'The Pregnancy Project' Director Norman Buckley Talks About Teen Moms and Stereotypes

Norman Buckley knows about OMG moments. As the director of such scandalous teen fare as The CW’s “Gossip Girl” and ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars” Buckley’s been around the block when it comes to outrageous teen behavior. His newest outing could be something out of a “Gossip Girl” storyline, but it’s actually the very real story of a one girl brave enough to try and change the way people think.

I[img_assist|nid=128|title=Alexa Vega stars as Gaby Rodrigeuz in 'The Pregnancy Project'|desc=photo courtesy of Lifetime|link=none|align=left|width=301|height=201]n “The Pregnancy Project” debuting Saturday January 28th at 8 p.m. EST on Lifetime Network, Buckley directs a film about Gaby Rodriguez’s unorthodox social experiment for a school project. The 17-year-old pretended she was pregnant for six months, fooling friends and family, to open a dialogue about teen pregnancy in her community. What Gaby discovered was the very real stigma attached to being a pregnant teen. She soon found herself the newest item in the mean-spirited high school gossip mill.

Gaby only told her boyfriend, her mother and one of her eight siblings the truth about her pregnancy. Her boyfriend’s parents were left totally in the dark, as were most of her friends and family. Six months and several fake baby bumps later, Gaby revealed her secret in a school assembly. Her project titled “Stereotypes, Rumors and Statistics” made headlines, first in her town of Toppenish, Washington and then nationwide.

Gaby was motivated to start her experiment after some real life experience with teen pregnancy. Her mother got pregnant for the first time at the age of 14 and her older siblings also dealt with the issue. Gaby wanted to explore the societal effects of getting pregnant as a teen, but also wanted to stress that it isn’t the end of the road.

Needless to say, Buckley had a fascinating story to work from for “The Pregnancy Project”.  The movie, staring “Spy Kids” actress Alexa Vega as Gaby and “Scrubs” Judy Reyes as her mother premieres this Saturday on Lifetime.

Legendary Women was lucky enough to speak with Buckley about his thoughts on the movie and what it says about teen girls and pregnancy. What was it that drew you to “The Pregnancy Project” and Gaby's story?

I was intrigued by the script, particularly the idea that a high school girl undertook such a complex project.  I spent a lot of time thinking about why she would do it--there was nothing easy about it and it was a charade she had to keep up for months.  When I read her book I came to understand that her family relationships had a lot to do with the decisions she made, and this provided a great opportunity for drama.

Recently teen moms have been a hot topic issue, particularly with the popularity of MTV's “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom”, as well as films like “Juno”. While I don't think any of those programs outright glamorize teen pregnancy, one of the things most often overlooked is the way pregnant teen girls are viewed and treated. “The Pregnancy Project” seems to take a hard look at how pregnant teens are treated and stereotyped. Can you talk a little about that and why you think this aspect missing from other teen pregnancy narratives is important?

I think there are no hard and fast assumptions that can be made about any individual's life--a pregnant teen or anyone else.  The decisions one makes, or the lack thereof, are different for every person.  One of the primary themes of Gaby Rodriguez's project was that people jump to assumptions quickly when it comes to pregnant teens, without having any basis for these ideas. She used this as a springboard to examine the whole issue of stereotypes and how the assumptions of others can have a debilitating effect on the self-esteem of a person.

Because there are so many depictions of teen pregnancy out there right now did you take a different approach directing this film to set it apart? Did you focus on specific aspects of Gaby’s story?  

 Gaby’s story is different in that she wasn't really pregnant, so that in itself sets her tale apart from other stories about teen pregnancy.  But I also think this story is about searching for identity, searching for purpose and searching for self-determination.  The real Gaby is a very determined young woman.  I think her family had high expectations of her and at the same time were constantly telling her that she would end up pregnant, as most of her siblings had before her.  Her project was actually quite subversive--she undertook something that she thought was important, but at the same time was able to gauge how her family would respond if she disappointed them by indeed also becoming pregnant and not living up to their expectations. There is clearly moral complexity to Gaby’s experiment, what did you do as a director to highlight this ambiguity?[img_assist|nid=129|title=Alexa Vega as Gaby Rodriguez and Judy Reyes as her mother in 'The Pregnancy Project'|desc=photo courtesy of Lifetime|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=201]

I was fascinated by this ambiguity.  As a gay man, I started to wonder how I would have responded had someone in my high school days told me they were also gay, and then how I would feel if I found out that this wasn't so, that it was only part of an experiment.  It would be hurtful, even if the end were for something greater.  The movie doesn't shy away from this duality.  In the film Gaby befriends a pregnant foster teen and the character does indeed feel betrayed when she discovers the truth.  Again, I think this created a ripe opportunity for drama.  Most all of our decisions, however well-meaning, have shadow implications and are worth contemplating.  Sometimes the end justifies the means, but that doesn't mean there won't be consequences.

Often teen girls receive the brunt of condemnation and responsibility for teen pregnancies. How was Gaby’s experience different from that of her boyfriend?  Is her character in the movie judged differently?

As a matter of fact, Gaby’s boyfriend Jorge went through his own difficulties.  He was harassed by friends at work and endured a great deal of disapproval from his family.  I think it is a mark of his care for Gaby, and commitment, that he stood by her in this experiment and supported her throughout.  The real Gaby speaks very highly of his support of her.

In many ways Gaby is atypical of the way young Latinas are represented in the media. Do you see Gaby as a step in the right direction in the media portrayal of young Latinas girls?

The real Gaby Rodriguez is a very inner-directed young woman.  She visited the set while we were shooting.  I fully expected her to be overwhelmed by the fact of a movie being made of events that happened not even a year ago.  But, to the contrary, she wasn't overwhelmed at all.  She was extremely poised, gracious, and articulate.  I think she is an excellent role model, not just for Latinas, but for teens in general.  She wants to accomplish great things and I feel certain that we will be hearing more from her.  I have enjoyed getting to know her.

Has directing the movie changed how you think about this topic? What do you hope people take from the film?

I can certainly say that I have thought long and hard about all kinds of implications inherent in the material.  We’re all prone to projecting our own ideas onto other people, and we're all subject to the stereotypes that others impose upon ourselves.  For example, if I see a homeless person, I might project all kinds of ideas onto that person about how they ended up that way.  But that's all they are--only my projections.  It’s almost impossible for anyone to completely know what's in another person's heart.  So I think that working on this film has made me slower to jump to conclusions about other people.  Perhaps that is what I’d hope that people take from the film.  Let us all be slower to judge.

“The Pregnancy Project” premieres on Lifetime Saturday, January 28th at 8 p.m. EST. Check out the official website for more details.