Secret Lies of the Anti-Choice Teenager

1 Jul

As a teenager I loved watching ’80s teen movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Sixteen Candles.  My friends and I watched every Molly Ringwald movie with fascination, acknowledging that between the big hairstyles and off-the-shoulder Flashdance-esque sweatshirts, there were some gritty truths told.  The brutal social hierarchy that pervades every high school.  The mythical handsome-yet-sincere jock.  The girl who gets pregnant – and is pragmatic enough to have an abortion and move on with the rest of her life.

Obviously I was thrilled to hear that Molly Ringwald was returning to acting a couple years ago, when her show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager premiered, with Ringwald starring as the mother of one of the teenagers.  Hoping for the modern, new-episode-every-week version of one of her classic films, I set my DVR.  Yes, the show centers around students in high school, and there certainly are some social complexities to wrap your head around – but that’s where the similarities end.  If you have not seen the show, in brief, it tells the story of Amy, a 15-year-old you loses her virginity in  one night stand at band camp – and gets pregnant.  Her mother, Ann, then discourages an abortion (as do most of her naive and idealistic friends), and so she has a baby.  We see variety of teenagers engaged in various relationships (most of a sexual nature), and, serving as counterpoint, other teens and adults provide preachy soundbites.  Brenda Hampton, the producer, is also the force behind 7th Heaven, and the new offensive ode to fat camp, Huge.  Despite have a decade to preach via 7th Heaven‘s pastor and family, this show takes patronizing to new heights.  Some highlights:

  • Grace is the daughter of an over-the-top pious chruch-going doctor and his wife.  Her father continually pressures her to wear a purity ring, announcing the virginal status of her uterus to the world.  When she has sex for the first time, her father dies in a plane crash at the same time.  The obvious (and illogical) correlation between the two is gnawed over until it is clear that, in fact, premarital sex = killing someone you love.
  • Amy’s mother discouraged her daughter from having an abortion.  She then flatly refused to be supportive or even slightly positive about her daughter’s ensuing pregnancy and child.  Her annoyance with her daughter and grandson remains palpable throughout the series.
  • Attempts to locate a family to adopt Amy’s baby are stymied by the pastor; instead of finding families that are suitable, he takes it upon himself to locate entirely inappropriate choices.  He fails to discuss why he thinks adoption is a bad idea until confronted.
  • Adrienne, seen as a promiscuous slut throughout the series, is the only one to support the idea of abortion for Amy – and now for herself.  Her pro-choice tendencies are linked throughout the series to her promiscuity.  Thus, we now know that one cannot be pro-choice without being a slut.
  • As Adrienne considers her options, her ‘friend’ Grace (Super-Christian) continues to make it her business whether not Adrienne has an abortion – as in, pressuring her not to go through with the procedure.  The show makes no mention of the illogic of a sixteen year old pretending to have an idea of the impact having a child would have on her friend.  Similarly, it is assumed, and frequently mentioned that the boy Adrienne had sex with has a say in whether she has an abortion.  Unless he can transfer the fetus from her body into his, he, in fact, does not get to make a decision.
  • The series shows Ricky, the teenaged father of Amy’s baby, obtaining weekends-only custody of their child.  This leaves Amy working evenings during the week, going to school during the day, and essentially being a night-time-only babysitter to her son… because now his father gets him every weekend – you know, when the kid is actually awake, and Amy would be around instead of working to pay for daycare.  No mention of the idiocy of this arrangement – or at the very least the unfairness is made.  Also, we are to believe that Ricky, a teenaged derelict living alone is considered responsible enough to care for a child.  Even though he himself is a child.
  • At least once (but usually more) per episode various teenagers babble about how they plan to marry their significant other of the moment.  To justify sleeping with them now.  The puritanical absurdity is overwhelming – particularly when they engage in group think and all consult one another before making what typically are very private decisions.
  • Ann – Amy’s mother – finds herself accidentally pregnant.  Despite clearly not wanting this child, having an estranged relationship with its father (although she’s not sure who the father is), she never considers an abortion.  Instead she is clearly a martyr for suffering not only her grandson but also another child as well.
  • In nearly every relationship, it is the boy who wants to have sex, and it is the responsibility of the girl to say no – the exception being Adrienne-the-slut, but, well, she’s clearly a slut.
  • When Amy’s younger sister Ashley wants to get birth control pills her father agrees but her mother disagrees, despite experiencing an unplanned pregnancy herself and having her other teenage daughter became pregnant.  Are we really to believe that Ann is delusional enough to believe that neither Amy nor Ashley should have access to contraception?  While I’m sure there are many parents out there who have talked themselves into being blind to the risks of teen pregnancy – who look at the statistics and say ‘not my precious angel’ – how can the mother of a daughter who already has had a baby at 16 be one of them?

Perhaps most egregious at all though, is the continual glorification of Bristol Palin, who will have a came role on the July 5 episode since, as Hampton exhorts, she “is the most famous teenage mother in America.”  Well, yes – but the rest of teenaged parenthood hardly has access the $15,000 per appearance (or more) fees that Bristol reportedly commands when she, ironically, speaks about her “difficulties.”  Teenaged parenthood = an opportunity to cash in?  It’s certainly making Hampton and Palin a nice living.

