All adolescent actresses looking for a career in Hollywood: If you want to be America's next teen sweetheart, don't get pregnant. You might just jeopardize your status as a role model-in-training. That's just the message the kids channel Nickelodeon will send if it indeed cancels "Zoey 101," the show featuring soon-to-be teen mom, Jamie Lynn Spears.
It's not clear whether Nickelodeon will nix the show, despite rumors of cancellation and a denial from the network itself.
But when it comes to media and its reactions or reports about pregnancy, you never know what the truth is: And as the new year rolled around, Nicole Kidman's publicist refuted yet another reported pregnancy, saying if all such "leaks" were true, Kidman would have had a brood of 30 by now. This week, however, sources "close to" Kidman are confirming there is indeed a baby on the way for the actress and her husband, Keith Urban.
I mention Kidman because the entertainment media have been stalking her for quite some time, looking for an evidence of the "baby bump," the season's must-have accessory – or at least it's the hot accessory if you're not a teen mother.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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A wide-eyed Jamie Lynn Spears stared out of the Dec. 31 cover of "OK!" magazine, in which she announced that she's pregnant at age 16. The teen actress's troubled gaze couldn't have been more different from the expressions of other pregnant celebrities gracing magazine covers at the same time. Food Network personality Giada De Laurentiis beamed on a "Redbook" cover that promised baby gossip. Singer Christina Aguilera's nude, heavily pregnant belly dominates the January "Marie Claire" in a riff off Demi Moore's 1991 "Vanity Fair" cover shot.
Photos of Shiloh Jolie Pitt, the "bio-baby" of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, raised money for charity. Paparazzi daily jostle for pictures of pregnant A-list actresses Jessica Alba, Jennifer Lopez and Halle Berry (a recent TMZ.com posting questioned whether Berry should be wearing high-heeled ankle boots in her "condition"). Hollywood has also recently been feeding its audiences a cinematic diet rich in baby talk, including films such as "Knocked Up" and "Waitress."
As celebrity mags and the silver screen continue to offer pregnancy pabulum, there are relatively few TV or movie storylines that tackle the weighty issue of teen pregnancy. Certainly, it's a difficult topic; early motherhood is associated with health problems in girls whose bodies have not matured sufficiently; shortened educations; and the likelihood that the young mothers and their children will be caught in a cycle of poverty.
But Jamie Lynn Spears is far from alone. More than 30 percent of U.S. women will get pregnant by age 20.
Yet art doesn't imitate life, as pregnant teens rarely make an appearance on television or in our multiplexes (recent release "Juno" is an entertaining exception).
When it comes to real-life pregnant teens in the entertainment business, the message is that they don't fit the mold of homespun, all-American celebritydom. Within hours of Jamie Lynn Spears's pregnancy hitting the news, Internet message boards were buzzing with fans who lamented that they thought Jamie Lynn was the "good sister," others who applauded the starlet's decision to "face up to her mistake" and keep her child, and those who demanded her immediate firing from Nickelodeon.
These controversies are starting to erupt with some regularity. In 2004, fans vociferously debated whether eventual "American Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino was role model material due to the fact that she gave birth to a child at 17. Once crowned, Barrino answered her critics by recording the single "Baby Mama," her anthem for mothers going it alone: "It's about time we had our own song/Don't know what took so long/'Cuz nowadays/ it's like a badge of honor/To be a baby mama/I see ya payin' ya bills/I see ya workin' ya job/ I see ya goin' to school/And, girl I know it's hard."
In late 2006, Oscar-nominated actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, 16, became persona non grata in some quarters when it was announced she was pregnant – just as she played the role of Mary in the film "The Nativity Story."
Pope Benedict didn't show at the world premiere at Vatican, reportedly because he disapproved of an unmarried pregnant girl playing Mary (who, in some versions of the founding story of Christianity, who was a pregnant adolescent not yet married to Joseph.) Neither did Castle-Hughes attend; her publicist later added that Castle-Hughes had a scheduling conflict but also wasn't sure how to deal with the controversy.
Television doesn't handle fictional teen pregnancy much better. Through collaborations with groups like the National Campaign to Prevent Adolescent and Unwanted Pregnancy, various networks have produced shows that include parents giving "the talk" or teen pregnancy scares. But few channels have created sustainable programming that follows teens through their sexual development and education, pregnancy and parenthood.
