16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom: MTV’s groundbreaking reality programs

teen mom 2In the United States, approximately 1/3 of all teenage girls will get pregnant. This is the highest teen pregnancy rate among developed countries—and the teen pregnancy rate in the US is rising. While these sobering facts are not recent news, something of late has made teenage pregnancy story-worthy in popular culture: it seems that movies and television shows featuring expecting teens are now everywhere.

In 2007, the Oscar-nominated movie Juno was both a critical sensation and a highly scrutinized film. That same year, then 16-year-old tween celebrity Jamie Lynn Spears announced her pregnancy, initiating concerns from parent groups that teenage pregnancy was being glorified by celebrity culture and the media. More recently, television shows such asSecret Life of the American Teenager have attempted to “de-Juno-fy” the issue of teenage pregnancy by reminding audiences that pregnancy has consequences and you can’t simply find adoptive parents in The Penny Saver. But no series can effectively address the issue of teen pregnancy because it is not real (shocking, I know). In fact, no programs have had more impact in addressing teenage pregnancy than the MTV documentary series,16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, which both premiered in 2009.

It is hard to imagine that MTV, the network best known for hot-tub loving twenty-somethings living in the “real world,” bisexual dating games, and the ridiculous antics of guidos and guidettes at the Jersey Shore, is also the home of pregnant teenagers and teenage mothers struggling to get by. Yet these two shows are some of the network’s most watched new programming; Teen Mom had the highest rated premiere episode for the network in over a year.

The first season of 16 and Pregnant follows six girls, ranging from ages 16 to 18, from different socio-economic backgrounds and with different family situations, all expecting. The cameras follow them during the last months of their pregnancy, through labor and delivery, and through their child’s first months. Each girl has big dreams for their futures and how having a baby will affect their goals. But most quickly learn the harsh reality of having a child at 16. In the episode that follows 16-year-old Whitney, she talks about dropping out of high school and being too embarassed to leave her house to take a GED class. Her boyfriend loses his minimum-wage job, her family’s home is sold by the landlord and her baby is born with a chronic liver disease. Whitney’s story is not unique. Each episode features family arguments, out-of-work fathers, completely absent fathers and girls coming to terms with motherhood. Every episode ends with the girl commenting in a video diary about her experience as a teen mother. Most often they admit they aren’t mature enough for the responsibility.

Teen Mom follows four of these same six girls through their first year of motherhood. Their relationships crumble under the pressure of parenthood as they struggle to find jobs and complete their educations. Even Catelynn, a high school senior who gave her daughter up for adoption and does not face the daily trials of teenage parenthood, struggles with her decision every day. Granted, these shows are edited to tell complex stories in under an hour, but it is abundantly clear that these shows do not sugarcoat anything.

Yet 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, as with any documentary-reality series, teeter on the edge of educational and entertainment. It is easy to sit back and judge these girls for the decisions they make, especially if you have never been there yourself. As with any reality show, we watch because we are taken aback by the very fact that these people and these stories exist. But what do these shows say to an actual teen audience?

The second season of 16 and Pregnant premiered on Tuesday, Feb. 16 and MTV has already announced plans for a third season. The more girls featured on 16 and Pregnant (in season two there will be ten girls featured) and then Teen Mom, the more concerns need to be raised about these shows. Will 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom follow the trend, and like Juno, Jamie Lynn Spears and Bristol Palin, trivialize teen pregnancy?

For now, I don’t know the answer, but I am still tuning in each week.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
February 18, 2010

Reprinted with permission

What is between the frames: A weekend of experimental cinema

If you have ever walked through the East Village in New York City, you probably have never noticed the Anthology Film Archives. It is located in an indistinguishable brick building without a bright flashing marquee. In fact, you would probably recognize this building as the exterior for Doc Ock’s laboratory in Spider Man 2, before you ever knew of the significance the Archives have had in the history of avant-garde and experimental cinema.

The Anthology Film Archives has been the cornerstone of experimental cinema since it was founded in 1970 by Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, P. Adams Sitney and Peter Kubelka. It is dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of experimental cinema. It was at the Archives where I found myself on Nov. 6 and 7 for a series of four screenings, sponsored by Mount Holyoke.

The event, entitled “Origins, Influences, & Interests: Four Women Filmmakers,” brought together four female experimental filmmakers who came of age during the 1970s and early 1980s:Peggy Ahwesh, Ericka Breckman, Abigail Child and Su Friedrich. Robin Blaetz, Associate Professor of Film Studies, asked the filmmakers to curate a program that featured work that influenced and intrigued them. What resulted was over six hours of films that represented every end of the avant-garde spectrum.

The first night of screenings began with the work and influences of Abigail Child in a program entitled “Beyond Gendered Sound: Noise Film, Scratch Video, and the New Psychedelic Acid House Vulnerability”. This 95 minute program emphasized how sound and image work together to create a sort of filmic poetry. This screening featured works from the last decade, highlighting how new media is changing filmmaking. Su Friedrich used her screening to show the works of filmmakers who have influenced her: Majorie Kellor, Leslie Thornton and Joyce Wieland. Friedrich also discussed her transition from film to digital filmmaking. Stating that she was “over it” already, she called video a lesser medium, but said because “this is what I’m doing, I have to do it.”

