The first time I heard of Amy Juergens, she was speaking directly to me about the need for parents and children to be open when it comes to talking about sex.
Amy is the protagonist of “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” an ABC Family series (Monday nights, 8 p.m.) about those crazy, promiscuous kids and all the trouble they get into – including 15-year-old Amy’s unplanned pregnancy. My younger stepdaughter, 13, has started to get into the show.
Tacked onto the end of each episode is a PSA featuring Amy, lead actress Shailene Woodley, telling parents not to assume their kids are having sex just because they ask about it (and telling teens not to assume their parents don’t care if they don’t bring up the subject). Teen pregnancy is preventable, she reminds viewers.
I don’t know yet what to make of this show. Its creator is Brenda Hampton, who was also responsible for the long-running, family-friendly WB series “Seventh Heaven.” I’ve seen two episodes of “Secret Life,” not enough to form an opinion, but enough to form an impression – it’s making teen pregnancy into bad sitcom fodder, and it’s sugar-coating what happens next in a way that can’t be undone with a well-meaning PSA.
In last Monday night’s season premiere, Amy married her boyfriend, who is not the baby’s father. Now, I’m not going to say that such things never happen. I’m sure they do. But it’s not reality for most teen mothers. In fact, according to stayteen.org (the Web site Amy sends kids to at the end of each episode), fewer than 8% of teen mothers end up marrying the baby’s father. I doubt a statistic even exists for the infinitesimal number of teen mothers who marry someone other than the baby’s father before the child is born.
When parents split, Dad doesn’t smugly set up an apartment in the garage. One parent actually leaves the house. Divorce is ugly. Teen pregnancy is agonizing. People get hurt. True friends reveal themselves and, unfortunately, so do false friends. And most of the time, it’s not funny.
And yet, there’s something about this production that keeps me from dismissing it or selling it short.
After all, in the long run, my first impression could be wrong. Perhaps this is an effective way to get the message across to kids who are growing up on Disney TV – the same kids who had the concept thrust upon them in the form of the unplanned teen pregnancies of "Zoey 101" star Jamie Lynn Spears and Bristol Palin, daughter of the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee. Maybe it’s better that this difficult subject is handled with kid gloves, because the reality of teen pregnancy might be a bit too much to bear for the target audience.
One thing I do hope is that our family’s interest in this show develops into an opportunity to discuss its themes. Kudos, then to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which worked with the producers to develop a discussion guide for parents and teens to talk about the season premiere.
We’re not going to ban the program in our house, but neither are we going to let a well-meaning show substitute for involved parenting. Entertainment is Hollywood's job; parenting is ours. If Brenda Hampton wanted to start living room and kitchen table conversations, she’s succeeded. Again. I’m not sure I like this show, but that’s not the point. My kid likes it, and that gives our family another chance to talk. That can’t be a bad thing.