In the past half-year or so, the MTV documentary series Teen Mom has eclipsed the show it spun off from, 16 And Pregnant, turning its four moms—former 16&P subjects—into TV stars/tabloid subjects. The specter of financial compensation/celebrity (however minor or undeserved) that hangs over Teen Mom, not to mention the icky domestic-abuse undertones to the Amber/Gary relationship, make that show a guiltier pleasure than most. So it’s sort of a relief to return to the pure essence of the knocked-up-teenager franchise with the premiere of 16 And Pregnant’s third season.
Of course, this isn’t to say that the original show isn’t conceptually problematic in its own ways. The fact that we usually don’t meet our mom-to-be of the week until her second trimester deprives audiences of one of the most essential emotional milestones of an unplanned pregnancy: learning of the pregnancy, deciding whether to carry it to term, and learning to cope with that decision. By the time each episode begins taping, most subjects have accepted their condition and are going on about their daily lives, which often gives the troubling impression that getting to this point wasn’t that big a deal. That’s saying nothing of the fact that 16 And Pregnant is pro-life by default, since carrying the baby to term is intrinsically tied to the show’s format—no baby, no show, so there’s really no way to give equal play to the abortion option. (It is occasionally brought up in conversation, but always in the “I could never do that” context.) Adoption is brought up more frequently, and it’s even been carried out in two cases—most notably season one’s Catelynn and her boyfriend Tyler, who continue to be the most likeable (yet increasingly superfluous) part of Teen Mom.
But at this stage, there’s no point in quibbling over flaws that the show really has no way to address; better to enjoy it (or not, depending on your reasons for viewing) for what it does offer: an unvarnished, if abridged, glimpse into the trials of teen pregnancy, delivery, and the early stages of motherhood, and a real-life lesson in the joys of contraception, a lesson 16&P’s teenage audience/subject pool apparently needs.
Generally the drama on 16 And Pregnant stems from one of two sources (and sometimes both): the parents and/or the baby-daddy. The vast majority of 16 And Pregnant storylines involve some combination of unsupportive/absent/asshole parents and unsupportive/absent/asshole boyfriends; the mom-to-be tends to be sort of a non-entity, bobbing along amid the chaos, providing awkward narration, and answering her friends’ staged “What did you think when you found out you were pregnant” questions in front of the camera. There are exceptions, of course—the holy terror that was Farrah springs to mind—but generally these stories are driven by circumstance, not personality.
Tonight’s episode brought us perhaps the most well-adjusted, favorable circumstances in the show’s history: 16-year-old Brooke has a supportive, loving boyfriend of two years, Cody, who marries her, works, and graduates high school early so he can stay with the baby while she goes to school; her parents are supportive but not indulgent—particularly her mom, who may be the best parental figure this show has ever seen—offering them room and board but pushing them to pull their weight around the house and save up for a house of their own (or rather, a prefabricated barn to be placed in their backyard). Sure, you could snicker at the family’s goat farm or racecar-themed wedding—the whole family, including Brooke, builds and races cars—or tut-tut their naivety, as when Cody says he’s excited he won’t have to get up at 6:15 to go to school anymore. (Oh sweetie, when that baby comes, you’re going to wish you could sleep in until 6:15.) But that would be awfully mean of you, considering that this family, rednecky as it may seem, is holding itself together pretty well under less-than-favorable circumstances.
That’s not to say everything is peaches-and-cream for Brooke and Cody. Like many 16 And Pregnant subjects, they clearly occupy a lower socioeconomic bracket, so her parents can help out with little things—like a wedding cake that looks like a car tire—but can’t pay for or offer daycare, hence the need for Cody to graduate and stay home with baby Brody. (Get it? Brooke + Cody = Brody? It’s cute, especially if you’re 16.) Unfortunately, Cody isn’t the quickest car on the track, both in terms of schoolwork and actual racing. He blows out a tire and loses a big race that could have earned them a bit of money (though Brooke’s dad wins in the car she built), but even worse, he seems utterly disinterested in school despite desperately needing to graduate early. Lucky for him, both Brooke and her mom prod him along until he finally passes the test he’s failed three times.