Ericka Beckman’s screening, “Performing the Image”, showcased performance art and conceptual imagery. Peggy Ahwesh, besides her 1993 film The Scary Movie and 1910 print of The Wizard of Oz, selected films from no earlier than 2008. These works, often by her students at Bard College, showcased the work of younger female experimental filmmakers who have been inspired by Child, Friedrich and Ahwesh.

Each screening addressed a common theme:how these filmmakers went against the establishment of avant-garde filmmaking in the late 70s and 80s. Their work was criticized by both feminist critics for being too “male-like,” and by male critics for having too much gendered content. Leslie Thornton, who was present at the screenings,said that because their work dealt with emotional life, “we didn’t fit into the establishment of our field because we were dealing with things so charged.” Yet despite these criticisms, what has resulted are the works of four unique female experimental filmmakers whose work is influencing a new generation of female filmmakers.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
November 12, 2009

Up Close And Personal With Harry Potter’s Magic Wand

Harry Potter: The Exhibition

There are moments when we just have to embrace our inner geek. Considering that this is Mount Holyoke, where many of us have quirks and hang ups about the strangest things, this is something not unusual. I had one of those moments when my inner film nerd came out in full force this weekend. There I was, standing in front of the Mecca of all film set props: Harry Potter’s magic wand…and broom…and everything else from the Harry Potter movies you can imagine.

Harry Potter™: The Exhibition is a new exhibit that opened at Boston’s Museum of Science on Oct. 25. Here more than 200 props, costumes and creatures from the six Harry Potter movies are on display, transporting fans into the wizarding world. The props are displayed in settings inspired by the film sets: Hagrid’s hut, the Dark Forest, the Great Hall and many more.

The exhibit begins with a sorting. Several lucky members from the tour group are chosen from the crowd (I suggest you jump like a maniac in the back row, like my friend Ruth did, if you want to be selected), are placed under the sorting hat and learn their Hogwarts house. From there you enter into a screening room where clips from the films are shown, setting the mood for the experience you are about to have.

Once the doors open, you are led past the Hogwarts Express and down a corridor filled with magical paintings. You walk through the Fat Lady’s portrait and into the Gryffindor common room. Now the real adventure has begun. As you stroll past endless props and costumes, you are transported into Harry Potter’s world. There is Harry’s admission letter to Hogwarts from Sorcerer’s Stone; the Basilisk from Chamber of Secrets; the Time Turner and Marauder’s Map from Prisoner of Azkaban; Hermione’s Yule Bal gown and Triwizard Cup from Goblet of Fire, Dolores Umbridge’s office from Order of Phoenix; and the potions book from Half-Blood Prince.

These props and costumes are a part of elaborate film set recreations. Everything from Ron Weasley’s dorm room to the Divination classroom to the Great Hall have been splendidly recreated. Throughout the exhibit, you can participate in essential wizarding world activities toss a Quaffle, pull a screeching Mandrake and sit in Hagrid’s chair. All that is missing is the chance to ride Buckbeak the Hippogriff or duel a Hungarian Horntail dragon.

While at Harry Potter: The Exhibition, I was reminded of the significance that Harry Potter has had in my life. They certainly are not the first books I remember reading as a child, but are among my childhood favorites. This exhibition is a wonderful reminder of why I love the Harry Potter films. Most of all, it is a reminder of how Harry Potter has affected not only my life but will influence a whole new generation of fans. Throughout the exhibit, I kept stumbling over a little boy who was no more than 10 years old dressed like Harry Potter. While his costume was not as elaborate as the couple dressed as Dumbledore and Trelawney (it was Harry Potter), this little boy perfectly encompasses what the Harry Potter franchise truly represents. J.K. Rowling created a world that offers the perfect escape from reality, and there is no doubt it will continue to influence and delight in the years to come.

The flying car from the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter: The Exhibition will be on display at Boston’s Museum of Science until February 12, 2010.

Published: November 5, 2009
The Mount Holyoke News

Life After Death: How Celebrities Linger On In Public Memory

When artists, musicians, actors and celebrities die, they leave behind something that has been imprinted in our memory: an image, a song, a film, a book, a sensation. Yet what fascinates me is how the death of a celebrity, when it is most unexpected, becomes the center of our universe. Take Michael Jackson’s death, for instance-here a ruined musician who went from being completely loathed by society in life to becoming a beloved icon adored by all in death. Let’s be honest-the reaction to and coverage of Michael Jackson’s death was one of the most sickening occurrences of this decade. Never before had we seen the power and frightening reality of the media-obsessed culture we currently live in.

But what happens to a musician, who was largely unheard of in the United States, who died under bizarre and horrifically tragic circumstances, and who was just beginning her career? How will she remembered by the media?

