Jenelle, the young subject of the latest episode of the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant, which aired on Feb. 16, is a spectacularly surly new mother. Before she gives birth to son Jace, Jenelle says in her thick North Carolinian accent that she imagines motherhood will be like "dressin' up a doll every day." But when the baby comes, it's not like her fantasy at all. Jenelle's "alcoholic," ex-model boyfriend refuses to visit and calls her a "piece of crap" repeatedly, and her mother is constantly haranguing her for going out clubbing and leaving the baby at home. Toward the end of the hourlong episode, Jenelle openly regrets having a baby while still in high school. She says to a friend, "Imagine bein' in prison. That's what [motherhood is] like, bein' in prison."
If Jenelle sounds like a cautionary tale, it's because 16 and Pregnant explicitly intends to portray her as one. The extremely popular show, now in its second season, and its spin-off, Teen Mom, are designed to deter adolescents from becoming mothers—a relevant issue as teen-pregnancy rates are up for the first time in more than a decade. The shows, which follow adolescent mothers as they struggle to raise their children, are produced in partnership with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The organization distributes free copies of the first season of the show along with discussion guides to put the drama in context.
16 and Pregnant executive producer Morgan J. Freeman calls the show a powerful public service, and it is undeniably dramatic and intense: The girls rage at their mothers and their hapless boyfriends whine on the sidelines as they struggle to raise their infants. The show also has an impressive reach: Jenelle's upsetting episode was more popular than the Winter Olympics among women under 34. But its strength as a public service is more questionable. Can a television show really convince teens that they should wait to become mothers? And even if it can, is it worth the cost of offering up a handful of young women as public examples during perhaps the most vulnerable period of their lives?
There is actually data to support the notion that a dramatic, narrative show like 16 and Pregnant could make adolescent girls more likely to use contraception. A recent study from Ohio State University showed that college-age women who watched an episode of The O.C. depicting a pregnancy scare were more likely to try to use birth control than women who watched a show in a news format about the hardships of teen motherhood. "[I]f you vicariously experience a bad result happening to you by watching a narrative program, that may change behavior in a way that is difficult to achieve through a direct message," wrote co-author Emily Moyer-Gusé. This principle has been proven and tested in many countries that use soap operas to spread public-service messages. A 2007 study showed that in rural India, women who watched soap operas with empowering story lines were more likely to say that wife-beating was unacceptable and were more likely to send their female children to school.
But at what price does 16 and Pregnant get this message across? As an adult viewer, I cringed while watching Jenelle's painful relationship unravel. Because she is a minor, I worried about the repercussions she would face for putting her life out there and wondered whether she could really understand the consequences. The cruel comments on MTV's Web site—"You suck as a person and are a horrible mom"—are only a small part of what Jenelle and the other subjects of the show must face. Appearing on reality TV makes your entire life public fodder on a scale much bigger than just a Facebook page, as this blog post about Jenelle's alleged marijuana use makes clear.
While MTV aims to send a good message with earnest shows about teen motherhood, the message gets muddled when it is in the context of the network's other reality programming. Commercials for the current season of 16's sister show, Teen Mom, ran around the same time as the reality juggernaut Jersey Shore, which depicted consequence-free carousing. Why, a teenager may wonder, is Jenelle's beach-bunny act so terrible when it looks like Snooki has so much fun behaving in a similar manner?
And what about the boys? Curiously, the Ohio State study showed that watching the narrative program had a negative effect on young male viewers, who were "much less likely to increase their intentions to use birth control" after viewing the preggo drama on The O.C. Irresponsible young men are a recurring theme on 16 and Pregnant as well. With the exception of menschy Tyler from Season 1, who stuck by girlfriend Catelynn through the birth of their daughter Carly and her subsequent adoption, the baby's daddies portrayed on the show are pretty uniformly losers and jerks. The father of Jenelle's son spends a week in jail on a DUI charge immediately after Jace is born. Yet somehow, it's the girls who are ultimately made examples of.
I recently met with two teens who will appear on upcoming episodes of 16 and Pregnant, Chelsea from South Dakota and Lori from Ohio. They had both watched the first season yet had not at all digested the notion that they were going to be starring in a national morality play. Watching Jenelle's episode put the issue in focus for the girls—and they were terrified. Chelsea, a tan brunette with long glossy hair who says she has a rocky relationship with the father of her daughter, says it made her scared for her episode to air. "I feel like people are going to judge [Jenelle]. What are people going to say about me?"
Lori, a soft blonde with big features and ornately manicured nails, was also anxious about her episode airing, but seemed to have considered privacy issues more than Chelsea had. Her mother is the one who signed her up to be on 16 and Pregnant, and Lori—an adoptee whose son has been adopted—said no to the show at first, because it was too invasive. But she relented because she wanted to show other teens that open adoption is a viable option. * "I did the show so people could relate to me," Lori says. Certainly some teens will be sympathetic to Lori, who had a charming vulnerability about her. But along with the kindred spirits will surely be the haters, and they will unleash their vitriol on the Internet and possibly even in person.
"Do I think they're doing themselves and their children a disservice [by appearing on the show]? I don't know," says Amy Kramer, director of entertainment media and audience strategy for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. According to executive producer Freeman, the subjects of 16 and Pregnant are financially compensated for their time, though he says he doesn't know the details of what they receive. "I don't think there's anything of an exploitative nature in what we're doing," Freeman says. He is adamant that the casting people weed out any potential subjects who just want to be on TV, because he is searching for a deeper truth. "We do our best to show a very unvarnished and honest portrayal of their experience."
Freeman is right—the show is far from whitewashed. That's precisely why it's such good TV. But maybe essential truth isn't in the best interest of these girls, for whom excising some of their most unpleasant moments could be the equivalent of a televised white lie. It would not have made Jenelle's experience seem any less difficult if the producers had left the part where she tells her mother to "get the fuck out of my face" on the cutting room floor. However, especially for girls who are already pregnant, the show can provide a valuable lifeline. Chelsea says she signed up for the show because she was inspired by Maci and Farrah, pregnant teens from the first season. Watching the show gave Chelsea strength. It's unclear whether appearing on the show will result in such a positive outcome.
Correction, Feb. 22, 2010: The piece originally stated that Tyler and Catelynn from season 1 had a closed adoption. They did not. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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