Today, the estimable Jessica Grose asks something many of us have wondered: do Teen Moms shows really discourage teen pregnancy - or just exploit for our entertainment? (And is it bad that they make me want a kid?)
As 16 and Pregnant launches its second squalid, tear-filled season of ostensibly cautionary reality, Grose notes that MTV's laudable public mission is in fact sending a distinctly mixed message. While data supports the notion that young women can indeed be influenced by programming of this kind, it's been shown to have the opposite effect on boys of the same age. Then too, when shown in the more frankly exploitative context of MTV-Land, surrounded by self-professed "Guidos" and girls vying for male attention, it's hard to take a strong moral message away from a show that, ultimately, still serves to give minors who may not know what they're getting into, a modicum of the celebrity that to many kids is still the apex of achievement.
Grose spoke to two young girls who appeared on 16 and Pregnant, and from her account, it seems they are torn between natural apprehension at the thought of courting public abuse - and the laudable goal of wanting to provide a support network for other young women in the same position. But the young women who have been through the wars, as it were, are obviously going to have a perspective that the rest of the population lacks.
And the worry, when providing a "cautionary" or "anthropological" reality setup is that, in all its lurid glory, it's easy to distance from one's own life. We're put in the position of judging, and I can't imagine that a population of young girls is less prone to that than any other - to the contrary. Then too, we're bombarded with images of other, privileged young girls for whom it seems to be working out just fine! (Looking at you, Jamie-Lynn and Bristol.) Given a choice, most girls probably prefer to imagine themselves more the latter than the hollow-eyed, emotional wrecks they see on the serious MTV. And I've noticed something odd when I watch not just these shows, but the Supernanny reruns that play endlessly and inexplicably on the Style network: I could do that, I find myself thinking. Well, I'd be better than that. I wouldn't have a baby with a guy like that; I wouldn't party every night. I don't have a stepfather like Butch! And because the lives pictured are so very hard, my mind, despite itself, begins to think that the reality, ironically, would be easy. Now, am I in a better position to raise this hypothetical baby than a 15-year-old? Obviously. But I'm also guessing that that viewing public is not, as Jessica's quoted data shows, markedly less suggestible. And that goes both ways.