Monday, November 03, 2008

Giving birth to a new kind of role model.

So there's a new study out, which appears to show that when teens consume nontraditional imagery, they're more likely to indulge in nontraditional behaviors. Teenage girls who watch TV shows with lots of sexy content are more likely to do sexy thingsspecifically, they're more likely to get pregnant. Kids who play violent video games are more likely to act out in a violent manner. The bottom line of the study appears to be that teens mimic what they see/are exposed to.

The assumption that the same thinking applies in a positive way is, of course, the logic behind the concept of role models. Personally, I've never bought the linearity of the relationship between (a) what we see other high-profile people do and (b) our own behavior.
What's more (and though it's not really germane to the key point I hope to make here), I've always been particularly skeptical of the idea that, in order to be effective, a role model must be of the "right" age, race, gender, etc. Be that as it may, it does stand to reason that impressionable youngsters would be somewhat more likely to do what's familiar to them. If you make certain behaviors, good or bad, seem normal and comfortable, kids will be less likely to think such behavior is wrong. Right? And the quickest way to make a behavior seem normal and comfortable is to have that behavior reinforced daily by a celebrity or some other high-profile personlike, say, a politician running for national office. A politician who has already been presented to the nation as a role model for women everywhere.

And so I ask: As the nation continues to grapple with the complex interwoven problems of STDs, teenage pregnancy and fathers-in-absentia, is it really helpful to have a member of a
presidential ticket parading across the land with her very pregnant 17-year-old in tow? Especially when Mom, who is glamorous and appealing in her own right, makes her daughter out to be the embodiment of Authentic Americana, a symbol of the things all imperfect families struggle with, as if Bristol's predicament were the ho-hum equivalent of the dog peeing on the carpet or maybe Bristol herself getting in trouble for not doing homework. Indeed, Mom even tells the nation in a formal statement that she's "proud" of her daughter.

I don't care where you fall politically, how can it not legitimize or at least destigmatize teen sex when you do that? And folks, it won't get any better if McPalin pr
evails tomorrow, and in a few months that little baby is romping around the White House with grandma, putting smiles on the faces of even the most dyspeptic, left-leaning members of MSM.

Today there are millions of girls and young women who see Bristol Palin applauded (along with her loving, approving Mom) as she walks on-stage with her giant baby-bump. They see that the pregnancy has become a non-issue. It's just "something that happened"; before long the Palins will have a new baby in the family and the "oops factor" will be forgotten entirely. What's more, those girls see that Bristol even gets the guy...and a gorgeous, hunky guy at that! If this new study is correct in its implications, you have to feel that some portion of girls who once were terrified of what their parents might say if they came home pregnant now will think, "Hey, I'm not gonna try to get pregnant, but if it happens, it happens. If it's, like, good enough for Sarah Palin, who could be the next vice-president or even president, well, Mom and Dad will just have to cope."

Seriously, wasn't Jamie Lynn Spears bad enough?


Anonymous said...

Parents: Here's a concept -- turn off the TV, computer and radio, and spend *time* with your kids.

Cosmic Connie said...

And let's not forget that Bristol hasn't really "gotten the guy" yet. They're still parading him as her fiance, and he's gamely going along, for now. I'm sure he's under a lot of pressure, as is Bristol. I honestly feel sorry for both of those young people.

But who knows what course the romance will take after the election? In any case, although it's been said hundreds of times since Bristol's pregnancy was made public, it's just amazing how the Repubs/traditional-family-values crowd are shrugging this off -- when we all know that if an out-of-wedlock pregnancy had happened to a teenage girl on the "other side," they'd be on her like flies on you-know-what, pointing it out as an example that liberals are destroying family values.

But as you've pointed out in this post, Steve, if "legitimizing" teen pregnancy is destroying family values, it looks like the Repubs are taking the prize this political season.

RevRon's Rants said...

Growing up in Texas, I - like most other boys - wanted to be just like the Marlboro man. Bought the requisite faux-fleece lined denim jacket and of course, smoked Marlboro cigarettes. Had I known as a kid that the marlboro man would ultimately die an agonizing death as a direct result of his habit, or especially had I known that he was gay (as has been alleged in years since), I would probably have never taken up the habit, and wouldn't be fighting addiction to this day.

By the same token, I can't help but wonder how the young girls to whom Steve refers would respond if they were able to see into the future; say, when forced to give up some dreamed-about activity because they had to stay home and care for their baby. Making the adjustment from being a free-wheeling newlywed to being a parent was tough enough for me as a married guy at 23. I can only imagine the impact it would have on a teenager, especially a single parent.

Elizabeth said...

Bristol's pregnancy has been, curiously (or not) embraced by the fundamentalists -- she has chosen to keep the baby and get married, so things are, apparently, alright, according to the fundamentalist set of opinions and values.

