We hold them up as cautionary tales for sexually active girls. And do nothing for young moms struggling to survive, let alone succeed.
Last week Kailyn Lowry, a 21-year-old mother of two, and one of more than a dozen young women who have appeared on MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, spoke to the New York Times about her experiences as a teen mother. The occasion was yet another study that seems to show that, contrary to fears when the documentary series first aired, portraying the lives of teen mothers did not cause other girls to get pregnant, and may have actually prevented up to 20,000 pregnancies.
Lowry, who married the father of her child, is regarded as something of a success story in the world of Teen Mom (or more so than say, Jenelle Evans, who ended up arrested for felony assault). But like virtually every other teen mother given a national platform to talk about her life, from Bristol Palin to Jamie Lynn Spears, Lowry begins by saying the choice she made is one that other girls should never make: “I did get two awesome blessings,” Lowry explains, referring to her two children. “But I still haven’t got my bachelor’s degree, because, one, day care is so expensive, and two, how do you balance studying and having little ones at home?”
Lowry’s question appears in the second paragraph of the story. But nowhere in the 20-odd graphs that follow, nor in the reader-reaction story that appeared the next day, nor the dozens of related stories that popped up throughout the week, did anyone bother to answer it.
The question Lowry posed was read by the reporter, the editor, the Times readers, and concerned parents everywhere as rhetorical—and its answer a foregone conclusion (even by the subject herself): You don’t. And the corollary: We don’t care. You are not the subject of this story.
So, who is the subject of the story? Girls who are not yet pregnant. Young mothers are treated as no more than an object lesson, and therefore the more dismal their story the greater its educational value. (The Times headline on Lowry’s story: “‘16 and Pregnant,’ Derided by Some, May Resonate as a Cautionary Tale.”) When it comes to telling stories—even fictional stories—about teen mothers, there are only two questions allowed: Does this discourage teen pregnancy? Or do these stories glamorize it?
It’s nearly impossible to think of any other situation in which we, as viewers, including parents and pastors and progressives and feminists, are asked to watch young women and their children go through hell, and tell ourselves the proper response is inaction or even mockery. It’s hard to imagine any other situation in which we as a culture root for real young women and their real children to fail, all in the name of metaphorically saving a much larger group of young women who will never become pregnant.
When the Times returned to the story on their blog next day, it was to ask readers: “Do Shows Like ‘16 and Pregnant’ Discourage or Promote Teen Pregnancy?” In a typical response, reader Alexis K. compares 16 and Pregnant to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, which “showed the bitter consequences of adultery to the world and stirred controversy in regards to whether it promoted social licentiousness or not.” Flavorwire’s Michelle Dean picked up question number two and said, no the shows do not glamorize what pretty much everyone agrees is a “life-ruining” decision: “The frame of the show is pretty clear in that it intends to depict a reality so depressing no sentient human being would ever choose it.” And Refinery 29 agreed: “It seems that teens across America would rather abstain or practice safe sex than live a life that remotely resembles that of a Teen Mom cast member.”
Given all the panic about young mothers in the media, you would think we are in the midst of a teen pregnancy crisis. But the opposite is true: Teen birth rates are at historic lows. You know which decade had a lot of teen mothers? The 1950s. Many of those teen mothers ended up marrying the birth fathers (undoubtedly there were a lot of shotgun weddings). But since 1991, teen birth rates have steadily declined (though there was a slight uptick in 2005). There are fewer teen parents in this generation than there were in their parents’ generation, and far fewer than in their grandparents’ generation. This isn’t a crisis about teen pregnancy rates. It’s a crisis about narrative: What stories get to be told and by whom.
The progressive-feminist response to teen sexuality may be to prevent pregnancy through the usual channels (education, access to contraception), and to ensure that women of every age can choose not to carry a pregnancy to term. Still, it is unlikely teen birth rates will ever hit zero: Birth control is not infallible. Condoms break, women of every age can miss a pill. Surely we can’t expect that every single teenager will choose abortion or adoption. Can’t we also have a feminist response to teen parents? What is remotely feminist about allowing one class of (mostly poorer, more vulnerable, less privileged) women to be shamed in the name of “saving” a larger class of (mostly more affluent, educated, more privileged) women?
That kid on the New York Times blog is right: Young mothers are easily our closest contemporary analogue to Hawthorne’s adulterous young mother and, like the Puritans, we’ve tried it all: censorship, shaming, even a kind of metaphorical quarantine. Just as in Hawthorne’s day, our current cultural conversation about teen pregnancy largely began with the fear of a fictional character: teenage Juno, protagonist of Diablo Cody’s 2007 film of the same name, who, by virtue of being a relatively smart, attractive, likable teenage girl who also happened to be pregnant, incited such domestic terror of rising teen motherhood that the fear itself was called “the Juno effect” (which I analyzed in this feature, and, I’m proud to say that of this writing, was literally given the last word in the final paragraph of the Wikipedia article on the phenomenon).
