Thursday, January 8, 2009

No, Not All Teen Girls Get Pregnant: Why I Hate The Secret Life of the American Teenager

I came on Facebook a few days ago to see a number of people going crazy over the return of The Secret Life of the American Teenager. I’ve never watched this show. I have no desire to watch this show. From the little I know, the lead teen girl gets pregnant. Because obviously every teenager knows someone who got knocked up if she didn’t herself. I envisioned other contemporary-teen problems, of mean girls and MySpace and blah blah blah. But no, the show is way worse.

With the news that teen birth rates have skyrocketed and that virginity pledges don’t work (which we already knew already), I question the wisdom of having a show—and a terrible one at that—that focuses on teen pregnancy. Oh, you say, but it can serve as a warning! And now that all these girls are getting knocked up, they can relate! Please.

One or two of the articles I read discussing these two studies mentioned the rash of high-profile teen pregnancies, and how that could be seen as “glamorizing” teen pregnancy. I think the spike is a combination of a lot of factors, and I don’t want to discount or endorse that idea. But I absolutely do not think having a show like Secret Life is helping.

Secret Life was created by Brenda Hampton, of 7th Heaven fame. This should make most normal, rational people quake in their bones. 7th Heaven moralized, but it did it in the worst way—showcasing certain value sets by letting its characters run amok, behaving badly, generally being abhorrent, amoral people, but it was all ok in the end as long as you waited til you had sex to get married and believed in church and god. It fostered “traditional family values” in the worst way. The Secret Life of the American Teenager, from what I’ve read, does the same thing.

The show was actually passed by FOX. Maybe they thought that the moralizing wasn’t for them, but on the surface, this is a show MADE for them. The show has one hell of a titillating title. Of course it’s going to arrest a certain type of teen and their parents.

But it’s precisely those teens and parents who should stay far, far away. For one thing, I don’t think the title is representative of anything. I think a teenager’s secret life would be far more interesting and far less soapy that what this show’s got going one, what with the pregnant teen marrying a boy that’s not the daddy, cause he’s awesome and the daddy’s not. What teenage boy in his right mind would do such a thing?!?!?

The show is supposed to show all aspects and all consequences of what happens when a teenager becomes pregnant. There are major characters who are religious and vow to wait until marriage. Despite this, the show is filled with stereotypes. The lead, Amy, is a “good” girl who slipped up and had sex with some rowdy playa—except she was too dumb to realize that she actually had sex.

I always feel, watching teen shows, that it’s a must that someone gets pregnant. There’s always a pregnancy scare and some point, and then it happens. But why? I no longer find these plots amusing—on any show. They’re rarely dealt with sensitively or realistically, and it just makes it seem like everyone is too busy having sloppy sex to do anything else with their lives. Yeah, girls get pregnant, and teenagers are stupid. But teenagers are more than that, and it’s insulting to always see it boiled down to the same things. I went to a small high school, and my sophomore a junior girl I didn’t know got pregnant. This was big news, whispered about constantly. But really, that was it. Everyone I was surrounded by was far more worried about colleges and grades and teachers and other mini-dramas that were a world away from pregnancy. And I honestly don’t believe that in this we were that different from millions of other teenagers in the United States. I had quite a secret life in high school, but it certainly didn’t involve me getting knocked up. The fact that the central character gets married is another thing that shown as positive—gotta love those family values!—with no mention of how insane that really is. And at the wedding, there are no adults, and fake IDs are provided for all the high school students...even though several said they wouldn’t drink. Right. But it’s ok, guys—she’s keeping the baby and she’s getting married, to hell with breaking the law and just having a huge-ass bash! Hooray!

A poster on Television Without Pity explains how awful the show is below, saying the show “reads like really bad fanfic written by middle schoolers”:

While I was less than shocked that SLOAT was riddled with stereotypes (my old roommate watched 7th Heaven reruns far into her twenties) I was actually surprised that the show manages to denigrate all stereotypes. According to this show, all Christians are overly preachy and naive, as well as hypocritical and judgmental, everyone in therapy must be considered crazy by not only teenagers but Deputy District Attorneys as well, mentally retarded people hire hookers over the internet to be their friends, teenage girls are universally morons, non-religious people go around jumping into bed with any person they can get their hands on, single mothers are oversexed and don't care about who they sleep with, married man or not, etc, etc. And also? Ben? Is a stalker. For real. He needs serious therapy. Not cool. Not cool at all. This is actually what parents want their daughters to see as an ideal of romanticism? What?

This is no holds barred the worst show on television. Absolutely the worst. No question. I knew it in the first ten minutes of the show... and the whole therapy thing, which was totally weird random and unrealistic, as well as the fact that everyone felt the need to whisper the word "abortion" when they said it at all AND the fact that the show moralizes constantly without being able to figure out what it's moralizing about (condoms are good, but premarital sex is bad; abortion is wrong, but it is every persons personal choice; christianity is good but christians are crazy) has done nothing to prove me (and everyone else on this board wrong).

But this is the part I totally cannot figure out -- I watched all of this monumentally stupid shows monumentally stupid episodes in the last two days. And while I'd really like to plead overwork and exhaustion, I find that argument insufficient to explain my inability to simply turn off the damn television. I know others have faced a similar plight and yet I cannot stop wondering what is the freaking deal? Why can it not be turned off? What weird hold does Brenda Hampton have over the population of the world and is there any way it can be harnessed for good rather than evil?

It’s shows like this that not only give teenagers a terrible rap, but also warp their viewers’ minds. A young kid, a middle schooler—and as this is on ABC Family, there are many watching—will form really weird and potentially damaging ideas about love, sex, and high school. And then when that time comes, they might realize that something isn’t quite right. But while the premise behind The Secret Life of the American Teenager could be interesting if done well, it’s clearly shallow and silly, wrapped in a guise of morals and real family drama that everyone can relate to. At best it’s a silly soap that enthralls a bunch of people for some time, at worst it distorts a real and complex issue, reflecting the mixed-up notions of a nation that just doesn’t know what to do with its teenagers.


John said...

If you ever wanted proof that there is no justice in the world, here it is: Secret Life got picked up for a second season, but The Middleman is trapped in limbo without so much as a season one DVD. Clearly, ABC Family picked the wrong new show to support (I'm certain Secret Life does not follow the Bechdel Rule, nor any of its corollaries.)

John said...

and what do you mean, "not all teen girls get pregnant?" Of course they do! All the teenagers I hung out with got pregnant. Heck, I'm totally pregnant! For funsies!

Aw man, I'm gonna be embarrassed if I screwed up that html tag. The point is that Sarah Haskins is funny.

petpluto said...

John - excellent use of Sarah Haskins!

MM - I love the post. Although we had many more pregnant teenage girls in my school, they generally got pregnant in their junior year - and I'm betting they knew they'd had sex.

The fact that SLotAT was created by the same person as 7th Heaven was enough to make me never once want to watch that show. I've seen enough episodes of 7th Heaven (and that was like, 3) to recognize the crappy life messages that show - and presumably SLotAT sends to kids. It is just sad that parents thought that 7th Heaven and this were good, moral quality entertainment.