This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
While they might never admit it, I firmly believe the negative ways in which the media—television, film, print journalism—portrays teenage pregnancy and parenting influenced how the adults in my life treated me after I told them I was pregnant.
When I became pregnant at 15, the adults in my life believed my life was over. In addition to explicitly stating this to me, they began to treat me differently and even stopped helping me look into colleges because they believed I would not finish high school.
These stereotypes about teen parents also affected my self-image and already low self-esteem. Thankfully, over time I was able to overcome my self-doubt and my family members got over their issues and started supporting me. But not every teen has the same experience. The way the media represents teenage pregnancy and parenting has real-life consequences and effects on teen families, including depression and poverty because of lack of support from society. By moving away from these stereotypes, and featuring more positive story lines and outcomes, people in the media can make it easier on teens to create thriving families.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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From films to public service campaigns, the representation of teenage parents is often inaccurate, sexist, classist, and racially biased. In order to change this, we must first examine the ways in which people in the media are doing a bad job and then look at how they can do better.
The media often focuses on female teens and their “inability to say no and keep their ‘legs closed.'” Public service campaigns like the one from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy have featured the words “cheap,” “dirty,” and “used” across photos of young women to emphasis the narrative that pregnant and parenting teens are associated with these characteristics. Along the same lines, the New York City Human Resource Administration’s pregnancy prevention ads featured a young Black child asking her mother, “[C]hances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” “Are you ready to raise a child by yourself?” the ad asks, putting all of the blame and responsibility on the mom. These narratives absolve teen boys of any responsibility for the sexual activity that resulted in pregnancy.
“Inferring that a young mother is promiscuous, that a young father just won’t be there for his child, and that they will forever ‘live off the system’ is harmful,” explained Marylouise Kuti, a former teen mother and young parents’ advocate who is part of #NoTeenShame, a national advocacy campaign—of which I am a part—that helps to counter the negative narratives of teenage pregnancy and parenting in society.
When teen pregnancy and parenting is presented as a “female problem,” the financial obligations and responsibilities are placed solely on the woman. If the pregnant and/or parenting teen is a Black or Latina female, these stereotypical narratives are compounded with racialized biases: long-term poverty, single motherhood, and low education achievement. While white pregnant teens are often awarded celebrity status (i.e., they seem to more often become the “stars” of MTV’s teen parenting shows), pregnant Black and Latina teens frequently see themselves and representations of their families in hurtful public service announcements.
Furthermore, as youth advocate Natasha Vianna told Rewire, “One of the biggest problems with the way teen parents are portrayed in the media has to do with where the media chooses to start the story. Teen pregnancy and parenthood has almost always been framed as the beginning of the end of a young person’s life, so we don’t get to hear much about what their lives were like before pregnancy—especially if their lives were much harder than [they are] now.”
In choosing to begin the narrative at the time of pregnancy, and ending it at the time of the child’s birth, shows like 16 and Pregnant do not show viewers what the life of a teen who is pregnant actually is. We see the shame and stigma the teen experiences, the birth of the child, and in some cases adoption, before the show ends, as if that’s all there is to teen pregnancy and parenting. The lives of the parents beyond the pregnancy are ignored unless they are sensationalized for programs like MTV’s Teen Mom series. But even these shows are unrealistic, for several reasons, including the mostly all white cast of cisgender, heterosexual, and predominately middle-class young women. All of these women are also getting paid thousands of dollars to be profiled and have their lives edited for public consumption. From season to season the living conditions of the mothers improve because of the MTV salary the women are receiving. The shows also seem to highlight the most stereotypical, hurtful teenage family stereotypes: the problematic “baby daddy” drama, the “party girl,” and the irresponsible and disrespectful teenage mom.
