So, here’s what I don’t want to be writing about: Jamie Lynn Spears. I wanted to avoid this whole mess all together. Jamie Lynn Spears is someone, until a few days ago, whose existence I was only vaguely aware of, and whose existence I didn’t really care about. Her pregnancy was and is of absolutely no interest to me. And even more importantly than that, her pregnancy is none of my business.
But sadly, I seem to be one of the few sane people left who realizes that a 16-year-old girl’s pregnancy is none of our business, regardless of how famous she or her sister is. I waited several days to even make mention of it, because I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to. And yet, I probably always knew that the reaction was going to eventually require a response.
Yesterday, there was an article in the NY Times about parent and teen reactions to the “news.” And though the rampant, casual slut-shaming comes as absolutely no surprise, it’s still incredibly disheartening.
High school girls here wondered aloud on Thursday why no one was talking about contraception. Parents across the country, on the other hand, commiserated over the Internet about how, thanks to Ms. Spears, they were facing a conversation with their 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds about sex.
“Nowadays, nothing’s safe, not even cartoons,” Diana Madruga, who has an 11-year-old daughter, said as she wrapped up her shift as the manager of a Dunkin’ Donuts here in the Boston suburbs.
Shopping at American Girl Place, the doll store, in Manhattan, Sharon Carruthers said she had used the news as an opportunity to talk about the dangers of teenage pregnancy with her 10-year-old daughter, Yasmine. “I want my daughter’s mind in the real world,” said Ms. Carruthers, who is from Deptford, N.J. “But this is not what my daughter is going to do in her life. She knows better. She knows right and wrong.”
Yasmine shook her head. “I never expected her, of all people, to do this,” she said, referring to the girl who in her mind is both Zoey and Jamie, the actress who plays her. “She’s supposed to be the good one in the family.”
High school girls who had already had their hearts broken by the all-too-public life of Ms. Spears’s older sister, Britney, known as a hard-partying mother of two, worried that their younger sisters would be devastated by the news — or, worse, that their sisters might think it was “cool” to be 16 and pregnant.
“She’s the idealistic little girl,” Alicia Akusis, 17, said of the television character Zoey between classes at Concord-Carlisle High School here. “She does perfect in school. Boys like her because she’s pretty, but she doesn’t deal with boys. She’s really smart, she’s really cool, she’s an empowering girl character.”
Ms. Akusis said she hoped that her younger sister and stepsister, who are both 11 and love the show, would not find out about Ms. Spears. “I don’t even want to bring it up with them,” she said. “I don’t want them to be disappointed.” It would be like their discovering that Santa Claus was not real, she said.
Ms. Akusis’s friend Mikala Viscariello, 16, was less concerned with shielding the young than with facing the realities of modern life. “There is no excuse for not using contraception,” Ms. Viscariello said.
This, ladies and gents, is what we’re teaching teenage girls. In 2007, we’re still instilling them with ideas about “good girls” and “bad girls.” We’re still telling them that consensual sex is somehow about “right and wrong.” We’re teaching them judgment of other people’s choices and mistakes and an utter lack of compassion. This isn’t a “teenage girls are snarky” problem. Half of these quotes are from parents.
And, you know, I expected the slut-shaming. I briefly allowed myself to hope that our society would stop being such shit for a single moment, wake up and say “wait, this is a 16-year-old girl we’re talking about; we need to back off.” It was a dream, I know. But I think that what pisses me off far more than that dream being over is the implication by both parents and teens that Jamie Lynn Spears has betrayed them.
It’s not just that Spears is a stupid, bad-girl slut, you see. She’s a stupid, bad-girl slut who didn’t even have the decency to think about how people she doesn’t know would feel about her pregnancy! How could she do this to good, white, middle-class families? If she wants to ruin her own life, that’s fine, but please god, won’t somebody think of the children?
And it makes me fucking sick.
There are many things that I hate about our celebrity obsessed culture. The first is that I’m constantly bombarded with information about celebrities. The second is that most people seem to forget that regardless of how many cameras are in their faces, celebrities are people, too. I hate the “you wanted to be famous, so we deserve to know what your underwear looks like or otherwise you’re just ungrateful” attitude. And the third is how disgusted I am about the glee that people feel when something bad happens to celebrities, and the evil heartless mockery that ensues at the expense of their tragedies. Of course, the most obvious example of this phenomenon is that of Jamie Lynn’s far more famous older sister.
Feminists aren’t immune, either. Though Broadsheet blogger Tracey Clark-Flory was just as upset about the Times article as I was, her co-blogger Catherine Price wasn’t so compassionate.
