MTV's Missing Piece
To Begin. . .
As an avid TV junkie, I have stayed up many a night to watch re-runs of the shows “Teen Mom” and “16 & Pregnant.” I know you are probably rolling your eyes if you're not a fan of the “reality” TV phenomenon, but these shows have affected me in a way that other “reality” based shows never could. (...So understandable when thinking about their consistent lack of depth: there are not a multitude of thought-provoking conversations that follow the documentation of rainbow Jello shots and women pulling out other’s hair extensions). These shows have affected me partly because I am the product of unplanned pregnancy to a fifteen-year-old girl myself, and a subsequent adoption. I find the show to be a way to help me begin to understand what I meant to my birth mother at age fifteen, the prime time for being a devoted Frito Lay consumer and wearing exactly what the mannequin wears.
I have never believed that a show airing on MTV could give me the best sense of the issue of teenage pregnancy and after becoming more interested in the show I realized that there is a major topic not being addressed within it: the issue of abortion. What about it being considered as a very real possibility, along with raising the baby and adoption? It feels amiss that it is not, because abortions would happen whether or not they were legal and whether or not one thinks they are right or wrong. This might not make sense because obviously my birth mother did not choose abortion, but being pro-choice is something that is very important to me not only as a woman but as a human being.
Although I have never asked my birth mother about abortion, I know it was something she had to have considered. While these shows are said to document the struggles that come along with teenage pregnancy, only two of the girls throughout the couple years of seasons have chosen adoption and the one special aired about abortion “No Easy Decision” has not been re run on the network since the first run, which occurred at 11:30pm on a Tuesday night.
With these shows reaching over two million viewers it is important to think about the issue of choice not being well represented within them. In these character profiles, the majority of all the young mothers raise the children and end up having to postpone their schooling. While MTV’s decision not to air this could be simply because some advertisers would want to drop their contracts in order to avoid controversy, this lack of choice within one of the network’s most popular shows demonstrates the taboo issue of abortion that exists all around us – especially present within the lives of young women, teenagers and those growing into either category. My younger sisters watch these shows and I wonder if they see the omission of this option and what this means for them and for their friends.
A Bit of Background
"16 and Pregnant" follows a certain protocol. At the beginning of each episode each teenager guides us through her family and social life, a quick overview of what it’s like to be her, following with “but everything’s about to change because. . . I’m pregnant.” The pregnancy and birth is all documented while "Teen Mom" can later follow her once the baby is born.
As to be expected, many of these high school relationships crumble under the pressures of having a whole other life to worry about, having been swimming in naivete for nine months. Many women are often forced to drop out of school, get a GED, and struggle to hold down jobs at grungy restaurants; torn between wanting things to stay the same as they were before they got pregnant and enjoying their baby’s presence. Because the conflicts that come along with their pregnancies are ever-present and difficult to solve, this makes for a popular TV show that is centered around self doubt, relationship issues, and other dramatic tensions.
In one of the only profiled adoption decisions, Ashley struggles with the decision of whether to let her uncle and his wife adopt her baby. When she does choose adoption, the choice is described as “a road that not everyone can take.” However, abortion is not touched on at all in the show unless it is to say, “Abortion? I could never do that.”
. . .But in sharp contrast lies the special “No Easy Decision.” There are moments of extreme doubt such as one of the most striking scenes when pregnant teen Markai Durham receives a card in the mail from a friend listing the different career paths and goals that the bun in the oven might have when she/he is older. Markai asks her mom why she isn’t excited about being a grandmother and she responds with, "All I could think of was I had those same dreams [for you]."
“I mean, I knew abortion was out there,” Markai says at another point. “I just never thought it would be an option for me.” Though already a young mother to a baby girl and struggling to make ends meet, she describes her abortion as the best decision she could make at that point in time.
"No Easy Decision" clearly did not have the same successful viewing ratings as “16 & Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” have had but the young women are not portrayed as people who took the “easy way out” but instead as women who made a decision that was the best for them, their families and that possible life.
At the end of the episode, the show encourages young women to speak about their abortion experiences and to not be ashamed. Dr. Drew chimes in that 1/3 of women will have had an abortion in their lifetime. The three girls hold hands in an action of solidarity, which was also great to see.
While “16 & Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” shy away from this option, it is clearly very present despite how much mainstream media tries to ignore it. (Just as in the popular movie "Knocked Up", the word abortion is never actually said aloud. It is suggested that Allison get “what rhymes with shmushmorshmin”).
