October 23, 2012

MTV’s Pregnancy Themed Reality Shows: Entertainment or Advocacy?

Pregnancy is an increasing theme within popular media. How do media representations of unplanned teen pregnancies effect teens who tune in?

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Crying Baby

Crying Baby

There’s no denying that a movie like Juno, staring Ellen Page and Michael Cera, glorifies reproduction along with other films depicting the same topic (think Knocked Up). I would go as far as to say that motherhood and most importantly teenage pregnancy are equally as augmented in the film. The lofty, ironic dialogue and equally as satirical characters make becoming impregnated by that nerdy guy on the high school track team seem almost pleasant and amusing, and something to be desired.

How has something as culturally, socially, historically and scientifically profound as reproduction been reduced to a quirky plot line intended for a hipster audience?

MTV and Teen Parenting on T.V.

It’s not just movies that have capitalized on the concept of human reproduction, however. In 2009 in an attempt to “focus less on silly hooks and more on young people proving themselves,” MTV broadcasted its first episode of 16 and Pregnant. Each episode of the show features a teenage girl, showcasing the tail end of her pregnancy, through birth, and into the beginnings of mother hood. With the success of 16 and Pregnant came the spin off Teen Mom, which included 4 reoccurring teen mothers navigating their way through the trials and tribulations of parenting

But what’s the point? And most importantly, what are the real life implications of shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom? Are these shows evoking educational conversations among their viewers, or are they, instead, simply fabricating entertainment by trivializing teen pregnancy?


At first glance, and upon first airing, my hope would be that these shows could function as a locus of awareness and advocacy. Perhaps messages of safe sex, the utilization of contraception, and the reality of raising an infant at a time of self-discovery and uncertainty would be absorbed by MTV viewers’ collective consciousness. In fact, this hope seems to be realizing a form of reality as of late.

A study conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that, after watching an episode of 16 and Pregnant, 92% of 162 young people from 18 different Boys and Girls Clubs of America agreed with the statement: “I learned that teen parenthood is harder than I imagined from these episodes.”

Along the same lines, Social Science Research Solutions conducted a national phone survey of 1,008 young people. Of these young people, 82% “think the show helps teens better understand the challenges of teen pregnancy and parenthood and how to avoid it,” and 76% say that in general, “that what they see in the media about sex, love, and relationships can be a good way to start conversations with adults.”

The Reality of “Celebrity” Teen Moms

Still, with the data clearly hashed out right in front of my nose, it’s hard to dispel the glorifying effect simply appearing on an MTV reality show can have. The four, teen parents who appeared on Teen Mom are constantly gracing the covers of celebrity gossip magazines including US Weekly, OK! Magazine, and People. Teen Mom star Amber Portwood has even recently been subject to a highly publicized arrest and incarceration.

Who’s to say that, while teens are clearly seeing the adverse effects of unwanted pregnancy through watching MTV’s pregnancy reality shows, they aren’t also seeing the publicity, fame, and monetary benefits these profiled young women receive while participating in Teen Mom or 16 and Pregnant. And are young women, then, looking to emulate those “teen moms” they watch on TV?

With the teen birth rate in the US the lowest it’s been in 70 years, according to new data published by the Center for Disease Control, perhaps my hopes and dreams for Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant aren’t quite far off. I can only wonder: have MTV’s publicized realities of unplanned teen pregnancy had any effect on the CDC’s numbers or the ways in which teens approach the subject of pregnancy? It’s hard to make this assumption without situating teen pregnancy among the various social structures and institutions shaping the actions of the the US population today, yet one can still hope.

Maybe, still, the advocacy somehow outweighs the entertainment.

Sally Stempler is an undergraduate at Indiana University majoring in Gender Studies and minoring in Folklore. Her academic interests include feminist theory, queer theory, reproduction, and issues pertaining to LGBTQ rights and histories.