Exposé or Exploitation?

Would you like to know a secret about American teenagers?

They think and talk constantly about sex, even if they're not actually having it.

That's the stunning revelation from ABC Family's latest show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager.  The program revolves around Amy, a 15-year-old girl who becomes pregnant the first time she has sex.   

ABC Family's timing is impeccable, as teen pregnancy is a hot topic with the teen “pregnancy pact” in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the pregnancy-themed blockbusters at movie theaters, and the ratings boost NBC received last week with its new show, Baby Borrowers. 

It isn't clear, however, what the point of Secret Life is.  Is it a cautionary tale about the bad things that happen to teens who have sex, or is it a voyeuristic effort to exploit teen sexuality?  Or is it trying to be both? 

Brenda Hampton, the show's creator, told The Hollywood Reporter, “I don't have anything to say about the issue of teen pregnancy.  I'm just telling a story about a girl who happens to get pregnant.” 

At least in the pilot episode, Hampton is correct in saying she has nothing to “say about the issue of teen pregnancy.” The only people who know about the pregnancy are Amy's two friends (who are shocked but vow to “be there for her”) and the doctor, whose reaction was not shown. 

The Los Angeles Times summed up Secret Life by stating, “the tone of the pilot [episode] careens between an after-school special and American Pie, with a bit of Pretty in Pink grabbed along the way.”  The New York Times called it “a parody of an after-school special” and said “Secret Life doesn't take the fun out of teenage pregnancy, it takes the fun out of television.”  The Hollywood Reporter said “it feeds into parental hysteria in ridiculously one-dimensional ways.”

One-dimensional indeed. Teenaged boys are shown as little more than skirt-chasers who cannot control their biological urges.  Nerdy Ben even tells his guidance counselor he wants to join the school band to meet a girl because “I'm 15, I'm a virgin, and if I want to have a sex life, I've got to start somewhere.” 

ABC indulges in a bit of clichéd Christian-bashing along the way.  Jack, a devout teen, is made a figure of fun as he prays with his football team before a game: “let us not be distracted by the women who are here to lead us into situations that will lead us into hell and destroy our souls forever.” Jack professes his desire to remain abstinent until marriage, but—surprise, surprise—succumbs to temptation when the school's “bad girl” offers herself to him. Even the best intentions are no match for hormones. 

Grace, Jack's Christian cheerleader girlfriend, wears a promise ring as a reminder of her commitment to abstinence and seems unable to talk about anything except not having sex.  She also does not appear to struggle with sexual temptation.  

It's great if the producers want to provoke a conversation about teen sexuality and teen pregnancy.  But can't they do that without dredging up the usual stereotypes?

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.