Abortion is not a new topic for MTV. Honestly portraying an abortion experience during prime time, however, is. 16 & Pregnant, the original reality series that led to the Teen Mom spin-offs, regularly featured conversations about abortion in their portrayals of the experiences of pregnant teens. More often than not, however, the topic was brought up only to be immediately dismissed as unthinkable. While feminist media analyses applauded the post-season special, “No Easy Decision,” that featured Markai Durham deciding to terminate her second pregnancy along with other young women who chose abortion, MTV aired the special at 11:30pm EST, outside of prime time. This placement suggests that abortion remains taboo, something to be discussed after hours, in hushed voices, something to be kept in the dark. Additionally, the special stressed the selfless reasons women choose to terminate pregnancies, most often citing existing or future children. It is not enough, apparently, for a woman to want to end a pregnancy for her own health and well-being. After all, we all want to be good mothers eventually, right?
With over 100 episodes between the three iterations of Teen Mom and 47 episodes of 16 & Pregnant, though, honest moments inevitably shine through. Reality television, for all of its reinforcement of negative stereotypes and misinformation, provides an unprecedented level of exposure for marginalized groups. 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom showcase a group of people, teen mothers, that had been practically non-existent on television.
Teen Mom 2‘s Jenelle Evans has provided more than her fair share of controversy and drama for the MTV reality series. From domestic disputes to drug abuse, millions of viewers tune in to follow Jenelle’s struggles to make better decisions in her life. In the premiere of the fifth season, we learned that Jenelle is recently married, separated from her husband, and pregnant.
In typical Teen Mom fashion, the editors reveal this information via a conversation between Jenelle and a friend. When the friend asks Jenelle what she’s going to do about the pregnancy, she replies, “I have decided to get an abortion.” She cites multiple reasons for making her decision, including her impending divorce, looming court date, and continual attempts to improve her life, such as obtaining a steady job and finishing school. While the unfairness to her son, Jace, is mentioned, the message is clear: Jenelle is making this choice for herself.
Jenelle’s story, unlike Markai’s, wasn’t relegated to a late-night, post-season special. MTV included it in promos for the new season and the first two episodes have dealt with her experience ending her pregnancy. While the information is far from complete, Jenelle and her mother, Barbara, discuss many different issues associated with mifepristone, or the abortion pill: the long drive to the clinic, how they will pay for the medication, how Jenelle has to take the pills, and what she will experience once they take effect.
Interestingly, Jenelle suggests that her doctor “didn’t tell [her] anything” about what to expect. While we have no way of knowing how much information the clinic gave Jenelle, it’s important that her mother does have answers to her questions. Feminism relies on women sharing their experiences and MTV has, probably unwittingly, presented a tender and groundbreaking moment: a mother explaining to her daughter what her abortion will be like.
In Teen Mom 3, Briana and her sister Brittany were both pregnant; Brittany obtained an abortion while Briana decided to parent. Throughout her story, Briana regularly points out how different the sisters’ lives are now. Amazingly, MTV presents the daily experiences of two women who made independent decisions regarding their pregnancies, revealing through juxtaposition the consequences each choice carried.
It’s important to note that there remains much to be desired in how MTV presents this issue and others in the lives of these teen mothers. As previously mentioned, 16 & Pregnant did much more to stigmatize abortion than talk about it openly and honestly. Abortions are more readily tolerated when done for the sake of existing children rather than for the mother herself. Furthermore, editing decisions obscure the “reality” of these shows in ways viewers can never completely know.
Despite the overarching conservative bent of MTV and Viacom and the myriad representation problems with the genre of reality television, Teen Mom presents opportunities for subversion. These are real women, after all, sharing their experiences with others. The show could use more discussion of ways to support teen mothers rather than ways to avoid becoming a teen mother, but the simple acts of talking, sharing, and understanding are central to the feminist goal of raising consciousness. MTV might have featured Jenelle’s abortion as high drama to bring in viewers, but they provided an unprecedented public forum to discuss abortion in a genuine way to millions of viewers.
Reality television, as popular media, regularly reinforces oppressive, hegemonic ideology; at the same time, these young women subvert many of these messages with their mere presence, but most especially when they use their airtime to provide us with alternative ways of understanding political issues that touch their personal lives. From government assistance programs to abortion options, the women of Teen Mom empower themselves and other women by telling it like it is. Let’s hope Viacom doesn’t catch on anytime soon.