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