Celebrity Moms

Despite warning and pleading to do otherwise, some adolescents do actually get pregnant.  Many do so deliberately according to Joanna Gregson’s 2010 book, The Culture of Teenage Mothers.  Actively seeking pregnancy and then keeping the baby transmits a variety of messages between the coupled pair.  Many female adolescents report that pregnancy and motherhood become romantically intertwined with the feelings they have for the father of the baby.  These romantic feelings are many times mutual and are more than just a pick up line or a way to restrain a roaming boyfriend.  In the adolescent experience, when a man says he wants you to be the mother of his children he is bestowing more than just the honor of physical reproduction.  He essentially affirms the woman’s ability to raise his progeny, which for many men is quite an honor.  By impregnating her, or saying pregnancy is his desire, the father validates the adolescent mother’s autonomy, her achieved adulthood, and her nurturing aptitude.  To be fair, many adolescent fathers also perceive pregnancy and motherhood as potential avenues of control.  This may be a subconscious perception.  However, statements such as “I got you pregnant on purpose because I want you in my life for the rest of my life” or “When you have kids by somebody, they’ll always go back to you.” are commonly made by teenage fathers.  Othering is the process by which a dominant group defines into existence an inferior group.  The image of the teen mother is an emerging identity.  Historically this identity was kept from the public gaze through isolation, embarrassment, and expulsion from their communities.  They were certainly never given the spotlight.  The presence of the teen mom identity in popular television upends this isolating tradition by broadcasting the struggles of early parenthood.  Even though teen pregnancy has been at the top of the list of social problems since the middle of the 20th century, the rise of young mother television characters is a fairly recent phenomenon.  The young mothers are introduced on popular television shows such as Glee (FOX), The Secret Life of the American Teenager (ABC Family), and Teen Mom (MTV).  These shows are all highly rated in the 12-34 year old female demographic.   The key element of their character that exposes the teens as on the “outside” is the fact that they are pregnant.  For example, the television series 16 and Pregnant always begins with some version of: “I was a normal teenager but now I’m pregnant”.  The implication in this statement is that early pregnancy is abnormal when in fact 3 in 10 girls will become pregnant before they are 20.  There are more than 750,000 teen pregnancies in the U.S. each year[1], 60% ending in live birth.  The teenager once a member of the category “normal” through impregnation now recognizes that she is abnormal and therefore not part of the mainstream.  The new category, pregnant, shapes the teen’s behavior and identity predicting unequal outcomes later in life.

The dominant group, in our case non-pregnant teens, defines the oppressed group as intellectually or morally inferior.  The television show Glee features a recurring celibacy club that meets after school.  This club clearly praises the high moral standards of those members who not only do not engage in premarital sex but they also congratulate each other for not getting pregnant.  One episode with the title Sexy featured this line, “This meeting of the Celibacy Club will now come to order. Before we begin I would just like to start by congratulating you by reminding you that not one member of this group has had an unwanted pregnancy in almost a year. You get tenses for menses.” (Season 2: Episode 15)  Celibacy until marriage is not a dominant group practice as more than 70% of teenagers engage in sexual intercourse before their 19th birthday[2]; however, it is a dominant group ideal.  Celibacy is taught in schools as the only appropriate form of birth control and is promoted by most organized religions as morally appropriate.  This quote clearly demonstrates students congratulating each other for their non-pregnant status; thus reaffirming how undesirable it is to be a pregnant teen.  Oppressive othering reaffirms the dominant group’s feeling of superiority and entitlement.

The above discussion offers examples of how the media isolates and produces a new category of teen mother.  By isolating a group of mothers as outsiders and then forcing the groups’ visibility the young mothers are isolated and criticized.  These television shows are accused of promoting promiscuity, glamorizing young motherhood, and celebrating a formerly stigmatized category.  In order to understand the serious effects these teen mother television programs have on culture at large we must look to the teens themselves and how they are reproducing inequality through their mothering.  How are they interpreting what it means to be part of the newly formed category of glamorized young mother?

[1] Guttmacher Institute data, the leading information source on teen sexual practices.

[2] Guttmacher Institute data