Viewers Guide to MTV’s Abortion Special: Send young women your love, but give Dr. Drew the side-eye

As Entertainment Weekly reported last week, MTV will air No Easy Decision, a one-time special about teens who have had abortions, tonight at 11:30pm EST, an unfortunate ratings graveyard timeslot. (Exhale, a support organization for women who have had abortions, has organized an excellent companion campaign, “16 & Loved,” where you can send your love and support to the brave young women profiled in the special, and through which young women can support one another. More on that below. Also at the bottom of this post: a viewers guide to help you watch the MTV special with a critical eye.)

Billed as a follow-up to the Viacom channel’s popular 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom, the special will allow three young women who have had abortions discuss the reasons why they chose to end their pregnancies, and share their feelings about the experience. This is a long-overdue and needed addition to the reality TV discussion about teen pregnancies, nearly a third of which end in abortion — a fact that has been 100% absent on MTV until now.

To put it more clearly: while 27% of all pregnant teens choose abortion, 100% of pregnant teens give birth in MTV’s version of “reality” over the course of two seasons each of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. As I told the National Post and various radio shows while discussing Reality Bites Back, under the guise of socially responsible youth programming, four seasons of these MTV’s reality shows have functioned as pop cultural reinforcement of Bush administration abstinence-only education programs. To varying degrees, both the head-in-the-ground public policy and the reality series have sent a punitive message to young women: if you have sex, you get punished with a baby. After years of this judgmental and limiting narrative about teen pregnancy, MTV is finally taking a baby step in the right direction with No Easy Decision. It’s a one-shot deal rather than a series, but at least it presents the beginning of a conversation that is desperately needed in the media landscape.

Unfortunately, just as 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom viewers would be unaware of how prevalent abortion is among young women, most TV viewers in general will have no idea that the network is running No Easy Decision tonight. In recent months, MTV’s teen moms have become tabloid cover queens, and subjects of extensive print, broadcast and online debate. But unlike the aggressive promotion of MTV’s lucrative and mega-advertised teen pregnancy reality series, the network has chosen not to air a single commercial on their or any other station to advertise the special. And since they gave EW an “exclusive” on the story and didn’t send screeners to any other journalists or media outlets, they ensured that not only would there be minimal to no media coverage of No Easy Decision before it airs, but that their own fans will not even know to tune in to this middle-of-the-night, non-advertised, holiday week special. I’ve also been told that the special will not air any ads. That the cable net is this scared of their own subject matter raises alarm bells.

Also cause for healthy concern? MTV’s choice of Dr. Drew Pinsky as No Easy Decision’s host, rather than a counselor whose expertise is specific to teen pregnancy. A subject this sensitive and controversial would be best handled by a professional with a long history of helping young women. Instead, MTV went with a pompous in-house blowhard who has become increasingly judgmental, conservative and, worst, unethical in his on-camera dealings with reality TV participants coping with crises in their lives. As head of the addiction-voyeurism series Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, Pinsky has manipulated people’s medical and psychological needs in pursuit of reality TV’s all-important “drama,” often in deeply irresponsible ways. Dr. Drew has routinely deciding that making “good tv” is more important than potentially jeopardizing addicts’ recovery by placing them in “treatment” with people who are known to trigger them. When a “doctor” sequesters a domestic violence victim in the same pressure cooker rehab clinic with the man previously convicted of physically abusing her (as Dr. Drew did with Heidi Fleiss and Tom Sizemore in Celebrity Rehab and Sober House) one has to question whether his medical credentials should be revoked.

Why am I so worried about the choice of Dr. Drew as the host of this special? Well, No Easy Decision marks the first time in the entire decade of reality television where young women will be allowed to discuss their abortions. The special is airing within a pop culture vacuum where young women’s authentic experiences of abortion have been silenced, meaning that the framing of this one episode will carry more weight than just some random TV show. When abortion has been portrayed in entertainment television in recent years (and often in news media), dominant images have scapegoated young women as promiscuous, irresponsible, immoral, lazy, selfish whores. Not as mothers, which 61% of women who have abortions already are. For No Easy Decision to avoid reinforcing biased, hostile or judgemental messages about this aspect of family planning, the episode will have to be handled with compassion, respect for women’s dignity — and socio-cultural knowledge. I don’t think Dr. Drew is competent in any of those areas. Despite the seeming ethical breeches I mentioned above, he has been embraced by corporate media as a go-to expert on all things psychological. That, coupled with his faux-sincerity on Celebrity Rehab, Sober House, and Sex Rehab have lent Dr. Drew an immense measure of credibility among TV fans, especially among the younger viewers who are MTV’s base. To many, he is the authority on “what’s right,” the person whose opinion is sacrosanct, the person who “knows better” than the (portrayed as) f*ck-ups he counsels on TV. This means this reality TV wanker will have heightened power to frame abortion in No Easy Decision, and to define for viewers how they should think and feel about young women who choose to end their pregnancies.

