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Secret Life of the American Teenager – Exactly What is the Message?

By Kevin M

I’m a bit, shall we say, long-in-the-tooth to be watching a teen-oriented program, but since my wife and I have teenage kids, we often watch what they watch. At a minimum, we want to know what kind of entertainment they’re taking in.

About 18 months ago, ABC Family rolled out the teen series, The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Centering on the storyline of a 15 year old high school student becoming pregnant as a result of a one time affair with a 16 year old boy, the original plot looked to have a solid message, one that we felt our kids needed to see—our daughter especially.

The show seemed to have all the potential to deliver a powerful message on the consequences of teen sex and the need for responsibility. Perfect–IF it had stayed on message! But just as the Brady Bunch mostly ignored its original plot of the trials of a blended family, morphing instead into the perfect family with hardly a mention of its blended status past the third or fourth episode, so Secret Life moved past the initial struggles of a pregnant teen, and into the realm of a runaway teen soap opera well before the end of its first season.

Secret Life is hot

If you don’t watch this show, know little about it, but have kids between the ages of 12 and 18—girls especially—you need to consider the impact. By some accounts, it rates as the No. 1 TV show among females, ages 12-34, and among young adults, ages 18-34. This isn’t just another show the kids are watching; in many quarters, it’s THE show.

When the show rolled out in the summer of 2008, the New York Times reported that “ABC Family means well but could not have done worse. “Secret Life” doesn’t take the fun out of teenage pregnancy, it takes the fun out of television.” (A Teenage Pregnancy, Packaged as a Prime-TimeCautionary Tale, July 1, 2008).

I wouldn’t say the show takes the fun out of television, but it most certainly does NOTHING to take the fun out of teenage pregnancy. In the aftermath of the leads’ pregnancy, no one in the show exercises the slightest caution in regard to sex—not the teenage cast and not even their incredibly bumbling parents.

Initially and now superficially, the show alleges an anti-pregnancy message. An increasingly hollow public service message follows each episode with the teen members of the cast urging teenagers and parents to “communicate about sex”. I’m no longer sure what that message even means. There’s no trace of what should be there: an anti-sex message, and considering that the show is aimed at teenagers, that would certainly be the more compelling one. After all, they can’t get pregnant without having sex so it would seem that conveying that message would be the priority. Guess again.

Despite the well intended initial plot, the show has deteriorated instead into a billboard for teen sex.

The basic story line

The relevant characters:

    Amy—the pregnant girl/teen mom
    Ricky—the shows resident gigolo and the guy who got Amy pregnant
    Adrian—the girl who’s slept with nearly every guy on the show
    Grace—cheerleader and struggling Christian
    Ashley—Amy’s 14 year old sister and the only person with a shred of sense
    Jack—ministers son, sometimes Christian and sometimes Graces boyfriend
    Tom—Graces adopted brother; he has Downs Syndrome (remember this point!)
    Ben—Amy’s boyfriend, he’s the only truly decent human being on the show
    Anne—Amy’s mom
    George—Amy’s never-gonna-get-it-right dad

Ricky is having sex with Adrian almost continuously, but hooked up with Amy once and got her pregnant. Both Ricky and Adrian continue to have sex with other people as well. In one episode, Adrian is shown having sex with her new stepbrother.

Grace the Christian finally breaks her vow of chastity-until-marriage and has sex with Jack, breaking off the relationship when he presses her for oral sex. Without shedding a tear or missing a beat, Jack goes into a “relationship” with a bit part character. The primary draw between the two is the bit part girls’ willingness to accommodate the sexual act he could not get Grace to fulfill. But it turns out the bit-part girl doesn’t want to date Jack, it’s all about sex for her.

Then there’s Ben—boyfriend and would-be husband to Amy and the one apparent good guy in the program. Not to be denied however, he had a summer romance in Italy (we’re left to our imaginations as to whether or not it was ever consummated), and finally decides to dump Amy when his hormonally super-charged Italian fling comes to California for an unscheduled visit. To his credit, Ben at least feels some remorse over dumping Amy, but we’ve been left hanging as to whether or not the break will be permanent.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot, Ben’s divorced or widowed father took a new bride last season—she’s a former hooker… Can this get any worse???

But it does get worse!

