I don’t have sisters, I’m hopefully at least two decades away from having teenaged children, and I’m a man. So if you want to argue that I have no idea what I’m talking about when I talk about 16 and Pregnant, you’re probably right. But I do know great TV when I see it, and I am truly fascinated by the show’s emotional depth and no-bull docudrama. It’s almost repulsive how completely the show seems to capture the bruised hearts of these girls.
Obviously, this is MTV, so there’s a whiff of unhealthy glamour even in the grittiest handheld-camera-filmed OBGYN appointment. (The worst part about watching this second season of 16 and Pregnant is imagining these girls with positive pregnancy tests in their hand, thinking, “Hey, I can go on MTV!”) But at the best moments of the show (which, admittedly, are usually the worst moments for the people onscreen), it feels like the network has grafted the impeccable stylistic timing of a more fun reality hour – The Hills, or The Jersey Shore – onto a real human emotional spectrum.
Last night’s pregnant teen, Nikkole, introduced herself: a cheerleader, “definitely a princess,” a girl with a lot of friends (“One of our favorite pastimes is TP’ing houses,” she explained). She never used condoms with her boyfriend – I tried to find a PG-rated euphemism for their method of birth control, and the best that I could come up with is “Leaving the party early.” If nothing else, 16 and Pregnant really does function as the best sex-ed video ever.
Nikkole was a bit more recessive than some of the other young moms we’ve seen on the series so far. At least as presented by the show, she’s a quiet person surrounded by big personalities. (Tellingly, when she plays Rock Band, she plays the drums: the least flashy but most difficult instrument.) She’s positively surrounded by friends who adore her – I love the familiar, nonjudgmental playful way that Becca greeted her, “Hey, Preggo!” You got the vibe that Nikkole was a part of several different friendship groups — that many of her friends weren’t necessarily friends with each other.
Still, all of her friends (and her mother) were in agreement on one thing: her boyfriend, Josh, was not good for her. And although it’s not my place to pass judgment on another human being, I’m inclined to agree with that assessment. Even in the short history of 16 and Pregnant’s untrustworthy baby-daddies, Josh managed to achieve incredible new lows of moral douchebaggery. He was hurling insults at Nikkole’s friends, and complaining “You’re taking up all the bed” while Nikkole was IN LABOR. (There was also Kyla, the Other Woman, never onscreen but always present.)
I don’t want to rail too much on Josh, because he’s just a child, and his problematic personality is at least partially our fault: there was something utterly American in his proud refusal to listen to any argument, and his myopically self-regarding view of the world. “Are you gonna be mad? Because I don’t wanna listen to you.” “I’m done talking, because I already did it.” Watching this show, I realize that these kids have only known a world of ideology-catering news networks and PR-inflected politicians. Watching this show, I’ve never felt so happily old.
“I think guys’ pain tolerance is super high than women’s,” Josh said when Nikkole complained about labor pains. Nikkole’s mom, Rikki, said, “Yeah, I’m sure it is,” and the cameras caught her flashing a little knowing smile. What do men know about pain? The most fascinating part of 16 and Pregnant is how completely it brings us into a world populated almost entirely by women. 16 and Pregnant is most essentially the story of women left to endure men’s mistakes.
The show has its problems. I’m not so hot on the cartoon interludes, for one thing. Like bad narration in movies or the “enhanced” episodes of Lost, the cartoons basically serve the purpose of loudly broadcasting emotions and facts that are better left minimalist and implicit. I don’t think we really need to see Nikkole, Josh, and Rikki shackled together, in mock classroom-doodles, to understand their particular power dynamics. And I’ve never been so hot on MTV’s decision to subtitle the songs on the soundtrack, either (“Nikkole’s been stood up on Homecoming night; this heartwarming moment is brought to you by Moonlit Sailor!”)
Still, there were moments last night that were as dramatically exciting as anything the documentary format has ever captured. When Nikkole was about to leave for the hospital for induced labor, she explained to her mom why she was scared about giving birth: newborn babies are “all purple and white and red.” Later, around hour 17 of labor, there was a three-way war between Rikki, Josh, and Josh’s mom, with Nikkole left groaning in pain on the bed, “You guys, stop.” At the end of the episode, after Josh had done just about everything to drive Nikkole away, she could still only stare at the camera and say, “I love him.” And then there were the tough, painful words that ended the episode: “If I could’ve made a different decision, I would have.”
What did you think of the episode, viewers? Were you, like me, entertained/appalled to see Josh and Nikkole playing around with OBGYN equipment, like a couple of bored kids on lunch break? Are you troubled by 16 and Pregnant? To my eyes, the show doesn’t preach a particular moral view one way or the other, but I can certainly see how the show can offend both liberal and conservative audiences. And can someone maybe talk to Kyla about her taste in men, please?