Luckily, Exhale’s “16 & Loved” social media campaign is already helping to counter MTV’s scared-silent approach to their own special. With a robust website, Facebook presence, Twitter campaign (hashtags #16andloved and #exhaleprovoice), and leading reproductive rights activists (Jamia Wilson, Jessica Valenti, Shelby Knox, Lynn Harris and Steph Herold) liveblogging during the show, “16 & Loved” is making sure the special’s three stars (including teen mom Markai, formerly of 16 & Pregnant) know that they have our unconditional support, “and, in the process, lets every young woman who has had an abortion know that she is not alone. She is loved.” Additionally, the Women’s Media Center, while supporting Exhale’s campaign with a No Easy Decisions “watch-in,”makes explicit the need “LET MTV KNOW THAT YOU’RE WATCHING AND EXPECTING CONTINUED, BALANCED COVERAGE ABOUT ALL OF THE OPTIONS AND SUPPORT TEENS HAVE WHEN FACING UNINTENDED PREGNANCY.” (And yes, the all-caps was copied from WMC’s website.)

That is why everyone with a TV who cares about young women, and about reproductive justice, should watch MTV’s 16 & Pregnant: No Easy Decision tonight (Tuesday, 11:30pm, EST) — and it is also why those watch must do so with a critical eye. As I’ve documented in Reality Bites Back, reality television has promoted antifeminist backlash for the last ten years. When a genre that has served up a hostile, pop cultural attack on women’s rights and social progress decides to tackle abortion, we would be naive to assume that the participants will not be manipulated, that their experiences, emotions and quotes won’t be edited to suit producers’ preferred narratives, and that MTV only has young women’s best interests in mind.

Even if the producers of this particular special are extremely well intentioned — and they may indeed be — keeping a set of critical questions in mind as you watch No Easy Decision will help you dismantle any potentially problematic framing on the part of Dr Drew or MTV. As you watch, ask yourself:

  • FRAMING: Is abortion portrayed neutrally as one of several options facing teenagers who face unintended pregnancies, or is it portrayed as a tragedy? Are questions asked or statements made that would imply that abortion will scar a woman emotionally? Does the host or do the editors imply that abortion will cause more psychological or practical damage to her life than raising a child at an early age, or carrying a pregnancy to term and giving a child up for adoption?
  • LANGUAGE: Is the host’s language (and the language of participants) respectful,

    or is it intentionally or unintentionally judgmental of the girls’ experiences? Are moralistic value judgments packaged as psychological insights? Do the girls seem pressured to say anything they don’t seem to feel, or don’t seem to want to say? Are the girls asked to represent all young women everywhere (or all young women of their ethnic or economic background), rather than simply voicing their own experiences?

  • RACE: Are all three girls profiled on the special treated with the same level of respect and given the same opportunity to represent their own story themselves, or are there differences between the way girls of color and white girls are treated within the context of the program?

And, from the Fun With Media Literacy resource section (and book chapter), here is an excerpt from the Reality TV Deconstruction Guide found on p. 310 – 314 of Reality Bites Back:

When you’re watching [any reality] show, consider the following deconstruction questions:

  • Framing: What narrative messages did the show’s producers decide are central to the series? How is each episode framed to support that master narrative? What do the producers (and the show’s embedded sponsors) want you to believe about women and men, people of color and white people, wealthy and low-income people, heterosexuals and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people? What ideas are being normalized?
  • Casting, creating characters: Though participants are, increasingly, professional or aspiring actors, most reality shows are still packaged as being about “real people.” Why did producers select each individual to join the show? Which stereotypes do those stock characters reinforce? Do you believe you know who a person is, based on how you’ve seen them behave on TV?
  • Exclusion: Consider the age, gender, ethnicity, appearance, sexual orientation, profession, physical ability/health status, nationality, and expressed ideology of the cast members. Who is excluded from participating on the show? Would the master narrative shift if a broader set of participants were allowed to be involved? If yes, how so? If not, why not?
  • Methodology: What storytelling devices are used to get you to buy into the show’s master narrative? Consider casting, drama-inducing contests and plot devices, editing, voice-overs, narrators’ and hosts’ descriptions, music, screen captions, direction, cinematography, how much alcohol is present throughout the series, and “Frankenbites.” (For example, if the camera cuts away from someone while they are in the middle of making a statement, but you continue to hear their voice and their volume or tone is slightly different, the first and second part of the quote were most likely edited together from two or more distinct conversations, to alter the meaning of their comments.)
  • Advertising: Who profits from the framing, editing, and direction of this show? Are products integrated into the show’s scenery, dialogue, contests, or plot development? Are elements of the “content” similar to the commercials in between the show? How might casting choices, show premises, and master narratives differ if the show weren’t built to be a “complimentary environment” for showcasing certain products?
  • Impact: When you watch the show, how do you feel about yourself? About others? What impact might the narrative have on viewers? On communities? On culture? On public policy? How might that impact shift depending on viewers’ gender, race, class, age, sexual orientation, immigration status, or physical ability?