Yes, much worse…

The show wants to get everyone into the sex act—after all, everybody’s doing it, right? Hence Grace’s adopted brother, Tom—who as you recall has Downs Syndrome—is experiencing his own hormonal stirrings. During the series he has a platonic relationship with a girl who also has Downs, but in this weeks episode he dumps her because—drum roll–she won’t have sex with him! Worse, he thinks he’s entered a relationship with Adrian and plans to have sex with her. And why not, everyone else has!

And the parents, the would-be role models…

Amy’s parents are divorced because of her dad’s (George’s) extra marital affairs, one of which was with the Adrian’s mom. Post divorce, Amy’s mom (Anne) had a sexual affair with a coworker and became pregnant right after Amy did. Yes, let the children lead the way! But Anne is never sure if the baby was from her new (but now ex-) boyfriend or her ex-husband—turns out George lied about having a vasectomy. Are you with me so far?

Both mom and daughter keep their babies but—curiously—neither baby ever seems to get much in anyone’s way. Two infants in the same house but we seldom see or hear from either of them. Only in Hollywood do infants and small children disappear until they’re relevant to the story line; in real life they are the story line.

Grace’s dad dies in the show, and the mother of this formerly Christian family is almost immediately involved in a sexual relationship with a single man who’s Jewish–not sure what the relevance of his faith might be, but the show feels the need to emphasize this point whenever he’s in the story line.

In this weeks episode, Grace’s mom makes three admissions to her new boyfriend: A) she’s a Republican (he’s a Democrat), B) “but (she) voted for Obama”—in Hollywood speak I guess this means she’s corrupted but not beyond redemption, and C) she cheated on her first husband. Hmmm, she’s having a sexual relationship with a man shortly after her husbands’ death, her husband was her second husband, and she cheated on the first. Is there any wonder why Grace and Tom are having sexual struggles of their own?

In a bizarre twist I haven’t figured out the relevance of, the Jewish boyfriends’ mother drops in when he and Graces mom are in bed and about to do “it”. Belonging to a previous generation we might expect his mother to display some semblance of embarrassment or condemnation, but not on this show. Everything’s just fine and in an off-handed way, she even blesses to their romp.

Responsibility, Hollywood style

On the side of responsibility, the sexual moments are clearly implied but never shown.

Every now and then someone on the show brandishes a packaged condom and while parents pretend to be shocked, it’s never for too long, if they’re even around. The “moral message” of the show seems to be “have sex but use a condom”.

Biggest plug for responsibility: both new moms in the show forego abortions in favor of raising the babies themselves, though for a time Amy and her family contemplate putting her baby up for adoption.

But that’s about it in the direction of responsibility. With all of the teen and adult sex happening every week, the topic of STD’s is curiously absent.

Despite the original message warning teens of the potential consequences of teen sex, the driving message of the show IS sex. No one in the show seems to have anything of substance going on apart from it.

The movie Juno was likewise about a pregnant teen. It was an excellent movie that successfully mixed humor with many of the real trauma’s of a teenage girl dealing with pregnancy. This show doesn’t come close on either humor or reality.

So let’s repeat the title question: What exactly is the message of Secret Life of the American Teenager?

Have sex, but use a condom?
Have sex, but feel bad about it afterward?
Have sex but go to counseling?
Have sex but don’t get pregnant?

Is this “art imitating life”, or is it art driving life?


14 Responses to Secret Life of the American Teenager – Exactly What is the Message?

  1. Great post. Unfortunately this seems to be an all-too-common theme in Hollywood. The attempts at morality tend to blur the lines and leave us questioning whether they are promoting morality or a “do what you feel like doing” mentality.

    Solid summation – I’m glad my daughter’s only 2 – although I’ll be dealing with this soon enough! Not looking forward to those days. =)

  2. Kevin M says:

    It’s a dilemma for parents of teens. You could try to ban them from seeing programs like this, but when they’re this popular and all of their friends are watching them, they’ll find a way to watch. They can watch at friends houses or catch segments on YouTube.

    We’re of the opinion that you watch and discuss shows like this with your kids, emphasizing the points of contention. We find that over time that’s a better way to at least influence them. Banning anything with teens seems to push them closer to it.

  3. Len Penzo says:

    Great post!

    It’s just like the New York Times, isn’t it? Quote: The show doesn’t “…take the fun out of teenage pregnancy…” As if teenage pregnancy is ever supposed to be *fun*.

