Teen Pregnancy and the Media: Conversations to Be Had (Pt 1)

While I’ve been off neglecting this blog for the last week or so, I’ve been working on my current research on perceptions vs reality with regards to the issue of teenage pregnancy.  My work is an analysis of media portrayals and message-framing surrounding this issue.  Since it is for a class on Gender Poverty and Health, I am looking at the intersection of those issues (but guys, come on, I’m an identity sociologist, I’m ALWAYS looking at the intersection of those issues).

I obviously haven’t WRITTEN the entire paper yet but here is an excerpt from Teens, Sex and the Media: Representations and Misrepresentations of Teenage Pregnancy in Pop Culture (Saunders 2012):

Sex, Teens, and Popular Media

In recent years, the visibility of teen pregnancy and teen parents in the media has jumped, as networks have latched onto the issue.  This has led to an important debate over whether or not these portrayals have glamorized teen pregnancy.  Unfortunately, the very fact that reality shows about teen parents exist necessarily portray teen pregnancy as worthy of interest and attention.  That said, many seem to hold the opinion that media portrayals of teen pregnancy do serve a cautionary purpose and that teens are able to understand the challenges depicted on shows like Sixteen and Pregnant as consequences of pregnancy.  This does not, however, necessarily account for fictional renderings of teen pregnancy: shows like The Secret Life of the American Teenager make teenage parenthood seem relatively easy, as characters are able to generally continue their normal lives after giving birth, and stay in school with the help of wonderfully supportive family members.  This is often an inaccurate representation of the realities of teen parents.

Another critical problem with media representation of this issue is the focus on teen pregnancy as opposed to teen parenthood.  Teen pregnancy does disproportionately impact women, but a large problem with teen parenthood is that it continues to disproportionately impact women, as teenage fathers are often absent and/or make limited contributions (Thomas 2012:3).  There is a limited discussion of the role of the “baby daddy” in the life of the teenage mother, during or after pregnancy, and this continues to perpetuate the perception of this as a uniquely female issue—it reflects the relative lack of responsibility that seems to be accorded fatherhood outside of marriage in the United States today.  Moreover, these movies and films focus primarily on pregnancy, not the aftermath, thus limiting the representation of the experience of teenage parenthood as opposed to the nine months encompassed by pregnancy.  The exceptions are shows like Teen Mom, which undermine the original intention of displaying these stories as cautionary tales and necessarily transform them into success stories; moreover, the very existence of these shows make teen motherhood seem exciting and interesting, which may well be the opposite of the desired message (Sun 2011).

A large number of parents have expressed concern about the way that their children perceive sex and sexuality through popular media.  Because teens look to the media in order to better navigate issues such as relationships, the portrayal of subjects such as sex can have an important influence on the perception teens have of acceptable and desirable behaviors (Johnson and Holmes 2009:352).  Johnson and Holmes (2009) argue that  unrealistic portrayals of romantic and sexual behaviors in the media may well become normalized as young viewers with limited experiences to compare these portrayals against come to accept these portrayals as accurate depictions of reality.  This is a cause for some concern, as unrealistic or simply changing expectations about sex and relationships come to guide adolescents just beginning to navigate these aspects of their lives.

One of the primary areas of concern with media representation of sex, however, comes from the portrayal of the decision-making process with regards to sexual behavior as well as the portrayal or lackthereof of the use of protection. Since many teens allow media to inform their understandings of subjects such as sex and relationships, failures by the media to depict safe and or “sexually responsible” behavior, make it less likely that teens will adopt safe sex practices themselves (Hust, Brown and L’Engle 2008:5).

One of the main criticisms of popular media portrayals of sex is the absence of discussion of condoms or contraception.  A large number of shows depict people engaging in sexual activity without showing any conversation about risk or about using protection—and many shows often leave out any sort of consequences to engaging in sexual behavior as well.  Those that do often focus on the consequence of pregnancy while ignoring other issues, such as STIs. (Proudfoot 2010).  This is a problem, because it allows teens to observe the practice of sexual behavior and of relationships without truly internalizing the risks and potential consequences of said behavior.

I find it interesting that our media often comes off as progressive and sex-positive, but not in a way that is conducive to positive decision-making.  There are rare exceptions-~-Grey’s Anatomy, for example, has had several accidental pregnancies and George got syphilis a million seasons ago-~-but even then, the show never depicts the characters using or talking about using condoms; and many shows and films seem to glamorize casual sex without ever showing any discussion of the emotional or health repercussions that can come of that.

Plus, when was the last time you saw a character on any of these shows get tested for HIV or another STI?  It’s pretty rare.  People don’t like to think about that stuff, so the media leaves it out-~-but they shouldn’t.  More accurate renderings of these things in the media could lead to healthier and better-informed decision-making processes for adolescents and young adults in America today, and it would be interesting to see a media that actually practiced safer sex in a society that is forever preaching it.

Sources cited in the excerpt above:

  • Hust, S.J., Brown, J.D., & L’Engle, K.L. 2008. Boys will be boys and girls better be prepared: An analysis pf the rare sexual health messages in young adolescents’ media. Mass Communication and Society 11(1):3-23
  • Johnson, K.R., and Holmes, B.M. 2009. Contradictory messages: A content analysis of Hollywood-produced romantic comedy feature films. Communication Quarterly, 57(3): 352-373
  • Proudfoot, Shannon. 2010. Does the media practice safe and responsible sex? Vancouver Sun. Available online at: http://www.vancouversun.com/health/Does+media+practise+safe+responsible/2782957/story.html
  • Sun, Feifei. 2011. Teen Moms are Taking Over Reality TV: Is That a Good Thing? TIME Magazine (online).  Available at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2081928,00.html
  • Thomas, Laura A. 2012. “Sixteen and Pregnant: the Themes and Portrayals of Teen Pregnancy”. Masters Thesis, William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Kansas.

You can find Part 2 of this series here, and Part 3 here.

~ by Randi Saunders on November 13, 2012.

3 Responses to “Teen Pregnancy and the Media: Conversations to Be Had (Pt 1)”

  1. A well written and well argued paper. Well done!
    Love the site btw 🙂

  2. If you guys liked this post, wait until next week when I’ve actually FINISHED writing this paper 🙂

  3. […] can view Part 1 of this series here, and Part 2 […]

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