A not-so-sweet-16 story

The Baltimore Sun

Jamie Lynn Spears, the 16-year-old star of the Nickelodeon series Zoey 101, is pregnant. As to just when and by whom, rumors keep arising to buffet what were yesterday asserted as facts. It is a fluid story whose meaning keeps changing as new grist is poured into the gossips' mill.

There are a lot of pregnant teens in this country -- more than in any other developed nation -- and many more are having sex and not getting pregnant, of course, or getting anyone pregnant. In that context, Jamie Lynn's situation is regrettable but not unusual and, almost by definition, not unnatural.

But Jamie Lynn is also a teenager on a hit TV show -- as of November, the No. 1 series among viewers ages 9 to 14 -- and the sister of pop star Britney Spears; with her sister and her manager-mother, Lynne Spears, she's part of the larger, strange story of a family that, from a distance, seems remarkably oblivious to its own dysfunction. And although Jamie Lynn is surely not the only sexually active teenage "tween" idol, she's the one who's having a baby.

Even in this she is not quite unique. In October 2006, New Zealand actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, then 16 and Oscar-nominated three years earlier for Whale Rider, announced that she was pregnant. Castle-Hughes had her baby and went back to work. But Spears is a different sort of actress -- she's more of a brand in a franchised world, inseparable from the single role she has played for the past three years.

So it is also a story about Our Children and, by extension, Our Nation, blogged and reported and op-edited to a fare-thee-well. It is also a business story pierced by a health crisis, a tale of money, morals and public policy, somewhere deep inside of which resides an actual girl.

Nickelodeon has been supportive of the actress while remaining silent as to their future. While speculators conjecture as to whether the network will air the fourth season of Zoey 101 -- completed and planned as the last -- it is airing the third and has been heavily promoting the season-ending special.

Over the past year, Jamie Lynn has come to be seen as the Spears who could. Her few public statements on the pregnancy comprise a measured taking of responsibility, without the kind of craven apology that often accompanies such events.

She remains, in most versions of this story, a sympathetic character, even a victim: of show business itself; of the rumored "older man" for whom official father-to-be and possibly ex-boyfriend Casey Aldridge is theoretically taking the fall; and of her mother, of whom one may say at least she is engaged in a troubling conflict of interest. But there's no reason to think Jamie Lynn is finished. Drew Barrymore was in rehab by 13, after all.

Jamie Lynn (or some proxy) left a last note, on her Web site, three long months ago when she was still, to all appearances, a child:

"Sept. 26, Hey ya'll,

"Right now I'm getting ready for the US Weekly 'Hot Hollywood' event tonight. I'm so excited because I was nominated for an award at the event! I'm going to post some pics as soon as I can! Other than that, I've just been really busy with school. Well, keep an eye out for those pics! TTYL!"

Robert Lloyd writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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