Skip to main content

MTV's 'Teen Mom' glamorizes getting pregnant

By Melissa Henson, Special to CNN
  • Melissa Henson: Creators of MTV shows "16 and Pregnant," "Teen Mom" had good intentions
  • But MTV promotes the girls as celebrities, she says; they get headlines and front page photos
  • Headline about shows say "Who's pregnant with triplets!" "Amber and Gary reunite!"
  • Henson: MTV show is irresponsible and misrepresents young moms' lives

Editor's note: Melissa Henson is the director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan organization advocating responsible entertainment. She is a noted expert on entertainment industry trends and the impact of entertainment media on children and popular culture. Dr. Drew talks to MTV's "Teen Moms" at 9 p.m. ET/PT Wednesday on HLN.

(CNN) -- As I stood in the checkout line waiting for the customer in front of me to finish paying for her groceries, I took a moment to glance over the ubiquitous magazines and tabloids that adorn every aisle. The cover of OK! was emblazoned with the headline: "More 'Teen Mom' babies! Who's pregnant with triplets! Who's hoping another baby will save the relationship! PLUS: Amber and Gary reunite!" Pushed to the margin was a picture of Britney Spears.

Next to "OK!" was In Touch, which featured a cover story about former Playboy playmate and "Dancing With the Stars" competitor Kendra Wilkinson. But there too, prominently displayed on the cover, were the headlines " 'Teen Mom' Exclusive: Leah's Miracle Baby Ali's First Steps!" and "Kailyn's Pregnancy Scare."

And that, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with the MTV series "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom."

I don't believe anyone would deliberately set out to create a television program that would encourage teen pregnancy. Why would anyone want to promote a behavior that often leaves families trapped in a cycle of poverty? Who would knowingly encourage activity that often leads to poor prenatal care, lower birth weight babies and more preterm births?

MTV chooses to focus on the girls' volatile relationships with the babies' fathers or their new body piercings and tattoos.
--Melissa Henson

I have no doubt that everyone involved, from the creators to the teenagers themselves, went into this venture with the very best of intentions: helping to show other teenagers that actions have consequences and that raising a child is difficult even under the very best of circumstances, but especially difficult when you are still a child yourself.

But this program doesn't air on Discovery Health or any of the myriad of cable channels that might have taken a more sober approach to such an important public health and welfare issue. No, it airs on MTV.

So instead of really helping viewers understand the day-to-day responsibilities of attending to a new infant -- scrubbing poop stains or spit-up out of clothing -- or dwelling on the "mundane," MTV chooses to focus on the girls' volatile relationships with the babies' fathers or their new body piercings and tattoos. That makes for better TV.

Just look at how MTV promotes the show. In its e-mail newsletters, MTV proclaims "Amber Portwood Gets Baby Leah Belly Tattoo" or "Jenelle Runs Up Her Mother's Credit Card Bill." Not, "Amber Portwood has only had six hours of sleep in two days because her baby won't stop crying!"

In those same sensationalist e-mails, MTV promotes its other teen shows as well. It pushes "Skins" by saying: "If MTV were to put up a billboard for its provocative new series 'Skins,' it might say something like 'OMFG. No Really, OMFFFFFG!' While the teens of 'Skins' hail from the suburbs, they're not any less promiscuous, wild or messed-up than the 'Gossip Girl' crew. Think raves, crystal meth, diet pills for breakfast and affairs with (ahem) teachers."

A promo for "The Hard Times of RJ Berger" says: "Losing one's V-card can add a swagger to even the dorkiest of dork's steps."

Then of course, there's MTV's legacy of "Real World," "Jersey Shore," "Road Rules" and the like, featuring attractive young men and women going to bars, getting drunk, picking up strangers and taking them home for sex -- all without consequences.

Are we really to take MTV seriously as an advocate for teen sexual health?

Where was the episode of "Skins" in which one of the girls has a pregnancy scare or contracts an STD from having unprotected sex? Where was the episode of "RJ Berger" in which the teenage characters discuss the fact that most sexually active teens wish they had waited?

Opposing view: Why I created MTV's "16 and Pregnant"

Are we really to believe MTV has these girls' best interests at heart? Are we to believe that MTV hasn't been fully complicit in promoting these girls as celebrities in their own right, worthy of not just appearing alongside superstar celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Brad Pitt or Taylor Swift on TMZ or inside the pages of supermarket tabloids, but actually capable of displacing high-wattage celebrities for the cover?

A recent survey of schoolchildren found that many teens today would rather be famous than smart; they'd rather be a celebrity assistant than the president of Harvard. Would it really have been so difficult for MTV to anticipate the possibility -- if not the probability -- that some starstruck teenager might see those magazine covers and perceive getting pregnant and earning a spot on the show as her ticket to fame and fortune?

At the end of the day, good intentions don't always yield good results. MTV still has zero credibility as an advocate for teen sexual health.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Melissa Henson.