Elizabeth Banks posted a great article on the Huffington Post yesterday. She drools over Zac Efron while simultaneously acknowledging the awesome power of the mass media and teen icons to influence public consciousness and the construction of norms. Zac Efron is hugely popular with teens (and, apparently 3?-something women, according to Banks). In the same way that Rihanna and Chris Brown are role models, so is Zac Efron.
I had a huge problem with Knocked Up! even though I had a few chuckles and, overall, I like Seth Rogen. That film basically presents the possibility of a pregnancy as the result of a one-night stand with a loser working out and the couple falling in love. Yeah, right. 17 Again makes teen parenting seem Ok. It doesn’t take the opportunity to send a realistic message about teen parenting albeit a brief comment from Margaret Cho. Shit, I’m 36, I have a career and an incredible man that is committed to our relationship and our child and parenting is STILL hard for both of us. I can’t even imagine being a teenager in high school. Holy smokes.
I can ( and do, quite often, thanks) enjoy the (eye) candy that the popular culture churns out in the same way Banks can while acknowledging the fact that too much of it can make you sick.
Here’s the thing though — the message of the movie seemed to be (and again, I may just be reading too much into the twirling fingers thing): knocking up your high school sweetheart is A-OK! Especially if you give up that Syracuse scholarship to marry her! F College!
Now, I am all for taking responsibility. I am. Which is why I wish this flick had dealt more directly with this little situation that served as the jumping off point for a PG-13 movie (attended by lots of kids not yet in the double digits). It tries to make up for it with a scene in which Margaret Cho tells us that “abstinence is best but let’s get real: just use condoms when you’re screwing around with each other.” Now, that statement at least gets close to something: if you are going to have sex, be safe. (Question: Why didn’t Hunter Parrish also take his shirt off in this flick?)
Unfortunately, this scene would have had a lot more impact if Zac Efron’s character not only acknowledged that sex can lead to babies but also that having a kid when you’re 18 is hard, hard, hard. (Spoiler alert: he should know, see, ‘cuz that’s what got him into this crazy mess!) Also, he doesn’t want his daughter (again, born when he was 18) to have sex with her high-school sweetheart yet his most powerful argument against it — HAVING A KID WHEN YOU ARE JUST GRADUATING HIGH SCHOOL IS HARD — I KNOW, I’M REALLY YOUR DAD! — never comes up. He’s just like, “fingers crossed!” Now, of course, the daughter does not have sex (totally unrealistically) and ends up lusting after Mr. Efron (totally realistically, who wouldn’t) and it’s creepy and weird.
My point here (sorry, I was looking up “image Hunter Parrish” on Google and got off-track) is that this movie pretty much glamorizes teenage parenting. It basically says: Go for it! Have a kid when you’re 18. Throw another one in for good measure right after and you’ll get a nice house, deck and hammock included, your baby mama apparently won’t need to work, your kids will eventually have iPods and get into Georgetown and the person you picked (when you were 17) is actually your soulmate! Don’t worry if the condom breaks — it’s cool! It’s totally worked out for Bristol, ya’ll! (Is it me or is Levi cute?)
The problem with this message is that, according to unreliable online sources and my own anecdotal evidence collected over my 3?-something years: this is crap. It’s a great Hollywood story (I really enjoyed this movie, did I say that?) but in reality, teenage parents (mothers, especially) face increased levels of poverty, lower education rates, and higher chances that their daughters will also end up teenage moms and their sons will end up in jail. (I would like to see Zac Efron and Hunter Parrish fight Channing Tatum in a jail flick).
In many ways, popular culture is seen as superficial, silly, stupid, “just entertainment,” and, if you critique it, you’re “too serious” and you need “to lighten up.” Well, considering the amount of romantic comedies I have ingested and ridiculous sitcoms I have thoroughly enjoyed, I’m not trying to be a stick in the mud or take away anyone’s viewing pleasure. I love romantic comedies. I’m a freakin’ sucker for them. But, I also know that these romantic comedies have had and continue to have an influence my own expectations and desires. Shit, who wouldn’t want some hot guy like Ryan Gosling wait for you for 8 years, build you a house and then make love to you in the rain. No wonder I have complained about the men in my past. That really set the bar high. A house?!
But, considering the level of mediation we are exposed to, we are foolish to dismiss the content of popular culture as irrelevant. The mass media does shape and actively construct culture. With that said, it’s irresponsible to make teen parenting seem fun considering the adverse side effects of teen parenting in 2009.