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Want to be an American teen star? Get knocked up

If you watch U.S. TV, and everybody does sometimes, you will occasionally be stunned by the vast distance between reality and what you're seeing. We're not talking sci-fi shows here. We're talking about teenagers doing teenage stuff. And your state of being stunned is especially true when female teenage characters turn out to be pregnant.

We tend to tell different stories in Canada when it comes to this issue. Degrassi, in its various incarnations, has dealt with adolescent sex and pregnancy with something approaching authenticity. And the least contrived and most realistic portrayal of an unwed, pregnant teenage girl was in Sherry White's admirable movie Crackie. But, back to the U.S. version of things.

I can't be the only one who goes all, "Helloooo? Excuse me? Nobody has ever heard of birth control?" And, while we're at it, is it at all plausible that most knocked-up teens decide to keep the baby and carry on regardless?

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Right now, this is an especially glaring issue with American TV and people are starting to notice. In recent weeks, the magazines People, US Weekly and OK! have featured teenage moms from various TV shows on their cover. If you're on TV and then on a magazine cover, you're a star, right? Thus, the answer to the question, "How do become a teen TV star?" is this - get knocked up.

The MTV show 16 and Pregnant and its spin-off Teen Mom have fetishized teenage motherhood and, bizarrely, made it glamorous. 16 and Pregnant, a reality series that began last year, purported to show the hardships endured by teen mothers but somehow evolved into a soap opera in which the central figures, with badass boyfriends and bewildered parents, became intriguing figures - even figures to be emulated.

Teen Mom has followed the same pattern. Among other teens, it features the couple Catelynn and Tyler, who placed their child for adoption. Tyler, the dad, had issues with this. Still, in a scene that must rank as both mind-boggling and terribly sad, Catelynn and Tyler both marked their emergence as parents by getting tattoos to honour their child.

And then there's ABC Family Channel's Secret Life of the American Teenager, a phenomenally popular and irritatingly pious series about an unwed teenage mother. Like many TV series, this one presents motherhood, even for a teen, as series of cute dilemmas that evaporate when people decide to be nice. Bristol Palin made a cameo appearance on this show recently. But more about Palin in a minute.

There are three disturbing trends evolving here. First, it would appear that teenagers engaging in sex is not considered the illicit behaviour here; it's the use of birth control that's somehow heinous. Second, the focus is relentlessly on the moms. The teenage father is sidelined. Sometimes, he disappears entirely and is invariably described, in the teen vernacular, as "a slimeball." And third, the idea is nurtured that society rewards unwed teen motherhood with fame and attention. Being a teen mom helps you win the big popularity contest.

Bristol Palin is the poster child for what has been called "teen motherhood as Cinderella fantasy." Palin is simply more famous than the kids on 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, because she became an unmarried pregnant teenager, and her famous mom, Sarah, contrived to spout conservative values on teenage sex. Now, Bristol Palin is going to be on Dancing With the Stars (starting next Monday on ABC), to become a true prime-time star wearing gorgeous ball gowns and sashaying across a stage to the sound of wild applause. For what? Getting knocked up.

Also airing tonight

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Final Witness (ABC, 10 p.m.) is not, as far I can tell, a new drama series. Rather, it is an ABC News special: "The story of a 2008 Texas murder is told in the victim's own voice." From the promotional material and videos, it appears there was a terrible fire, but one person got out alive.

The Sistahs Concert (Vision, 10 p.m.) is a music special - earlier this year, eight Canadian black female vocalists came together performed together for one night. So, you get Molly Johnson, Jackie Richardson, Ada Lee, Divine Brown, Toya Alexis, Alana Bridgewater, Sacha Williamson and Shakura S'aida. There are performances and behind-the-scenes footage.

Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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