Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Teen Mums - from Celebrity to Reality

An interesting piece in the Observer this Sunday used the Bristol Palin pregnancy debate as an inroad to a discussion about media glorification of teen pregnancy and how this is juxtaposed by the simultaneous demonising of lower class teenage mothers. The small sea-port city of Gloucester, Massachusetts was recently subject to some unwarranted media attention when news emerged of a pregnancy pact that saw 150 teenagers receive tests in the same month. Residents of the town had complained that their girls were being labelled as red necks, their babies a “shameful consequence of a regrettable mistake”, while Bristol Palin – in the public eye, supported by a middle class family - is being heralded as a brave and responsible role model for upstanding Christian teenagers (slightly tenuous considering that whole no sex before marriage thing, but that’s another can of worms). Something doesn’t sound quite right here does it?

The furore surrounding teenage girls and their likeliness to have children early is almost always linked to their position in society and the debate inevitably becomes one of class. The anthropological (and the less so) theories as to why young girls end up having babies range from the simplistic to the tenous. Is this an evolutionary tactic of certain socio-economic groups to ensure survival/upward mobility? Is it more to do with education; or religion; or the media’s treatment of these girls and their own resignation in the face of it? Of course there can be no finite reason for the incline in teenage pregnancies in communities like Gloucester and all contributing factors should be looked at most carefully.

There is definitely a palpable absence of objective sexual education and advice in the US. George Bush’s fondness for promoting abstinence as birth control and the increasingly evangelistic religious climate have impeded on the progress of sexual health initiatives in the US to the point where teenagers are unable to obtain contraception without parental consent – undoubtedly a factor in 41% of those teenagers interviewed in Gloucester admitting to having had unprotected sex at least once in their lives.

And what of the other factor at play here? In a society dominated by media consumption and our easy access to it, what role models do teenage girls have? Increasingly, pop stars and actresses (getting younger by the minute thanks to Hollywood’s unabated thirst for nubile cash cows) represent what teenage girls think of success. Girls like Bristol Palin, Jamie Lynn Spears (sister of Britney, who isn’t exactly a beacon of hope for young mothes everywhere), Ashlee Simpson, Charlotte Church are worshipped by their fans and elevated by the media and they have all had (or are expecting) children at very young ages. Yet they have not been admonished, and instead are lauded for their achievements, paid to pose with their babies for all to see on the covers of the magazines that peddle gossip to the exact demographic most likely to fit the “teenage mum” mould – if there is such a thing.

The cult of celebrity asserts that the rich and famous can do no wrong, so having a child in pre-formative years and out of wedlock is portrayed as a blissful and welcome life choice. In the glossy world of the media (on both sides of the pond) parenting appears deceptively easy – a veritable carnival of designer baby-gros and celebrity god-parents. Sometimes you don’t even have to go to the trouble of pushing – just head for the nearest disadvantaged country and bring one home in your Louis Vuitton hand luggage. Exaggeration aside, the obvious concern is that babies are being conceived as the next designer accessory. Remember the absurdity of the famous Harry Enfield and Chums episode wherein Waynetta Slob bemoans her lack of “one of those black babies.” Not so funny when positioned alongside Madonna and her Malawian escapades. How long before Paris Hilton trades in Tinkerbell for a cuter and somewhat more Homosapien model?

As much as I enjoy American-bashing, it is intrinsically wrong (or so I’m told) and although I am loathe to admit this, the situation is little better in the UK – as this terrifying article on the Daily Mail website inadvertently illustrates. Nothing outlines the hypocrisy that’s going on here better than this piece of crap brandishing teenage mums as “silly girls” after a council house and a way out of school exams placed alongside a link to a positively glowing report of the happy stateside Spears family (complete with 17-year-old Jamie Lynn and her 3 month old daughter).