This television special was an extreme change from the tearful regret fest that the shows usually showcase, as these young people learn how to raise a baby all the while still trying to grow up on their own. It is captivating to think about how “No Easy Decision” was an incredibly rare discussion concerning abortion, and above all, abortions that were not regretted in the end, as difficult as the decision might have been. The special was a one time thing as of yet while “16 & Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” reach most adolescents across America – and even through MTV’s global channels.
So, Now What?
The points I have made above are rather obvious but the question of how to move forward with points of view that take a woman’s choice into consideration is something that I want to look into in this web event.
One article that proposes a way things could change within the pro-choice/pro-life argument and in the presentation of choice itself is Naomi White’s piece “Our Bodies, Our Souls: Rethinking Pro-Choice Rhetoric.” White describes the wording used by pro-life and pro-choice advocates as something that is problematic to the discussion of abortion and the placing of feminism within that framework. She argues that many women who consider themselves pro-choice shy away from the very real issue of life and death that is present within that choice, viewing the baby as a speck on an ultrasound and not as the possibility of something any larger. The way that pro-choice advocates use their rhetoric could be a way in which we aid to widen the gap between those who are morally opposed to abortion and those who are not, adding onto the already ever present fear in addressing the issue as something that happens every day: "We need to contextualize the fight to defend abortion rights within a moral framework that admits that the death of a fetus is a real death; that there are degrees of culpability, judgment and responsibility involved in the decision to abort a pregnancy; that the best understanding of feminism involves holding women as well as men to their responsibilities that are unseperable from their rights; and that we need to be strong enough to acknowledge that this country’s high rate of abortion—which ends more than a quarter of all pregnancies—can only be rightly understood as what Dr. Henry Foster was brave enough to call 'a failure'." (26)
I do not think there is a failure in the pro-choice movement to neglect the loss that is so prevalent during an abortion. I do think it is a societal failure to ever imagine that women do not feel remorse or loss after having one. I feel White is wrong because while the rhetoric could be changed, the way society handles the situation is not affected by the terminology's absence of recognizing the abortion as a loss (because in reality, there is no absence of this); but in the extreme presence of shame placed upon women and how that is clearly reflected upon through various media outlets as I have begun to describe here.
I wonder if the rhetoric the pro-choice side uses actually aids pro-lifers in their organization to fight back and demean the choice itself because in our society, abortion is the greatest failure of all. If the pro-choice movement is already considered as not explaining the issue in an honest and open manner, wouldn’t women who chose abortion be further shamed if the rhetoric was to be more “honest” and graphic? Less failure is seen in the woman who chooses to raise a child no matter the rough and ugly circumstances. It seems that the messages that are so often spread salute the young woman for “trying” and for “loving her baby enough” in choosing to remain pregnant.
Further, the rates at which abortions happen can be attributed to health care issues, lack of birth control, education and poverty. Until the high rates of these are decreased, there will be no change in the amount of abortions that are needed and the shaming will continue no matter how honest or gritty our rhetoric becomes.
Just as the teen mother’s whining about her inability to fit into her prom dress makes me upset, I think abortion, though it could undoubtedly make more people feel tense, is something that needs to be discussed and put out in the open. The lives of teen mothers are not ideal. . . often we see that the babies are not given the greatest opportunities. Why is that choice to care for the baby in a situation that is not at all decent any better than deciding one is not ready at all to give up only being responsible for oneself?
I have imagined a screenplay/story board that could air on MTV at a reasonable time frame, next to Ashley, Hope, Farrah and Maci’s stories and all the rest, whom I hope do not regret their choices. This story just shows a different path. I think my sisters would be able to read something like this. I don’t think it is any less of a story or any less brave, but you can decide for yourself.
Could this piece fit, MTV?
Popular television for teens need to continue to share those stories that aren’t full of regret, that fully admit it is okay to not be ready. I know I wouldn’t have been and still wouldn’t be now, and this story you are about to read could very well have been nonfiction if I had not been lucky, just plain lucky. (You know, one of those realistic play by plays you experience vividly in a dream that you know could have very well been real if one little thing had gone differently.)
Hi, I’m Alex. I live in Phoenix, Arizona with my parents, my younger sister and my yorkie. I like to write stories, cook, dance, and go out on the weekends.
[Cut to me in various shots of ideally placed sunshine, palm trees and Camelback Mountain behind me. Cut to me smiling in the sunset, hugging my sister as the dog chases her favorite chew toy on the front lawn. Cut to friends and beer pong tables and neon outfits that look tacky to me now].
