Although many pregnant teens in America no longer fear branding with scarlet letters or feel the need to go into hiding, considerable stigmatization persists, and these young women are often affected adversely by stereotyping. "Teenage mothers are often perceived as a homogeneous group of immature, irresponsible, single, benefit-dependent, unfit parents who deviate from ideals of motherhood" (Yardley 671). Recent media portrayals including the independent him Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007), and television series about young mothers such as The Secret Life of the American Teenager (ABC Family 2008-2013) both challenge and perpetuate these perceptions. While the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports of dramatic declines in teen birth rates in the United States over the past several decades ("Teen Pregnancy" N.P., Hamilton and Ventura N.P.), they have tended to sideline some of the concerns about teen pregnancy. In the world of television, teen celebrities such as Jamie Lynne Spears and Bristol Palin--who not only made their pregnancies public but extended media events--put teen maternity back into the mainstream in the late 2000s. Citing a history of activism in social issues (and well aware of a sustained ratings slump), Viacom's MTV dramatically addressed the subject of teen pregnancy with a series of very popular programs which featured often incongruous, on-screen portrayals of youngsters journeying into motherhood (Arango A1). The MTV reality shows 16 and Pregnant (2009-2012) and its spin-off, Teen Mom (2009-2012; revived as Teen Mom OG--in reference to the "original girl" cast--from 2015-present) have established their place in the rise of what Imogen Tyler dubs "maternal television" (Wood and Skeggs 210). The controversial representations of teen mothers in these programs and core issues surrounding teen pregnancy more broadlyare discussed in this article. MTV's representations are explored both from the perspective of two modes of storytelling--documentary and reality television--that the network successfully negotiates. In addition, related choices in characterization, including the ways that the teen moms cast the shadows of some familiar feminine stereotypes, are also discussed.
Produced by Morgan J. Freeman and Dia Sokol Savage, 16 and Pregnant was originally meant to be a six-part documentary special focusing on the tough times facing new teen mothers. It premiered with over 2 million viewers (Daly 6) and quickly turned into a primetime reality TV sensation which arguably glamorized teen motherhood by serving up dramatic plot twists involving its highly paid protagonists, particularly as it evolved into the series Teen Mom. Initially, the programs attracted an average of 5.5 million viewers, were franchised worldwide and were at the center of what was then dubbed the "teen mom" phenomenon (Goldberg N.P.). According to Nielsen, in later seasons the programs garnered 3 million viewers each week and were still the network's top-rated series after Jersey Shore (MTV, 2009-2012) ("MTV Rings" 2010, N.P.). At the time of the writing of this article, the franchise is still doing well. Despite the shock value of the teen mom phenomenon having dissipated, 16 and Pregnant remained a top ten original cable series (Metcalf 2016, N.P.), and continued to renew season after season, with later episodes emphasizing where are they now? themes with touches of nostalgia (Shaffer 2015, N.P.).However, despite the escalation of dramatic themes diverging from teen pregnancy and teen motherhood per se, the various iterations of these shows have followed suit with the original by continuing to intimately portray the tumultuous lives of real teen moms-turned television stars.
Despite the ostensible educational mission and the message that teen pregnancy is fraught with hardship and therefore something to be avoided, these MTV programs have been highly controversial. The most commonly heard criticisms have questioned the educational value of the messages that these representations of teen pregnancy send out to a target audience that includes pre-teens and MTV's core viewership known to comprise 12 to 24 year-olds (ChozickB4). Both series were created with input from the Kaiser Family Foundation as well as the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (Guglielmo viii), and considerable thought was apparently put into sensitively crafting valuable information pertinent to reproductive health --accurate from an educational standpoint, as well as compelling socially. However, critics across a fairly wide spectrum of opinion, including feminist blogger Jessica Valenti (Valenti, N.P.),and conservative watchdog organizations such as the Parent's Television Council (Henson N.P.) have lamented the way that MTV has touted these programs as educational despite the limited and, in some cases, potentially misleading information that these programs provide. For example, Valenti has pointed out the very limited discussion of the option of abortion on MTV's teen pregnancy programs, whether in the colloquial discussions amongst members of the cast, or in the interlude segments dedicated to more formal "medical talk." (These interlude segments were provided y one of the show's hosts, celebrity physician Dr. Drew Pinsky.) Moreover, a pervasive criticism of 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom, and its various spin-offs is that the hybrid or overlapping nature of the program format--part documentary, part reality television--may have the overall effect of glorifying the circumstances of young mothers even though their pregnancies and early experiences as young mothers are on balance depicted as struggles. They are "entertainment struggles" that seem to come to a resolution or some enticing stalemate over the course of an hour, obviating the perspective of long-term consequences of teen pregnancy; regardless of the intentions of the shows' producers, these dramatizations could paradoxically encourage teen pregnancy in some circumstances. Although this is a reasonable concern given the relative novelty of the interactions of very young viewers with reality TV dramatizations in which the lead characters are at once troubled teens and media stars, there is some evidence that these shows may have actually contributed to a decline in teen births in the United States. A 2015 study by Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine reported a marked decrease in teen births in the United States in the 18 months after 16 and Pregnant first aired (3599). These investigators described an acceleration of a decline in teen births already noted in the years leading up to the shows' debut and attributed some of the declines in teen births during that period to an increase in on-line searches and social media conversations surrounding birth control and abortion among the 16 and Pregnant viewership. Although their findings are open to different interpretations, the ambitious scope of this study speaks to the depth of the controversies surrounding teen pregnancy and the potential power attributed to media representations.
Regardless of the impact of the television teen baby boom on the country's vital statistics, if any, viewer ratings and the emergence of a thriving fan culture (see for example the vast numbers of 16 and Pregnant self posts and Teen Mom parodies on YouTube) firmly establish that MTV launched an impressive fleet in 2009. These are programs with a few novel production features, but nothing about them that can be called unique or transformative, and yet they stayed more or less on course for the better part of a decade, sustaining a loyal following while drawing in millions of new viewers along the way. It is highly unlikely that a sounding board for education on teen pregnancy, no matter how skillfully produced, or yet another soap opera would have had such staying power. Rather, it seems clear that MTV's viewers developed attachments to the cast of characters. More specifically, I would argue that viewers developed attachments to the compelling archetypes that drive the stories of the teen moms; these stories are not just filled with common social controversies and the everyday struggles of pregnant teens, but they are tales of lost innocence, rites of passage, and opportunities for redemption. While the details of the lives of these mothers often seem plain or even sordid, at their best these programs offer glimpses of the high drama of fallen angels and phoenix-like heroes.
To create stories with compelling characters that seem larger than themselves in the sense described above, the producers of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom had to make choices. In bringing together creative resources to organize a cast and generate scripts, however loose, choices were made about the way in which gender identity and gender relations, the sexuality of characters, and their positions in domestic and social hierarchies were going to be portrayed for their viewers. The extent to which these decisions are wholly conscious or not is often contested, but it is reasonable to argue that "media representations of gender are ideological" (Friesem, 370). To the extent that these representations are ideological, social cognitive theory predicts that viewers, particularly young individuals still forming their identities and without direct experience in matters of pregnancy and childbirth, may be influenced in important and enduring ways (Lovell, 2008). In my preliminary observations of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, I noted that when teen mothers interacted with other members of the cast, including both authority figures and their peers, they were often characterized as "failed virgins" facing an immediate series of threats. In contrast, the teen fathers more often than not were treated as neutral figures with heroic potential (heroic in the sense that they were behind bringing offspring into the world). The bar seemed to be set relatively low for the fathers; it...