Brooke’s mom in particular seems to be doing everything in her power to ensure that her daughter and son-in-law don’t just survive the birth, but find a way to flourish as a family in the long run. As a former teen bride herself (descended from a long line of teen brides, apparently), she’s initially upset at her daughter’s predicament (“There’s condoms under the bathroom sink! For free! I showed you how to put ’em on a cucumber… You were educated, you were definitely educated.”), but eventually moves into supportive grandmother mode. When watching 16 & Pregnant, I always wrestle with the idea of parental support of an unplanned teen pregnancy: Obviously you don’t want to disown your child for getting knocked up, but you don’t necessarily want to throw her a party, either. Then again, when you’re a broke parent-to-be, a baby shower is kinda necessary to stock up on essentials… but you don’t want to send the message that getting pregnant means you get a cake and presents… See how this spirals? Brooke’s mom surely wrestled with it even more, but she seems to have found a pretty good middle ground: Brooke and Cody can stay in her house until they save up enough for the barn of their frugal dreams, but they have to do chores in lieu of rent. Since she works at their school, she has access to Cody’s records, and helps him hammer out what he needs to turn in so he can pass his classes. She encourages them, but within reason: “You’ll make it. It’s not easy. You’re not going to appreciate what you have if you don’t work for it.”
Sure, a loving, supportive family and generally well-adjusted parents-to-be don’t make for the most drama-filled episode of 16 & Pregnant. And the part of me that wants this show to function as a scare tactic against teenage pregnancy worries that it doesn’t really drive home the difficulties in store for these kids: You get to have a wedding! And play house! And everyone will support you and no one will shame you, and it will be hard work, but eventually you’ll have a great life and a loving family! But of course, these are real people, and that’s what I hope they do get… I’m sure there are people who watch 16 & Pregnant for the schadenfreude, the pleasure of getting to grumble “I can’t believe how dumb these kids are!,” but anyone who actively roots against them is kind of a jackass. Brooke and Cody don’t have an easy road ahead of them, but they seem to be off to a better start than a lot of their 16&P brethren. I would actually be curious to see where they go from here, if these two crazy kids can make it… Teen Mom 2, perhaps?
• I find it interesting that Brooke’s narration mentions her getting married to Cody before the “I’m pregnant” reveal. She said they’d gotten engaged two months ago when she was at 19 weeks, so clearly the baby was the impetus, but it makes it sound like this was the plan all along.
• For as big a part as Brooke's parents played in this episode, there was no sign of Cody's. I'm sure there's a reason for that.
• “You’re so modest! How did Cody even see you nekkid to begin with?” Have a mentioned how much I liked Brooke’s mom? She reminded me a little of Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights, except her hair wasn't as pretty.
• “Let’s congratulate Brooke and Cody on getting married! They’re 16 years old and they’re gonna need all the prayers they can get!” Thanks, dickhead racetrack announcer.
• Brooke’s school has a sort of group counseling/class thing for teen parents… apparently there’s a lot of teen moms in this school. Is this normal for high schools now, or just small-town Texas ones?
• “Cody does not read.”
• Cost of a prefab barn: $416 a month for unfinished, $550 for finished. Sounds good to me! Can I set up one of those in a public Chicago park or something?
• Making Cody waddle around in a pregnancy suit was cute, but they better not have paid for that thing when they’re trying to save up for a barn.
• I can’t decide if I’m glad or disappointed that we don’t have footage of Brooke’s water breaking in school. Thankfully, 16&P’s signature notebook doodles are there to fill in the blanks.
• I know it’s a documentary, but this show is terribly lit. Everyone looks deathly ill. And harsh overhead lighting does a goop-covered newborn no favors.
• I was really happy to see the discussion with the doctor about putting in an IUD to prevent future pregnancies. As Amber from Teen Mom showed us, getting knocked up once doesn’t necessarily make you any smarter about having protected sex.
• Closing line: “It sucks that we had to grow up as fast as we did.” And there’s this show in a nutshell.
• A couple matters of business: No, we will not be covering this show weekly, this is just a drop-in for the premiere. And before anyone starts fussing about that high grade, remember I’m grading against expectations for this show, not all of television. So no, I don’t think 16 & Pregnant is better than Breaking Bad or whatever.