Something Surprisingly Real in Secret Life

I cannot stand this show. No sense in being shy about it, because this is a bias I cannot hide, as will be apparent in nanoseconds.

If I had anything even remotely decent or interesting to say about it, I would have blogged it before now. But every single blog post I have even started to think about writing in the past about it had the same title every single time, one composed entirely of profanity except for the articles of speech linking all my four-letter words together.

Summaries and commentaries that read like these do not balanced critical commentary make:

  • "Parade of nonstop clichéd stereotypes! Night of one thousand -isms! All stereotypes encouraged and welcomed to march proudly on Monday! Heart-of-gold hookers! Sexually compulsive foster children and abuse survivors! Slutty latinas! Dry, unemotional Asians! Lady who doesn't know who the baby daddy is! Hypocritical evangelical girl! Hair-pluggin', affair-havin' mid-life crisis guy! Badly-behaved developmentally disabled person! Asexual gay gu--- uh, whoah! No chaps or flags! We talked about this. And NO LESBIANS."
  • "Look how charming and fun the grownups can make their dysfunctional relationships look! So cute! I want one!"
  • "All your friends are assholes! Only grownups are decent people withe more than two brain cells to rub together! Well, only two more than your friends, but still, all your friends are assholes."
  • "Go on, have sex, gal-on-this-show! Then you get to pick your prize! You can have a baby, become bitter, jaded and mean, lose a parent to a plane crash or maybe you'll win more than one! Yay! But wait! Guys, we have prizes for you, too! If you have sex, you get to be billed as a weak, horndog slimeball for the rest of this show (unless you redeem yourself through parenting), be the funny, cuckolded comic relief, or even both!"
  • Next week's guest star to remind us teen parenting is real and that this happens in Real Life: Bristol Palin! The guest star of never: that woman who gets paid minimum wage to sweep up after us, doesn't get childcare benefits and is lacking a high-profile parent so she, too, can make more in an hour than most teen mothers make in two years without any experience or skills...what's her name, again?
  • "A gay guy: how keen! Now the girls finally have a male person they can trust!"
  • "Well, if nothing else, at least the Asian kids still get to be smart."

Alas, that's the only kind of commentary I usually have. So, I have kept it from the page, saving it for rant sessions I have alone in my office, where I can yell as loudly as I like without worry of traumatizing anyone. Except my pug. She sometimes looks scared. But mostly confused, which is how she usually looks whether I'm yelling or not.

I hate to watch it at all, but this is the kind of thing I should try to keep up with. None of our users have really talked about it -- potentially because they're holding in the same potty-mouthed critiques I am myself -- but because of its subject matter, I should know the scoop. Shows or films like these also almost always result in questions from users pertaining to the misinformation in them about sexual response, bodies, birth control, safer sex or pregnancy, so it helps to be warned in advance. Would that I'd known that when American Pie came out. It would have saved me many nights of scratching my head while pointlessly asking the office wall, "Where are they getting this stuff?"

The only scoop I usually get while watching this show is a pooper-scooper, mind, but now and then it's not always just torture. Sometimes it's bad enough that it's funny-bad like MST3K, or instead of just hurling bitter invective, I first laugh, then huff, then spit, then sigh, and THEN hurl bitter invective while also channeling the spirit of Dorothy Parker, which I don't have to do alone because everyone seems to find it very entertaining.

But. It's not a big but, but it's not a teeny one either.


The last episode ("She Went That A'way") showed something I found very truthful and real about abortion and support with abortion and reproductive choices. The character choosing to have an abortion (which you knew was never going to happen: if you become pregnant on this show, you will be having babies, missy) already had excellent support from her mother, whose talk with her daughter was pretty darn righteous itself.

What I find myself quite surprised to be giving a high-five to is an ad-hoc counseling session that occurs in the lobby of the clinic between the character there for a termination and the mother of her ex-boyfriend. What made that such a good representation of support and counseling with abortion is that almost nothing said in it was prescriptive (that bit about "some choices" that you can't undo that seemed to be about abortion was prescriptive, since you can't undo a birth, either). What was said could have empowered and supported any choice well, not just the one the character made to remain pregnant. It was a loving, sage and compassionate talk.

