MTV specializes in the kind of "reality show" that would have you believe all young Americans are spoiled, profane, and crazed about alcohol and sex. From its raunchy spring-break coverage to its "Real World" and "Tila Tequila" reality shows, MTV is constantly sending a message to young people that absolutely everyone is enjoying or seeking casual sex, and never are there negative consequences beyond the occasional break-up.
So it was shocking this summer for MTV to air a reality show called "16 and Pregnant." MTV, airing a show on the very real-world consequences of the hook-up culture? Jaws dropped across the spectrum of MTV critics, from the moralists who decry the promotion of premarital sex to the health experts and "safe sex" promoters who want every sex scene to come with a contraceptive message.
The six-part "16 and Pregnant" series examined the hardships undergone by six impregnated teenage girls. It illustrated how childbirth and motherhood radically changes a young girl's life, and explained what Barack Obama meant when he clumsily said he wouldn't want his daughters to be "punished with a baby."
The most shocking part of this series is the obvious premise: all six featured girls opted against an abortion. In the show's "Life After Labor" finale, hosted by radio and TV therapist Dr. Drew Pinsky, he jarred the viewers with the statistic that roughly half of unintended teen pregnancies end in abortion.
But not here. MTV may define "edgy," but it didn't want to focus an hour on the 16-year-old who gets an abortion. This was not done to please the National Right to Life Committee. In fact, when MTV viewers go the "16 and Pregnant" website and click on "frequently asked questions" about pregnancy, there's a major push for the Planned Parenthood website, and teens are instructed how they can get birth-control pills at "health clinics where you do not need your parents' permission" for a prescription.
After almost 15 years of decline, teen birth rates are rising again. It's timely for MTV to air a show like this, even if it stands out like a sore thumb from MTV's usual reputation as the Getting It On channel. But that increased birth rate also may reflect a less casual attitude toward abortion.
Regular MTV viewers might have expected a show that glamorized teen pregnancy, just as it always glamorizes the sex that led to it. What viewers saw over six one-hour episodes was anything but. There were hardships and financial struggles and a lot of fighting. Most had major problems with the teenaged fathers. Several were childish and irresponsible, which sent a chilling message to girls.
The standout episode focused on Catelynn and Tyler, who firmly chose to put their baby up for adoption. Only about one percent of all women make that hard choice. It is doubly courageous and unselfish: avoiding the quick and dirty abortion and accepting the stigma of teenage pregnancy, only then to face the pain of giving up the child to someone else.
Viewers were bowled over because the couple ended up fighting their own parents over their decision. (Strangely, Catelynn's mother and Tyler's father got married after the teens started dating.) Both children argued, correctly and bravely, that their own difficult lives proved that the best place for the baby was a better home with older, more prosperous parents.
"The degree of their strength was not apparent to me when I first met them," said the show's creator, Morgan J. Freeman (not the actor). "At first, I wasn't even sure they were going to go through with it. But you just watch Tyler carve out this safe space for him and Catelynn and their daughter and push back on the family. When I watched it, I was in awe. I thought, 'Where is this strength coming from?'"
They chose an open adoption, which empowered them to select parents and allowed them to share letters and photographs and remain in contact. At the show's end, they are shown in the parking lot, watching the adoptive parents drive away with their baby, as Tyler held on to the baby's receiving blanket.
Now that's a scene that puts the reality back into "reality TV."
MTV suggested on the season finale that they will present a second season of "16 and Pregnant." The ratings were strong. This show may be the exception to the MTV rule, but it is certainly an encouraging, and most welcome, oddity.