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
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?