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Daddy never loved me: a review of ‘The Secret Life of the American Teenager’ May 18, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews.
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One of the reasons it’s so easy to watch soap operas is that their characters are undemanding. Instead of being three-dimensional human beings, they are, like modern-day morality-play characters, symbolic personifications of various stereotypes : Innocence Betrayed, Bad Boy From The Wrong Side Of The Tracks, Crazy Christian, Naive Nerd. These kind of stock figures are much easier for writers to move around, acting out whatever lesson in morality they feel the audience needs each week. Come for the drama, stay for the heavy-handed moralising.

In a show framed around the pregnancy of a 15-year-old girl, you can be sure that there will be plenty of moralising, and the Secret Life writers do not disappoint. And although the show’s cringe-worthy anti-abortion message (why is it that American television shows and movies cannot seem to admit that the majority of non-religious middle-class teenage mothers are more likely to choose to have an abortion?) is as heavy-handed as it is inevitable, the writers have managed to explore a couple of interesting themes in between all the angst and woe.

In the olden days, the parents in teenage soap-operas were non-existent. If you were over 30, you had no impact on the lives of the main characters, as if juvenile delinquents and spoiled prom queens sprung, fully-formed, from the cabbage patch. Sometime around The O.C., that changed. Suddenly soap-opera parents were getting their own screentime, as writers realised that the lives of people over 30 actually had some drama, and, more importantly, that parents actually have a tremendous impact on their children’s lives.

Secret Life taps into a rich vein of social commentary that has sprung up in the 40 years since women entered the workforce: if women’s role in the workplace has changed, how should men’s role in the home change. Or, to put it another way, if women are able to do everything, what is there left for men to do? The past 40 years have shown that while women’s roles have changed tremendously, society – and men – have not, as a whole, made any corresponding changes. Despite the fact that the majority of families are two-income, everything in Anglo-Saxon Western societies is still set up according to 1950s standards: men go out to work, women stay in the domestic sphere, and this has had appalling consequences as far as how men relate to their children.

Secret Life picks up this theme and runs with it, arguing, in a rather clunky fashion, that bad fathers cause a range of problems. Every single main character has a bad father. Let’s sum up:

George Juergens, the father of pregnant 15-year-old Amy, is emotionally distant. He has habitually cheated on his wife, his work is his life, and when he is at home, interacting with his family, he flounders cluelessly, seemingly incapable of understanding his two daughters. (Some scenes with the Juergens family hit way too close to home, but that is a post for my Livejournal blog.)

Bob Underwood, the father of Ricky (the father of Amy’s baby), is a drug-addict who sexually abused his son. It’s implied that Ricky’s promiscuity and inability to respect girls is a reaction to his abuse as a child.

Adrian Lee, Ricky’s ‘friend-with-benefits’, is the daughter of a single mother, and the series manages to imply that Adrian’s promiscuity would’ve been curtailed if she’d had a father-figure living in the house with her. (I, for one, was appalled when Adrian’s birth-father appeared on the scene and took her into his custody. This was a guy who’d had nothing to do with her for 16 years, and yet none of the other authority figures seem to raise an eyebrow.)

Grace Bowman is the daughter of a hypocritical Christian doctor, whose dogmatic obsession with his daughter’s abstinence (he makes her wear a promise ring) makes it very difficult for her to have romantic relationships. Grace’s footballer boyfriend Jack’s stepfather (a Protestant minister) cynically pushes Jack into a relationship with Grace so that her wealthy doctor father will donate to the church.

Even Amy’s sweet-natured boyfriend Ben Boykewich’s father has his flaws. What sort of naive person would push his 15-year-old son into marrying his 15-year-old pregnant (by another guy) girlfriend and think it a good thing?

The fathers on Secret Life are uniformly useless when it comes to relating to their teenage children. The show’s writers seem to be suggesting that if fathers took a more active role in their children’s upbringings, teenage pregnancy wouldn’t exist. If Daddy loved you more, you wouldn’t go searching for love with callous teenage boys, apparently. This skirts neatly around the real issue in America, which is the lack of harm-minimisation in sex education. Teach people about contraception, and half your problems would disappear. It’s not exactly rocket science. While I’d love it if fathers were better equipped to relate to their teenage daughters (and sons), it’s appallingly irresponsible to suggest that absent fathers cause teenage sex. Especially considering the show’s popularity among teenage girls.

Amy (Shailene Woodley) and Ashley (India Eisley)

Amy (Shailene Woodley) and Ashley (India Eisley)

That’s not to say that it’s all bad. I find the relationship between Amy and her deadpan, monotone-voiced younger sister Ashley absolutely beautiful. The scene where Ashley asks Amy if she’s pregnant made me burst into tears. As the scene progresses, the previously uncaring Ashley’s expression changes from one of scathing unconcern to shock to a empathetic, horrified compassion at her sister’s predicament. In those few seconds, she’s grown up. The fierceness with which the two sisters love and defend one another reminds me of my sister and myself, and it is beautiful to see such a realistic sibling relationship on screen. We’re not all fighting like cats and dogs, you know. Some of us actually love one another and would defend one another to the death. There’s something about sharing parents that makes you close.

