MIKE PESCA, host:
All right, 17 high school girls in Gloucester, Massachusetts, are pregnant. Some were said to be happy about this fact, and the principal of the school told Time Magazine that perhaps a pact had been made among the girls. The mayor of Gloucester has since denied there was a pregnancy pact, but the subhead of the Time Magazine story was "The 'Juno' Effect." Since that first big story, coverage of the Gloucester teens has frequently referenced the movie "Juno," the story of a pregnant high-school student.
Also, newspapers have talked about "Knocked Up," the story of an unwed pregnant 20-something, played by Katherine Heigl, and press coverage has also mentioned Jamie Lynn Spears, a real-life pregnant teenager. The question is, could it actually be the case that watching a movie, or leafing through the pages of People Magazine, could de-stigmatize teen pregnancy to the extent that it actually becomes acceptable?
Jane Brown teaches communications research and theory at UNC Chapel's Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She's a good person to talk, too, so I did. Now you oversee the Teen Media Project. You look at issues of how the media affects teens, how teen absorb the media. I have to tell you, when we were bandying about this premise, that maybe these teenage girls had seen the movie "Juno" and gone out and got pregnant, it seemed almost preposterous to us here at the Bryant Park Project, but what do you know about it?
DR. JANE BROWN (Journalism, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill): Well, we've just - this Teen Media Project that we've just been involved in, we're working with 12 to 14-year-olds, and we followed them over two years, looking at the kind of media they were using, and then how that was affecting their sexual behavior. And what we found was that the kids who, when they were 12 to 14, had what we called heavier sexual-media diets, they were twice as likely - more than twice as likely to have become sexually active by the time they were 16 years old.
PESCA: So, I guess the question is chicken-and-egg. Is it the media images that prompt them to become sexually active? Or is it that teenagers with sex on the mind are going to seek out those images anyway?
Dr. BROWN: I actually think it's both going on, that what happens is that as teens get more interested in sexual behavior, and their sexual feelings begin to dominate, then they're looking for sexual information and sexual ideas about what's appropriate and inappropriate. And that's when the media provides lots of very interesting examples. I'd like to put it like this, that in the context of parents still not comfortable talking with their children about sex, with schools talking only about abstinence until marriage, and with religion saying it's still a sin, the media have become powerful sex educators.
PESCA: Isn't the trend with teen pregnancy, as the media becomes more sexualized, teen pregnancy, except maybe this last year, has been trending downwards?
Dr. BROWN: It has been trending downwards, but I think we are beginning to see that trend back up again. And it's speculation at this point, but this is the first generation that's been reared on abstinence, until-marriage-only sex education, so these kids don't know a lot about the nitty-gritty of taking care of yourself sexually.
PESCA: One of the reasons always given for teenage girls wanting to be pregnant is lack of love in their life, and they just wanted someone to love, even if it's a new baby. So is this a new thing?
Dr. BROWN: I think what's new is that, in the analyses of content that we've done in the past, in the early 2000s, for example, it was very rare to see any mention of pregnancy. So this is unusual and rare that we would have movies like "Juno" or "Knocked Up," or that we would now be glamorizing celebrities who are pregnant, and we don't even know who the fathers are.
PESCA: Or even when we do know the fathers, you know, Angelina Jolie, people know whose father - who's the father of her child. But do you know if the non-fiction portrayals, all these, you know, "Access Hollywood" type shows, with their constant segments on the actresses' baby bumps, do you know if that might have a bigger effect than one or two movies where pregnancy is the central theme?
Dr. BROWN: Well, what we do know is that teens are looking at those blogs religiously. And I find that quite amazing, that for them looking to see who's got a baby bump is really compelling somehow.
PESCA: Now, I don't know if you know - you've seen "Juno," or "Knocked Up." But...
Dr. BROWN: I have.
PESCA: So, the message there wasn't particularly nuanced, in terms of making it seem that being pregnant is just all puppy dogs and rainbows. I mean, both movies, they got comic mileage out of it, but both emphasized how tough it was to be pregnant. Why would a teenage girl take the opposite message away from those movies?
Dr. BROWN: Well, if you know, both of those movies ended in a fairytale ending. "Knocked Up," with this unlikely couple ended up falling in love, and probably going to be together. And in "Juno," she ends up playing the guitar with her boyfriend. I loved those movies. They were fabulous movies. They're the best written movies I've seen in a long time, and I loved that they were addressing these issues. But what we're missing here is what happens later. The statistics show that the woman in "Knocked Up" will end up in a single mom.
PESCA: I think a fair-minded listener to this conversation might say, wait, wait a minute, is she saying that we should go back to the stigmatization of teen pregnancy, because I thought that that was something that people on Dr. Brown's side of the argument had always spoken out against?
Dr. BROWN: I would like to have a fuller conversation. I think that it's fine we're going to de-stigmatize teens who are pregnant. We've been working in that direction for 30 years now. The abstinence, until-marriage-only movement has moved us back a bit towards stigmatization. We are just missing a whole - a big part of this conversation. We're missing a conversation about love, relationships, about the possibility of talking about, should we have sex now or wait, about contraception, about access to contraception.
PESCA: Can you ever envision the day where the story in People Magazine wasn't about the celebrity who is having a baby, but about the celebrity who speaks openly about having an abortion? What would that be like in terms of the national conversation about teen pregnancy?
Dr. BROWN: I think we need to go there. That was probably the most disappointing thing about both of those movies. In "Knocked Up," they could hardly even say the word. At least in...
PESCA: They made one joke about a shmabortion (ph), I think.
Dr. BROWN: Yeah, they couldn't even say it. And as Ellen Goodman put it, she said abortion is now - has become the choice that is not chosen.
PESCA: Insofar as that you say that media images, and movies like "Juno," and "Knocked Up," do paint an unfair and perhaps pernicious picture of what it means to have a child if you're an unwed mom, but then you also talk about, you know, the need for legal abortions. You have opinions that are sure to make both the right and the left very angry.
Dr. BROWN: Oh, probably.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: Does that mean you're doing your job?
Dr. BROWN: Yeah, exactly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: Yeah. I just want to ask one more thing. Now, one of these teenagers was on "Good Morning America," and she said something to the effect of movies and coverage of Jamie Lynn Spears had nothing to do with why she decided to keep the baby or get pregnant. Might it be working on a subconscious level?
Dr. BROWN: Yeah, the - all kids, and even we as adults will say, well, we're not going to be affected by the media. And yet, we wear the same clothes. We try to get the same hairdos. So, what we see with the kind of studies we do and the kind for research we do is that kids are being influenced, even if they don't know they are.
PESCA: Professor Jane Brown, who teaches at UNC Chapel Hill, has undertaken the five-year Teen Media research project. Thanks very much.
Dr. BROWN: Thank you.