Nearly every television season, a storybook stork delivers a plot twist in the form of a baby to a teen drama.
“The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” created by Brenda Hampton of “7th Heaven,” premiered last summer on ABC Family and introduced us to 15-year-old Amy Juergens, a scrawny, French horn-playing freshman at Grant High School who discovers she’s pregnant -- though she’s not even sure she actually had sex -- after a rendezvous with bad boy Ricky Underwood at band camp.
The premise of the program gives viewers a glimpse into the middle-class world of a girl as she deals with an unexpected pregnancy.
The show’s first season averaged 3.5 million viewers -- trumping media darling “Gossip Girl.” When it returns Monday, viewers can expect Amy’s baby drama to intensify as she gets closer to her due date. Is the baby a boy or a girl? Will she give it up for adoption?
Sexual trysts and pregnancy twists are common occurrences in youth-oriented TV land. And a recent study by Rand Corp., which tracked more than 700 12- to 17-year-olds, found that about 25% of those who viewed the most sexual content on TV were involved in a pregnancy, compared with about 12% of those who watched the least.
About one-third of girls in the United States get pregnant before the age of 20, and teen mothers are less likely to complete high school and more likely to live in poverty than other teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And almost one-third of sexually experienced teenage girls have been pregnant at least once, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Teen dramas such as “Secret Life” that explore the weighty subject of pregnancy dramatize these statistics in a way that demonstrates that even the seemingly least likely person is at risk -- even the Amy Juergenses of the world. Viewers under the misconception that pregnancy happens only to the “slutty” girls are shown otherwise.
“Breaking the stereotype of who is at risk for getting pregnant is crucial to prove no one is protected,” said Shelli Wynants, a professor at Cal State Fullerton who teaches Adolescents and the Media. “It can happen to anyone.”
According to a statement from ABC Family, the show “deals honestly and directly with the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy in a non-exploitative manner and explores how the core character’s relationships with her mother, father, sister and friends are affected. . . . We hope the show encourages teenagers and parents to open up a dialogue about issues important to them. . . .”
Although the program has sparked renewed interest in teenage pregnancy, it’s hardly the first show that has avoided impregnating the usual suspects. Every teen soap from “Gossip Girl” to its godfather “Beverly Hills, 90210" has toyed with the idea.
“Gossip Girl’s” flirtation with the plot device last season had the audience wondering whether Upper East Side snob Blair Waldorf was pregnant. But some viewers felt they didn’t need to worry because “everyone knows that [Blair’s] going to have a ‘miscarriage’ because rich girls and TV characters always do . . . ,” according to a post on a “Gossip Girl” fan site.
In the end it didn’t come to that, because Blair didn’t actually get pregnant. A half-generation earlier, neither had her fictional predecessor, the upper-middle-class Brenda Walsh of “90210,” after losing her virginity to Porsche-driving bad boy Dylan McKay in a Bel Age Hotel room in the show’s first season.
Yet it was Brenda’s classmate Andrea Zuckerman -- the poor, socially awkward newspaper geek destined for greatness -- whose decision in Season 4 to have sex with new beau Jesse Vasquez only once without protection led to her being the first cast member to have a baby; the story line coincided with the actress Gabrielle Carteris’ real-life pregnancy.
Amy Kramer, senior manager of media programming for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said: “If viewers of these shows watched or read the news at all this year, the pregnancies of Jamie Lynn Spears and Bristol [Palin] have taught them that teen pregnancy happens in all types of families and all types of communities, regardless of income levels.”
“90210" chronicled Andrea’s struggle as she gave birth prematurely, a story that some said gave a glimpse into the complexities of pregnancy that aren’t often explored.
“It’s beneficial for teenagers to see that an unplanned pregnancy can throw off your life plans,” said Melissa Henson, director of communication and public education for the Parents Television Council. "[Andrea] was a high-achieving student -- very ambitious -- and her dreams got side-railed by an unplanned pregnancy.”
Andrea eventually finished college and even attended Yale as a pre-med student.
And though it is mentioned on “Secret Life,” “Beverly Hills, 90210" and “Gossip Girl,” abortion is never really an option. The bigger parts of the issue are glossed over, said Wynants, who has discussed plotlines from “Gossip Girl” with her class.
“There needs to be more mention of the three Cs: commitment, contraception and consequences,” she said. “What’s not fully explored is why these kids find themselves pregnant and what happens to them afterward. The whole reality.”
Like a baby’s late-night colic attacks. Dealing with postpartum depression. The financial hardship that can sometimes force mothers to apply for federal assistance. And figuring out how to obtain medical insurance. The types of things teens usually never think about.
“One Tree Hill,” a show essentially based on teenage pregnancy -- the main characters, Nathan and Lucas, are both the offspring of teenage mothers -- went so far as to have book-smart waitress turned teacher turned singer, Haley James Scott, go into labor as she gave a valedictory speech at her high school graduation ceremony.
But fans of the show never saw her struggle to balance midterms and vaccinations, because when the program returned for its fifth season, it had fast-forwarded through the college years of its characters. Instead of glimpses into all the ear-piercing crying that comes with having a newborn, the audience mostly got a glimpse into the blissful side of motherhood.
And research suggests teens do want the awful truth: Three-quarters say they would like the media to talk more about the consequences of sex, according to a 2007 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Perhaps that’s the real secret of the American teenager.