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ABC Family’s Secret (Sex) Life



Monday, June 22, saw the second-season premiere of the Disney-owned ABC Family channel’s hit program, The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Debuting in July 2007 (and then taking a long hiatus from September to January 2008), the series became the most-watched program in the history of the ABC Family network, routinely drawing over three million viewers per episode and winning a Teen Choice Award in its first season. The program originally seemed to promise a sensitive and nuanced treatment of the subject of teenage sexuality. Unfortunately, by the end of the first season Secret Life fell far short of its promise and became a source of concern to many parents – a concern confirmed by Monday night’s return episode.


Originally, viewers had good reason to presume that Secret Life would be a quality and unproblematic presentation for parents and children alike. The show’s creator, Brenda Hampton, was the moving force behind the long-running program 7th Heaven. Focused on the family life of a Christian minister, 7th Heaven was a family-friendly hit, running for 11 years and becoming one the most-watched programs on the WB network. On that program, Hampton demonstrated knowledge of and sensitivity to the concerns and interests of traditional families; as a result, it was reasonable to suppose that Hampton’s approach to the sensitive topics of teenage sex and pregnancy on Secret Life would be handled with similar insight.  Secret Life also premiered a year after the popular success of the film Juno, which dealt respectfully with the plight of a pregnant teen. And the fact that the new series would debut on a network owned by Disney – one, furthermore, called a “family” channel – seemed the final guarantee that the program would deal with the subject matter in a responsible and tasteful manner. Thus parents could be excused for thinking the program would be appropriate for family viewing.


ABC Family Vice-President Kate Juergens said, "We're not sugar-coating teenage pregnancy, but dealing with the very real consequences of it." But in fact, less attention in the series was devoted to the “very real consequences” of teen pregnancy than was given to endless, obsessive conversations about sex by the show’s characters.


To be fair, Secret Life‘s treatment of its lead character, pregnant teen Amy Juergens, is both responsible and realistic. Amy is shaken by the life-altering consequences of her only sexual experience, and genuinely struggles with the decisions surrounding her pregnancy. The show also handled the issue of child sexual abuse with sensitivity; Ricky, the promiscuous father of Amy’s child, is revealed to have been molested by his father. While struggling with his own issues, Ricky still wants to take responsibility for his actions and help Amy. Amy’s boyfriend Ben is also given a positive portrayal. While his utter lack of jealousy at seeing his girlfriend pregnant by another boy is less than realistic, Ben’s determination to stand by Amy, love her despite her mistake, and help in raising her child is admirable.


Unfortunately, the series’ portrayal of its ancillary characters strays far from the serious and touching portrayal given its leads.


Take the show’s character Grace. A Christian girl committed to maintaining her chastity until marriage, Grace is apparently intended as a representative of traditional values. Yet for “comic” effect she emerges as a wacky ditz.

On learning that Ricky, to whom she is attracted, is continuing to have sex with her friend Adrian, Grace expresses a totally irrational sentiment: "I want to be married to Ricky…Ricky has to have somebody to have sex with right now and that can't be me. Even if he's thinking about me while he's having sex with you." So Grace (commendably) will not have sex with Ricky herself, but in spite of wanting to marry him, is content to see her friend having sex with him. In a subsequent episode, Grace tries to persuade Adrian to “become a virgin again.” “You could be my new virgin friend!” Grace squeals.  “Watch how much guys are attracted to the idea of having sex with a virgin!”


Yet, in total contradiction to her attitudes of last season, in Monday night’s season premiere Grace completely abandons her life-long and deeply-held religious convictions in order to have sex with yet another boy, Jack. She tells her friend Adrian: "I can no longer wait, because I need sex. I want sex. I feel like having sex! And you know what, Adrian? Those feelings come from love. And God is love. And I feel sure that God is ok with me making love to Jack!"


In the aftermath of their first sexual encounter, Jack asks Grace how she feels about what they have done. Grace proclaims, "I feel stronger than I ever have. I feel satisfied. I feel no shame!...I love you. I love SEX!"


Directly following this scene Grace’s mother enters the house, sobbing. Encountering Jack (who, unrealistically, immediately informs the mother of the girl he has just slept with, “We just had sex!”), Grace’s mother tells them that Grace’s father has just died in a plane crash. Grace’s Down’s Syndrome brother Tom (who last season “comically” hired a prostitute) tells Grace, "You killed him!" – the implication being that, by abandoning her commitment to abstinence, Grace caused her father’s death. ABC Family furthered this line of thinking with a poll on its Secret Life website, asking visitors, “Is Grace responsible for her dad’s death?”

This is a realistic portrayal of a Christian teenager? Over the course of the series, the character of Grace emerges as a vicious caricature of Christian youth.


