So I know I’m late to jumping on this bandwagon but I don’t own a television so I can be quite slow at these things sometimes. I had read article after article about MTVs new documentary series “16 and Pregnant” and curiosity got the better of me as I reluctantly navigated over to mtv.com to stream the episodes. Taking a cue from their own “True Life” series, each episode deals with (spoiler!) a 16-ish year old pregnant girl. With cartoon intros taking a page from Juno and musical transitions like Flight of the Conchords, the show begs to make documentary-style hip! But as an avid “True Life” junkie already, I didn’t need any gimmicks for me to realize that this show, with its stark honesty and refusal to proselytize or preach on the hot-button “issue” of teen pregnancy, is not only refreshing but a must-watch for all young people in America.
Each of the six episodes of “16 and Pregnant” centers around a different girl, so cultures, economic situations, family understanding, and father support varies each episode, weaving a tapestry that allows for a more multi-faceted understanding that “teen pregnancy” is clearly not a monolith of a “that girl.” Each couple had a different reason for getting pregnant–“the talk came too late” or “you don’t like condoms”–but one thing that they all had in common was that they’re dealing with it, the end. There’s no woe is me, I’m a fallen woman, why didn’t I do this, remember kids don’t get pregnant. It’s just a simple matter of fact “oh I’m pregnant” and they deal with it however they can. Not that it’s easy but it’s not death. It’s not the OMG APOCOLYPSE the media makes it out to be (“pandemic of pregnant preteens pose problems, tonight at 5“). It’s life. They got pregnant, it’s not earth shattering, you deal and life goes on. And it’s sad that it’s refreshing seeing pregnant teens treated in a humane way, letting their voices tell their own stories without the swooping narration of adult judgment.
This isn’t to say there aren’t cringe-worthy moments. The immaturity of Farrah, a cheerleader from Iowa, who apologizes to the doctor for “having to look at her crotch.” The sad truth that many of these girls have to switch to alternative high schools due to gossip and lack of support from administration. The fact that many of them seem excited to be pregnant because they get gifts and baby showers (sweetheart, those diapers may be cute now but wake up and smell the reality poo that’ll soon be there). And the moms of the pregnant teens, who always seem to cry because they understand the full life-changing impact of having an infant. (Not to mention when the girls say “we’ll raise this baby” and the we she’s referring to is her and her mother.) But the cringing is because it’s real.
The first episode spotlights Maci and her fiancee Ryan, who have a son named Bentley. Maci switches to an alternative school to finish high school early, and Ryan is 19 and works full-time night shifts. Once the baby comes it is clear that Ryan is unsupportive and rarely takes care of the child; while Maci stays home on weekends with the kid, Ryan makes plans to go out with friends, prompting Maci to say “I hope he learns that having a child is more than having its name tattooed on your body.” But perhaps the most illuminating statement is when Maci is complaining to friends how Ryan is unsupportive, they offer “I just don’t think he was ready to have a kid yet” and Maci shoots back “and I wasn’t ready either but I grew up because I had to.” Match point. As seen again in episode three with Amber and Gary (where Gary buys a brand-new Playstation while Amber has to buy a crib at a garage sale), it appears that the guys are most often more immature and self-centered, unable to understand the maturity involved in putting someone before yourself, leaving the girl in tears while holding an infant she thought she was raising in a partnership.
Episode six is the most tear-jerker worthy of them all, following sixteen-year-olds Catelynn and Tyler, the only couple in the series that decide to give their child up for adoption. I truly cried a few times. The episode does a wonderful job of illustrating just how difficult adoption can be. At sixteen, Catelynn and Tyler know they’re too young to raise a kid, especially since their home life is unstable as Tyler’s father is often in and out of jail and Catelynn’s mother moves from trailer to trailer with a lot of children and little income. Yet neither of their parents are supportive of their children’s decision of adoption, and it’s interesting to see the sixteen year olds as the mature ones of this argument. Tyler’s father says he wishes Tyler would “man up” to the situation and that “all that baby needs is love,” to which Tyler yells back, “No, that’s not all a baby needs,” as he appears to understand the financial reality of a kid, thank god. So Catelynn and Tyler work through an agency and choose a couple, Brandon and Theresa, who appear to be a loving (and rich) couple. And as parents are chosen by kids for their kid they discuss what they didn’t have in their lives, and you can’t help but feel that they’re choosing the dream parents they wish they had. And that’s heartbreaking. Tears abound throughout the whole pregnancy as reality sets in, (Tyler sobs at the birth and Catelynn fears leaving the hospital “with nothing”) but in the end Catelynn and Tyler emphasize that they know their decision was the right one for the child, showing their maturity in the face of a difficult choice.
In the sea of vapid shows like “The Hills” and “Sweet Sixteen,” “16 and Pregnant” is a refreshing dose of reality that doesn’t sugar coat or preach about teen pregnancy. And as simple as it sounds, I truly do hope that it opens up conversation in households; difficult conversations about sex and contraceptives, parenting and maturity, and how teen pregnancy isn’t just some sensationalized story in a magazine.