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How to Be Very, Very Popular: Get Pregnant: ABC Family Series Puts New Spin on Teen Life

July 1, 2008

By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

Jul. 1–Do you know what happens to teen girls who become pregnant? They suddenly become the center of the universe, and everyone cares about them like never before. What a great way to instantly be popular and even loved: Get pregnant.

That’s one of the core messages in The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a new drama premiering tonight on the ABC Family channel.

If you are looking for fictional precedents, think Juno, the critically acclaimed film about a 16-year-old offbeat teen, Juno MacGuff, and her pregnancy. As for real-life reverberation and feedback, consider new mom and teen star Jamie Lynn Spears or the story of 17 Massachusetts high schoolers who reportedly planned their teen pregnancies.

In fact, if you do a Google search for “Gloucester and pregnant teens,” you will find a sponsoring link from Disney/ABC that says: “Amy is 15 and Pregnant. Watch ABC Family’s New Series To See What Happens!” The symbiotic knot between TV and culture could hardly be tied tighter than it is with this teen series from producer Brenda Hampton, the creator of 7th Heaven.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. As entertainment, the pilot is a most impressive work of economic and focused storytelling.

One minute and 45 seconds into it, Amy (Shailene Woodley) finds out through a home test kit that she’s pregnant.

And before the first commercial break, a sweet and shy boy, Ben (Kenny Baumann), who is smitten from afar, approaches to ask Amy on a date.

A minute earlier, Amy had been described to Ben by a female classmate as being “smart, nice and maybe desperate enough to go out with you.”

The quiet, 15-year-old sophomore is otherwise mainly known at Grant High School for playing French horn in the marching band.

The pregnancy is the result of one night at summer band camp when Amy had sex for the first time with Ricky (Daren Kagasoff), a drummer known for his wide-ranging sexual activities throughout the school. Ricky is cocky, angry and thinks he’s a player’s player.

But forget Ricky. Amy and Ben do wind up on a date. The final image of the hour finds the two in each others’ arms dancing a slow dance alone on the floor in the center of the gym under a glittery revolving globe.

She’s definitely at the center of this universe, and cheek to chest with someone who adores her to boot. What could be better?

Oh, yeah, this pregnancy thing. She still has to tell her parents (Molly Ringwald and Mark Derwin) — and Ben.

Never mind, let’s just close our eyes and dance.

You have to admit, it’s a great curtain on which to close the pilot.

This is not to say that Secret Life has only one message. Hampton offers an array of images and role models in the pilot.

Grace (Megan Park), the pretty and popular captain of the cheerleaders, defines herself in large part by her Christianity and a commitment to celibacy until she finishes medical school. And while the writers do go for some laughs in the reaction of her football star boyfriend to her abstinence, they do not mock Grace. She is generally depicted as being every bit as nice and smart as Amy.

But here’s the difference: Grace was always popular, whereas Amy is transformed into being popular, loved and adored only after she becomes pregnant.

Just as it is in fairy tales and TV ads, transformation is what matters. Buy a certain kind of sneaker and you will be able to leap like Michael Jordan. Buy a certain kind of high-priced sandal, and you will have as exciting a sex life as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City.

For the adolescent viewer, there is no story line capable of competing with the narrative of transformation that takes over once Amy becomes pregnant. Her actions at band camp will likely seem even more attractive to girls who see themselves as shy, unpopular and unloved.

No media company has shaped childhood and adolescent fantasies as successfully as Disney, which owns the ABC Family Channel. It’s troubling to see its Hollywood storytellers spinning such an attractive tale about teen pregnancy.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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