What do you think of No Easy Decision ? Post comments below. (Comments will be moderated; no slurs or personal attacks will be posted.)

15 Responses to “Viewers Guide to MTV’s Abortion Special: Send young women your love, but give Dr. Drew the side-eye”

  1.  Anti-Intellect says: |

    This is such an insightful and informative piece, and I will definitely share it with as many people as I can. I will be looking for “framing,” “language,” and “gender” as well as class and race dealt with on the show.

    Thanks for another great post!


  2.  Jennifer says: |

    I really appreciate this analysis, and hate that I won’t be able to watch the show (no cable). But I would disagree with the following statement about Dr. Drew: “A subject this sensitive and controversial would be best handled by an a professional with a long history of helping young women.”

    Dr. Drew’s professional history extends beyond his profession as an addiction medicine specialist and host of the 3 reality programs mentioned. Don’t forget that he has been the host of radio’s Loveline since I was in high school over 15 years ago, fielding questions from adolescents, teens, and young adults about all manner of relationship and substance abuse issues. I do think your criticism of his style is valid, but I wouldn’t say he doesn’t have extensive experience counseling young women with sexual/reproductive issues.


  3.  Jennifer Pozner says: |

    Glad you found it useful, @Anti-Intellect! Thanks for passing it on. I’ll be liveblogging tonight, so check back during/after the show!


  4.  Jennifer Pozner says: |

    @Jennifer, thanks for your comment. While I recognize that Drew has had experience talking with youth about a wide range of issues, abortion and pregnancy is not now and has never been his specific area of expertise. Even if he had not become a manipulative, unethical font of irresponsibility on various MTV reality series, he isn’t specifically a counselor whose primary work focuses on women with unintended pregnancies and/or post-abortion emotional responses. Then there’s the aspect of this that involves media and representation of abortion, which Drew is also not sensitive to. Then, factor in his actual unethical/smarmy behavior on MTV, and choosing him as host rather than someone whose primary concern is women’s dignity and emotional health, and I think MTV made a real mistake. (I also think that tipped their hand in terms of showing us what they do and don’t value most: responsibility regarding their participants, or “good tee-vee.”)


  5.  Julie says: |

    I watched with a critical eye, and was pleased that the young women all had opportunities to speak their truths. Dr. Drew did a great job of “fading” in some moments, and bringing in statistics or normalizing at other times. The program was a refreshing, real, and nuanced portrayal of three young women’s experiences, and of one young woman’s partner and family experiences as well. I hope this isn’t the last time MTV features abortion experiences in its programming. They wield huge power and influence; it was heartening to see it used thoughtfully tonight.


  6.  Jennifer Pozner says: |

    @Julie, I couldn’t agree more. I was very pleasantly surprised, as I wrote here:

    Now, if only it were:
    — not just 30 minutes
    — not hidden in a ratings graveyard
    — not hidden from viewers due to MTV refusing to advertise or allow advance press aside from Entertainment Weekly…


  7.  Sarah says: |

    Wow what an indictment of a professional who has spent decades educating teens on KROQ, working with non-famous addicts, working in emergency rooms in LA, and other associated addiction and public health medicine. I agree that most “reality programming” is at best voyeuristic and at worst a 30 min installment of calculating edits to provide viewers. Pinning that on Dr. Drew however, is an unfair personal attack that frankly demeans this otherwise insightful article. During that specific episode of “Celebrity Rehab” Dr. Drew discusses Sizemore’s admission with Heidi numerous times and brings them both in to discuss it together. Further, on many occasions he mentions the toll the show takes on him while they’re filming specifically because of his concern for his patience. The accusation that he at any points fabricates his sincerity is incongruence to his professional career to the point of laughable, if it were not so clearly mean-spirited. For shame.


  8.  Jennifer Pozner says: |

    Sarah, you are making a mistake that many people do when they watch television, especially reality television: you are confusing the *stated* premise of a show, and the stated framing of a show, with the *actual* premise (ie, the underlying narrative messages, and the unstated goals of producers, hosts, etc.). In the case of “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” yes, indeed, the stated, on-screen premise is to help celebrity addicts get treatment and improve their lives. And Dr. Drew is all about the on-screen sincerity. But the *unstated* underlying premise is far more sinister: let’s amp up as much drama as possible for drama and ratings, regardless of what negative impact the voyeuristic pressure-cooker environment and reality show manipulations may have on the patients in the program.

