This much, at least, is certain: Jamie Lynn Spears, the 16-year-old star of the Nickelodeon series "Zoey 101," is pregnant. (Or the British tabloid OK!, which paid a reported $1 million to announce the fact, will be wanting its money back.) As to just when and with whom, rumors keep arising to buffet what were yesterday asserted as facts. It is a fluid story whose meaning keeps changing as new grist is poured into the gossips' mill.
There are a lot of pregnant teenagers in this country -- more than in any other developed nation -- and many more are having sex and not getting pregnant, of course, or getting anyone pregnant. In that context, Spears' situation is regrettable but not unusual and, almost by definition, not unnatural. You will decide for yourself whether it is immoral or whether it is your business to decide that at all.
But Jamie Lynn Spears is also a teenager on a hit television show -- as of November, the No. 1 series among viewers 9 to 14 -- and the sister of Britney Spears, whose capacity for calamity is matched only by everyone else's desire to read about it; with her sister and her manager-mother, Lynne Spears, she's part of the larger, strange story of a family that, from a distance, seems remarkably oblivious to its own dysfunction. And although she is surely not the only sexually active teenage tween idol, she's the one who's having a baby.
Even in this she is not quite unique. In October 2006, New Zealand actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, then 16 and Oscar-nominated three years earlier for "Whale Rider," announced that she was pregnant. (She had just finished playing the Virgin Mary in "The Nativity Story," appropriately.) Castle-Hughes declared herself to be happy, had her baby and went back to work. But Spears is a different sort of actress -- she's more of a brand in a franchised world, inseparable from the single role she's played for the last three years and from all the young heads in which she and Zoey live intermingled.
So it is also a story about Our Children and, by extension, Our Nation, blogged and reported and op-edited to a fare thee well. (I am on the verge of apologizing for bringing it up again.) It is also a business story pierced by a health crisis, a tale of money and morals and even public policy, somewhere deep inside of which resides an actual girl who, through some combination of thought and action, of thoughtlessness and inaction, is with child.
Nickelodeon has been supportive of the actress while remaining silent as to their shared future. While speculators speculate as to whether the network will air the fourth season of "Zoey 101" -- already completed and planned as the last -- they are continuing to air the third and have been heavily promoting the now ironically titled season-ending special, "Goodbye, Zoey," in which Spears' character decides whether to stay at her boarding school or move to London with her parents. "There's something I got to talk to you about," Spears says in the trailer, with unintended resonance.
Over the past year, Jamie Lynn has come to be seen as the anti-Britney, the Spears who could. A first-time offender, as it were, who seemed heretofore a responsible citizen, her few public statements on the pregnancy comprise a measured taking of responsibility, without the kind of craven apology that often accompanies such events. She remains, for the moment, in most versions of this story, a sympathetic character, even a victim: of show business itself (which, "sources say," she was never that interested in to begin with); of the rumored "older man" for whom official father-to-be and possibly ex-boyfriend Casey Aldridge is theoretically taking the fall; and of her mother, of whom one may say at least she is engaged (as putative protector and factual exploiter) in a troubling conflict of interest.
"I want to be known as a good actress," Spears told Newsweek not long before crisis management became her main occupation. For some, the story will be one of sinning against her own stardom, of throwing away not her life but her livelihood. But there's no reason to think she's finished. Drew Barrymore was in rehab by 13, after all. One poster on the still-active "Zoey 101" message board at Nick.com, wrote, "She might be back in a couple of years we all love her and wish her well right so don't be sad."
And Jamie Lynn (or some proxy) left a last note herself, on her own website, three long months ago when she was still, to all appearances, a child:
"Sept. 26, Hey ya'll,
"Right now I'm getting ready for the US Weekly 'Hot Hollywood' event tonight. I'm so excited because I was nominated for an award at the event! I'm going to post some pics as soon as I can! Other than that, I've just been really busy with school. Well, keep an eye out for those pics! TTYL!"