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16 and Pregnant
10 p.m. Tuesday
‘I'm pregnant." These are the two hardest words a teenage girl will ever have to say to her parents, not only because of the heartache and impending challenges the sentence implies. Uttering that phrase also means that the knocked-up girl at hand has, by way of succumbing (by choice or otherwise) to urges embedded in everyone by millions of years of evolution, become fodder for a national dialogue, a plaything for ideologues and a "cautionary whale," as Juno MacGuff, the patron saint of the little pink plus sign, put it.
On Jan. 26 it was revealed that, despite billions of dollars spent by the Bush administration on teen abstinence programs, the pregnancy rate during the 2000s increased a dramatic 3 percent, the first jump in nearly two decades. As it stands, approximately seven out of 100 girls in America will become pregnant during their teenage years.
The same night, MTV aired the finale of their two-month-long series, Teen Mom, one of reality TV's best and most unappreciated shows. Produced by filmmaker Morgan J. Freeman, whose teen drama Hurricane Streets won an unprecedented three awards at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997 (Freeman also worked with Todd Solondz on Welcome to the Dollhouse), Teen Mom is the continuation of last summer's 16 and Pregnant, a watershed look at the lives of real girls in an overwhelming situation.
Pregnant gave an hour-long episode (all of which are available free at MTV.com) to each of six Middle American girls — cheerleaders, overachievers, Junior ROTC leaders — who became pregnant, usually by much lesser men, during high school. The series showed these girls as flawed but strong, disappointed in the cards they'd been dealt but willing to move forward. With rare exceptions, they defied every preconception of the kind of girl who gets knocked up before she can drive.
Ebony (no last names are given), in particular, proved to be one of MTV's most fascinating characters. A biracial beauty, she was on track to graduate and start a career in the military before the pregnancy, and as she watches it all fade away, her tongue grows more barbed.
"Wouldn't it be great to just eat, poop and dream all day?" her immature boyfriend wonders aloud while observing their newborn.
"I'm worried that's your game plan," she responds.
Pregnant concluded with the birth of the teens' babies. In December, four of the six girls returned to MTV for Teen Mom, a look at the first year after birth, and if they thought deflecting their peers' judgments ("Close your legs," one boy advised Ebony) and defending themselves from parental assaults (cheerleader Farrah's mom hit her while she was pregnant, a pattern that came to a head with the mother's arrest in January for allegedly choking her daughter) was tough, they had no idea just how bad things would get. "I just want it back the way things were before," cries one teen father, reminiscing about the "good" times of the pregnancy. When coping with the impending birth of an illegitimate child conceived with an underage girl who likes to angrily slap you in the face becomes "the good times," then something has gone horribly wrong.
Almost all of the teen moms are emotionally or physically on their own in the show, either because they've left their increasingly abusive and unhelpful boyfriends or been abandoned. Amber has a breakdown at the GED office when she realizes that work will keep her from her diploma. Farrah attempts to move out on her own but is forced to grovel her way back home. Maci watches as her lunkhead boyfriend's apathy curdles into hatred toward her. Only Catelynn and her stepbrother/babydaddy, Tyler, seem to blossom. They made the wrenching decision to give up their baby for adoption in 16 and Pregnant, and their initial struggles — extreme guilt, a parent in and out of jail — turn into triumphs through their own sheer will. Their unbreakable bond is one of the most surprising and emotional arcs that MTV has ever seen, and affirms that adoption is the solution most conducive to maintaining sanity, while showing that it's never easy. (If the shows have a major fault, it's that abortion is a topic skipped entirely.)
So why does this material hit with such freshness? With its "like, um" style, it doesn't approach the hard-hitting grit of Intervention, and an argument can be made that anything standing next to Jersey Shore and Disaster Date looks like Shakespeare by comparison. Perhaps it's that the stories are crafted in such a way that the two programs serve as both confirmation of, and a rebuttal to, the faith-based national attack on teen mothers. The conservative viewpoint of teen mothers is well-known as one of disapproving patriarchal authoritarianism. But even liberals can slip into obstructive roles: "I've got two daughters … if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby," President Obama infamously told a town hall crowd in 2008.
The Obama administration's track record on teen moms has been sketchy. It eliminated $150 million in funding for abstinence-only education, but the Senate's health-care reform proposals would reinstate $50 million of that. The day after the teen pregnancy report, Obama gave his State of the Union address and made no mention of teenage moms. (He did, however, agree to give his speech at a time that didn't interrupt the Lost season premiere, so he's not wholly ignorant of TV programming.)
The second season of 16 and Pregnant is off and running (10 p.m. Tuesdays on MTV, with repeats throughout the week) with a new crop of scared moms-to-be. Wherever you fall on the disapproval-sympathy chart toward teen mothers, this show will make you change your mind. Just give it the firstname.lastname@example.org
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