- MTV and Teen Pregnancy: Critical Essays on 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom ed. by Letizia Guglielmo
Teen television programs have long been sites to mediate narratives of becoming. Their young protagonists grapple with issues of gender, race, class, and community as they transition into adulthood. One of teen-centered programming's enduring narrative tropes has been the unplanned pregnancy. A long-standing societal issue, unplanned pregnancy is overwhelmingly used on teen television programs as a plot device to explore the consequences of sex, with the goal of containing sexuality by the end of the episode. Teen pregnancy permeated popular culture in 2008 with Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) in theaters, The Secret Life of the American Teenager (ABC Family, 2008–2013) on television, and the very public pregnancies of conservative political daughter Bristol Palin and Nickelodeon star Jamie Lynn Spears reported throughout mainstream news outlets and tabloids. From these fertile grounds, MTV, in conjunction with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies, adapted the topic for reality television via 16 and Pregnant (MTV, 2009–2014) and its spinoffs Teen Mom (MTV, 2009–2012, 2015–), Teen Mom 2 (MTV, 2011–), and Teen Mom 3 (MTV, 2013) in hopes of portraying "real" girls in similar situations.1 Reality television's popularity and ubiquity afford us an opportunity to examine how American culture defines and presents itself. As such, MTV's slate of teen pregnancy reality shows offers a space where policy and parenting converge to attempt to control some [End Page 177] of the most frightening uncontrollable bodies: those of teen girls, specifically white middle-class teen girls, who choose to explore their sexuality.
MTV and Teen Pregnancy: Critical Essays on "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" is a collection of fifteen essays using MTV's popular reality television programs as jumping-off points for an interdisciplinary consideration of popular representations and policy initiatives surrounding teenage pregnancy in the United States. Designed primarily as a course text, the collection addresses students as its central audience as it aims to "help young people interrogate the social and cultural norms in which these messages are grounded," positioning media literacy as a means of empowerment with regard to sexual education and agency.2 Utilizing motherhood studies, women's and gender studies, media studies, social sciences, law, and personal narrative as critical frameworks, this collection strives to show the complexity inherent not just in the girls' narratives, but in the larger interconnected networks of power that govern them. These shows are particularly important to engage with, as they pointedly critique diminishing comprehensive sexual education in schools, the policing of adolescent sexuality, cultural stances on adoption and abortion, postfeminism, neoliberalism, and the potential exploitation of children.
This collection celebrates multidisciplinarity in its approach by including the viewpoints of scholars specializing in social science, law, social work, and medical anthropology in addition to media and communication studies, a multiplicity that gives credence to the intricate ideological work in the shows. However, this same spirit of multidisciplinarity does not work to link the pieces together in conversation as a cohesive unit. Perhaps because the book is designed to be used on a piece-by-piece basis, there is little guidance in how the pieces fit together beyond their shared examination of one of the shows. The introduction would benefit from stronger guidance toward the interventions that the various disciplinary approaches can provide as well as highlighting the commonalities between pieces. Without this crucial mediation, the pieces hang together almost arbitrarily, with the four parts of the book being more similar in their approaches and conclusions than different. Despite the struggles in presenting the pieces, each part has standout essays that both model strong, eloquent uses of multidisciplinary frameworks as examples for students and illustrate complexities in a charged yet seemingly innocuous text that can be used by scholars and students alike.
The strongest pieces in the collection use the shows as springboards to engage with complicated interconnected issues of politics...