Well intentioned Facebook meme misses the point

A ‎15 year old girl holds hands with her 1 year old son. People call her a slut. No-one knows she was raped at 13. People call a girl fat. No-one knows she has a serious disease which causes her to be over weight. People call an old man ugly. No-one knows he had a serious injury to his face while fighting for our country in the war. Re post this if you are against bullying and stereotyping. 95% of you won’t

I keep seeing this Facebook status meme pop up from time to time, and every time, it makes me angry. Sure, I’m against bullying and stereotyping (is anyone really pro bullying and stereotyping?) but I don’t at all agree with the message here.

Sure, it’s important not to assume that all teen mothers became mothers by choice. It’s important not to assume that every teen mother became pregnant through consensual sex or irresponsible behavior. Yes, it’s important to understand and recognize that some pregnancies are the result of rapes, and that some young women are forced to carry their babies to term because of shitty barriers to contraception, Plan B, and abortion access. Maybe she was forced to carry the baby to term because of parental notification laws, or the crowds of anti-Choice protesters outside her local Planned Parenthood, or even simply because abortion is too stigmatizing or incompatible with her family’s beliefs or culture to consider.

But even if a teenage girl did become pregnant through consensual sex – even if she was irresponsible – even if she had consensual, unprotected sex with multiple partners – she still doesn’t deserve to be called a slut. Nobody deserves to be called a slut, ever, for any reason. Because there’s nothing wrong with having sex. Even when you’re young. Even when you’re not married. Even if it’s with multiple partners.

Sure, it’s important to realize that there are a myriad of different reasons why a person might become overweight. It could be the result of an illness, or a medication, or a genetic condition and no fault of her own. But it could also be a result of an eating disorder, or stress eating, or poverty, or a lack of education about nutrition. It could be because she’s too busy working 14 hours a day to shop at a grocery store and prepare healthy meals. It could also be because she loves food and doesn’t really care if she conforms to the unrealistic American beauty ideal of the size 2 supermodel. She might be happy with her body exactly how it is.

But no one deserves to be discriminated against or bullied for being fat, ever, for any reason. Even if their weight appears unhealthy, even if they just fucking love to eat hamburgers. Because fat people deserve respect, even if they’re fat because they’re lazy, even if they’re unhealthy. Because people come in all different shapes and sizes, for all sorts of reasons. Because there’s no wrong way to have a body. And because someone else’s weight is really none of your business.

Yes, it’s important to realize that sometimes people look different and sometimes they were injured while serving our country. But sometimes people look different because they were injured for some other reason. Maybe it was a car accident. Maybe it was a drunken hang-gliding accident. Maybe there was an accident at work because of lax safety standards. Maybe it wasn’t an injury, but an illness, or a condition that developed over time, or maybe they were just born that way. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with a person’s face other than the fact that it doesn’t look like the faces we see in magazines. Maybe it’s not a person’s face, but their body. Maybe they use a wheelchair or a cane. Maybe they sound different when they speak. Maybe they cannot speak, or cannot hear, or cannot see. No one deserves to be called ugly, no matter what they look like or sound like or how they came to be that way.

Though I can recognize that the meme is well-intentioned, it suggests that while some people don’t deserve to be bullied or stereotyped, other people do. Because they “brought it on themselves” by acting irresponsibly or just because they don’t have a “good excuse” for being the way they are. But nobody deserves to be stereotyped or bullied, for any reason.

When someone falls outside the norm, they become a target for bullying and stereotyping just because they’re different. And everyone is different at least some of the time. There’s no point to trying to determine who “deserves it” and who doesn’t. Because bullying and stereotyping is cruelty, and no one ever deserves that.

So if 95% of people aren’t reposting this status meme, let’s hope it’s because they agree that EVERY 15 year old mother, EVERY overweight person, and EVERY person who’s body is in some way “different,” deserves our respect and compassion.

