Viewers Guide to Tonight’s MTV’s Abortion Special: Send young women your love, but give Dr. Drew the side-eye
|Posted by Jennifer L Pozner|
December 28th, 2010
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 MTV’s abortion 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 my book, 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 an 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 dealing 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. 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 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?
- GENDER, AGE: Is teen pregnancy presented solely a girls’ (or as a youth) problem? Is there any discussion of the fact that “men over age 20 cause five times more births among junior high-age girls than do boys their own age, and 2.5 times more births among high school girls than high school boys do”?
And, from the archives, 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.)