Two of those rare shows that showed the "life cycle" of teen pregnancy are no longer producing original episodes. ABC's "My Wife and Kids" followed the Kyles, an upwardly mobile African-American couple (played by Damon Wayans and Tisha Campbell) who are to become grandparents well before middle age. The culprits: their impossibly dumb son, Junior, and his girlfriend, Vanessa.
Though Junior's airheadedness was for laughs, the "Wife and Kids" scenario portrayed teen pregnancy and parenting in as clear and complex a way as any show today. We saw Junior's obsession with sex (without understanding the consequences), parenting classes, the sometimes tense relationships between the families, and discussions about whether teen parents should automatically opt for marriage (Al Sharpton played the counseling minister). Just as importantly, the outlook for Junior and Vanessa, while irrevocably changed by the birth of their son, was not all the doom and gloom commonly predicted for teen parents.
In the now-defunct show, "Reba," the country music star played the de facto babysitter to her grandchild, the person who buys the diapers – when her son-in-law's pizza delivery job won't stretch far enough, and the tough-loving landlord when the newlyweds/new parents can't afford a place on their own. Comedy aside, "Reba" (originally on the WB network) illustrated the seeming paradox that teen parents need both constant support and the chance to be independent.
They also don't need to be are arbitrarily exiled to a "no-man's land" of underachievement. Volumes of evidence and studies seem to confirm the overwhelmingly negative outcomes of teen parenthood and confirm them so strongly that it feels almost heretical to ask if teen pregnancy has to be talked about like a form of societal suicide, by which all a girl's life opportunities die sudden deaths. But I've seen teen mothers who,yes, struggled, but maintained their dignity and their ambition despite the challenges and the stigma.
The negativity surrounding teen or unwanted pregnancy is in marked contrast to the overwrought, overexposed reporting on celebrity maternity. Perhaps it's just societal bias in favor of the "beautiful people" or the people whom we feel are best equipped to raise children, meaning those with enough money, education or prestige.
But it's no certainty Halle Berry's baby will have a more stable family unit than Jamie Lynn's child; Berry has been through two failed marriages. There's no guarantee that Berry and her "baby daddy," model Gabriel Aubry – or any two persons united by a common child — will be good co-parents or life partners. Marriage, maternal urges and all the money that can buy child care, good advice and designer onesies didn't stop Britney Spears from driving around in her convertible with her toddler sitting in her lap.
Replays of "Carseatgate" were in heavy rotation in 2006, and to their credit, television tabloids and news shows alike capitalized on the teachable moment to drive home the danger of not properly restraining a child in a car.
Yet, what would have happened if just a fraction of the minutes and all the ink devoted to that controversy about parental responsibility would have been spent on talking about teen pregnancy? Far too often, teen pregnancy occurs largely off-screen. And when it is written into the scripts, it rarely comes close to examining the actual challenges that young parents must face.
Take the example of "Hex," a racy 2005 BBC miniseries that was later imported stateside. Cassie, a shy English boarding-school student, finds a mysterious vessel and, abracadabra, she's pursued (read: stalked) by a darkly handsome, thirtysomething stranger who happens to be a demon named Azazeal. Under his spell, the one-time wallflower becomes a sexual dynamo and conceives a child who will, like Rosemary's baby, wreck havoc on the mortal world. The unintended message of this fantasy is that teen pregnancy is dangerous and has the potential to turn society on its head.
Yet, it doesn't have to be that way. Media, schools and parents can communicate to youth that they can prevent pregnancy – assuming they are not discouraged from doing so by abstinence-only policies or our own discomfort. Television, film and journalism can do their part by not overidealizing celebrity pregnancy, rendering teenage pregnancy invisible or silencing pregnant teen entertainers.
Perhaps Nickelodeon, home to "Zoey 101," will help lead the way by keeping Jamie Lynn on the air. The network also confirmed that it is discussing the possibility of a Linda Ellerbee-hosted forum on what teens think about sex, love and all that comes with them. Could there also be an episode about sex education in the boarding school that's the setting of "Zoey 101"? Parents of the kids' network's viewers would probably revolt (even on "My Wife and Kids," the mother of a young cast member protested when her child's character would have a pregnant teen friend). So I guess there's no chance of "Zoey" bringing her infant to school in a Snugli.
But it's clear that at least one of Nickelodeon's teen sweethearts needed help communicating about sexuality. We don't know if Jamie Lynn was using birth control, whether the condom broke or why she was so surprised about her pregnancy. However, we do know – thanks to her "OK!" interview, allegedly conducted for a $1 million fee – that when Jamie Lynn told her mother she was pregnant, she resorted to an old elementary-school method (before the days of texting): She passed her a note.