Fay Weldon, in the same vein as Carole Malone and other middle class halfwits using the tabloids as misguided moral soapboxes, dismisses sex education as a solution to this teenage pregnancy “epidemic” because she thinks it will encourage children as young as eleven to want to turn theory into practice. Hopefully this is an attitude towards teaching that won’t make it mainstream – because what’s next? Stop teaching kids about World War II in case they all join the Nazi Youth? Outlaw French to prevent mass child emigration?

Besides the fact that sterilising teenagers against their will – which is what this article seems to be seriously considering - would be a massive infringement on human rights (this point should be too obvious to warrant labouring) Weldon seems to think it’s a simple solution to this unsavoury condition; one which she says makes Britain a “disgrace among [other] nations”. Far simpler than say, providing the proper resources for children to make their own minds up armed with all the facts. To know that they had the support they needed might also be nice, but sadly what’s in store for teenage mothers in this country is a lifetime of being reminded about their mistake by hypocrites like Weldon, who think it’s acceptable to describe them as the producers of low “quality” children who are – more likely than not – destined to end up the recipient of an ASBO (if male) and another teen mum (if female).

Had Weldon bothered to do any research, she might have been surprised to find that while the propensity to have children younger is more prevalent in lower socio-economic groups (in both the US and the UK), those that do often end up achieving more than their childless counterparts. Subtext magazine published a fantastic expose of this media aggression towards teen pregnancy in which Heather Kennedy dispelled some of the myths about young mums. That teenage mothers are embarking on a downward spiral by having a child so young is a misconception (mainly of the middle classes who identify teen pregnancy with stigma and social deprivation far more than the working class do) – in actual fact many of these girls see the birth of their children as “an impetus to sort their lives out and focus on the future”.

A documentary last year following Kizzy Neal, mother at 14 years old did an excellent job of portraying a teenage girl who was struggling with motherhood, but enjoying it and getting on with her life. If only it wasn't tucked away, post-watershed on BBC3, the controversial idea that teenagers are capable of making the right decisions wouldn't be so absent from social conscience.

Similarly Elizabeth Day notes that according to Dr Mike Males, a sociologist and senior researcher at the Centre on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, teenage motherhood is seen by many as a viable social strategy. In fact, in a 2005 study, Males found that “former teenage mothers who are freed from child-raising duties by their late twenties or early thirties have, by the age of 35, 'earned more in income, paid more in taxes, were substantially less likely to live in poverty and collected less in public assistance than similarly poor women who waited until their twenties to have babies'”

So Weldon’s theory of these girls being a drain on the tax-payer is slightly skewed, and who she might think is more deserving of housing and benefits than our own citizens (however old they are) remains a mystery. Seemingly giving these teens and their offspring the best start in family life is not a priority for Weldon, as apparently these children are doomed from their conception…ridiculous. Aside from being a terrible written argument (who publishes this woman’s books?) this utter tripe is exactly what’s wrong with the whole situation.

To make generalizations that paint a picture of a young mother slapping her children in supermarkets and rubbing her hands together in glee when the two of them are shipped to a grotty bedsit to scrimp on government hand outs is seriously damaging the work that groups like the YWCA is doing to a) prevent young girls having children too young and b) help those that do. Its also damaging the self esteem of the girls that end up in this predicament – its time people realised that Vicky Pollard is a very cleverly put together character spawned of a stereotype and nothing more. Headlines that draw upon this reference to justify dehumanizing vulnerable children are to be deplored.

Of course class is the major deciding factor in whether a teenage mother is celebrated for her pro-life abiding, responsible family values or taunted for her sexual promiscuity and social inferiority – this has always been the way. The fact is – an easy one to overlook – that the mothers up for debate here are children themselves, surely that’s why this is such a mess?

So, what do we do – teach our children the facts? Encourage them to aspire to great things but support them when those aspirations are interrupted by an unexpected pregnancy, and stand by them if those aspirations simply are to be a mother, as controversial as this may be? No, surely a better way of controlling the situation is to bombard teenage girls with images of their celebrity idols as the glamourous poster-children for modern motherhood, give them little information about the true facts, and – of course – carry on attacking them when they end up pregnant. But only if they’re not rich and famous – that would just be wrong.


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