Then there’s the fact that the media often overrepresents adoption, especially when it comes to teenage mothers. “The adoption story line is often used as a way to fix the ‘problem,’” sociologist Gretchen Sisson, whose work focuses on teenage pregnancy, parenting, and adoption, told Rewire. “Teen parenthood and abortion are both very stigmatized. So adoption is kind of the way out and a way for the character to redeem themselves. Before abortion was legal, adoption was a way for white women to ‘undue’ the sins of sexuality outside of marriage. Adoption is used as a solution for teen pregnancy and abortion, when really it is neither of these things.”
In her research (which is not yet available online), Sisson found that less than 1 percent of women in the United States place children up for adoption. However, films and shows like Glee, Juno, 16 and Pregnant, and Saved all had story lines that resulted in a pregnant teen giving their child up for adoption.
Marriage is also often viewed and used as a way to “make things right.” In Riding in Cars With Boys, the protagonist, Beverly, states that she does not want to marry the father of her child, but after an emotional scene with her parents, who feel she ruined both her and the father of the child’s life, she reluctantly agrees to the marriage. Characters on MTV’s shows Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2 have also experienced pressure from family members to marry the father of their child, as if that’s their only option.
I can attest to this dynamic playing out in real life: When I became pregnant at 15, many people expected me to marry the father of my child since he “got me pregnant” and “marriage would make it right.”
If one does not give their child up for adoption or marry the father of their child (if the father did not leave them already, as the narrative goes in the media) the identity oft given to parenting teens is one of a desolate existence for both mother and child. Whether it is losing all of ones friends, being disowned by their family, being kicked out of school, or being sent away by family, teenage mothers simply do not have positive narratives of themselves in the media, and the negative effects of this are very real.
Teenage mothers have the highest rate of postpartum depression than mothers 20 and older, they are often forced out of school by illegal policies or because of bullying from staff and students alike, and they or more likely to experience social injustices because of age, race, and social economic background, which present unique barriers to social welfare assistance.
Media has a responsibility to accurately and holistically represent teenage families, especially teenage families of color. There simply is not enough positive representation free of gas-lighting when it comes to teenage families. All teenage fathers are not absent from their family’s lives; teenage parents are more likely than non-parenting teens to obtain their GED; and not all teenage mothers are kicked out by their parents or have as their end goal in life to attend college and get married.
To be sure, teen parents face several hardships since many teenage parents are already living in poverty before they become pregnant and face barriers to finishing their education, finding and obtaining work, and finding stable housing if they are in a situation that does not allow them to stay in their initial place of residence. However, teenage parents also often say their children served as a catalyst for them to do better in life, finish their education, stop mismanaging money, and get serious about discovering who they are as a person and what type of contributing member of society they want to be. Not only are teenage parents capable of love, compassion, and good parenting—the parents of the pregnant and parenting teen are capable of the same through supporting, loving, and encouraging their child to remain determined to reach the goals they had before becoming pregnant and after having their child.
There is no doubt in my mind that I am a better person today because I had my daughter at age 15. When my family began to unlearn the false narratives about what my teenage pregnancy would supposedly do to the family and myself, they began to show love and support.
Why aren’t there examples of that in the media? Where’s the 16, Parenting, and OK show to help teens see the decision doesn’t have to lead to destitution?
While the media has taken on the role of “teaching” about teenage pregnancy, mostly through shame and stigma, media makers need to acknowledge they are influencing how gatekeepers—including school administrators, health-care providers, and other adults in a young person’s life—perceive and treat young pregnant people. That was my experience, and I know through my work that I’m not alone.
We have to start asking ourselves, as former teen mother and #NoTeenShame member Christina Martinez recently mentioned to me, “What if we were to surround young parents with messages of hope, support, and encouragement? How might that alter the confidence in which they approach their role as parent?”
If my family and high school guidance counselor had responded to my decision to carry my pregnancy to term and parent my child in a more positive way from the get-go, with tips on planning for my future and for my daughter’s future, I may have experienced a more healthy and positive pregnancy. And so I ask, how are others preparing teens to live the life they want for themselves and their families? We can and must do so much better.
CORRECTION: A previous version of the article misspelled Marylouise Kuti’s name. We regret the error.