I attend a small arts school and am graduating next year. I’ve already applied to ten colleges and I want to go out of state and am excited. I really like this boy, and we have been seeing each other for two years now. We aren’t official because he is still in party mode and my friends have told me they think he is seeing other girls, “playing the field,” full of his sweet talk.
[Cut to boy with his vodka handle and friends surrounding him, the glint of the blue bike he rides to work on the porch. Him in his old grey hoodie leaning against the wall, chain smoking outside his shitty apartment while loud music with jumbled together lyrics plays, bass vibrating through paper thin walls].
Things have been better between us lately but everything’s about to change because. . . I’m pregnant.
[Cut to a shot of me Googling early pregnancy like I have never Googled before. Cut to my belly that is not yet a pregnant belly because this is a different kind of story than the ones before it – quickly skim over the sharp shine of my belly piercing].
I know that abortion is an option for me because I have been active in Planned Parenthood’s youth group and my family is pro-choice. I know I should tell my mom, but it’s going to be hard because she knows I could have avoided this situation all together if I had been more careful, if I hadn’t been drinking or had picked a guy to sleep with who was "extra careful" under the sheets. Maybe I just won’t, to spare her the disappointment and so I don't have to hear myself say it to her out loud.
[Cut to downtown Phoenix, the bustling streets of Friday night, lit with art galleries, food stands and wandering couples. Streetlights shine greens and reds, the freeway looks like moving, tiny lights in a constellation if you squint].
He graduated from college and works full time at a restaurant. The sandwiches are awesome, but his attitude isn’t sometimes. Right now I am going to meet him at his work while he’s on break to talk about me being pregnant. I knew I was pregnant because my breasts felt like bowling pins, and they are munchkin sized breasts usually. I smell meat miles away from where it’s cooking and of course, my period was late and it is never ever late. My fifteen page essay due in Humanities no longer mattered; I didn’t care about postmodernism and Dostevsky because I had to buy a pregnancy test (or seven, of different brands) after school at the tiny grocery store next door to his apartment, while he would buy cigarettes and green tea as if it was an everyday, casual occurrence for me to be doing this. Maybe he should buy me some gum too, while he's at it, this is a breezy errand, right? I know that I am for sure because I went to the doctor, and I know that I want to get an abortion.
[We sit at the bar stools and he is having a beer while I sip on water. The glass sweats, my palms sweat more. The after hours crowd is bustling and his eyes look tired – the green sleepily turning into gold as headlights shine upon them].
HIM: I know I’m still growing up and I am just not ready for a baby…like, I can’t imagine being a dad right now. And I know that I can help you pay for the abortion and I will be there for you. I don’t want you to be scared.
Who is this overgrown man child? An overgrown man child I have been sleeping with, nonetheless? His morning scruff is cute, but the way he never cleans his bathroom really isn’t.
ME: There’s really no way to get around not being scared. I just know that I am going away to college and it just won’t work... If I was to decide on adoption, I would have to postpone school. I don’t have a job…I just need to go to school. There’s no way.
HIM: I guess we just know this. . . I don't know, would be for the best. I don’t have money either for a kid, like actually though, fuck. I still can’t believe you forgot to take your pill that night. I guess we were just all partying and not thinking about responsibilities and I ran out of condoms on Friday.
[He touches the small of my back, kisses my forehead and I smell brew and cologne and remember Juno where they tell her the baby’s fingernails have already formed, the jar of blueberry flavored condoms at the check in desk].
We didn’t even really talk about the standing of our relationship because it has always been weird. This in itself tells me this would be a horrible situation to bring a baby into. People know we are together but not fully, and it sucks sometimes but it’s better than raising the issue and possibly losing him all together. I don’t need a label, I guess. That’s what most girls say and I know I sound stupid. No one wants to be like “most girls.” No one wants to be with someone and accept that it very could be not for real to them.
[Swinging my legs on the bar stool, not touching my food which is a big deal for me]
ME: It’s fine, it’s fine—as long as you come with me that’s all I need.
[Cut to him looking at me and smiling like I am the only girl in the world, and then we can go to commercial because of course that’s not all I need.]
I loved my sister when she was born. She was boring, alone and happy in her world of spit up and only the basic colors in the spectrum. I love babies in general, they’re soft and their tiny toes and fingers are beautiful because you know one day they will be regular sized and they could grow into beautiful people who do things that matter.