It's perhaps paradoxical (or not), but teenage pregnancy rates, as well as divorce rates, are the highest in the "red" states, where the Christian and/or fundamentalist mores prevail. Fundamentalist teens have sex at the same rates as secular (or non-fundie) adolescents, but they are less educated about contraception and/or believe its use is a sin, so they get pregnant, keep the babies, and follow into shotgun weddings at a very early age. These marriages tend to fall apart earlier and more often, on average, than marriages started later in life and for reasons other than unplanned pregnancy. (I'm talking about the Caucasian population only.)

It's an inconvenient truth that not many on the right like to discuss. (And just imagine if Obama had an unmarried teenage pregnant daughter. We would never hear the end of derision and contempt from the right-wingers. In fact, I think that this itself would, quite likely, disqualify him from the presidential candidacy.)

For more, including interesting research by Mark Regnerus on sex and religion in lives of American teens, see The New Yorker's article, by Margaret Talbot, "Red Sex, Blue Sex: Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?"

Elizabeth said...

I've always been particularly skeptical of the idea that, in order to be effective, a role model must be of the "right" age, race, gender, etc.

I've gotta say that the older I get, the more clearly I see the importance of the right (i.e. positive) role models. And I think their race and gender (if not necessarily age, but this too) matter -- very much so, in fact. I'm thinking here about my personal experience, as well as my observations and experiences with others, personal and professional.

Role models show us what is possible in life. If, for example, we grow up in an environment that limits our access to (good) education, larger culture and opportunities for advancement in life, we absorb that reality as the only possible one. (Well, this happens anyway, in any and all environments we are exposed to growing up.) Seeing positive role models, especially ones who are similar to us, break the mold and do good (or great) things in life expands this range of possibilities for us, instills hope for change, and makes us try to work harder to overcome certain limitations that we have previously seen as impossible to surmount.

Personally, I wish I had different (female) role models growing up. I'm absolutely certain it would make a huge difference in my life. But, hey, it is what it is.

Anonymous said...

Just think, Trig will have a nephew to play with! I went to school with a kid who had a nephew a day younger than him. We were all eight years old and it took forever for me to wrap my brain around that.

Anonymous said...

You know, when I was in high school, way back in the 1980's, you were shunned if you got pregnant as a teenager. ABC had afterschool specials about that. Judy Bloom was writing about first time sex and birth control.

I went to an all girls high school and you had to leave if you got pregnant. I had a classmate who was kicked out in 10th grade for getting pregnant. Your life was over if you got pregnant as a teenager. A girl would end up poor, the guy would leave her, she would find herself in a roach invested apartment alone with her baby. It was the stuff of nightmares.

My mother took me to get birth control pills when I was old enough and she was not alone in doing this. Many mothers still do this today. Even though I did not have sex until after I was 21. At least I was prepared.

Even in the last 20 years, ideas about pregnant teens has changed.

1minionsopinion said...

Spike kept her baby in "Degrassi Jr. High," in the 1987 season. I expect that was a big deal. I was in grade 7 at the time. There was a girl when I was in junior high who everyone said had gotten an abortion even though she said her intestines had collapsed. Abortion sounded far more likely, given who it was. There were only a couple girls at the high school who wound up pregnant while I was there. The school added a daycare in 1991.

As to the role model aspect of all this, here's a Macleans article from January about this very topic:

---The fact that "BABIES!" tops the list of news categories at suggests that pregnancy — celebrity, teen, unplanned, out-of-wedlock, whatever — has moved into a new realm of acceptance. "It's no longer a scary word," says Ottawa-based sex therapist Sue McGarvie. "It's been normalized." Entertainment tabloids, which have long featured style-watch lists, have turned their attention to the latest accessory in Hollywood — protruding bellies. And teens, heavy consumers of such media, are getting the message that "having a baby is the new handbag," says Nicole Fischer, 17, who lives in Calgary and just gave birth to her son Cristian five months ago.---

Yeah, babies are handbags. But you can't really trade one in when you get bored of the model...

Steve Salerno said...

1Min, "babies as handbags." What a powerful line.

Chad Hogg said...

Argh, I just wrote this but I think a Blogger error sent it off into the aether. If this is a double post, please simply approve only one.

I believe I already wrote something similar on your last Bristol-related post, but it deserves repeating. To a typical evangelical (I'm not much for labels, but you would probably call me one), pre-marital sex is a serious and unfortunate moral failure. Abortion, on the other hand, is an act of unspeakable evil, much like everyone would see the murder of post-term children.

Given that dichotomy, it does not surprise me that evangelicals have been mostly supportive of Bristol. She is a person who has failed to live up to her (presumed) moral standards (something that Christianity says is true of all people, thus the need for redemption). She is also a person who could have taken the easy way out -- avoiding shame, easing her mother's campaign, and giving her a chance at a (comparatively) normal young adulthood -- but instead stood by her principles even though the consequences were quite dire.

