Teen pregnancy rates have been steadily declining in the United States within the last 40 years, but a new study argues that in recent years, that decline has become more rapid due to a surprising source: MTV. The National Bureau of Economic Research study argues that MTV reality shows “16 and Pregnant” and its spin-offs programs have reduced the teen pregnancy rate by 5.7 percent. But while these shows may have contributed to a decline in teen pregnancy rates, they also fit a larger trend in teen pregnancy prevention of using teen mothers as objects of shame.
The study found that “16 and Pregnant” and its spin-offs may have prevented more than 20,000 births to teenage mothers since 2010. It also found that after being introduced to “16 and Pregnant,” teens and young women searched and tweeted about birth control and abortion. Obviously, this is encouraging. Women are seeking out information on reproductive health care, and in a climate where access to that information and care from traditional sources like school-sponsored sex ed programs is increasingly hard to come by, it is promising that a show may be inspiring teens and women to inform themselves by going online.
But shows like “16 and Pregnant” and its spin-offs, while they may be effective at reducing the teen pregnancy rate, as this study infers, literally use pregnant teens and teen mothers as a scare tactic to frighten teen girls. These shows turn teen mothers into commodities for public gawking.
“I didn’t like the way everything was just so dramatic and negative,” said pregnant and parenting teen advocate Gloria Malone, who blogs at Teen Mom NYC. “I felt like it was a big exploitation of these young women, their stories and their lives and children.”
While MTV claims that “16 and Pregnant” and the Teen Mom series are “documentary” programs that presumably show the reality of being a teen parent, these are highly edited experiences. Malone, who had her daughter at age 15, was featured on an after-show for MTV’s Teen Mom 2. She told TPM that she has heard reports that the girls featured on the show have had to reenact a situation that took place when the crew wasn’t there. This isn’t reality; it is a tightly constructed form of exploitive entertainment, one done at teen mothers’ expense.
The exploitation and commodification of teen mothers in MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” isn’t limited to reality shows. This simply fits a larger trend in teen pregnancy prevention efforts of shaming teen mothers and reinforcing the stigma of being a pregnant or parenting teen.
Teen and single mothers have long been framed as shameful, irresponsible moochers. From President Reagan’s racist “welfare queen” trope to President Clinton’s proposal of a national campaign to prevent teen pregnancy in a legislative effort to reform welfare, teen mothers have long served as a political tool in neoliberal efforts to dismantle the welfare state. By commodifying teen mothers as cautionary tales, shows like “16 and Pregnant” and its spin-offs have a place in this narrative, as well. They commodify teen mothers as shameful objects of social scorn and they partner with some of the very campaigns that perpetuate the neoliberal myth that teen motherhood is a burden on welfare and causes poverty.
MTV partners with or has featured teen pregnancy prevention campaigns like Stay Teen and the Candie’s Foundation, campaigns which openly shame teen mothers and often blame them for broader social ills like poverty. Stay Teen’s tagline is “I love my life. I’m not gonna mess it up with a pregnancy,” inferring that teen mothers have irrevocably ruined their lives by getting pregnant and having a child. The Candie’s Foundation uses celebrity endorsements to peddle their shaming rhetoric; a PSA featuring singer Carly Rae Jepsen reads “You’re supposed be changing the world…not changing diapers,” as if those two actions are mutually exclusive. The message is clear: teen parents can’t possibly amount to anything.
This is not what empowering teens looks like.
While “16 and Pregnant” and its spin-offs make celebrities out of the teen mothers it features, at what cost? “The compensation that these young women get isn’t worth it when all of society is looking at you, demeaning you and continuing the shame and stigma that I’m sure they feel every day tenfold,” said Malone. Fame is not a valid trade-off for being used as a prop, for reifying the shame and stigma of teen parenthood.
Critics have criticized “16 and Pregnant” for glamorizing teen pregnancy, but the truth is that no one is glamorizing teen pregnancy or teen motherhood. In fact, many of the messages sent about teen motherhood infer that teen mothers are lazy, lascivious, and irresponsible. Teen pregnancy prevention campaigns often blame teen mothers for broader social ills like poverty, when it has been known for years that poverty causes teen pregnancy, not the other way around. Teen mothers are routinely thrown under the proverbial bus in the name of teen pregnancy prevention, used as cautionary tales but never afforded the space to share their stories unfiltered and unedited.
Any effort to reduce teenage pregnancy must be met with support for teen mothers themselves. The myopic, tunnel-visioned focus on preventing teen pregnancy at any and all costs reduces teen mothers to two-dimensional objects who represent the tragedy that will befall your life is you become pregnant as a teenager. Teen mothers are not props. They are not cautionary tales. They are not horror stories of lives ruined. They are women, mothers, human beings, and they deserve to be treated with respect and compassion, not ridiculed as a some kind of carnival sideshow.
“Do I believe in prevention? Absolutely,” said Malone. “But not at the expensive of my dignity and the dignity of my peers.”
Lauren Rankin is a feminist writer and activist. Her work has appeared at publications such as Salon, RH Reality Check and TruthOut. Currently a graduate student in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, she focuses on reproductive politics and the political use of sexual shame. Follow her on twitter at @laurenarankin.
“16 and Pregnant” star Katrina begins to open up about her struggles since Todd passed away (Photo credit: MTV)