Vivyan C. Adair’s essay, “Branded with Infamy: Inscriptions of Poverty and Class in the United States,” is a great way to think about the NYC teen pregnancy poster campaign that began earlier this year. The posters are a way of marking the body for public display. As Adiar writes, “premodern societies convinced their members to obey the laws of state and church by branding, cutting, burning, or otherwise gruesomely and publicly marking the bodies of anyone who broke those laws” (232). The NYC poster campaign is a method of forcing compliance to accepted social norms through guilt, shame, and humiliation. Not only are they branding young women who have children while still teenagers as deviant, they are also marking the children of teenage mothers with stereotypes concerning poverty through the assimilatory measure of statistics.
The NYC teen pregnancy poster campaign is systematic stigmatization. The campaign is an effort by the state to brand women who have children in their teens as deviant, dangerous and undeserving. The campaign is a method of condemning a segment of the population in a way that encourages compliance to dualistic norms. The campaign reinforces a drama of “simplistic oppositions of good and bad, right and wrong, independent and dependent, deserving and undeserving” (Adair 235). The posters display small children alongside text that reinforces their vulnerability. The text on the posters emphasize expense, education, and family unity and portrays teen pregnancy as a violation of safety and dependability.
While the campaign is presented as an effort to educate young women about teen pregnancy, it is also a willful attempt to ostracize, alienate, and isolate young mothers.
The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health released a report (2010), “Removing Stigma: Towards a Complete Understanding of Young Latinas’ Sexual Health,” that shows these types of negative campaigns don’t work.
[T]hese stigmatizing strategies construct the identities of young women of color as irresponsible, out of control, and in need of constraint instead of support, a characterization that gets translated into the policy arena. Stigmatizing “teen pregnancy” does not create a negative view of teen pregnancy as a singular abstract condition, but instead identifies young women of color as threats to social order and to the sexual innocence of other youth.
It is important that the public speaks out against these negative campaigns so that there is a collective effort to identify them as such. The NYC poster campaign participates in a form branding that is both violent and cruel.