Quick reactions to the New York Time’s take on MTV’s Teen Mom

Last week the New York Times published an article about the effect of MTV’s reality shows 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2 on combating teen pregnancy. While the article acknowledged that some have challenged the franchise for glamorizing teen pregnancy by turning these girls into celebrities, it overwhelmingly asserts that the shows have had a positive effect by drawing attention to the issue and providing a vehicle for discussion. Still, I’m not sure I’m ready to jump on the “Yay, Teen Mom is the best for sex ed!” bandwagon.

Here are some off-the-top-of-my-head reactions to the piece. I should also preface these by admitting that I am an avid viewer of these shows.

  1. It’s great that the shows are providing entry points for conversation for both parents and educators, but are the majority of viewers actually having those conversations?
  2. A friend of mine who is the mother of teenage girls noted a lack of empathy that some teens have for the girls on 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. While some people (myself included) do react emotionally to the girls’ hard-luck stories, others have little pity or sympathy, often assuming that the girls were “stupid” or “careless” or “sluts” and look what happened.
  3. The show doesn’t actually provide sex ed information, just says “Teen pregnancy is 100% preventable, go to our website.” If the programs were truly meant to prevent pregnancy, wouldn’t they want to include real sex ed info as much as possible?
  4. The show does not do enough to address abuse, physical or emotional. While MTV did react to the physical abuse depicted in the first season of Teen Mom, they have not addressed different forms of emotional abuse that aren’t hard to pick out, including emotional abuse from boyfriends (like Adam in Teen Mom 2) and extremely unhealthy parent-child relationships.
  5. Dr. Drew is a manipulative creep and should not be involved. The New York Times calls him a “hand-holder,” but after watching one too many finale specials, his involvement makes me cringe. He consistently encourages the girls to try to make it work with the baby-daddies, even if they don’t want a romantic relationship with them, and even when the baby-daddies are deadbeats or abusive.  This is not the message that teen viewers should walk away with at the end of the season.
  6. While educators use 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2 in classrooms with little or no opposition, the one-time special No Easy Decision, in which a girl chooses abortion, is not used in this manner. One teacher cites not wanting to “test the limits.”  While the No Easy Decision special was super well done – seriously, I loved it – it was only aired once at an odd time and clearly no one is using it to spark discussion. There is no question that as a franchise, these shows ignore abortion as much as possible in order to remain “neutral,” which really isn’t very neutral at all.

Relationship Violence on Teen Mom

Okay, last week I wrote about MTV’s Teen Mom and the preview they aired for tonight’s episode that showed a clip of Amber punching Gary’s head into a wall. I just finished watching this week’s episode (a little late on DVR) and wow. Just wow.

I now realize the context for airing the clip of that punch. After watching the whole scene – with the name-calling, threatening, physical intimidation, slapping, hitting, punching, yelling, and a final kick – I realize that this situation was much bigger than the punch.  I’m still don’t condone the use of the clip in the promo because there was no accompanying educational message (last week, I mean), but in the context of the full scene, I understand the choice a little better now.

First of all, I want to congratulate MTV for recognizing that this was a domestic violence situation, and providing a resource for help and more information. After the segment where Amber verbally and physically attacks Gary, (and intimidates him by trying to pushing his stuff down the stairs – including a TV) they showed a black screen with narration that said “If you or someone you know has been a victim of domestic violence visit loveisrespect.org.” They then showed that at each commercial break and at the end of the episode. They also instructed viewers to go to MTV.com to see a video interview with Amber and Gary discussing their abusive relationship. They write:

On tonight’s episode of “Teen Mom” you witnessed what initially appeared to be just another loud argument between Amber and Gary escalate into something very serious. Amber got physical with Gary many times while Leah was in close proximity.

Following the video of the two of them talking about viewing the footage for the first time is an analysis from Katie Ray-Jones, Executive Director of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. She writes:

Amber and Gary are involved in an abusive relationship. In a series of episodes, Amber has demonstrated a pattern of abusive behavior toward Gary that includes the use of intimidation, as well as physical and emotional abuse.

