Earlier this year I attended the grand opening celebration of a brand new regional Planned Parenthood facility in NE Portland. I had the opportunity to speak with Cecile Richards and had a lengthy, albeit off the record, conversation with her personal assistant about the state of pro-choice activism and among other things, the explosion of pop-culture’s obsession with teen moms and teen pregnancy.
I expressed to her that I was amazed at how popular show’s like MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and it’s follow up series, Teen Mom, had become in the past couple of years. To this, she simply replied that its a shame there is no show on television that shows a teen girl saying,”I want to have sex, but in order to protect myself I am going to use a condom and take birth control.”
Indeed, there are hardly any shows that provide the pro- practical/realistic choice side of the abortion debate (I hate saying that). A teen can turn on ABC’s The Secret Life of an American Teenager or MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and get plots rife with anti-choice, anti-woman rhetoric. There are no educational messages about all reproductive health options available to sexually active young women and men.
The only show that of late has given viewers a glimpse of abortion as a real option has been “Friday Night Lights.” Sarah Seltzer explains the importance of the show’s writers creating a character that has an abortion. To sum up Seltzer’s analysis, “Friday Night Lights” not only frames the decision of the high school sophomore to have an abortion in a non-political and deeply personal way, it displays exactly how harmful the anti-choice movement really is. On the show, the anti-choice character comes into young woman’s life with an agenda, while the person who helps the character chose a decision best for her (an abortion, in this case) is the perfect example of what the pro-choice movement is all about.
This show will probably end up the recipient of protests once it moves to NBC, which is a real shame. Last year, the popular satirical cartoon on FOX , “Family Guy,” had to halt production of an episode in which the wife has an abortion. The show of course never aired, and hard core “Family Guy” fans such as myself had to listen to a reenactment of the script by the cast on YouTube in order to know what was so offensive about the episode. Of course, nothing was offensive about it. Lois, a middle class, married woman had an abortion. But the subject of abortion is still too taboo, too much for pop-culture to absorb, too against everything the anti-choice movement and most of our society’s dominant political and religious figure heads have worked for, or at least according to FOX.
I watched last week’s season two debut episode of MTV’s Teen Mom eagerly, excited to get a follow up on all of these young women’s lives. The story lines in this show go as follows
– I had sex with my boyfriend and had a baby, we are now struggling to survive now that the baby is a toddler
-I had sex, have a baby and am a single parent struggling through community college
-I had a baby and placed her with an adoptive family
I like this show because in many ways I can relate with each woman. I have been where they are, I know their pain, desires, their drama. But what I have found on this season’s debut, however, was something far more sinister: MTV is pushing an anti-choice agenda.
For example, cast member Maci has broken up with long time boyfriend and father of her one year old son Bentley, and now she is struggling to go to school, work and raise her son on her own. In this episode she also takes her ex-boyfriend to court so she can get child support. All of this is a pretty good representation of the reality young people face with an unplanned pregnancy. Shit like what Maci is going through will happen, and for the most part, it totally sucks. But during a staged conversation, Maci said something that made me want to scream with rage.
“If I knew that things would be like this,” she told her mother, “I would never have had sex.”
Now who does that sound like? Bristol Palin anyone? Of course Maci could have said that it wouldn’t have been like this if she had made different choices, if she had been aware of and made use of all legal options available to her. But that would have meant talking about things in a more pro-choice manner, and apparently MTV isn’t ready for that.
During the story of another cast member, Farrah, during season one, her father finds her NuvaRing, which she had brilliantly stashed in the fridge, and lectures her about the perils of having sex. His message was, “You shouldn’t be going to these clubs and putting yourself in situations where you will need this [birth control].” Okay, sure, let’s not accept that birth control would prevent another baby and let’s pretend Farrah, an adult, shouldn’t be allowed to have sex. Awesome.
And then there is the story of the young woman and her boyfriend who decided to place their child for adoption. This storyline in particular is absolutely heart wrenching, and although what the young woman did was selfless, the amount of pain she has had to endure is not something I would wish on anyone.
So there you have it, MTV’s “ground breaking” series about teen pregnancy and teen parenting is just another way of reiterating the anti-choice movement’s talking points: don’t have sex, and if you do, you should suffer consequences, and instead of having an abortion or taking birth control to prevent a pregnancy, just place the child up for adoption. To me, this type of anti-choice television programming, which pretends to be ground breaking and deals with potentially controversial topics while being particularly aimed at a teenage demographic, is the absolute worst. On that same track, the show “The Secret Life of an American Teenager” is just a fictional storyline that reiterates the same messages as MTV’s show does.
All of this and nary a word of teen girls and boys protecting themselves. There truly is not a show that deals with teen sex without demonizing women and limiting their choices. So what can the pro-choice movement do to counteract this?
The persistent pressure on our political representatives to roll back funding of abstinence-only education is so important. The fact that billions of dollars are still allocated from the federal budget to pay for abstinence only education is an extremely under-discussed fact within the pro-choice blogosphere. Meanwhile, the funding for pro-choice organizations and abortion providers have taken major hits recently. So I know there are a million things we have to talk about, but when we have shows and media that push the abstinence-only theme and tell teens they just simply should not have sex instead of a message that supports comprehensive sex education, the persistent pandering to anti-choice advocates with the abstinence-only funding is unnecessary. Of course, the fact that abstinence-only funding doesn’t actually work is something that should be noted as well.
To me, when women and men are aware of all of their legal rights and options, there may be less inclination to listen to shows on MTV and pseudo-rapper’s lyrics. In places that have little to no access to reproductive services, education is one of the only means of helping teens learn about reproductive choices.
Pro-choice activists should continue to speak out against these anti-choice television shows and popular music. We should continue to criticize them, and make public the harm their message is doing. The writers of the show “Friday Night Lights” totally get it and they aren’t afraid to include a message that is not damning to the abortion rights movement, while at the same time creating a situation that is both realistic and seemingly cognizant of the nuances of pro-choice advocacy and abortion. Lastly, pro-choice activists should support media with pro-choice messages as much as possible. Perhaps then writers will continue to crop up containing similar messages for other popular shows when they see “Friday Night Lights” isn’t immediately taken off air because it features a character that has an abortion, and when they recognize the level of support they will receive.