed by the media is worthy of its own examination. Also worthy of examining is the fact that the boys or men who fathered these children are often overlooked in these sorts of discussions, though it bears repeating that they play an equal part at conception but rarely after that.

1 comment:

  1. I've also noticed the baby boom in teens and their media. To add to your list, on the new 90210, one of the girls finds out she's pregnant by an old, drug-using friend. She doesn't realize that she's pregnant until it's too late to have a safe abortion (seriously - how do you not know?!), so she's forced to choose between keeping the baby and giving it up for adoption. She was all for adoption, adamant in her decision, until she started seeing an ex-boyfriend, a straight-edge type of guy with a good influence who's happened to be infatuated with her since they were kids. Now he's proposed to her and apparently they're going to get married. Married! This sort of scene happens in The Secret Life of the American Teenager too, with the teenage boyfriend wanting to get married to the pregnant girl to make her life easier. Haha. I'm sorry, but this is not derived from any sort of reality that I'm familiar with. Where I'm from, guys aren't falling over themselves asking pregnant gals to marry them because they love them so much and want to be fathers to their babies. Is this a new trend? We've gone through the Jerry Springer-type of girl, the one who is desperate to be a teenage mom many times over - is it the guy's turn now? I don't understand, and I'm quite uncomfortable seeing it on tv, especially on the shows targeted at teens. What are they going to think? That they can get pregnant and some poor sap will marry them and they'll live happily ever after as a family? I know that some pregnant teens do choose the route of marriage for various reasons, but this is not something they take lightly. It's not a "let's get hitched" on a whim and start our lives together sort of occurrence. At least I hope not.

    Peyton on One Tree Hill is also pregnant this season, but she's a grown-up in a committed relationship, even though the baby wasn't exactly planned. And now I'm just waiting for one of the Gossip Girl ladies to get pregnant...

    On a more personal note, I don't exactly have much experience with teen pregnancy except for the horror stories my younger sister shares with me. Apparently, one of her friends has had three abortions and the same amount of miscarriages. This I do not comprehend. You'd think that after the first one or two, she'd look into the pill or go to Sam's and buy condoms in bulk, but no. I feel horrible about these situations. As if it's my responsibility to be a sex educator too. But I have the information at my fingertips - shouldn't I share it? I know that in many schools, this is not possible, especially if they're sticking to an abstinence-only curriculum. This strays off the topic just a little, but I wonder, what's a school librarian to do in that situation? If a student wants to know more about contraception or STDs and it's not covered in their health class on purpose (I'm speculating here - I don't know what is actually included in an abstinence-only education) and the library just so happens to subscribe to Teen Health & Wellness, isn't it our responsibility to direct them to that information - even if it goes "against" the curriculum? Oh, the fuzzy areas I never even thought about!