Subjects of capacity? Reality TV and young women

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In 2009, the US MTV cable network launched the reality series 16 and Pregnant as a “public education partnership” with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization. The spino?, Teen Mom, was launched later the same year with a similar mission of deterring early childbearing. Combining the conventions of observational documentary and teen soap opera, and adding confessionals and graphics to the mix, both productions generated high ratings (and enormous profits), even as they were also framed by public service announcements, therapeutic after-shows, study guides, and interactive websites emphasizing their purpose as “teachable moments” and “cautionary tales.” As multiple seasons and sequels with new casts appeared, the “real-life” experiences of pregnant teenagers and young mothers became a staple theme of MTV programming, providing the raw material to encourage responsible sexual practices and life planning. This chapter critically analyzes the partnership to educate the MTV audience as a means to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy in the United States. My aim is not to dismiss the progressive possibilities of the initiative, but rather to situate it within institutional efforts to shape, reform, and “govern” television audiences and to unpack the political rationalities, gender dynamics, and contradictions involved in this mission. By treating teenage pregnancy as a problem to be solved by teaching young female television viewers to conduct themselves as “subjects of capacity” (McRobbie 2007), MTV and its partners downplay broader societal factors such as access to reproductive healthcare and conservative assaults on legal abortion and school-based sex education programs. However well intended, enlisting reality television as a tool of family planning also further intensifies the self-regulation of femininity in postfeminist neoliberal societies (McRobbie 2007, 2008). The campaign to discourage women from bearing children until they are self-sufficient and “responsible” goes hand in hand with the downsizing of federal welfare programs intended to assist low-income women and children in the United States since the 1990s and conveys the message that policies created to protect the rights of pregnant teenagers to public education and social services are no longer needed. MTV and its nonprofit partners define the appropriate choices and life trajectories for all women in middleclass terms that value delayed parenthood (Solinger 2000 [1992], 2001), and put the onus for achieving this version of female success on individuals conceived as the managers of their own fates and fortunes (Rose 1996) regardless of class, race, and ethnic differences. In this way, 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom discourage collective action of any kind, including feminist organizing for social change. To understand the power dynamics of reality programs like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, a brief discussion of television audiences and the shifting concept of public service will be helpful. Toward that end, the following section situates MTV’s partnership with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy within a broader history of efforts to guide, shape, and govern audiences, from the classic age of public service broadcasting to the fusion of commercial logic and citizenship training. I show how US reality television in particular has been stitched into dispersed campaigns to “empower” self-sufficient and responsible citizens, setting the stage for more analysis of “teachable moments” aimed specifically at young women and girls.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Media & Gender
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781135076955
ISBN (Print)9780415527699
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 Cynthia Carter, Linda Steiner and Lisa McLaughlin for selection and editorial matter; individual contributions the contributors.


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