Unexpected or amusing experiences on the NYC subway are all but infrequent for those who travel every day, in jam-packed trains, from one corner to the other of the city. But, the biggest shock I have had in my three years of using NYC public transit was a few months ago when, jumping onto a train at the last second, I saw the most incredible poster: It was a picture of a crying toddler of color with the words, “Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars each year.” While I was still recovering from the shock, my eyes fell upon a similar poster of a little Black girl that read, “Honestly Mom… chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” As I soon found out, these two posters were part of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention campaign organized by the Human Resources Administration of the New York City Department of Social Services and strongly supported and defended by the mayor Bloomberg.
This advertising campaign is a perfect example of the entrenchment of inequalities around class, race, and gender, and on the way they are covered up by a discourse appealing to personal responsibility. Indeed, the message conveyed by the campaign is, firstly, that you need to have money in order to have the right to have a child. If you are poor and nonetheless have a child, you are responsible for his or her future unhappiness, poverty, and social failure. Moreover, poverty is presented as the outcome of teenagers’ individual reproductive choices rather than being presented as the concrete material condition in which they are already living and are compelled to make their choices. Secondly, in the posters there is no mention of social services or of abortion rights. The whole problem of teen pregnancy is reduced to a matter of individual choice, where girls are to be considered responsible for their sexual behavior. As a consequence, the communicative tactics of public shaming is consistently resorted to.