I think someone should seize on the moment and write a sex education book for teenagers and their parents. Titled something like, “Jamie Lynn Is Having Sex … and So Am I!” (or, alternatively, “Jamie Lynn Is Having Sex … and Look What Happened!”), it could be a fun “ice breaker” for parents and their teens. It could contain thought-provoking questions like, “What steps could Jamie Lynn have taken to not get pregnant?” (an excellent entry point into discussions about birth control) and include, as part of its lesson plan, a subscription to Us Weekly so that kids can learn firsthand the impact that pregnancy can have on someone’s life — not just on their plans for the future, but on how they look in a bathing suit. (CNN has already picked up on this basic idea, with a comment board titled “How do you talk to kids about Britney’s sister?”)
I don’t mean to make fun of Jamie Lynn personally — Lord knows she already has a lot to deal with — but I do think her announcement of pregnancy comes at a sensitive time, when Americans are trying to figure out what we should do about the fact that, like it or not, many teens are sexually active.
I agree that Spears has enough to deal with right now — and again, she’s 16 — so we really shouldn’t make fun at her expense. So why don’t we, you know, actually not make fun at her expense.
Even sadder, though, is that Price’s flippant suggestions really aren’t so far off the mark. Two days ago, USA Today published an article titled “Spears’ pregnancy is an opportunity for parents: Don’t panic, just talk to your kids”.
“Parents shouldn’t panic at this kind of news, but they should seize the opportunity,” says psychologist David Walsh of Minneapolis, founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family. [. . .]
This is an age group that is tremendously impressionable,” says Thomas Cottle, a psychologist and sociologist at Boston University. “Pop culture figures have an inordinate amount of power in some people’s minds. It’s very clear she has no significance in the shaping of life for a lot of young women and men, and in others, she probably does.”
Psychologist Michael Bradley of suburban Philadelphia is a teen expert and says these tweens are in the process of defining their identity, which involves values, codes of behavior and philosophies of life.
“That’s why parents have to engage the culture,” he says. “There’s an amazing number of kids today who do not know what the values and beliefs of their parents are.”
Bradley says the influence of the media is also stronger with this age group. “These are very impressionable minds, and the culture comes after kids today in ways it never did before.”
Walsh says Spears’ pregnancy is another reminder that parents should pay attention to the media that kids consume. “When a high-profile, popular role model gets pregnant like that, what it does for kids is it starts to normalize it.”
Sigh. You know . . . of course, if your kids mention Jamie Lynn’s pregnancy, talk to them. Answer their questions, don’t ignore it.
But you know what? Other people — even rich, famous, good-looking white people — aren’t your personal teaching tools. A 16-year-old girl becoming pregnant very publicly and announcing her plans to carry her pregnancy to term and raise the child is not your very own little opportunity.
The words “When a high-profile, popular role model gets pregnant like that,” just boil my blood. Like “that?” And fuck all of this “role model” shit. Signing up to be a TV star is not the same as signing up to be a role model. It never has been, but people seem to be too fucking dense to get that. If we’re talking about an adult who acts on Sesame Street, well okay then. But we’re talking about someone who is supposed to be a role model for kids when she is only a kid herself. Maybe, people, if we weren’t teaching kids to emulate celebrities, you wouldn’t be in this situation with your teens right now.
But you know what, I take it back. This actually is a great opportunity to teach your kids a lot of things. Let’s list them.
Now would be a good time to teach your kids that sometimes, people make mistakes. And when they do, it’s not our job to judge them for it, because next time it just might be you. It’s a good time to teach your kids that how you treat other people is a reflection of your own character, and that to relish in the problems of others is a very bad thing. It’s a time to tell your daughters “sex is a responsibility, but it’s a wonderful, enjoyable thing — don’t you ever let anyone tell you that sex makes you dirty or unworthy.” It’s a time to break the good girl/bad girl myth. It’s a time to level with them and explain that the world is going to send them a lot of fucked up messages about sexuality. It’s a time to teach them about the importance of women having reproductive choices, and our responsibility to accept and support those choices.
It’s time to read the news with her, and point out that no one is uttering a single fucking peep about how parents should talk to their sons about pregnancy and about how sex with ruin them for life. It’s time to finally break down and say “I wish that it wasn’t so, dear, but this world is against you. You deserve to live with respect and dignity, to not be treated as a commodity that can be bought, sold and ruined. And you are going to have to be willing to stand up and fight for that right.”
Mocking and bemoaning Jamie Lynn Spears is not standing up and fighting.