I have recently started watching 16 & Pregnant, and now I find myself part of a small but strong subset of people my age who wonder why.
Yep, I’m wandering a deserted wasteland, trying to figure out why I, a male in his twenties, is drawn to this show about pregnant teens. Dotting the landscape here are the show’s slight weekly variables: questions of adoption, parental reaction (“babies shouldn’t be having babies,” you know?), the prospect of education, and maintaining a ‘normal life’ as a teen mom. These tropes are familiar to me as someone who was a teen once, but only on a secondhand basis. I never got a girl pregnant when I was 16, so I can’t relate to the fathers on this show. I knew one pregnant girl in high school, and I drove her to work once. I did not record her birth on a minicam, though, so my experience here is very limited. All I can recall is being too afraid to ask her anything related to the baby.
On the other hand, there are plenty of reality shows about situations with which I am very familiar. Let’s take a show where a young couple is looking to buy their first house. It’s broad and easy to understand. Show likes this always seem the least ‘real’, though — my own experience with a situation like this gives me a more acute sense of what it’s really like. I know that a question is fake, or that a reaction shot was done a second time ‘for effect.’ It’s just not as interesting.
This is one of the few reasons that I can say I ‘enjoy’ 16 & Pregnant: it’s so unbelievably far from my own personal reality that it seems real. It seems both fictionalized (common tropes) and completely authentic (since I have no bullsh-t radar for this scenario), which is an experience that I’ve never had with reality TV. The show appeals to the part of me that can uneasily sit through films like Fish Tank and A Woman Under the Influence, or shows like Six Feet Under — any past work you can think of that attempts to portray raw, terrifying emotion, and succeeds well enough. They’re all outside of my personal experience, but with enough verisimilitude to make me really care about what is happening to these miserable people.
Gritting one’s teeth through ‘tough’ films is a great way to make a cautious person feel emotionally fortified, isn’t it? I can’t help it, though, and when I look closely, I feel genuinely disturbed by 16 & Pregnant. The realness gets to me in sort of the same way that, say, violent movies get to me. I can’t watch violent movies, especially those that have so much abutting reality. Drive nearly made me puke. Watching Ryan Gosling make mashed potatoes out of some guy’s head in an elevator made me consider how sheltered I really am. The movies that are ‘hard’ but still appealing are usually a safe distance from my everyday — there’s enough to care about, but not enough to worry about. A film or TV show that evokes this reaction also carefully and skillfully contains some modicum of entertainment value. 16 & Pregnant exists in this area, but nearly rents property in the same part of my brain that Drive does, mainly due to its questionable ‘entertainment’: it’s watchable only because it maintains an extremely lithe exterior, right down to the pen & paper aesthetic. It’s presented in a parallel universe that can be erased away.
This bizarre handcrafted aesthetic (for example, there will be a cute little animation of the pregnant teen being abandoned by her father as a baby, or of people at school laughing at her) is the key to the show, and the only reason that it doesn’t result in the nausea typically reserved for Frontline specials. One day, I would like to experimentally recut an episode of the show and remove the jumpy acoustic guitar, the animations. The scripted voiceovers and force-fed questions (“Uh… so why didn’t you use a condom?”; “Did you consider abortion?”), the rental cars. I can guarantee you that the result would be the saddest show on television, and a narrative that walked the line of being unwatchable every week.
Instead, we’ve got a show about a pregnant ‘stretch mark bitch’ named Chelsea, and it’s somehow funny. Even the truly, unquestionably funny stuff — like Myranda being told during birth to ‘push down on your bottom like you’re doo-dooin’ — seems horribly infantile when you subtract the show’s presentation. Curated access to something horrible is appealing in its own way (for some reason), but it is downright scary to me that it can jump the line to true, enjoyable entertainment with a few production tricks.
I’d like to say that I’m not fooled by the tricks, but I am. After all, the hardest part of watching this show is admitting that you watch it. Glad to get that off my chest.