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The Teen Mom Trope | Tragic, Heroic or Glam?

For decades, depictions of teen pregnancy onscreen were tragic, cautionary tales. Starting in the 2000s on, this trope pivoted as teen mom characters like Lorelai Gilmore and Juno could be independent, light-hearted, and anything but doomed. More recently, some even fear the Teen Mom is becoming “glamorized” in the wake of a boom in teen mom reality-TV shows and the high-profile pregnancy of 19-year-old Kylie Jenner. Here’s our Take on the Teen Mom trope, how she mirrors our changing attitudes, and why she’s stuck with the burden of representing the future of her whole society.

TRANSCRIPT

The teen mom has long been a subject of controversy, fear, and shame in popular culture.

Here are the hallmarks of the teen mom narrative onscreen:

Her unexpected pregnancy is a shock that makes her feel her life is over. She’s likely shunned or ridiculed by her community and has to sacrifice some of her childlike innocence to face this accelerated onset of adulthood. In the end, the teen mom takes an untraditional, more challenging, route in life — but she can represent the value in forging a different yet meaningful path for oneself. Her pregnancy can even be a metaphor for all the potential she has to bring into the world.

For decades, depictions of teen pregnancy onscreen were tragic, cautionary tales, often made to encourage abstinence. The figure has also long carried class and cultural connotations; historically teen moms have more often been women of color and of lower socioeconomic status, while stories painted teen pregnancy as a horror that’s not supposed to happen to white women of a certain class. Starting in the 2000s, this trope pivoted as the teen mom character could be independent, light-hearted, and anything but doomed.

More recently, some even fear the teen mom is becoming “glamorized” in the wake of a boom in teen-mom reality-TV shows and the high-profile pregnancy of 19-year-old Kylie Jenner, who long aspired to young motherhood. Here’s our Take on the Teen Mom trope, how she mirrors our changing attitudes, and why she’s stuck with the burden of representing the future of her whole society.

Feminism & Fear

The idea of being a teen mom wasn’t always a shock. Before the 1800s, many women married as teens, and typically had children shortly after. But by the turn of the 19th century, the average age for first-time motherhood had crept up to 23 years old.

Fast forward to the rise of second-wave feminism around the 1960s, and more women were prioritizing careers, starting families later, or not having them at all. Childbearing rates started to decline among American women of all ages, but not as quickly for younger women. So a misreading of this data (and an increase in birth rates for unmarried women overall) led to a moral panic about a supposed teen pregnancy “epidemic” that was reflected in pop culture preaching the dangers of premarital sex and the life-ruining road of teen motherhood.

The late 1950s and ‘60s saw the rise of cautionary tales to warn teens about the risks of premarital sex. 1959’s Blue Denim highlights the crippling responsibility and lack of freedom that two teens face as a young couple with a baby. 1960’s Too Soon To Love and 1967’s Teenage Mother sent the same lesson: young women who have sex — or even learn about having sex — will wind up on a “bad” path that will derail their “bright futures.”

Adoption wouldn’t save the teen mom, either. After the pregnant young woman in 1970’s The Hard Road drops out of high school and puts the baby up for adoption, she falls prey to the allure of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, ending up on a dangerous and lonely path.

Coming off the heels of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, a few stories started to show young women choosing to have abortions in a way that wasn’t necessarily tragic but a matter-of-fact part of life.

Stacy Hamilton: “I got that plan. Um, it’s going to cost $150 at the free clinic.”

Mike Damone: “Doesn’t sound free to me.” - Fast Times at Ridgemont High

After shifting attitudes toward sexuality and backlash to more open reproductive rights contributed to a spike in teen pregnancies in the late ‘80s, another push for abstinence surfaced in the 1990s, especially on network TV. In 7th Heaven, the Camdens’ daughter Mary is mistaken as pregnant after a clerical error at the doctor confuses her test results with her mom’s. Panicked, the Camden parents mourn their daughter’s bright future.

In Beverly Hills 90210, Brenda gets a pregnancy scare that makes her agonize over her decision to have sex. This whole plot actually came about because of a backlash to the perception that 90210 glamorized sexually active teens. While Brenda’s first sexual experience with Dylan was portrayed as a positive, consensual experience based on trust, parents complained it would encourage their daughters to have sex, and thus the show responded by punishing Brenda’s decision to (at least briefly) drive home an abstinence message.

