“16 and Pregnant” Illuminates Reality

Hannah Tennant

“But that’s all about to change, because I’m pregnant.” These words signal the ringing in of a new episode of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant. This reality show details the lives of selected pregnant teenagers. Each teenage girl tells her story while a camera crew follows her journey through the beginning stages of motherhood.

While all reality television is, by its nature, disgusting and exploitative, 16 and Pregnant manages to bring real issues into the show, instead of following the lives of party-goers on the Jersey Shore. The issues that Lauren Conrad faces, while seemingly of vast importance, are particular only to her and her Hills posse. 16 and Pregnant, however, brings to life problems that could become a reality to any number of teenagers. According to Livestrong, one third of girls will become pregnant before they reach 20.

And unlike many tales of teenage pregnancy in the media, 16 and Pregnant doesn’t glamorize the issue. Gilmore Girls, which chronicled the lives of a quintessential mother-daughter pair, was based upon the mother becoming pregnant at 16 and having to make it on her own. Mother and daughter were welcomed into a tight-knit New England town, had minimal financial troubles, and they developed a beautiful, heart-warming relationship. The life they led seemed desirable.

And in 2007, Juno hit the screens. We all laughed as Ellen Page chatted away on her hamburger phone, describing her unplanned pregnancy  to her friend. Quirky as ever, she circled ads in the paper, searching for parents for her upcoming child, and explained to her offbeat family that she was in trouble. While slightly disappointed, they accepted the situation and supported Juno throughout. The main conflict in Juno revolved not around Juno or her family, but around the two prospective adoptive parents. But once all was said and done, everyone kissed and made up. The movie closed with glamorous Jennifer Garner cradling the beautiful newborn as Michael Cera and Ellen Page serenaded each other with their acoustic guitars. Perfect.

By contrast, the lives of the teenagers on 16 and Pregnant aren’t as charmed and are definitely more realistic. Many of the girls live in broken homes, where their parents have either walked out on them, are divorced, or are involved with new significant others and have put their children at the bottom of their priority list. And instead of having loyal Michael Cera as their boyfriend, many of these girls are involved with boys who are wholly unprepared for fatherhood.

16 and Pregnant seems to be geared towards education as much as entertainment. At some point during the episode, the pregnant girl discusses the manner in which she got pregnant and exactly which contraceptives weren’t used. Furthermore, during commercial breaks, public service announcements are placed sporadically, with messages like “Teen pregnancy is 100% preventable.” Each episode concludes with a weary-eyed girl, having not slept in many days because of her wailing baby, describing her regrets to the camera.

The show is able to convey the strain that the pregnancy is having on these girls’ lives. Often, the camera crew is inside the delivery room, and documents the immense pain that the girls experience. It shows the screaming matches that these girls get into with their families and boyfriends, and the problems the girls face when it comes to finishing their education. And recently, MTV introduced a spin off of 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom. This reality show selected four girls who were originally on 16 and Pregnant and follows their lives. Teen Mom portrays the burden of unexpected motherhood.

At first, shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom seem to be a cheap attempt at bad natured entertainment. But upon closer inspection, these shows are providing a very real look into a future best avoided. As one 16-year-old mother remarked, “My mom was a teen mom and she told me how hard it was going to be; I wished I would’ve listened. This is not how my life was supposed to be.”