But Grace is far from the only negative character on Secret Life.  Sadly, the show felt it necessary to indulge (and reinforce) the stereotype of the Latina as a sexual temptress with a “fiery” temperament – as witness the character of Adrian. Referred to by other characters as the “school slut,” Adrian invariably wears titillating, cleavage-baring clothing and thinks about nothing but sex…with as many boys as possible. She also delights in humiliating her friend Grace by having sex with Jack (“Jack really liked it. You know that? And he would never be happy with you after being with me”); then having sex with Grace’s new love interest Ricky (“You are so naïve if you thought Ricky was never going to sleep with me again…Nothing can ruin sex with Ricky for me!”) When Grace begs Adrian, “Stop having sex with every guy I go out with!” Adrian’s callous response to her friend is, “Stop going out with guys I’m having sex with.”  Adrian also loudly berates Ricky for being concerned about the child he has fathered, and her own father for telling her not to have sex with her own brother.


Yes, you read that right. Apparently, ABC Family believes that incest is just another part of “the secret life of the American teenager.” True, Adrian’s crush is on her step-brother Max, and the two are not related by blood. But Max himself considers Adrian his sister; and, in truly cringe-inducing dialogue, Adrian repeatedly refers to Max as her brother. Not “step-brother,” not “my father’s stepson,” but her full-on brother. And what is truly jaw-dropping about this situation is the way in which Adrian tells everyone about her desire to have sex with her brother – and nobody on the show reacts as though this is in any way improper or even unusual. On the February 9th episode, Adrian marches into the school’s counseling office and blurts out, “I’m thinking about having sex with my brother.” The counselor walks out without saying a word. On the February 23rd episode, Adrian asks Grace to loan her a sweater: “I’m trying to get my brother to have sex with me, and I thought I’d have a better shot if I looked more innocent.” Good Christian girl Grace doesn’t bat an eye. Finally, on the March 9th episode, Adrian does have sex with Max in her bedroom – while all her friends are gathered in her living room for Amy’s baby shower. Is the network trying to make incest sound like the next “cool” trend among teenagers?


And so Secret Life continues with its many other characters – Ben and his friend Henry, who indulge in long conversations about masturbation; Alice, a wonkish virgin who nevertheless always has the latest statistics about sex on the tip of her tongue; Amy’s parents, who split up after her father’s affair yet have wild, spectacular sex with one another in a garage (and, in the new season’s premiere, Amy’s mother learning that she too is pregnant outside marriage – by her own boss – while she was simultaneously sleeping with her not-yet-divorced husband); Grace’s parents discussing their own past affairs – in front of Grace; and so on and on and on.


Thus, a program which at its core began as a genuine exploration of the difficulties and issues surrounding teen pregnancy has devolved into a messy mélange of mixed messages aimed directly at its teenage audience. And to watchers of any age, the worldview of The Secret Life of the American Teenager is quite simply this: nothing is more important than sex. Everyone, everywhere, is constantly and thoroughly obsessed with sex; and relationships between couples, friends, and even siblings, of the opposite sex, are simply impossible without it. This is a sorry message to convey to anyone – but especially so to teenagers, who are struggling with their own questions of sexual identity.


This column has previously expressed misgivings about the content and attitude of the ABC Family network. Indeed, with its tagline of “A New Kind of Family,” the Disney-owned network seems bent on redefining the word “family” altogether – as may be seen by the network’s lineup. From the drunken, sex-crazed fraternity and sorority members of Greek, to the “crushes, hookups, and other embarrassments” of five unrelated Roommates, to Sophie‘s mix of single motherhood (the result of a one-night stand), a fiancé who runs off with Sophie’s best friend, and a relationship with her dead father’s mistress, Disney seems determined to reject the traditional in deference to it’s self-proclaimed “New Kind of Family.”


To this list, add The Secret Life of the American Teenager. While the program’s alleged aims of depicting the real-life difficulties of teen motherhood and helping parents communicate with teens about sex are noble ones, the show’s execution – featuring as it does incestuous step-siblings, mockingly ludicrous portrayals of chaste teens, and all the rest – belies such lofty goals.  Though Secret Life frequently takes swipes at the CW’s teen sex show Gossip Girl, in the end there is little difference between the two programs. Both indulge in the same devotion to showing teens and adults endlessly obsessed with and involved in sex; but instead of Gossip Girl‘s glossy soap opera veneer, Secret Life substitutes ridiculously over-the-top plots and characters -- while pretending to treat the same themes “responsibly.” Whatever Hampton’s and Disney’s supposed intentions, The Secret Life of the American Teenager ultimately emerges as an oversexed and cartoonish caricature of real life. From Walt Disney’s corporate heirs and the creator of 7th Heaven, today’s teens deserve better.


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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