    Another example of being taken in by reality TV manipulation rather than applying critical thinking skills to this genre: In the episode you mention, yes, Dr. Drew talked to Sizemore and Fleiss, said he felt bad, etc. In fact, the domestic violence and abuse issues were a running theme on the show. The surface-level premise is along the lines of: “These are two celebrities whose addictions have caused them to behave abusively, and we need to help them grow beyond that.” But no matter what Dr. Drew says on screen to get the audience to believe that putting addicts with a history of domestic violence (and in Heidi’s case, only a recently-expired restraining order against Sizemore) in the same rehab environment is medically and psychologically irresponsible to the point of unethical, because doing so endangers their chances for recovery, not to mention that putting people prone to violence with one another in close proximity while detoxing from drugs could potentially instigate further violence. Even if the goal for doing so wasn’t exploiting their troubled history for TV cameras/ratings, that is deeply irresponsible behavior for any medical professional to entertain. But the fact that this deeply irresponsible behavior is done in the service of reality TV ratings, and personal fame and profit, crosses the line to unethical conduct.

    Remember: what hosts, narrators and producers *say* a show is about, is always packaged and framed to get you to believe that chosen narrative, but is not usually the real goal.


  9.  Lisa M. says: |

    I just watched this show online, and felt they did a good job. Dr. Drew did a lot of good work on Loveline in the early years of MTV, and I felt he was very sensitive in his interactions with the women.

    I think they picked a sort of atypical couple for this show, but I guess there is no “typical couple”. I didn’t know them from the “16 & Pregnant” or “Teen Mom” shows, so maybe the audience was more familiar with them, and it didn’t bother them. Having an (I think) interracial couple, where the white man acted black, sort of weirded me out. He seemed like a nice guy, and I liked and related to the young woman, but they were distracting to the subject of the program, I felt.

    Having experienced abortion myself almost 40 years ago, soon after Roe v. Wade, and seeing through the years how much conflict in society has arisen on the subject, I think educationally this was a good production. Too much of the attention has been given to abortion protests, trying to overturn it being legal, and not enough to the women who go through the decision-making process. It is their lives which are directly affected, and whatever decisions they make, they will have to be strong enough to live with.

    This show treated the women, and their decisions, the respect and dignity they deserve.


  10.  Jennifer Pozner says: |

    Lisa, I agree. Here’s my liveblogged recap of the show, from last night — I was pleasantly surprised:


  11.  Pedro Ruah says: |

    I agree 100% with your comments on Drew Pinsky. He should not be involved in counselling people outside his area of expertise and he is certainly an arrogant blowhard who clearly loves hearing himself talk more than acting as a responsible physician. His desire for limelight and constant judgemental attitude towards public figures who in no way sollicited his opinion shows his desire for fame far outweighs his respect for others. Unfortunately, it’s his type of trash that is what people seem to want to see these days.


  12.  Rose says: |

    You probably won’t ‘approve” this comment because it goes against your belief system.
    I know this is really -difficult- to understand, but having sex, leads to pregnancy. When youre pregnant, you’re carrying a child.
    A woman does have a choice! TO have SEX or not. Sex is not something you HAVE to do.
    If you dont want a baby, dont have sex!!!
    If you are pregnant with A BABY dont punish the baby by MURDERING IT.

    What is wrong with people these days!! Is basic bio 101 so difficult to understand?


    Jennifer Pozner Reply:

    Actually, that’s your mistake: I respect freedom of speech, and differences of opinion. Just because you would censor opposing viewpoints, doesn’t mean I will. (The only comments that are not approved are ones that include threats, harassment, abuse, or hostile slurs. And yes, it’s a shame how many of those come in, regularly.)

    As for your comment, a woman doesn’t always have a choice to have sex or not. I wish it were true that “Sex is not something you HAVE to do” — but in a country where rape, incest and child molestation are widespread epidemics, this statement is naive at best. And the current attacks on abortion rights are being aimed at all forms of access, even for women who have been the victims of rape or incest. If you are a woman, I sincerely hope that you never have to experience proof that your ideas about sex always being voluntary, are not actually fact in this (or any) country.

    That said, this post was not about the issue of whether or not abortion should be legal — this was about MTV and the refusal of the network for many seasons to represent the actual reality of young women and pregnancy, despite portraying their “reality” series as being reflective of the full experience of young women who get pregnant. You are the one pushing an agenda, here. In a post about media, on a blog about media, you are talking basic politics — and quite hatefully. That’s sad.


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