Amy (Shailene Woodley), Ashley (India Eisley) and Anne (Molly Ringwald)

Amy (Shailene Woodley), Ashley (India Eisley) and Anne (Molly Ringwald)

Although I was initially very angry at Amy’s mother Anne’s obliviousness to her daughter’s predicament (what mother wouldn’t notice her daughter was pregnant for four months?) Anne redeemed herself admirably when she finally heard the news. It probably says more about me and my upbringing than about the show, but seeing Amy, Ashley and Anne sitting around the table vowing to look after one another in all their various trials was extremely satisfying.

I’m halfway through the series, and ultimately it’s just a bit of popcorn television with a bit of trendy, topical (‘Hey, it was in Juno! Let’s tap into the cultural zeitgeist!’) social commentary. I’m reading all this stuff into it because I am incapable of just reading or just watching something. I have to work out what it all means. It’s very difficult for me to look at things independently of the culture that produced them, even if they are simply a high-drama teen soap opera. They have to matter, somehow.

Ben (Kenny Baumann), Amy (Shailene Woodley) and Ricky (Daren Kagasoff)

Ben (Kenny Baumann), Amy (Shailene Woodley) and Ricky (Daren Kagasoff)

Also, God help me, I ship Amy with both of them (not at once). If you have watched this series, you’ll know what I mean. I’m clearly going to that special hell.

[You may have noticed this post was very image-heavy. I’m going to be trying to use images in my posts here from now on. They look pretty!]

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Comments»

1. Elementals « Geata Póeg na Déanainn - April 13, 2010

[…] animated kids’ TV show, and that I clearly was a 10-year-old at heart, and that, hey, look, I’d written about things that were clearly not highbrow […]

2. Ben - July 20, 2010

“The past 40 years have shown that while women’s roles have changed tremendously, society – and men – have not, as a whole, made any corresponding changes.”

I find this comment to be sexist in the extreme.

I also find it somewhat ironic that this blog entry would take this TV show to task for it’s negative stereotyping of men – whilst at the same time making sexist comments like this.

The blogger says that:
“Despite the fact that the majority of families are two-income, everything in Anglo-Saxon Western societies is still set up according to 1950s standards: men go out to work, women stay in the domestic sphere, and this has had appalling consequences as far as how men relate to their children.”

Maybe in the world of TV soap operas things are still universally set up along those lines… but in my experience of living in the real world, Anglo-Saxon Western Societies are much more diverse than that.

It’s TV shows like this one that are partly responsible for the perpatuation of such sexist stereotypes…. a show like this seems more indicative of the TV industry’s failure to move on from established formulas and fully engage with the diversity of Western Society…. rather than because such diversity of lifestyles does not exist in Western culture, as Dolorosa12 seems to be implying.

dolorosa12 - July 21, 2010

Sorry it’s taken me a bit of a while to get back to you on all your comments. It’s been a long time since I wrote this post, so I might be a little vague on some of the details of the show.

Your basic gripe seems to be that I am describing Western society as being more sexist than it is, in your experience. It’s probably a fair point that things are more diverse than I am painting them, but I would still argue that in the majority of workplaces in the Anglophone world (I believe things are better in parts of Europe – Scandinavia for example), most women have to, at some point, make a choice between children and career.

I do not mean that they have to give up working once they have children, or that they have to forgo having children if they want to have a career. What I mean is that, if, as a woman, you choose to have children, there will be consequences in terms of career. While most households are two-income (and while it’s impractical and probably too expensive for most families if only one parent works), workplaces still operate on the assumption that all their workers have partners who are at home taking care of things.

Hours in most workplaces are unfriendly for children (think of the average office, where 9-5 tends to in practice slip into something more like 8-6), and in a lot of workplaces, a parent whose child, for example, was ill would be unable to leave at short notice without a problem.

That was what I meant when I said Anglo-Saxon societies were set up along those lines. Not that women actually did stay at home with the children and men go out and work, but that most workplaces were still set up along these lines.

The charge of making a sexist comment against men – well, what I said was probably a little unfair. I was thinking, when I wrote it, of studies that suggest women still do the majority of work around the home, even if both partners work, and that the inroads women have made in the workplace since the Second World War seem to have meant, in a lot of cases, that women are expected to be full-time caregivers to children as well as full-time paid workers.

I am guilty, I suspect, of generalising, and I accept your criticism that Western society is more diverse than shows such as The Secret Life and I in this blog post have painted it.


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