Were one to follow the Juno effect as law, no one would ever tell a story about a teen mother at all. With 16 and Pregnant, the final media consensus changed to: Okay, go ahead, but make sure their lives really suck. These girls lives are viewed as disposable; their stories only relevant insofar as they serve as warning to other girls about the consequences of making the wrong choice about their sexuality and parenting. Perhaps conservatives, evangelicals, and other contemporary Puritans are cool with that, but feminists, progressives, and anyone who cares about the lives of women of all ages and all classes sure as hell should not be.
Sometime the lives of Lowry and the dozen or so other young women who have allowed MTV to film the most private moments in their pregnancies and early lives as parents, do suck. But when they do, it’s in ways that should be deeply familiar to any student of women’s history: They are discriminated against by their friends and teachers; estranged from their families and partners; and denied emotional and financial support for everything from healthcare to education.
These are not new problems. They are, in fact, the most basic civil-rights issues that women have fought for throughout the 21st century: freedom from sexual shame and physical abuse, access to affordable housing and food and health care for women and their children, support for single women and non-traditional families, fair access to education and employment for mothers, equal opportunity for poor women and women of color, and the right of every woman, even poor women and young women, to choose the outcome of her own pregnancy, regardless of her financial situation. These issues are, in fact, so familiar to feminists, the refusal to engage when they affect young mothers feels weirdly personal. These are problems we know how to solve.
At the very least we should all be able to agree that no woman should be led to believe that having a child should keep her from finishing high school, going on to college and getting a job she likes where she can earn enough to support her family. As it happens, I went to college as an 18-year-old mother with my 2-year-old daughter and I can tell you, it does not require superhuman powers. It requires good day care and a decent financial-aid package. Given that education is the surest way to ensure the economic security of young mothers and their children, it’s a good deal for all of us. It should be available to every parent with a transcript who fills out a FAFSA. Twenty-seven percent of community college students are parents, but according to this report, there is only one day-care slot for every ten student-parents who need one.
Instead of, say, spending $400,000 to plaster New York City with posters of garish babies heckling young mothers about how few of them finish high school, as the Bloomberg administration did last summer (all in the name of the children!), wouldn’t it be cool if we instead took some of the money we are spending to scare the shit out of girls who aren’t yet mothers and spent some of it on the girls who actually are? Wouldn’t it be nice to hang out at a bus stop that reads: “Forty percent of teen mothers do not finish high school. We can help! Visit nyc.gov to find alternative high schools and day-care assistance.” Instead of receiving some weird narrative about a pregnant girl whose boyfriend calls her “fat” and won’t take her to the prom, as people who texted the numbers on the signs, wouldn’t it be more helpful to receive information on scholarships for young parents?
Many young women in every generation have given birth as teenagers and gone on to lead interesting lives and raise their children well, and plenty of young women have raised their children and gone on to college: poet Maya Angelou, the writers Beverly Donofrio, Ariel Gore and Deborah Feldman, and video producer Sharon Oreck, who you can thank for your favorite ’80s videos including Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” Ann Dunham got not only her bachelor’s degree, but her Ph.D, while raising two children, one of whom you know as our president, Barack Obama. Susan Sontag had her son, the editor and writer David Rieff, at 19, before going on to earn her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate at Harvard and becoming one of the most important intellectuals of the last century.
Yes, these are the superstars of the teen mother class. But so what? Are we not allowed to talk about Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer because most women never become tech executives? Why is it that telling girls stories about mothers who are also businesswomen and artists and writers and filmmakers is giving them good role models, while them telling stories about teenage mothers whose lives end well is so dangerous we debate whether it is ever okay to depict them at all?
When fewer teens are giving birth than at any other time in American history, it’s hard not to wonder if part of the reason so many otherwise progressive, feminist, girl-positive, middle- and upper-middle-class people tolerate a level of shaming and discrimination they would never allow toward other young women is simply because they have little or no contact with actual young mothers in their own lives. And though legal abortion has often saved a generation of young women from the twin tragedies of unwanted parenthood and the forced adoptions of the so-called Baby Scoop Era, it absolutely does not allow us to tell this generation of girls that it is the only possible choice for those who hope to have an education and decent life for their children, thereby leaving us free to discriminate against those who make a different choice.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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