For the record, I’m not saying that teenaged sex is a good idea – if anything, I believe that Hampton is grossly overestimating the emotional value that teenagers place on sex, and in doing so, is glamorizing it unnecessarily.  I am saying that a show that is a giant cliched PSA against abortion or even contraceptives is utterly useless – and the idyllic lifestyle of the teen mother in question, Amy, inaccurately portray teenaged parenting as something that does not entirely take over the teen’s life, and frankly, as easier than it is.  Unless Hampton wants more teens to become parents (though the preachy PSAs shown at the end of each episode speak to the contrary), I fail to understand why she created the show.

16 Responses to “Secret Lies of the Anti-Choice Teenager”

  1. Generation Roe July 1, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

    Great post! I’ve been hearing so much about this show recently that I’m almost tempted to watch for myself. The examples of anti-choice rhetoric you highlighted are maddening – way to make a decision that women (and teenage girls) put a lot of thought into, seem like a capricious, thoughtless choice.

    The way that abortion is represented in popular media is a fascinating topic, and I could rattle off a dozen examples of how television shows and movies dance around the issue of abortion and pay lip service to “choice” without actually exploring what that means. I think there’s also something to be said to the theory that if abortion were more subtly and thoughtfully represented in popular media, that might influence how it’s discussed in the culture at large (and vice versa, of course). Penny Lane at the Abortion Diaries has an excellent list of movies and TV that have dealt with abortion, and (shameless promotion plug, sorry!) I also write about this at my blog,

  2. KushielsMoon July 1, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    When I first heard about this show, I thought it’d be great to watch. I saw a couple of episodes, and then it fell to the wayside as I had more important things to do. Now, I’m incredibly thankful that I haven’t been a part of the viewer base. The show just sounds terribly stupid. Such a good opportunity to educate young people and break stereotypes wasted!

  3. Amanda July 1, 2010 at 3:07 pm #

    As absurd as this show sounds, situations like this do happen. I know a girl who gave birth at 15, never once thought of an abortion as a possibility, and even had the audacity that she now believes giving birth could be a positive experience for a raped child/teen (keep in mind she knew my aunt was forced to give birth after being raped at age 10). Because her parents helped her, she graduated high school with honors and is now studying to be a nurse. She’s managed to snag an older guy with money who doesn’t mind helping take care of her daughter. Her life is great. People like her and Bristol Palin need slapped across the face, and tv shows like this one that idealize teen pregnancy need stopped. Making martyrs of these girls only glamourizes it enough to convince other girls to do something that may not be right for them.

  4. Dee July 1, 2010 at 4:08 pm #

    My problem with the media lies in the fact that Secret Life is not an isolated incident, but rather the norm. Rarely in media is abortion discussed as an option to an unwanted pregnancy, and when it IS discussed, it is always dismissed as demonic. Other the Cider House Rules, I’ve yet to see a film that meets the following criteria: 1) Woman doesn’t want a baby, 2) Woman has abortion, 3) Woman lives a regular, fulfilled life afterwards, knowing it was the right choice for her.

    I had hope for the film Waitress, in which the lead character was pregnant by a loathed husband. She didn’t have the money to leave him, and the baby made matters more difficult. She HATED this baby, and wrote about her resentment of the child constantly. Then, she doesn’t even give it up for adoption when it is born! We get the cliched scene in which she looks at that baby’s eyes and realizes that she is in love! Awwww! Oh, yeah, her $ troubles are solved b/c she received an inheritance from some old guy who frequented the diner where she worked. Awww!

    Think of a show/movie you’ve seen in which an IMPORTANT character has an unwanted pregnancy. Now think of how many of those characters got an abortion or gave up the child for adoption. I’m coming up with Maude and Cider House Rules. I’m sure there are more, but the effort I put into coming up with even those two means that this is NOT prevalent in our films/tv, despite the fact that it happens every day in real life. According to film/tv, we all secretly want to be mothers. Awwww!

  5. Danielle July 2, 2010 at 3:44 am #

    They make teen parenthood look so easy. Homework, motherhood, work-ah, no problem.

    And when that guy amy when out on a date with found the condoms she had and he FREAKED-WTH?! God forbid she wants to keep both she and her partner protected from pregnancy and an infection if intercourse does happen. I’m pretty miffed at the thought that some teen girls might be discouraged from carrying their own condoms with them. For women of all ages who want to have intercourse, they should be encouraged for carrying their own condoms.

    How do you think adrienne’s pregnancy will turn out? Are we going with the ever so convenient miscarriage?

    Oh, and on the show Scrubs, the character Jordan reveals towards the end of the series that she had an abortion at 18. No regrets.

  6. Shayna July 3, 2010 at 2:47 pm #

    Danielle – I hope that they give Adrienne’s character the opportunity make a choice… rather than having it happen for her. But the show does not really make a major effort toward independent decision making or pragmatism, so you may be right!

