Pregnancy plots are easy, writing other choices is hard

With the recent increase in teen pregnancy rates, the hoopla over Lifetime’s The Pregnancy Pact, and the season finale of MTV’s Teen Mom airing tonight, it’s no wonder we all have teen pregnancy on our minds. In TV shows and films that deal with unplanned pregnancy, 99% of the time the woman (or teenager) will keep the baby. It is easy to see this as a glorification of pregnancy and motherhood, particularly teen motherhood. While that may be the agenda of certain parties, I think there is more to it. Namely, pregnancy is a damn easy narrative to write. Writing a story about abortion or adoption is much harder.

Let’s face it, unplanned pregnancy lends itself to story-telling, but only if the woman keeps the baby. Sexy times (exciting beginning) –> unplanned pregnancy (conflict) –> working through the pregnancy and/or relationship (gradual resolution of conflict) –> birth and chubby baby smiles (happy, heartwarming ending).  It’s the classic coming of age story, though for many of us (bad pun alert) it’s more of a coming of rage story.

It’s all right there: the classic beginning-middle-end plot, plus the opportunity for growing baby belly montages.  Lazy writers love to write about the girl who finds herself pregnant, decides to keep the baby, learns a lot about life while she’s pregnant, and then gives birth.  They are especially fond of hospital scenes with 20 people crowding around the happy new mother.  And then fade to black.  What happens after the baby comes home from the hospital, well, that doesn’t fit into the formula.  Neither does abortion or adoption.

Think about it.  How do you write a story about abortion?  It’s hard to imagine a formula because, like life, there is no formula.  The only example of a heartwarming tale about abortion I know of is this amazing short film by Gillian Robespierre.  But there is a reason this is a short film. The abortion narrative has a beginning and an end, but lacks the convenient 9 month period of character development and conflict resolution. Adoption is similarly problematic, although we do see it for one of the teen couples on MTV’s Teen Mom and in the film Juno.

Abortion does not lend itself to romantic comedies, dramas, or even reality TV, and since it’s controversial anyway, the entertainment industry is happy to ignore it.  As much as I would like to accuse the industry of a sinister plot to glorify teen pregnancy, I think the truth is simply that industry folks are lazy and formulaic plots sell.  And, as usual, it’s young women who pay the price.

So close yet so far: abortion in “The Pregnancy Pact”

Yes, I watched premiere of The Pregnancy Pact on Lifetime, the network for women who like romance novels and eat yogurt.  I heard about The Pregnancy Pact because I watch Project Runway, which is now hosted on Lifetime (why, Bravo, why?) and am thus exposed to ads for Lifetime programming.  The Pregnancy Pact is based on the story of an alleged “pregnancy pact”  in Gloucester, MA, in which a group of pregnant teenage girls were thought to have made a pact to get pregnant together, on purpose.  This allegation turned out to be false.  The truth was that the pregnancies were accidental; the “pact” was their promise to raise their babies together.  I don’t  imagine many people will find a spoiler alert necessary for such a formulaic and predictable (Lifetime!) movie, but just in case, know that I will be revealing plot points in this post.

I was intrigued by the movie because I am generally interested in representations of teen pregnancy in pop culture, but also because of the controversy generated over the fact that the movie misrepresents what really happened in Gloucester.  In the movie, the girls DO make a pact to get pregnant together, ostensibly because they a) think babies are cute and not that hard to raise, and b) want their boyfriends to have to stay with them forever.  Yes, the old “women are all secretly trying to trap men by getting preggers” tale.  Coincidentally, a new study shows that men are guilty of this as well.  Out of 1,300 teen girls and young women, 25% reported “pregnancy coercion,” while 15% said they’d suffered from “birth control sabotage” from their male partners.  But hell, Lifetime has no problem perpetuating this myth of the baby-crazy, man-trapping woman — or in Lifetime’s case — 15 year old girl.

I was pleased to see that the movie did provide a somewhat nuanced (this is Lifetime, remember) position on birth control.  A scene at a school committee meeting framed both sides of the debate early on.  At the end of the film, both sides seemed to have come to a better understanding of the other.  The abstinence-only mother realizes that even though she does not want her own daughter using birth control, other parents are okay with it and therefore  it should be made available to high school students.  The uber liberal blogger (played by Thora Birch) realizes that teen pregnancy wont be solved by throwing condoms at the problem.  The pro-abstinence folks realize that they need to be more honest (aka sharing their own youthful indescretions) so that kids will feel more comfortable talking to them about their “urges.”  And the pro-condoms side realizes that teen pregnancy prevention needs to include more than just safer sex education; it should also teach young girls about all the fabulous things they can do other than get married and have a baby, like for example, college.

The real problem with The Pregnancy Pact is neither its historical inaccuracy nor its position on contraception; it’s its portrayal of abortion. To my surprise, we learn that the uber liberal blogger character had an abortion when she got pregnant in high school.  I was quite impressed to see a likeable character on mainstream television who had had an abortion.  But then, in a SHOCKING TWIST, she didn’t really have an abortion after all!  She actually gave the baby up for adoption and lied about it to her boyfriend, because he was a super duper sweetheart who wanted her to keep the baby.

Thora Birch’s character admits the truth about her false abortion to her ex-boyfriend (now the VP of the Gloucester High School) in a maddening scene.  She explains that it was too late to get the abortion, so she opted for adoption instead.  The dreamy ex-bf is relieved — a relief the audience is expected to share.  “Oh phew, she didn’t actually have an abortion so now we can like and respect her.”  The ex-bf says something like, “I really didn’t want to believe you were that kind of person,” (that kind of person?) and she replies, “I almost was.”  Is she trying to remind him that she would have had the abortion if she could have, and would still make that choice?  Or,  is she agreeing that all would have been lost if she had gone through with the abortion?  It was unclear to me what that line meant, and I wonder if it was deliberately left ambiguous.

Lifetime came so close to creating a moral, likeable character who chose abortion and did not regret it, but they chickened out.  Is it really so hard to imagine that an American audience (of women) could accept a woman with a history of abortion?  Is it really still a “scarlet A situation” when almost everyone knows a woman who has had an abortion?  Do we really need to pound out the message that it’s only ok to have an abortion if you feel really, really bad about it and totes regret it afterward?  Recently, Heidi Fleiss made headlines when she not only admitted that she had chosen abortion, but also that she was happy with her choice.  (There is a great post about this at Feministing.)  But do we ever see examples of this in mainstream film or television?  Are there any role models teaching young girls that it is okay to have an abortion, and not only that, but it is okay to NOT be racked with guilt or shame about it?

Perhaps it was foolish to hope that Lifetime, a network that capitalizes on old-fashioned tropes and stereotypes about women and what they want out of life (marriage, babies, and melodrama), would be the first to put forth a moral and likeable character who has had an abortion, and doesn’t regret it.  Still, they came close, and I guess that’s something.

Go ahead, watch The Pregnancy Pact.  Just say it’s “research” if anyone asks.  I would love to know what you think.

Subscribe to my RSS feed