Does Popular Culture Promote Teen Pregnancy?

The Growing Dialogue in Television and Film Does Little to Prevent Unwanted Pregnancy in Young Viewers


iBaby: the latest Generation-Y accessory. Images of young mothers have infiltrated televisions and silver screens throughout the United States.(Photo illustration by Kisha Claude /The Observer)

Published: October 8, 2009

Television can do a lot: stave off boredom, play babysitter, even give you something to talk about on an awkward first date.  In my experience, though, television very rarely leads to an exploration of social norms, although I do admit that I often favor shows like “Rock of Love” over CNN programming. Recently, though, while flipping through the channels, I’ve found myself bombarded with images of swollen bellies and Pampers shopping sprees. It begs the question: is pop culture obsessed with unplanned pregnancy?

We all ran out and watched “Juno” and laughed our way through “Knocked Up” in previous years, but I have to ask: doesn’t there come a point where unwanted pregnancy is more than just a punch line to a joke?

For the first time in 14 years, teen pregnancy is on the rise after a steady decline beginning in the early ’90s. Could it be that laughing about the accidental two lines on a pregnancy test has lead to a lax attitude in our country about pregnancy? A study conducted by the RAND Corporation last year showed a clear link between the amount of steamy television teens watched and unwanted pregnancies. Surely, having a character shrug off a pregnancy as a vehicle for comedy or a publicity stunt won’t exactly help in having young girls take the issue seriously.

In recent weeks, Kourtney Kardashian, E! reality personality (because, really, what other job title does she have?), has been plastered on every tabloid cover discussing her accidental pregnancy in extreme detail. On a recent episode of her reality show, “Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami,” Kardashian laughs while telling her sister about failing to use a condom during a romp with her ex-boyfriend, Scott. We all know how that worked out. Kourtney is back with now-no-longer-ex-boyfriend Scott and expecting a child in December.

This past summer, “16 and Pregnant,” thanks to MTV’s love of re-run programming, made countless appearances on the network. It almost pained me to watch these girls talk about getting pregnant as casually as if they had forgotten their lunch at home one day. One girl in particular, Amber, recounted how she and her boyfriend, Gary, didn’t use protection. Why? Because Gary said sex was more enjoyable without a condom. Remind me why are we giving these people airtime, again?

Sure, we are all responsible for making our own decisions. When having sex, the individuals involved have to take the proper steps necessary to prevent unwanted pregnancy, and no, wishing really hard doesn’t count. Taking birth control consistently and using a condom correctly every single time (NYC ones are free!) is the only effective way to prevent pregnancy. We can’t deny the effect, though, that pop culture has on society—we saw the way every girl ran out to buy a headband when “Gossip Girl” premiered, after all. Doesn’t the media, then, have some type of responsibility to present pregnancy as more than a conduit of humor or the product of a drunken night out in South Beach?

If we’re going to talk about pregnancy, let’s present all the sides of the issue. Rather than showing Kourtney Kardashian wearing designer clothes and rubbing her growing belly on the cover of Us Weekly saying “Oops!,” let’s maybe talk about having these kids wrap it up. Or, to borrow a term from “Knocked Up,” let’s talk about the girls who decide to have a “shmashmortion” because they realize that an unwanted pregnancy is difficult, painful and not a joke at all.

I’m not saying that we should travel back to an era when pregnancy wasn’t discussed and girls got themselves into “situations,” went to visit Aunt Martha for nine months and came back 20 pounds slimmer.  All I’m saying is, if we’re going to talk about pregnancy, let’s really talk about what bad decisions it takes to get there and how to prevent them for other young women.

The conservative right likes to keep talk about safe sex out of the media for fear that it will inspire kids to run right out and practice what they’ve learned. But isn’t it worse for pop culture to show young girls carrying accidental pregnancies to term than to discuss how to prevent getting there in the first place? In a life with no “rewind” or “undo” buttons, a force as influential as the media has the responsibility to present some healthier choices.