Prophylactic Television: MTV’s ’16 and Pregnant’ and ‘Teen Mom’

While it’s possible to level many criticisms at MTV’s current programming – the lack of music on “music television”, the disappearance of my childhood VJs, to name a few – the network’s development of serious documentary-style reality programming is adding some unexpected depth to its schedule. Tapping into the fraught battleground of teenagers, sex, and teen pregnancy, 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom attempt to turn an honest eye towards the day-to-day struggles of American teens – particularly teenage girls – as they become living consequences of the unresolved debate over teenagers’ access to information about sex, contraception, and romantic relationships.

The popularity of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom (season two debuted July 20 and continues to follow Maci, Amber, Farrah, and Catelynn from season one of 16 and Pregnant) speaks directly to MTV’s desire to participate in thoughtful storytelling and to a real social need to discuss what, exactly, teen pregnancy looks like, what social forces prompt it, and how it can be prevented.

When shows are presented in the manner of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom – as documentaries that privilege teenage voices over adult interference – some problems do arise. These problems crop up in moments when unwillingness to interrupt the narrative trumps teachable moments. Put even more directly, 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom provide the audience with tons of information, but as two of the few judgment-free sources of information about sex, contraception, and relationships widely available to American teens, it becomes easy to wonder if these shows go far enough to educate their audiences.

The power of the 16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom franchise lies in the shows’ commitment to reality and high production values. The unobtrusive filming style of both programs allows viewers to feel as though they’ve been invited into the lives of the young women featured each week. The editing and the Juno-esque illustrations give the show a unique look and a carefully crafted style that reads as teenage, but not childish.

These production choices nicely illustrate the peculiar situation of the American teenager and the shows’ ethos: these young women are caught in a middle stage in which they are capable of adult actions but not fully ready to assume adult roles. Understanding this stage of life and being respectful of it helps to extend the appeal of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom to audiences beyond the shows’ target demographic.

From Teen Mom

16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom present the topic of teen pregnancy to audiences with realism and maturity, which means that neither program talks down to teenagers or turns preachy. Though there is an active agenda to prevent teenage pregnancy (16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom are supported by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy), this agenda does not include passing judgment on teen moms, and both shows refuse to bring shame into the equation. While the decision to be sexually active and have a child in high school can be – to put it mildly – controversial for both viewers and these girls’ families, MTV tends to stay neutral about their choices and focus on what an unplanned pregnancy means for these teenagers and the people in their lives.

What’s interesting about these shows is that while the goal is to lower the number of teenagers having babies in America, the focus tends to be on consequences rather than prevention. The resources that MTV provides for teens (typically in the form of references to relevant websites when returning from commercial breaks) are invaluable, and the existence of websites with the express purpose of providing teenagers with information about contraception, relationship issues, and so on is excellent. Possibly because of the decision not to interrupt the flow of the documentary, a lot of the troubling behavior or teachable moments about relationship dysfunction and contraception are not placed in context or addressed with the urgency they deserve.

Direct discussions of contraception do exist on 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, but they tend to get lost in the larger baby-drama of 16 and Pregnant, or arise as the result of a post-baby reality check on Teen Mom. The first season of Teen Mom demonstrated this perfectly when Caitlyn sought out an IUD and Farrah tried the Nuva Ring (to the displeasure of her parents, who felt Farrah should now practice abstinence) with the intent of remaining sexually active but preventing future pregnancies.

While, honestly, any discussion of contraception on these shows is helpful, the problem arises when a viewer realizes that the use of contraception in almost all of these cases is reactive rather than proactive. This is underlined in the post-show reunion episodes by Dr. Drew Pinsky’s ubiquitous question about whether the young women are currently using contraception. The response to this question about their sex lives post-baby is almost always unanimously “yes,” but the response to the question about whether or not contraception was a regular part of their pre-pregnancy sexual activity is almost always “no”. The questions “what are you using now?” and “where did you go to get it?” are never asked or answered. Instead, Dr. Drew directs the studio audience and viewers at home to websites for more information.