[Cut to us the next day, driving in my car because he doesn’t have one of his own yet. The sun hurts my eyes and I'm ditching pre-calc because I threw up on my binder before class. I told the girl who saw it happen, in what felt like slowmotion, that I had Taco Bell for breakfast and for some reason she didn't question me. Chalupas are mysterious. He is driving because my hands are shaking and I feel like I might pass out and die, like the way I feel before I am about to tell a lie or speak in front of a class of fifty people.]
HIM: …4 weeks old and it could be something if it grew, that’s so trippy isn’t it? Like, actually, damn. Shit, that probably doesn’t help. [He rests his hand on my thigh, asking for forgiveness for more than just that.]
VOICEOVER: I am still not comfortable in my own body, so it’s pretty weird being in a white gown with blue little flowers, scooted down in front of the nurse’s face and knowing she can see everything. He holds my hand and I just think of the first time he touched me there and how now everything feels cold, metallic and urgent.
THE NURSE: You’re tiny. Amazing how babies can start to grow in a person of any size, huh? Let’s see, yup…just about four weeks. . .
[She writes something down, her pen is one of those pharmeceudical pens the drug pushers give out of their black rolly bags.]
[Cut to a shot of him squeezing my hand, looking shifty.]
It was just a tiny spot on a screen and she handed me a pill.
You might think that I thought this was the easy thing to do. I knew that maybe I loved this boy and to see a creature come out of me that was part me, part him would be beautiful. The aftermath would not be, though. We had plans and I drink drinks way too strong for my size and smoke, sometimes for hours sitting in dewy grass behind the dorms. And I don’t know how to pay my own taxes. As much as I love my baby sister, she was happy in her own baby world because my parents had waited to make sure her life would be so, as they did for me. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t yet.
One day I want to have a baby and this baby will grow into something far more than just a tiny bump on a screen, it will have his or her own tiny world of simple things. In this day, I will have money and a house and not get an allowance anymore.
HIM: Let’s stay in bed the rest of the day.
[Cut to him rubbing my back as we watch re runs on his television while he roommate blasts his music in the other room.]
HIM: One day it will be different.
[It is just so clear he doesn't know what to say right now.]
ME: I know. It just sucks now.
The next day I bled and felt cramps and the day went on in its brightness and in its routine. I went back to the doctor a week later to get it checked out again and then it was over. It wasn't easy in any sense. I cried a little because it was scary and such a grown-up thing for someone who was not nearly done growing.
Now, I’m half way done with college and he and I still talk sometimes. We have grown up and things have changed. When I am home the kisses are still as sweet and we don’t dwell on the Planned Parenthood with its purple awning and radio set on ‘80s classics. I feel relieved. I know that an abortion is not the right choice for everyone, but it was the right one for me. When I got pregnant, I thought hash brownies were the most beautiful creations from the gods and I did not yet know how to deal with keeping all my receipts in one place. My choice was indeed a very “pro life” one because I know I could not have given that baby a life that it deserves and in an ideal world every baby should have this.
As for him? His college apartment was tan and ugly, stucco maybe, his roommate an Adderall dealer. I had just learned how to cook meat on my own a weekend before. It would have been wrong for me to think I was responsible enough to go through a pregnancy and most of all, to bring a tiny life into my, and his, own. . . both entirely shaky in our youthfulness.
[It would be okay to film me crying at some point, him holding me with his dirty old socks on, maybe it would be raining that day and the apartment would be especially quiet except for the music. The difference from the other episodes would be that there is no focus on finding a cheap babysitter to go to a bar for the first time, trying to figure out how to change a diaper or not knowing what to do when he or she spits up on the back of my tank top.]
One day I’ll be ready and it won’t be a question of whether or not to “keep it.” I will not have made a pro and con list; I will have already painted the room.
So, what do you think?
Maybe it’s a little too real.
Bedyniak, Anna B. The Representation of Teenage Pregnancy in American Visual Culture in the Example of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. Diss. Utrecht University, 2011. Research Institute for History and Culture in Women's and Gender Studies, 2010-2011. Print.
Wolf, Naomi. “Our Bodies, Our Souls: What the Pro-Choice Movement Must Learn to Say.” The New Republic. October 16, 1995. 26-35.
Washington Post. The Washington Post, 31 Dec. 2010. Web. 09 May 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/30/AR2010123001953.html>.
Seltzer, Sarah. "MTV's '16 and Pregnant' Exploits Teen Moms but Addresses Abortion with Dignity." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 31 Dec. 2010. Web. 09 May 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/30/AR2010123001953.html>.