Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Underage and Pregnant

NO I'M NOT PREGNANT. Sheesh, people. Calm down. I'm also not underage. I wish!

I'm referring to a TV show here on BBC3 that I'm slightly obsessed with. Probably the more accurate description is that I have a grotesque fascination with it. The show is part of The Adult Season, a collection of shows that aims to portray what life is like for today's British teens. Unfortunately, instead of illuminating the overall reality of the vast majority of teens in the UK, the shows cast lurid spotlights on some of the most depressing teenage stories, and as a result pull back the curtain on the grimmest aspects of British culture.

The titles alone – "Young, Dumb, and Living off Mum" and "Nip and Tuck: My Big Decision" are two of the worst – set the tone for the series. Rather than presenting the challenges that most kids find as they enter adulthood in an increasingly digital and globalized world, the BBC chose to report on today's youth in a trashy gossip mag-style journalistic voice. These shows belong on E! rather than the BBC; juxtapose "Underage and Pregnant" with something revelatory by David Attenborough, and the teens lose out. No wonder they're relegated to BBC3.

I'm not defending the pregnant teens or the kids who drop out of school before their GCSE's; it's a sad fact that the UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Western Europe, and that the teenage pregnancy rates continue to rise. Strong class divisions continue to striate the UK, and the middle classes and above look down on anyone who doesn't have the means to push their children out of poverty. Unlike Americans, who count striving as an essential part of our DNA, the British tend to be satisfied with their lots in life. You don't see or hear a lot of these kids saying "I want to do better than my parents."

Interestingly, you don't see these parents saying they want their kids to do better - period. The underage girls who "fall pregnant" act as if it is life as usual, like they almost expected to get pregnant young. Abortion doesn't seem to be an option, and if it is the decision to have the child is never discussed. Parents express fear that their daughters won't have the lives they hoped they would, and the parents wish their daughters had made better choices, but these teen pregnancies don't seem as devastating to everyone involved as teen pregnancies did to me growing up in the US.

Watching these kids' lives on display during the Adult Season is like watching a car wreck. You can't peel your eyes away but you don't actually want to watch. That may be the fundamental schism between the US and the UK: in the US, we like to sweep the nation's dirty secrets under the rugs; here, people like to revel in lives of those below them on the social strata so they can pride themselves on not being like them. One gets the distinct sense that the Adult Season is meant for middle class parents to watch with their middle class kids, and pat themselves on their backs in pride at having avoided raising delinquents. Sort of like a retrospective cautionary tale: it could have turned out so much worse.

But what of these poor kids? After the lights of the production crew are turned off, and the BBC reporters leave them alone with their newborns and their plastic surgery scars, who is going to help them? Who is going to parent them? Goodness knows Mother England doesn't want to, and sadly it seems as if their own families aren't responsible either. In the end, the Adult Season is less education and more sad commentary on how, even in this digital 21st century, life in the UK can be so archaic for those unfortunate enough to be born in the wrong place and class.

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