Brenda Walsh: “Everybody talks about sex like it’s no big deal. And it is a big deal.” - Beverly Hills, 90210 2x01 20:35

In one of the few depictions centering a woman of color grappling with teenage pregnancy, 1992’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., Chantel has big plans for her life. After these plans are derailed by an unplanned pregnancy, she has to attend a community college and admit that she doesn’t have time for much outside of caring for her kid.

To a large extent, almost all of these stories reinforced demographer Arthur Campbell’s words from 1968: “The girl who has an illegitimate child at the age of 16 suddenly has 90 percent of her life’s script written for her… Her life choices are few, and most of them are bad.”

Chantel Mitchell: “I don’t wanna get stuck with this baby. I wanna do things, I wanna have a nice life, I don’t wanna be ending up…I don’t wanna end up like my parents!” - Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.

A New Kind of Teen Mom

The early 2000s saw a redefinition of the teen mom trope — one who’s less ashamed, arguably trendy, and even heroic. 2000’s show Gilmore Girls centered on former teen mom Lorelai Gilmore and her refreshingly close relationship with her now-teen daughter. Lorelai demonstrated that a woman could have and keep a baby as a teenager and go on to live a happy, successful, and independent life. Instead of being forever stunted and traumatized by her teenage pregnancy, Lorelai is a joyful, fun person who’s continuing to grow and mature even well into adulthood. She was also a revolutionary in that she rejected all of the early teen mom’s three options — early marriage, adoption, or abortion — and actively chose to be a single mom.

Meanwhile, 2001’s Reba broke the cliché that the teen mom’s parents always freak out on her. The titular character instills confidence in her newly pregnant teen daughter, assuring her she can control her own narrative.

2004’s dark comedy Saved! uses dark humor and irony to poke fun at the historically preachy, moralized approach that long judged the teen mom. The only reason pregnant teen Mary had sex in the first place is because of her vision of Jesus Christ himself telling her to “help” her gay boyfriend. The movie subverts the stigma of the trope, as Mary’s crush (who’s not the father of the baby) still asks her to prom, while the actual father of her baby is thrilled to learn the news.

Dean: “You’re pregnant?... That’s so awesome!” - Saved!

A similar tonal shift can be felt in 2007’s Juno, which addresses what was a previously grim subject matter with levity. Although the choices facing Juno are still difficult and complex, the movie’s irreverent comedy and nonchalance illustrated evolving cultural attitudes about teen sex and women’s right to define their own lives. Juno’s parents (while shocked at first) support their daughter, who herself is pretty blasé about the news. At the end of those “30-odd weeks,” Juno can move on from giving up her baby for adoption, without serious turmoil or tragedy, and proceed with her life pretty much as she’d planned to before.

2009’s 17 Again centers on the dad in a teen pregnancy who later in life gets the chance to become a teen again and revisit his choices. It ends with the moral that — far from messing up his life — starting a family with his pregnant teen girlfriend first was the best decision he ever made.

Mike O’Donnell: “You’re the best decision I ever made, I just forgot.” - 17 Again

By 2013, the sitcom Mom, portraying three generations of teen moms deals with dark issues like struggles with addiction, but — far from those days when it was a grim cautionary tale — the story’s told through jokes and a laugh track.

So, from the 2000s on, although pregnancy made life more challenging for a young woman, it didn’t have to outright define or derail her. She could have an unplanned pregnancy and still have options and a future — no matter what decision she made.

From Trouble to Trending

Kicking off in 2009, 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom started a boom in teen mom reality shows that continues to this day. Viewers started witnessing real-life humans facing these, albeit curated, real-life decisions.

More recently, Kylie Jenner garnered much attention not only for getting pregnant at 19 in 2017 (she was 20 when she gave birth to Stormi in 2018) but also for voicing her desires even before that to become a mom at a young age. In her words: “‘It’s genuinely what I wanted… to be a young mom.’” Critics have worried that putting real-life teen moms in the spotlight might cause baby fever, or young women making poorly thought-out choices out of celebrity envy. Even Teen Mom 2 star Kailyn Lowry criticized Kylie for potentially giving young girls who don’t have her funds the wrong impression of what young motherhood is like.