Because teenage pregnancy is preventable and because some of the information that these young women receive about sex and relationships is problematic, there can be the feeling that so much more could and should be done. Every episode of 16 and Pregnant includes a conversation in which each young woman explains the circumstances that led to her becoming a teen mom, and these moments often reveal a lack of education, information, or access to the tools that allow young women to take control of their bodies and relationships. While many of the young women featured on 16 and Pregnant were not only not using any form of birth control, many of them were actively discouraged from its use (often by older boyfriends who dislike condoms) and did not know how to seek out alternative methods or assert themselves as partners.

Aside from the interpersonal dynamics of negotiating contraceptive use, there are often important moments when the audience gets a good idea of what common misconceptions about sex and contraception exist among teenagers. For example, in the second season of 16 and Pregnant Samantha’s conversation with her friends about how she got pregnant revealed not only her own missteps, but some of the group members’ fundamental misunderstandings about teenage sexuality (to very loosely paraphrase, one young woman claimed teen pregnancy was basically unpreventable).

The most important and revealing part of the conversation was this: it was not an atypical conversation. In addition to those young women with a lack of information about contraceptive use and sexual health, the second season of 16 and Pregnant featured two young women whose birth control methods failed for reasons that happen to adults and teenagers alike.

On both shows, when medical and labor complications arise there is usually a quick break in the action to flash a definition of the medical term for what is going on across the screen. This does not happen, however, when a young woman makes a statement about contraception or relationship dynamics that could use a bit of decoding. A lot of women use verbal shorthand when they speak about birth control or sex, and teenagers tend to be even more vague with their language.

In season two of 16 and Pregnant, when Lori said that she was on antibiotics when her birth control failed or when Leah spoke about “missing her shot” there were no illustrated facts about drug interactions or the necessity of making sure one does not let her injections of Depo Provera lapse. In fact, there was no explanation even that Leah’s “shot” was Depo Provera. Viewers with a working knowledge of the wide variety of hormonal birth control methods available knew what “shot” Leah was getting; those who didn’t understand this statement probably didn’t know what she was talking about.

Even more troubling for the non-teenage viewer, however, can be the moments that can’t be countered by carefully reading the white sheets for prescription medication. While it would be hard for MTV to do both 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom well if the flow of the shows was constantly interrupted to explain troubling relationship behavior, both shows depict moments of jealous, controlling, and potentially abusive behavior with little commentary.

While it’s easy to appreciate the ways in which MTV’s producers seem to understand that heavy-handed adult intrusion can turn away a teenage audience, the worry remains that teenagers cannot always discern troubling patterns in relationships, even when television exposes them to public view. For example, when Chelsea’s boyfriend sent her one of the most vile text messages in the history of text messages in season two of 16 and Pregnant, the moment was most alarming because it carried tones of verbal abuse and controlling behavior. The moment made it extremely clear that increased access to technology and each other can escalate this type of situation to new levels and make a bad relationship inescapable.

There are countless discussions of this topic in the media that can register as somewhat abstract, but here it was in many living rooms, happening to someone viewers had come to know and sympathize with over the course of an hour. For older viewers, who tend to spot predatory and abusive patterns more easily, the lack of outside commentary about this situation might not have been a big problem. For younger viewers just learning about relationships and how to spot trouble, however, the moment passed by without a mention that this behavior was not all right, and this silence can make it seem like this type of bad behavior is not beyond the pale.

16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom are unique and captivating programs that tell the stories of teenagers who risk being marginalized for their actions. In the process, these shows also work to help teach other young women how to avoid similar fates and to bring awareness to the realities of the lives of teen moms. The shows balance not talking down to teenagers while trying to provide them with information, but in the process it’s clear that teenagers aren’t getting a lot of the information they need.

16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom do very important work in an era when there’s no consensus about what to tell teenagers about their sexuality and how to protect themselves. The criticisms that are so easy to level at these shows because they don’t give teenagers all the information they need speaks to a greater need for more efforts to speak to teenagers realistically about their lives and their bodies.