    That show is pure Hollywood fantasy and a tough opponent when it comes to trying to instill the right values on our kids.

    Thankfully this show isn’t on my kids’ radar screens, but if it were I would watch it with them – and I would mock the characters decisions with relentless abandon. I think that would be your only real defense, otherwise over time I think the romanticism of such a show is just too much to overcome on impressionable young minds.

    For the most part, Hollywood doesn’t give a rip about instilling good and decent values in our kids. They are only interested in ratings.

    Remember, the Hollywood crowd wants us to believe that it takes a village to raise a child, when in fact it takes a mom and dad who are willing to make the tough decisions required from a parent. I’m always telling my two kids (who are 10 and 12), “I’m not here to be your best friend, I’m here to be your dad.” And they get it. They know they are loved by me more than anything else in this world.

    That being said, I do use one Hollywood show as a teaching guide for them. Our whole family regularly watches Celebrity Rehab, and its companion show Sober House, and I have been using those shows as a platform to show my kids the dark side of drugs. These are “reality” shows. Although I understand “reality” shows are, for the most part, scripted to a great degree, these are probably the least tainted by scripting of any reality shows. The nature of the subject matter and the fact that the cast is a bunch of drug addicts undergoing the rigors of detox means you don’t have to manufacture the drama and the horrors of drug abuse. It’s all visible and very real – the romantic veneer that Hollywood tends to put on this kind of stuff is stripped away leaving only the dark side and ignominy of drug-use: the collapsed veins, the boils, the nasty withdrawal symptoms, the stupid things that the drugs (and lack thereof) make these people do, the lost fortunes, and the general debasement of the human condition.

    Is the show exploitative? Yep. Is it leaving an impression on my kids? I think it is.

    Thanks for letting me rant, Kevin. I’ll get off my soap box now.

    Best,

    Len
    Len Penzo dot Com

  4. Kevin M says:

    Don’t hold back Len, say what you think! This post was a rant for me, so I’m glad for the company!

    “I would watch it with them – and I would mock the characters decisions with relentless abandon”–this is EXACTLY what I do with my kids. I find sense of humor is often a parents best tool, especially with teens. If you can get them to see through the polish and gloss that TV puts on everything, it’s a victory.

    I think the progress we make with kids comes not from shielding them from that which is undesireable, but by teaching them how to deal with it in a realistic way.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Ha! I know exactly what you men, with the babies disappearing until it’s convenient for the plot–remember in Friends, how Rachel got pregnant and there was all this rigamarole around the pregnancy and her relationship with Ross, but a few episodes after the birth, you never saw the kid anymore.

    It does sound like quite a confusing soap opera. I couldn’t even follow your simplified synopsis. But I guess that’s what keeps people coming back for more.

    I know that for my part, I waited until I was 21 and with a man that I really trusted before having sex, and I am really glad. I was brought up in a religious family and I was taught that sex is an expression of love between two committed adults, not really a liberating, fun expression of self (or of “my sexuality” whatever that is). I think that no-strings-attached sex only really exists on television. It is a well-documented fact that any sort of intimate physical contact between two people produces a huge rush of bonding hormones–even the contact between a parent and their child. Is it really a good idea to become that deeply bonded with whomever you’re crushing on as a teenager?

    When I lost my virginity, my emotions weren’t tangled up with a desire to rebel against my parents and to express my independence–I’d already been living on my own and supporting myself for about a year. Because I didn’t approach sex with a cavalier, experimental attitude, I waited until I was with someone I wanted to bond with. From conversations with friends who had different experiences growing up, it seems like the main thing teen sex leads to is heartbreak, insecurity, unfulfilling relationships, and frankly, unsatisfying sex (especially for the women, who seem to retain their teenage shyness about communicating with their partner for many years into adulthood). My partner (who is still my boyfriend) sometimes teases me and accuses me of actually not having been a virgin before I met him–he was shocked to meet a virgin who spoke openly and knowledgably about sex.

    I think it is really sad when teenagers find themselves trapped between the enforced powerlessness of childhood and the temptations of “adult” pleasures. I think it leads to a lot of problems in society: alcohol and drug abuse, empty promiscuity, and eventually depression and mental illness. What was the name of that book? “Prozac Nation”?