That exact kind conversation can, for the record -- and often does -- result in a woman choosing to have an abortion (especially when she comes into the clinic already very sure about terminating) and feeling good about it. Just so's you know, because you're sure as hell not going to see it in this show.

Back to my props: not only was the counsel and support, and the way it was given, excellent, it also didn't come from a clinic counselor. Instead, it came from a connection made in the waiting room with someone who was not clinic staff.

Counseling and other staff from clinics certainly can and do provide great options and general counseling and support: it's something I have done and do myself. I'm not saying counsel or support is automatically better when not coming from clinic staff. The point is that sometimes in clinics what goes on in the waiting room, either with patients and other patients, or with patients and other people's support people, can be pretty radical. Some powerful, intense connections can happen between women in abortion clinics. Women who don't even know each other can wind up being supportive of each other in an instant and with great strength. It's something we see and love working in clinics, and that some of us have experienced ourselves as patients in clinics, but rarely, if ever, is shown in media. So, a good and real waiting room scene -- which is so much more than I can say for Juno -- and a really good supportive talk around choice? Both in a place I least expected to find them.

Of course, there is something else that's real about Secret Life as a whole.

At first I was going to say that what's real in it is that it's an excellent presentation of the way many adults conceptualize, imagine and treat teens and teen sexuality.

But I think it's actually one step beyond: I think it presents not only the way many adults think about and treat teens and teen sexuality, but also purposefully puts that conceptualization in such a light so it looks like The Very Right, Wise Grownup Way of Thinking. Well, to anyone watching at home who isn't who isn't laughing or swearing at it, anyway. Young people didn't write this. Older adults are writing this, about young people and without, no doubt very intentionally, the perspectives of young people like they're writing about.

This is one of the reasons why this show makes me want to gouge my own eyes out, and why I find a film like Thirteen (youth-written) or a show like the UK's Skins, written about young people but also BY young people (they have a mixed-age writing team), to be such a horses of a different color. Certainly both of those are representing slightly different populations, but not really. The difference between Skins and Thirteen and Secret Life aren't about the differences in the teenagers being portrayed, but about how the teenage portrayals in them are so different. Both have their own flaws or character issues, but I'll take flaws or shortcomings coming from young people in how they see and conceptualize themselves and their peers any day over flaws and failing of older adults trying to send teens moral messaging who should remember how crappy it was when adults presented you in certain ways to further their own morality fables. Apparently Brenda Hampton, the creator of Secret Life (as well as of the socially and politically conservative 7th Heaven), allows her young actors to give input on conversational lines, but that's it. It shows.

What I watched today does not redeem the show in my eyes. The Mad Max trilogy cannot redeem Mel Gibson, and a couple brief bright spots cannot light the deep, black hole that this show and the cloying, obvious propaganda it is. Even the way the whole episode played out was predictable, with an anticipated over-simplicity on their part, an anticipated annoyance on mine and one more baby en route. What followed after the good stuff almost undid the good stuff all by itself.

But not quite. When anyone in media does a decent job with or around abortion, and I happen to see it, I'd feel remiss not giving a nod of respect and thanks. I appreciate it, quite a lot. And when a writer or director's agenda is pretty darn crystal, and what they wrote is real, not myopic, and potentially even challenges that agenda, I appreciate it a little more, even if I choke a little saying so. And so does my little dog, who is happily snoring away, enjoying a night blissfully free of the usual tirade I'd be on about this show by now.


I'm kinda unsure how to feel about it. She was so positive in her decision. And then turns out to deep down not be so sure. I feel with so little representation of abortion, this is a disservice. "those girls who look so confident in their decision really just want to keep it deep down." But I knew an abortion wouldn't happen. I thought the conveniently timed miscarriage would. But at the very end, I loved when her dad said "you made the right decision (cue my rage going right back up)" and she responded with "the right decision for ME." Now that I loved-her decision not to abort was her personal decision, and for other girls the right decision for them will be to abort.

I'm just distracted by the fact that you have a pug. They warm my heart and cancel out the ridiculousness that is the secret life.

Do you have an online link to the part of the show that you're talking about, Heather?

I don't think a cut is specifically available of that scene anywhere, but the whole of this episode is currently available on Hulu: The portion I was addressing should be easy to suss out given the context I gave here.

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

Aww, Hulu is only available within the US of A. I guess that's understandable considering this show is called "The Secret Life of the American Teenager"!