In this particular video clip, Amber acknowledges that she is abusive and that she “can’t help” herself. When Gary begins to speak about how he would like Amber to treat him, she interrupts him, rolls her eyes and tells him that he is the reason she cannot confide to him. She constantly interrupts him during the interview and dismisses his feelings. In abusive relationships, it is common for the abusive person to blame the victim for the abuser’s actions. Gary tries to communicate that he wants to be treated with respect–and that is what he deserves. However, Gary appears to withdraw during the interview by keeping his eyes on the floor and limiting his role in the interview.

Amber states that she cares about Gary. It is important to note that in an abusive relationship, the relationship is not abusive all the time. There are moments when the couple may believe they are “getting along.” This gives the victim hope that the relationship is going to get better. However, in most abusive relationships, this is not the case.

As we’ve watched the season of “Teen Mom” unfold, we’ve consistently seen Amber using power and control to tear Gary down. But we continue to believe that Amber, as well as any abusive partner, would greatly benefit from professional help to address her abusive behavior. It will be important for Amber to take responsibility for her actions and commit to wanting to change. Additionally, Gary deserves to be in a healthy relationship in which he is treated with dignity and respect. It is difficult to imagine that Gary will be able to have that type of relationship with Amber unless she seeks out additional help.

Finally, there is another link to loveisrespect.org, where one can chat online with a peer advocate.

All in all, I’m satisfied with the way MTV handled this terrifying footage. I’m glad they recognized the serious nature of the abuse, and acknowledged their responsibility to provide education and resources for viewers. The only thing I wish they had done was make it clear in their messaging that domestic violence knows no gender. Obviously, we see that in this case, it is a woman abusing a man. But to drive that point home by vocalizing it or plainly stating it within the messaging, either on TV or on MTV.com, might help people connect Amber and Gary’s situation to similar cases in their own lives.

Domestic violence is difficult because it happens in private. We don’t usually get to see relationship abuse escalate to violence like we did on TV tonight. In fact, we rarely see much at all. Only once it has escalated to a very dangerous point do we ever see physical signs like bruises  – and even then, many victims will deny the abuse and most abusers will not recognize that their behavior is abusive.

It’s hard to know what’s really going on in someone else’s relationship because life isn’t a reality TV show and we don’t get to watch what happens behind closed doors. And a lot of times that contributes to the discomfort or disbelief we have with the idea of men being victimized by women, especially when we don’t see the whole picture. It’s easy to tell our guy friends to “stick up for yourself” (and imply that they are to blame for the way their partners treat them) because we just don’t see men as victims of relationship abuse. Our assumptions blind us to the signs and as a result, many men do not receive the support that women in a similar situations might.

All in all, MTV handled this better than I expected but there is always room for improvement. For example, a lot of viewers (and commenters) are surely wondering about the safety of Amber’s daughter Leah and whether abusive behavior towards a co-parent is grounds for removal from Amber’s custody. Hopefully MTV will address some of these issues as well in the future.

Love21: Trendy maternity fashion for pregnant teens

The ever-trendy, ever-crappy Forever 21 is launching a new line of maternity clothing called Love21, which like the rest of their clothes, is aimed at teenage girls. The Gloss reports that the line will only be available in 5 states – 3 of which (Arizona, California, and Texas) happen to be on the list of states with the highest rates of teen pregnancy. Coincidence? Of course not.

The Gloss suggests that this is “brilliant marketing” to an existing customer base that addresses the need for maternity wear for teens. This raised a lot of red flags for me, as I remembered the fuss over MTV’s Teen Mom and the cries that today teen pregnancy and teen motherhood is being glorified by the media. Now will it be glorified by the fashion industry?

