As a teenager I loved watching ’80s teen movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Sixteen Candles. My friends and I watched every Molly Ringwald movie with fascination, acknowledging that between the big hairstyles and off-the-shoulder Flashdance-esque sweatshirts, there were some gritty truths told. The brutal social hierarchy that pervades every high school. The mythical handsome-yet-sincere jock. The girl who gets pregnant – and is pragmatic enough to have an abortion and move on with the rest of her life.
Obviously I was thrilled to hear that Molly Ringwald was returning to acting a couple years ago, when her show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager premiered, with Ringwald starring as the mother of one of the teenagers. Hoping for the modern, new-episode-every-week version of one of her classic films, I set my DVR. Yes, the show centers around students in high school, and there certainly are some social complexities to wrap your head around – but that’s where the similarities end. If you have not seen the show, in brief, it tells the story of Amy, a 15-year-old you loses her virginity in one night stand at band camp – and gets pregnant. Her mother, Ann, then discourages an abortion (as do most of her naive and idealistic friends), and so she has a baby. We see variety of teenagers engaged in various relationships (most of a sexual nature), and, serving as counterpoint, other teens and adults provide preachy soundbites. Brenda Hampton, the producer, is also the force behind 7th Heaven, and the new offensive ode to fat camp, Huge. Despite have a decade to preach via 7th Heaven‘s pastor and family, this show takes patronizing to new heights. Some highlights:
- Grace is the daughter of an over-the-top pious chruch-going doctor and his wife. Her father continually pressures her to wear a purity ring, announcing the virginal status of her uterus to the world. When she has sex for the first time, her father dies in a plane crash at the same time. The obvious (and illogical) correlation between the two is gnawed over until it is clear that, in fact, premarital sex = killing someone you love.
- Amy’s mother discouraged her daughter from having an abortion. She then flatly refused to be supportive or even slightly positive about her daughter’s ensuing pregnancy and child. Her annoyance with her daughter and grandson remains palpable throughout the series.
- Attempts to locate a family to adopt Amy’s baby are stymied by the pastor; instead of finding families that are suitable, he takes it upon himself to locate entirely inappropriate choices. He fails to discuss why he thinks adoption is a bad idea until confronted.
- Adrienne, seen as a promiscuous slut throughout the series, is the only one to support the idea of abortion for Amy – and now for herself. Her pro-choice tendencies are linked throughout the series to her promiscuity. Thus, we now know that one cannot be pro-choice without being a slut.
- As Adrienne considers her options, her ‘friend’ Grace (Super-Christian) continues to make it her business whether not Adrienne has an abortion – as in, pressuring her not to go through with the procedure. The show makes no mention of the illogic of a sixteen year old pretending to have an idea of the impact having a child would have on her friend. Similarly, it is assumed, and frequently mentioned that the boy Adrienne had sex with has a say in whether she has an abortion. Unless he can transfer the fetus from her body into his, he, in fact, does not get to make a decision.
- The series shows Ricky, the teenaged father of Amy’s baby, obtaining weekends-only custody of their child. This leaves Amy working evenings during the week, going to school during the day, and essentially being a night-time-only babysitter to her son… because now his father gets him every weekend – you know, when the kid is actually awake, and Amy would be around instead of working to pay for daycare. No mention of the idiocy of this arrangement – or at the very least the unfairness is made. Also, we are to believe that Ricky, a teenaged derelict living alone is considered responsible enough to care for a child. Even though he himself is a child.
- At least once (but usually more) per episode various teenagers babble about how they plan to marry their significant other of the moment. To justify sleeping with them now. The puritanical absurdity is overwhelming – particularly when they engage in group think and all consult one another before making what typically are very private decisions.
- Ann – Amy’s mother – finds herself accidentally pregnant. Despite clearly not wanting this child, having an estranged relationship with its father (although she’s not sure who the father is), she never considers an abortion. Instead she is clearly a martyr for suffering not only her grandson but also another child as well.
- In nearly every relationship, it is the boy who wants to have sex, and it is the responsibility of the girl to say no – the exception being Adrienne-the-slut, but, well, she’s clearly a slut.
- When Amy’s younger sister Ashley wants to get birth control pills her father agrees but her mother disagrees, despite experiencing an unplanned pregnancy herself and having her other teenage daughter became pregnant. Are we really to believe that Ann is delusional enough to believe that neither Amy nor Ashley should have access to contraception? While I’m sure there are many parents out there who have talked themselves into being blind to the risks of teen pregnancy – who look at the statistics and say ‘not my precious angel’ – how can the mother of a daughter who already has had a baby at 16 be one of them?
Perhaps most egregious at all though, is the continual glorification of Bristol Palin, who will have a came role on the July 5 episode since, as Hampton exhorts, she “is the most famous teenage mother in America.” Well, yes – but the rest of teenaged parenthood hardly has access the $15,000 per appearance (or more) fees that Bristol reportedly commands when she, ironically, speaks about her “difficulties.” Teenaged parenthood = an opportunity to cash in? It’s certainly making Hampton and Palin a nice living.
For the record, I’m not saying that teenaged sex is a good idea – if anything, I believe that Hampton is grossly overestimating the emotional value that teenagers place on sex, and in doing so, is glamorizing it unnecessarily. I am saying that a show that is a giant cliched PSA against abortion or even contraceptives is utterly useless – and the idyllic lifestyle of the teen mother in question, Amy, inaccurately portray teenaged parenting as something that does not entirely take over the teen’s life, and frankly, as easier than it is. Unless Hampton wants more teens to become parents (though the preachy PSAs shown at the end of each episode speak to the contrary), I fail to understand why she created the show.