This isn’t the first time this argument has been raised. In 2007, Jamie Lynn Spears shared her news at age 16 and was criticized for glamorizing teen pregnancy. In reality, though, her trajectory followed the old narrative for this trope: she was shamed for her choice, and her budding career was effectively stopped in its tracks.

Worries that now Kylie or the ongoing Teen Mom show are encouraging more teen moms ultimately just repackage that same old “moral panic” of the 20th century — the idea that teens can’t see stories about a young woman having sex or making a particular choice without rushing to thoughtlessly copy characters or celebrities. According to Melissa Kearney of the Brookings Institution, a spotlight on the teen mom can have quite the opposite effect.

Melissa Kearney: “In the places where more young adults were watching MTV, we see significantly larger declines in teen childbearing.” - Brookings Institution

And, 16 and Pregnant has in fact been credited with contributing to a decline in teen pregnancy. Teen mom reality shows allow viewers to vicariously experience and visualize the reality of becoming a mother — which is no joke.

Of course, there’s an important way that Kylie Jenner’s pregnancy is very different from the vast majority of real teen mom experiences.

Pregnancy & Classism

For a long time, teen pregnancy and motherhood were viewed as common among lower classes and families of color but seen as an anomaly and embarrassment among middle- and high-class white families. 20th-century movies about teen pregnancy signaled how these “nice kids” were getting hit with a stigmatized, low-class affliction through the term “trouble” in their slogans or promotional campaigns.

As the trope shifted in pop culture from the 2000s on, so too did the general public’s ideas on what kinds of people dealt with teen pregnancy. Characters within these stories reflected that the teen mom stigma was still very much alive in many people’s minds.

Reba Hart: “Just because she’s pregnant at 17 doesn’t mean we can’t give our little girl a nice, tasteful wedding.”

Brock Hart: “Do you hear yourself? I can’t believe that you want to celebrate this embarrassment.” - Reba 1x01

Thus these young mom-protagonists were depicted as strong and admirable for going against the norm.

Yet it was only a white girl from a middle- or upper-class family who got the chance to be viewed as this kind of rebel hero; anything “radical” about these movies largely failed to expand the conversation across race and class lines.

In 2009’s Precious, one of the rare teen mom narratives that centers around a woman of color, the teen mom is a tragic victim, made into a mother by incestuous abuse. The fantasies she uses to escape sometimes involve imagining herself as a white girl, envisioning how much simpler and happier her life would be if that were her reality.

The 2015 film Unexpected juxtaposes a white female teacher and a black female student’s racial and socioeconomic differences while they face unexpected pregnancies together. While the white female’s “tragic” issues are mostly psychological and individualistic, the black female’s issues are concretely life-altering.

Jasmine: “How am I supposed to go to school, and work, and take care of my baby?” - Unexpected

Recent stories about the teen mom have become less focused on her individual choices and more about using her to reflect and critique a society that fails her. In 2017’s The Florida Project, poor young mom Halley may still be immature and unready for the responsibilities of motherhood in some ways, but she loves and enjoys bonding with her daughter; yet her situation is impossible because she lacks money or any kind of social support.

In the 2020 movie Never Rarely Sometimes Always, teen Autumn experiences the extreme lengths a woman may have to go to in order to obtain an abortion, even if it’s technically legal. The implicit takeaway is that many women in her situation won’t really be able to make a choice and that young women are in essence being forced into teen motherhood.

In Shameless, 15-year-old Debbie Gallagher actively tries to get pregnant. Despite her family’s poverty and the shock of parenthood, she manages to scrape by and adores her daughter, so it’s not a tragic tale.

Debbie Gallagher: “Tryna set a good example for Franny. When life gets tough, you smack a smile on your face and face the day!” - Shameless 6x11

But we can see how growing up poor with unreliable parents has shaped her expectations for her future, and teen pregnancy is also shown to be a relatively common part of life in Debbie’s community.

CONCLUSION

More broadly, the Teen Mom can be seen as a stand-in for viewers facing any big decision or crossroads. We can relate to teen pregnancy as a metaphor for the worry that the future might turn out not at all like we expected, or that big responsibility is coming sooner than we’d like. But if she can survive the most unexpected, life-altering challenge, then we can find our way, too.

Cheyenne Hart: “I’m scared.”

Reba Hart: “Good, because nothing is as frightening or as wonderful as becoming a mother.” -Reba 1x01

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