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Mediating Morality: the Politics of Teen Pregnancy in the Post-Welfare Era

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Review of Mediating Morality: The Politics of Teen Pregnancy in the Post-Welfare Era


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The below is a review from the Journal for the History of Children and Youth 11, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 466-468.

Mediating Morality: The Politics of Teen Pregnancy in the Post–Welfare Era.
By Clare Daniel.
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2017. xi + 200 pp. Cloth $90, paper $27.95.

In the preface to Mediating Morality, Clare Daniel opens with a personal anecdote, one that involves watching episodes of the MTV reality program16 and Pregnant and “hav[ing] the acute sense that 16 and Pregnant was part of something bigger—a shift in the contours of the public image of teen pregnancy” (ix). It is that shift that Daniel traces throughout the text as she explores, with both topical depth and critical analysis, the dramatic change in how teen pregnancy has been framed as a social problem over the last three decades. Focusing primarily on the 1990s forward, Daniel’s analysis reveals a significant move away from discourses of poverty and race traditionally associated with teen pregnancy prevention during the era of welfare reform and toward a narrative in which preteens and teens in the United States are framed as neoliberal pre-citizens whose sexual behavior (or potential sexual behavior) is in need of discipline for the sake of the country at large. Paying particular attention to the narrative’s current moment, Daniel demonstrates the extent to which digital, television, and social media tools (among others) are enlisted as part of a neo-liberal agenda that presents teen pregnancy prevention as a largely individual failure uninfluenced by dominant systems of oppression and the dismantling of social systems of support.

The text is organized into six chapters including an introduction, which each engage rhetorical and critical analysis to illustrate the interconnections among public policy, pop culture texts, and local interventions into national discussions on teen pregnancy prevention. Chapter 1 explores the politics of teen pregnancy Mediating Morality Book Coverprevention as a matter of public policy within debates on welfare reform in the 1990s and early 2000s. As part of these reforms, responsibility for managing and addressing the problem of teen pregnancy also shifts away from government funding and control and toward nonprofit organizations and the private sector. In chapter 2, Daniel focuses on the work of two of those organizations whose teen pregnancy prevention campaigns are both pervasive and exemplary of a neoliberal agenda: the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a nonprofit formed in 1996 that relies on corporate partnerships to “shape notions of proper adolescence, sex, and reproduction,” and the Candie’s Foundation, an organization connected to Candie’s, Inc., the clothing and shoe brand, which “enmeshes the goals of nonprofit advocacy and corporate profit- making” while both selling sex and discouraging sex among teens (54).

In chapter 3, Daniel engages in rhetorical and discursive analysis of pop culture texts depicting teen pregnancy and motherhood “that explicitly claim a prevention agenda” and that grow out of the partnerships between media companies and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (16). Included among these media texts is MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, particularly culpable in presenting teen pregnancy as a personal problem experienced by largely white, middle-class young women who have failed morally and individually in managing their sexuality. This analysis, in particular, contributes to current scholarship that has raised questions of authentic voice and meaningful intervention in the national discussion surrounding teen pregnancy, media representations of teen sexuality and motherhood, and the place of the program, its spin-offs, and young mothers, more broadly, within popular culture. Chapter 4 offers a case study of the intersections of neoliberal discourses of teen pregnancy prevention and local reproductive justice–focused advocacy in New Mexico. Offering similar analysis of public policy found in previous chapters, in this case with New Mexico House Bill 300, Daniel highlights New Mexico as unique both in the way rhetorics of teen pregnancy continue to be explicitly racialized and in the inclusion of the authentic voices of young mothers in public discussions surrounding this public policy. The final chapter concludes with a shorter case study on a 2013 teen pregnancy prevention campaign implemented by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Here Daniel demonstrates that while this particular campaign exemplifies the shift in teen pregnancy prevention to one of individual responsibility for the neoliberal pre-citizen, Bloomberg’s campaign reveals its embedded racism and the acknowledgment of poverty as a factor in teen pregnancy. Together, the chapters clearly contribute to a multifaceted analysis of the issue. Yet the text’s strength also lies in the potential for chapter analyses to stand on their own and to be used individually within a classroom setting.

Daniel’s close rhetorical analysis of public policies, political hearing transcripts, and pop culture texts makes an important intervention in current discussions of teen pregnancy prevention campaigns, identifying them as lying at the intersection of social reform rhetoric and popular culture. Here, Daniel demonstrates that these mediated texts are a deliberate outgrowth of political and public policy decisions, and that as the tools of those decisions, they help to fulfill neoliberal ideals regarding citizenship, adolescence, and timing of pregnancy.

Letizia Guglielmo
Kennesaw State University


About the AuthorClare Daniel

Clare Daniel is an administrative assistant professor at Tulane University’s Newcomb College Institute where she conducts research, teaches courses, and coordinates programming related to reproductive politics. She completed her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of New Mexico in American studies. Her book, Mediating Morality: The Politics of Teen Pregnancy in the Post-Welfare Era, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2017. Her work has also appeared in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, the edited collection MTV and Teen Pregnancy: Critical Essays on 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom (Scarecrow, 2013), and the library science journal Collection Building. She teaches courses in Tulane’s Department of Communication, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, and Honors Program.


This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.

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