In this sense, she is a positive Christian role model to young women who are in a bad situation due to their own choices and must now decide to accept responsibility for their lives or compound their sins by passing on the consequences of their actions to their innocent unborn child. Having sex in the first place is not condoned by the Church, but matters of life or death carefully deliberated over are of much more importance than the things that can happen in the heat of passion.

It is true that this legitimizes teenage sex to some degree, but at a potential great benefit to the pro-life cause. If you really believe that abortion is murder, that has to be a net gain.

Mike Cane said...

>>>Teenage girls who watch TV shows with lots of sexy content are more likely to do sexy things

Geez. If only they were limited to broadcast TV! I wish I had the article, but I read one where these teens had access to Playboy Channel. They'd try to mimic the porn they saw. The quote I recall: "We're getting pretty good at this stuff."

RevRon's Rants said...

"She is also a person who could have taken the easy way out -- avoiding shame, easing her mother's campaign, and giving her a chance at a (comparatively) normal young adulthood -- but instead stood by her principles even though the consequences were quite dire."

Keeping Roe v Wade alive ensures that all young (and not-so-young) girls are afforded the right to follow their own principles, rather than being forced to adhere to another's. And as one who knows several women who have had abortions, I feel pretty safe in saying that calling such an action "the easy way out" is pretty dismissive of the emotional struggle many of these women face, both in making their decision and for the rest of their lives.

I hate the very concept of abortion, and will therefore never get one. But I think we'd all be better off if we focused our efforts upon reducing the need for abortions, rather than judging those who choose to have one. First stone, and all that...

Steve Salerno said...

I hate the very concept of abortion, and will therefore never get one....

? Ron, one hates to be glib on a thread such as this, but were you being ironic? Is there something about you we don't know? Or when you say you'd "never get one," are you speaking with that same slightly odd-sounding gender-inclusiveness that many husbands display in saying things like "we're pregnant!"?

RevRon's Rants said...

No irony here, Steve. I feel somewhat qualified to make decisions where my own body is concerned, but not qualified to make another's decisions for them. Thus, I will not get an abortion, since I'm not capable of being pregnant, but I don't feel I have the right to tell someone else what they must do in that situation.

Elizabeth said...

One of three American women has had an abortion. So when you sit with your family at the Thanksgiving dinner, take a look to your left and a look to your right -- and give it some thought.

Jen said...

Elizabeth wrote: "Personally, I wish I had different (female) role models growing up. I'm absolutely certain it would make a huge difference in my life. But, hey, it is what it is."

I haven't been around here too much lately, so first let me say a big hello to Steve and all of his blog readers! It is election day and soon all this nitpicky tit for tat will be over, ... or at least will CHANGE into something different. ;)

I wanted to comment here on Elizabeth's surprising revelation. Thinking about my own female role models, I feel pretty fortunate. My mother especially has been a wonderful role model in my life, although our lives have taken drastically different turns. I wonder, Elizabeth, what you wish would have been different. As you say, "it is what it is," and I have to admit, you have become a role model for me!

Elizabeth said...

Jen, I don't know what to say, other than thank you (and that I do not feel qualified to be a role model). But a sincere thank you nevertheless.

I did not mean my remark, about the lack of role models, to sound dramatic, but looking back at my past, I do think that I, like anyone else, would have benefited from being shown what's possible in life (without going into too much of personal details here).

Times were different, though, and so was the place, as you well know, so, well, it was what it was (it's a such a useful phrase, isn't it -- and I mean it sincerely) -- and thus it is what it is. (I hope I'm still making sense, LOL...)

As to your observation that the nitpicky tit for tat will change into something different now, I agree -- it'll be tat for tit from now on. :)

BTW, good to hear from ya.

Mike Cane said...

Ah. here we go!

Air date: October 19, 1999
The Lost Children of Rockdale County

>>>PEGGY COOPER: My students were talking to me about the parties that they were having on weekends, and there was one place in particular that they had lots of privacy. The parents were off and gone. And they said that they were watching the Playboy Channel in the girl's bedroom. And there would be, like, 10 or 12 of them up there.

And so I said, "Well, is everybody watching it?" "Oh, yeah. They're all watching it." And so one of the little guys goes, "And we're getting pretty good at it, too." I said, "Good at what?" So he said, "Well, we- you have to do- the game is you have to imitate what the Playboy people are doing."

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Mike. In all seriousness, I don't see how anyone can argue that people--especially kids--don't do, or at least become more accepting of, what they see, especially if they see it all the time. If you "normalize" something for kids/teens (and God I hate that word, but it applies here), then by definition it's no longer abnormal to them.