    I’m not entirely sure what the answer is, though: watch teens more closely? Talk to them honestly about saving the pleasures of adulthood for when they’re actually, y’know, adults? Or maybe giving them more independence and autonomy? Paul Graham has some very interesting insights about the self-destructive, neurotic behavior that high-schoolers exhibit and how it correlates to them not being allowed to participate in the economy (or the real world). I think the essay is entitled “Why Nerds Are Unpopular in High School” or something. I know the current scientific research indicates that teenage brains are not yet fully formed and incapable of making good decisions or something like that, but perhaps that is part of our culture’s infantilization of growing people. In centuries past, teenagers ruled kingdoms, commanded naval ships, built empires, even raised families–and they seemed to do a pretty good job, at least. I think these current studies reflect the idea that the brain grows not necessarily according to its capacity, but according to what it is allowed to learn and do.

  6. Kevin M says:

    A big part of the problem today, I think, is extended adolescence. Kids having adult priviledges, but absent any corresponding responsibility. Hollywood plays into this, and even feeds it.

    Teens were actually functioning as adults up until about WW2–even later in many rural areas. But that arrangement included a naturally enforced responsibility. Up until the 1970s, if a guy got a girl pregnant, he married her. Many say that it created a lot of bad marriages; maybe so, but it also displayed a sense of responsibility that’s lacking today.

    In fact, if you look at the current divorce rate, it seems apparent that there are a lot of bad marriages today, even with people having so many more options. Those options haven’t produced any form of stability.

  7. I’m happy to say that we haven’t hit these shows yet because my boys are 6 and 9. They still enjoy Looney Tunes and Mythbusters, much to Dad’s delight. Oh and Ninja Warrior challenge, that’s classic.

    I don’t know personally how I will help manage the transition to adulthood but I’m doing everything in my power now to keep them headed on the right path so that when the time comes for them to make these decisions they have all the tools available they just need to choose.

  8. Kevin M says:

    Paul – My kids stayed with Sponge Bob and some other shows into their teen years and that’s been fine by us! But they do grow up and start looking for other shows, and they take the cues from their friends.

    Some say we need to keep kids from watching shows like this. I’m not sure we can, not any more. There’s too much media out there and it’s too easy to access. Best we can do is know what they’re exposed to, and be prepared to deal with it. We can either deal with it within our own homes, or let our kids find it when we’re not around, which I think is worse.

  9. You hit the nail on the head! I don’t have kids but I work with youth ministries so I try to stay current on what they are watching.

    When I first watched Secret Life (and it was a struggle to get past the dialogue) I thought this was the modern day “after school special”…surely kids aren’t watching this…they probably think its a joke. So I asked around…and they ARE watching….oy vay!

    You’re right…the message is clouded at best, and the public service announcement at the end doesn’t do any good with a mixed message.

    Another show they’re watching is Degrassi: The Next Generation. While both shows can push the limits of reality (it is TV afterall), DTNG also has a huge following and deals with a wide variety of issues.

  10. Kevin M says:

    Lakita – You make an excellent point, even the shows that seem to have sort of “virtuous message”–if we can call it that–tend to carry a mixed message.

    When I watch Secret Life, a very few of the warnings seem almost positive, but what plays out in the programs clearly takes the viewer to the opposite place. Secret Life is a billboard FOR teen sex.

  11. DadofTwinTeenGirls says:

    None of these people can even ACT….that is what is painful to watch!!!!

  12. Kevin M says:

    DadofTwinTeenGirls – That would matter, if anyone was watching the show for the acting. I doubt it!

    With programs oriented toward kids, the “cool factor” seems to be most of what matters. I agree with you, the acting is subpar.

  13. Sonya says:

    THANK YOU!! I’m only 24 and I thought this show would be great when it first came on. But as the show carries on I find myself being disgusted every time I see a commercial for it. It’s like they are telling teenagers that they have to be having sex to be cool in high school. I didn’t have sex in high school, I was way to busy! Why don’t these kids have hobbies? And really, she had to get pregnant at band camp? At least have an original thought!!!

  14. Kevin M says:

    Sonya – I’m thinking the band camp twist was a take off from American Pie. That’s probably what they were REALLY going for with this show. The plot revolves around sex with a self-protective soft message against teen pregnancy – but not against sex. The show is dishonest at it’s core, but we have to remember that it’s 100% entertainment. The moral message, to the degree there was one, was just the intial hook. It’s now a garden variety prime time soap opera.

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