Girls’ Studies: Teen Pregnancy
There is a stigma surrounding teen pregnancy, and we see that play out in media representations of it. Today’s assignment for my girls’ studies class is to compare and contrast the portrayals of teen pregnancy from a documentary called The Gloucester 18 and an episode of 16 and Pregnant.
The Gloucester 18 is about the so-called pregnancy pact among girls at a Massachusetts high school. You may remember this, as it became a media frenzy a few years ago. The purpose of the documentary is to explore this phenomenon, to give voice to the girls and families who were involved, and ultimately to debunk the claims of a pregnancy pact. In fact, no pact existed, and the media stories about it started because of a TIME magazine article about the pregnant teens; some 18 girls were pregnant at the same time at one high school. The interpretation of the “incident” by journalists became urban legend.
The documentary portrays the girls through their own voices. The tone is mostly somber and shows how misinformed many of the girls were about sex and pregnancy. Through their interviews, we hear individualized stories and we come to understand that there was no pact and that no one stereotype can fit all teen mothers.
We also learn about school administrators. Two of them ended up resigning over frustration about addressing the problems at the school that became prominent once the media started covering the “pact.” These adults were concerned about the girls and the type of educations they were getting. They wanted to do more to help them, but district policies seemed to stifle this. In addition, we hear from adults in other areas of the state. They too are striving to provide programs on sex education and help for teen mothers. We also learn that Gloucester isn’t the only town with teen pregnancies.
Ultimately, the documentary teaches us that teen pregnancy is a national issue, and that media focus on one seemingly bizarre incident isn’t helpful to addressing the other social issues surrounding teen pregnancy. We learn that many of the pregnant teens had parents who were teenagers as well. We learn that some of them are homeless and have no family support. We learn that they have been through many traumatic emotional incidents involving violence, lack of education, or poverty. The documentary works to humanize these girls and draw attention to more than just their status as teen mothers.
Strikingly, many of the pregnant girls had supportive parents, or at least a supportive mother. Not all of them did, but I was surprised to see how excited many of their mothers were to become grandmothers and just how available they were to their daughters. The girls seemed to have a support system, even if that didn’t prevent their young pregnancies. In addition, some of them had boyfriends who had stayed around to “provide” and who seemed to want to be involved. Not all of them were there, but those who were repeated the gender roles expected of them. The boys expressed a desire to provide, while the girls saw themselves as staying home with the babies. However, few of them were finished with high school, and nobody had college prospects. While the documentary referred to the unskilled work these boys engaged in and the stress it likely caused, it did not go into detail about their new lives and schedules. Overall, the documentary mostly focused on the voices of the girls and their parents while highlighting the issue and the many surrounding issues of teen pregnancy.
In contrast, the episode of 16 and Pregnant that I watched highlighted the realities of day-to-day life for these teens before and after the baby arrived. I watched an episode in which the mother-to-be, sixteen-year-old Brooke, married the father of her child, seventeen-year-old Cody. The two then embarked on life together unprepared. My heart ached for their struggles, and I realized just how important it is to me that my children wait until they are old enough to marry and start a family.
Brooke and Cody live with her parents, doing household chores to pay rent. They are also still in high school, and Cody is trying to finish early so he can work full-time. The episode highlighted the immaturity of a teenage boy in being a father and a husband, as he was often seen playing video games and arguing with Brooke and her mother about doing his homework and studying for the graduation exam. He didn’t seem to have a clear picture of what life would be like once the baby arrived and just how important it was to Brooke that he finish school so he could stay with the baby while Brooke finished her senior year.
Once the baby is born, reality sets in. This is in contrast to The Gloucester 18, which portrayed some of the reality but not in detail. 16 and Pregnant showed the gritty realities of Brooke having no time for friends or racing cars (her passion), Cody not being as supportive and mature as he could be, the two having no time to spend together, the sleepless nights, the expense of trying to find their own home, and that they could not afford to eat out. When they did, they had to take turns eating while one held a fussy baby. The show depicted the realities of parenthood, at any age, but it seemed more tragic and upsetting because of their age and that their childhoods and educations were cut short.
However, I’m not sure that the show intended to be tragic. While The Gloucester 18 seemed to position the girls as victims, of the media and of social problems, 16 and Pregnant gave Brooke an empowered voice. She narrated the whole episode and her life seemed fun and interesting. While the circumstances certainly weren’t ideal, she seemed to have a strong support system and she looked like she was having a good time. In addition, the very act of creating a show that highlights the unusual life of one teenager glamorizes her. Despite the fact that the show highlighted information about teen pregnancy and shared an educational website about it as a public service announcement, the show also had a nifty soundtrack and advertised where viewers could find the music. It placed Brooke as a star in her own life, making her circumstances seem worthy of fame. Her wedding and baby shower are highlighted. These events seem fun and important. However, some of this may have been ironic, as Brooke must live with her circumstances once the cameras leave and she may never see further opportunities arise from her fifteen minutes of fame. In some ways, the show is a spectacle as well as a glamorization.
And yet, I’m wrong that her fifteen minutes are over. Brooke has a fan page with over 12,000 followers. It has been some 4 years since she had her son, and how she has a daughter. She posts about their life and milestones on her fan page. Perhaps the glamorization continues.
Although Cody wasn’t portrayed in a flattering way in the beginning of the episode, he did seem to redeem himself during the birth. He held Brooke’s hand and leg and helped her to count and breathe. He was present, in a way that he wasn’t previously, and after the baby arrived, he worked hard, got up early, and seemed to be an involved and caring father.
I see comparable elements in these two depictions of teen pregnancy as well. The economic realities and lack of education are parts of both stories, while one goes into more detail from an individual perspective and the other highlights it more tacitly through interviews and the words of the girls and administrators. Both shows aim to inform viewers about teen pregnancy and to perhaps prevent it or offer resources to those who need it. Both shows highlight the fact that teen pregnancy is an issue and is preventable. Birth control is mentioned in both, with Brooke’s mom ranting about how she had placed condoms in the bathroom and even showed Brooke how to put them on. Her mother said, “You were definitely educated!” In addition, Brooke gets a Mirena IUD after the birth. In The Gloucester 18, the teens talk about how they thought birth control is dangerous. There is a lot of talk about babies being “gifts from God” and how their generation is “more mature” and can handle young parenthood.
A lack of responsibility is a theme in both shows. The Gloucester 18 has teens talking about how “it’s just another challenge in life we all got,” or if they didn’t have a baby then “life would be boring.” In addition, Brooke and Cody seem to have no clear sense of responsibility until the baby arrives. Yet both shows highlight how much responsibility a baby requires once it arrives. After this, one of the teens in The Gloucester 18 reports, “I would’ve waited to have a baby and to have sex.” At the end of the 16 and Pregnant episode, Brooke cries and confesses to the camera, saying she’s overwhelmed, exhausted, and alone. She misses seeing Cody and says that she had to grow up fast. “It sucks,” she reports, and then declares, “I wouldn’t change anything.”
Overall, the two shows have different approaches and angles, but ultimately come to some of the same conclusions. We learn from the girls, boys, and their parents that sometimes you learn life’s most important lessons the hard way.