    My problem w/ Jordan’s abortion announcement was that the character was supposed to be cold, and unfeeling – and I hate that women who have the intelligence to make choices rather than have an unwanted child, are consistently portrayed as cold and inhuman or as sluts (or both).

  7. S.L July 4, 2010 at 11:45 pm #

    I am SO glad I avoided this show like the plague, just reading this has depressed the hell out of me. Heck, back before the show came out there were ads for it all over my local mall with a pregnant teen girl (I’m guessing thats Amy). I was honestly bothered that was casually plastered all over a mall crawling with preteens and teens.

  8. Melanie July 13, 2010 at 12:35 am #

    No surprise that adrianne decides to have the baby. What else would you expect out of Brenda Hampton?

  9. Jeila July 13, 2010 at 5:00 am #

    I cannot tell you how happy I am to find someone else who can successfully express the thoughts I’ve had on this show since it started. Every week I watch this show and become more infuriated with Brenda Hampton’s attempts to indoctrinate and convert viewers. As if 7th Heaven wasn’t irritating enough, this show manages to be exceedingly offensive in its messages. Not only is it offensive to those that are pro-choice and those who have had abortions, but it is offensive to anyone who isn’t a cookie cutter anti-choice Christian. Has anyone else noticed how the only Jewish character is loathed portrayed by St. Grace (Super-Christian) and is negatively portrayed?
    This show is so anti-woman that it’s difficult to watch (especially having to sit through Bristol Palin’s dreadful cameo). Hampton’s creation is downright disturbing and her puritanical “utopia” is offensive, intangible, and overly biased seeing as the writing drips with Hampton’s self-righteousness. It is disappointing to see that pro-choice views are being smothered and excluded from a show with an audience that needs to see that they have choices.

  10. Shayna July 13, 2010 at 9:27 am #

    Jeila — I agree- and as a Jewish pro-choice viewer I cringe listening to Grace prattle on… I continue to watch it though – because I’m sure you’re wondering – because it’s important to know what ridiculous propaganda is being spewed at teenagers, so we can counteract it

  11. Katherine Kramer July 16, 2010 at 12:23 am #

    I kind of found that show so very stereotyped and a bit unrealistic. I was really hoping that Amy would opt for an abortion, and that someone as cool as Molly Ringwald would have been more pro-choice. It would of shown so many teens that abortion is a valid, moral choice and that its a choice “good girls” make. I also discovered that Grace, very pious but hasn’t yet had a life, irritated me the way that protesters do. Wouldn’t it be great if she got pregnant, chose an abortion and became a strog pro-choice character?

  12. Amy August 6, 2010 at 8:55 am #

    I know it’s been awhile since you wrote this post, but I wanted to add my personal highlight from the one and only episode I saw:
    – Amy tells her friends in the bathroom that she’s pregnant. In the same breath, friend says she better not be thinking of an abortion, but hey, why don’t you trick the boy you like into thinking it’s his baby and make him marry you?

  13. Maria March 20, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

    I just netflixed this show thinking it would be a PRO CHOICE show trying to teach proper lessons to today’s youth – and instead i find an anti-abortion, anti-women’s rights SERMON by what must clearly be a reverend episode writer in disguise. EVERYONE was forcing Amy to have the baby and do what they wanted; her opinion didn’t matter. and abortion was ALWAYS portrayed as horrific and referred to as “the child”, “the unborn baby” – it’s a freaking group of cells and NONE of anyone else’s business. What is the damn moral of this show? Ruin your life, your family’s life, your bf’s life, and of course your child’s life JUST bc “jesus” wants you to? this is ridiculous. How has America reverted back to the 50s!????!

  14. Lexiefaye April 27, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

    I have seen 3 seasons of the show, and am astonished by how anti-semetic I have found it. So far the Jewish characters have all been seen in very stereotypical light or negatively….

    Grace’s Step-Father, Dr. Jeff Zegay: Marries Grace’s Christian widowed much older mother within a few month’s of fathers death. He’s a doctor and is disliked by Grace. Never shown practicing his religion or culture in an otherwise very Christian household.

    School Counciler, Dr. Wilhemina Bink: Shown as weird woman who dances inappropriately in school because of the Holocaust dictates the whole of her life. Atleast proves to be life changing and influencial for Amy.

    Ricky’s dad, Bob Underwood: Ricky explains that he sexually abused him as a child but wouldn’t eat pork.


  15. Kat June 7, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    Amazing post. I work for a small adoption agency and one of the women I worked with made me aware of this show and I was absolutely horrified by the lack of choices supported/ represented by this show. Children should not be viewed as consequences or punishments. This show makes me so beyond angry. It is downright irresponsible. Even their portrayal of the birthing process is the most skewed thing I have ever seen.

  16. Lisa Emmanuel December 5, 2013 at 4:22 am #

    I love this post and I agree with everything you said. Brenda Hampton’s agenda about abortion are so blatantly obvious. Also I agree with what you said about the adoption they make it look like Amy is an irresponsible person for considering adoption at the age of 15! I agree with other posters, it is not only this show that is anti-abortion a lot of other tv shows also don’t discuss. And shouldn’t they be promoting birth control on this show??

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