June 26, 2008

Searching for Clues to Teen Girls’ Behavior

The alleged teen pregnancy pact in Gloucester, Mass., created a media storm this month. The shock waves from the first report on Time magazine's Web site were global. Reporters from all over the world descended on Gloucester to learn more about the 17 girls, all 16 years old or younger, who became pregnant this past school year.

Gloucester officials now say there was no pact. But the cluster of pregnant students still puzzles them.

Whether some of the pregnancies were planned or not, the high number is not surprising, given the cultural shift in the image of teen pregnancy.

Just think: Who are the most famous teenage girls in America these days?

Jamie Lynn Spears was a teen role model before she became pregnant at 16 because she played a "good girl" on a TV show popular with young girls, "Zoey 101." And she's still a teen role model now, even with her brand new baby. She was all over the news last week: engaged to the baby's father, getting her G.E.D. and planning her future as a mom. To some young fans, it doesn't sound like a ruined life.

Miley Cyrus, another teen role model, had to apologize for a Vanity Fair photo this spring that put her in a whole new and older light. But that only brought the photo an even wider audience and a more sexual image for 16-year-old Miley.

The ad for the ABC Family series that starts next month, "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," shows a young girl about eight months pregnant. In the promos for the show, which is aimed at teens, she is described as a "good-girl band geek" who is "smart, talented . . . and pregnant."

Who says you can't be all three?

Smart, talented and pregnant applies to the title character in the movie "Juno," a teenage girl who speaks in witty one-liners and handles everything about her pregnancy pretty much by herself: finding a wealthy adoptive couple, staying in school, having the baby and moving on with her life. The baby's teen father is marginalized throughout the pregnancy, but they stay together. In the film's last scene, he and Juno are playing guitars, as if nothing ever happened.

Everybody, including the baby, seems to live happily ever after.

The movie makes it all look so easy to those who don't know any better. Juno doesn't get kicked out of her house, as some pregnant teens do. She isn't ostracized at school. No evident problems with grades or homework. She doesn't have morning sickness or any complications. Even her labor looks relatively mild.

Humanize or glamorize?

Was this an attempt to humanize pregnant teens or glamorize them? It used to be that teenage pregnancy only happened to "bad girls." But the cultural image of the pregnant teen is far more positive now, even celebrated. It's no longer something to be ashamed of or to hide.

In the same vein, maybe we shouldn't be all that shocked or surprised by the racy photos of middle-school girls found recently on school laptops at Pascack Valley High School. Aren't the girls just going along with the loud cultural message that sex isn't just for older teens anymore?

A prime audience age for the catty TV hit series "Gossip Girl" is 11 to 15 years old. Teen sex on the show is a given, and "bad behavior" comes off looking pretty good.

Record Staff Writer Leslie Brody reported last week that the girls whose pictures were found on Pascack Valley's school computers took the photos themselves or allowed them to be taken because boyfriends had asked for them. One educator attributed it to "poor self-esteem" on the girls' part.

But I wonder if they didn't see it more positively, as something that "in" girls do, so why shouldn't they?

Adults want logical answers that will explain the rush to teen pregnancy in Gloucester and the racy student photos because if reasons can be found for why they happened, then they can be prevented from happening again. All sorts of reasons have been cited, and some may have merit: lack of sex education, lack of parental involvement, lack of direction or other interests, such as sports. Some experts said it was a way to fit in, to get attention or to combat boredom.

A classmate of the girls in Gloucester told Time: "No one's offered them a better option."

I wonder if that's the way these girls see it, though. Maybe they just see what's "expected" of them and try to live up to it.


Mary Ellen Schoonmaker is an editorial writer and columnist for The Record. Contact her at [email protected]

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