Pregnant and Famous?
Aoife Connaughton explores the worrying trend of teens getting preganant to become famous…
For the first time in 70 years the United States’ teenage birth rate has fallen, putting it at a record low. For a country that has long had the highest underage birth rate in the developed world – being twice that of the United Kingdom and three times that of Canada – these recent figures have come as a welcome surprise. Staking claim on the recent decline in teenage birth rates are the stars of hit shows 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom.
The United States’ verging-on-unhealthy obsession with teenage pregnancy has never been more apparent. In June 2009, the first episode of 16 and Pregnant aired on MTV. The show documents the lives of pregnant teenagers as they come to terms with their burgeoning bumps and deal with the strains placed on their education, friendships and often the relationships with their babies’ fathers.
So far 25 girls have taken part in three seasons of the show, with eight of these going on to star in the even more popular spin-off show Teen Mom. Teen Mom, which is currently in its second series, is one of MTV’s most popular shows ever, pulling in 5.6 million viewers.
With casting for the fourth season of 16 and Pregnant just a short time away, a highly worrying trend has emerged. Some girls are intentionally getting pregnant in a bid to ‘birth’ their way on to the nations television screens. Far from being discouraged by the harsh realities depicted on the show, many teenagers are fantasising about starring on the shows themselves.
The US is no stranger to planned teenage pregnancies. In 2008, one high school in Massachusetts saw 17 pupils – none older than 16 – enter into a pregnancy pact. The school principal commented on the startling situation in the seaside town: “Some girls seemed more upset when they weren’t pregnant than when they were.” The girls had agreed that they would all get pregnant and raise the children together – a sort of communal parenthood.
Just prior to these pregnancy pacts being born, the movies Juno and Knocked Up became box office hits in 2007, telling the stories of young women struggling with unplanned pregnancies. In the same year 16-year-old TV star Jamie-Lynn Spears and 17-year-old Bristol Palin, daughter of Congresswoman Sarah Palin, gave birth. The US media slated these teenage pregnancies as significant influences in pregnancy pacts.
Now, a similar scenario is emerging in the wake of the huge success of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. With the stars of the original series rumoured to earn $280,000 a year from their appearances on the show and subsequent magazine deals, some American teenagers are hoping to cash in on this reality TV craze by getting pregnant themselves.
With every minute detail of these teenage mothers’ lives captured in this new social media age, celebrity gossip websites have designated sections devoted to the most controversial characters from the shows. Each of the cast have a strong following on social networking site Twitter, with one of the original 16 and Pregnant stars, Maci Bookout, currently tweeting to 123,300 followers. Bookout herself strongly rejects her image as a teen mom megastar: “I’m not out to be a celebrity, I just want to share my story and spread the word.” She maintains that these disputed documentaries “show viewers how teen pregnancy can truly affect your life”.
Far from shying away from the media spotlight, Whitney Purvis, one of the girls featured on the original series of 16 and Pregnant, spoke to ABC News about her experiences on the show. Hailing from a small town in Georgia, Purvis has been treated with celebrity-like status in her home town since she appeared on the show two years ago. “Some people, they just think it’s so cool that I was on TV. They treat me like I’m a celebrity or something,” she remarked. But despite small town fame, Purvis, who received only $5,000 for her episode of the show, is now residing firmly back in reality where she waits tables to pay her mounting bills.
She told ABC that where she lives there are over 40 pregnant teenagers who meet in a support group twice a month and they all follow Teen Mom. Purvis also revealed that she knew girls who wanted to get pregnant just to be on the show: “I met people who are changing their life just for what I did.” When asked about teens intentionally getting pregnant MTV stated that they “absolutely don’t solicit and would never knowingly cast anyone who chose to get pregnant on purpose”.
So who is responsible for this phenomenon? If teenagers decide to get pregnant, desperate to appear on the cover of magazines or on reality TV shows, it is their own choice. MTV cannot accept sole responsibility for their decision to alter their lives permanently. Throughout each of the series, the reality that teen pregnancy is preventable is emphasised significantly. The breakdown of parental and personal relationships that feature prevalently in the shows should alert teenagers to protect themselves from such scenarios and not to recreate their own.
The stars of these shows have swapped youthful freedom for the responsibilities of motherhood; lucking-out by making some money while doing so. Unfortunately, the copy-cat teen moms who got caught up in the media hype and decided to jump on the ‘bump-wagon’ may not be so lucky.