Taylor Mitchell was a Canadian folk singer who I bet practically no one on this campus had heard of until her death. I didn’t either until I read a headline that I believed was a joke: “Taylor Mitchell, singer, killed by coyotes.” Mitchell was hiking in a Canadian national park when she was attacked and killed on Oct. 27. Had Mitchell just been an average person, her death surely would have been reported on; it is only the second human-killed by coyote case in North America.

Taylor Mitchell

Her death is most striking because Mitchell was only 19. Now her life, and brief career, will have a new, far more significant meaning. She will, undoubtedly, in death have a greater influence than she ever did in life.

Like most people, I sought out her music on her MySpace page. What I found were seven promising tracks of a singer, who had she had been given the time, certainly would have made a mark in the US. Songs such as “Don’t Know how I got here,” “For Your Consideration” and “Fun While It Lasted” not only speak her talent but, when heard in the context of her death, they have a chilling and eerie foreshadowing effect.

What has occurred following her death are remembrance posts on MySpace, tribute videos on YouTube, trending topics on Twitter, memorial groups on Facebook-which are all very banal and very impersonal. They focus on the way she died, not necessarily on her life. Even more disturbing is how these tribute videos, for instance, often include images of coyotes spliced together with images of Mitchell. We, as a collective society, trivialize celebrity deaths for the sake of entertainment. Should we expect anything less when we are given so many outlets to make light of the phenomenon of celebrity?

How we address the deaths of celebrities shows how we are unable to deal with the reality of death, something that is so final and conclusive. We can easily trivialize the death of someone like Michael Jackson because we know too much about his life. But what happens to someone like Mitchell and her legacy-of what little there is-is a clinging to the idea that there is life, through memory and in her case music, after death. Taylor Mitchell’s life will most likely be that of something similar to James Dean. She is someone who did so little in life, but left us with just enough to immortalize her in a way that assures us of the longevity of being.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
November 5, 2009
Reprinted with permission

Watching Bollywood: The plight of one overly neurotic filmgoer

No place is more comfortable or more eerie than a dark movie theater just as the previews are about to begin. Chances are you have sat in a theater waiting to enjoy a movie before but once the lights go off you are transported to a different reality all while being surrounded by complete strangers. Perhaps I am being neurotic but the thought of experiencing any sort of emotion—and you experience countless emotions during movies—in the presence of strangers is utterly frightening. The room might be dark but someone is always watching.

Clearly I have read too much film theory if, rather than seeking pure enjoyment from the cinema, these are the thoughts that wander through my mind during a screening. Needless to say, it is hard for me to leave my neurotic theories on spectatorship at the door and just watch a movie.

While most people enjoy company while at the movies, I prefer going by myself and completely isolating myself from the main audience. Rather than be in the center row and in close proximity to anyone else in the theater, I prefer the very back, right corner. Believe me—no one wants to sit there. Of course, this makes watching any film especially difficult and makes me seem pretty ridiculous, but it is a practice I have perfected.

My somewhat—okay very—bizarre screening tendencies were challenged this summer when I attended the Cannes Film Festival, where placing one very neurotic filmgoer in a 2000 seat theater could lead to serious ramifications. All of the sudden I had to sit next to strangers who applauded for everything: the film festival logo, the opening credits, the lead actress’ name, the closing credits, the music played during the closing credits. (Unless this person was a French film critic; I’m convinced that they don’t know how to express emotion during a movie.) I learned to embrace the novelty of the situation – how many times would I be surrounded by people who applauded a single frame of L’Avventura? Still it is amazing that I didn’t suffer endless panic attacks while at Cannes.

Knowing this, the last movie anyone should expect me to willingly attend is a Bollywood film. There is no other national cinema depends more on audience interaction than Bollywood. So attending a screening Om Shanti Om at Amherst Cinema on Sunday, I was faced with my worst nightmare—audience participation. The girl sitting next to me clearly loved Om Shanti Om; she sang along with every single song and yelped with glee whenever Shahrukh Khan appeared on screen. Considering that Khan is singing in practically every scene, this happened frequently.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p92YbtfeI58]

The sight of one girl raising her arms in complete exuberance by the mere presence of Ambitabh Bachan probably strikes a western audience as odd (we certainly don’t greet cameo appearances by Dustin Hoffman that way). Yet that is what makes Bollywood cinema absolutely fabulous. These films are meant to elicit a certain response from the audience, one that depends on elaborate stylistic norms, song and dance sequences and star personas to create pure joy and excitement. Because, I suspect, many people attending the screening of Om Shanti Om had never been to a Bollywood film or at least to a public screening of the film, this was lost to them.

Om Shanti Om was hardly my first Bollywood experience. I’ve just quite conscientiously avoided the whole attending a public screening aspect until now. Yet what will keep me, an incredibly cynical and neurotic filmgoer, coming back for more is knowing that films such as Om Shanti Om are meant to be enjoyed. If anything, Bollywood cinema has reminded me something I forgot once I became so academically engrossed with film—how to have fun while watching a movie.

Oh who am I kidding. I’ll always be that neurotic girl in the back of the movie theater.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
October 22, 2009