There is a bit of the “chicken or the egg” dilemma at work here. Does providing teen maternity wear help glorify – and therefore increase – teen pregnancy? Or does providing teen maternity wear fill a pre-existing need, and perhaps validate the choices of young women, or at least help them avoid some of the stigma of being a pregnant teen by still looking hip and trendy? Could one even argue that denying a pregnant teen the right to wear fashionable and age-appropriate* clothing is a form of punishment through shaming? (“Well, it’s your fault for getting knocked up, so you’ll wear what you can find and be grateful.”)

*Er, maybe “appropriate” isn’t the right word to describe Forever 21’s clothes, but…

As much as I wish that there were less of a demand for teen maternity wear, condemning of Love21 doesn’t sit well with me. This comparison is not exactly one I enjoy making, but I support plus size clothing lines even though I wish less Americans were obese. Is this not similar? I’m not sure if the distinction matters, but it makes me even more uncomfortable to condemn the line when I remember that pregnant teens will not all become teen moms. Pregnant teens also include those who are planning to give the baby up for adoption. (Or does that distinction reflect a bias on my part?)

Clearly I’m divided on the issue, and somewhat unsettled. Still, Forever 21’s choice to name the line “Love21” is telling. I think that teen pregnancy is hard enough without having to wear “old lady” maternity clothes. Let’s not punish pregnant teens by withholding fashion, but redouble our efforts to provide education and access to reliable, relatable, scientific, comprehensive sex education – not to mention access to Plan B and safe and legal abortion services.

On V-Day it’s better to be miserable than single

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and I can honestly say that this year I am glad I don’t have a “special someone” to share it with.  Why?  Because in all likelyhood, he wouldn’t be that special. I wouldn’t be that attracted to him in the first place, and he would be counting the minutes until the date was over so he could go drive his Dodge Charger. We would only be staying together for the sake of our potential children anyway. Forget “Mr. Right” ladies; the best we can hope for this year is “Mr. Good Enough.”

Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him! (soon to be a book – oh joy!) urges women everywhere to give up on the idea of a great guy and settle for an okay one. Apparently you aren’t going to find “sparks” with men who make good husbands and fathers and your baby-clock is ticking. (Don’t you just love all the assumptions here?  Like that you’re less likely to have “sparks” with a guy who would make a good husband or father?  Or that you are interested in getting married and having babies in the first place?  Or that you are, you know, straight?)  

It’s more important that you be with someone, no matter how lame he is, than be “alone on Valentine’s Day, staring down a George Clooney movie over a half-empty pizza box,” as the New York Times recently suggested.  So who is this “Mr. Good Enough,” and how does he feel about all this?

It looks like Mr. Good Enough isn’t enjoying this relationship very much either. In fact, he needs to be bribed into it with a fast car that represents something about his manhood. Alright, it’s obvious to you, me, and everyone here that this isn’t working. (If it’s a burden to have to put your underwear in the basket or clean up after you shave then maybe it’s best if you live alone.) Time to cut our losses and move on, right?  Wrong. 

The following video is a clip from the MTV’s Teen Mom reunion in which Dr. Drew tries to convince teen parents Macy and Ryan to get back together.  Macy and Ryan tried to stay together for the sake of their son even though they were both miserable in the relationship. After multiple break ups, couples counseling, and a broken engagement, they finally called it quits. In the first segment of this clip, Dr. Drew makes some crazy arguments about gender and parenthood and then tries to guilt the teens into getting back together for the baby’s sake, even after Ryan states that if it weren’t for the baby, he would never speak to Macy again.  Poor kids (and I don’t mean the babies).

All signs point to the sad notion that hetero relationships are something we have to be bribed into, guilted into, or something we should settle for. No wonder conservatives are concerned about the state of marriage in this country.  Still, pressuring hetero couples to marry regardless of their best interests hardly seems like the answer. But according to the noise, it’s better that men and women are miserable together than alone, “staring down a half-empty pizza box” on a Friday night.

I don’t know about you, but pizza is looking pretty good to me.  Happy Valentine’s Day.

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.