MTV's been having a good summer. In part, that's because the second season of its reality series Teen Mom has been generating huge ratings for the network—it is this summer's third-most-watched original cable series in the coveted 12-34 demographic. The show, which documents the lives of four young women after they gave birth to children as teenagers, along with its sister show and predecessor 16 and Pregnant, has already generated a fair amount of cultural chatter on the question of whether the show is a valuable educational tool or just, as most seem to have concluded, regular old exploitation of the young women in question. There's something to this argument, of course. MTV's ratings success makes for a strange contrast with the fact that Teen Mom's stars have been occupying the front pages of celebrity weeklies like US complaining that they are dead broke, doesn't it?
I'm of two minds about the argument. On the one hand I certainly don't have much faith in MTV's dedication to social messaging, at least not enough to believe it extends much further than what advertisers are comfortable with. I'm not the first, for example, to point out that abortion, as an option, is not something that's seriously discussed in the context of the show. You can spin that fact as having something to do with showrunners needing to have a more extended narrative arc than, "Now I'm pregnant, now I'm not." But Teen Mom does follow one young couple, Catelynn and Tyler, after they've given their child up for adoption, so sponsor queasiness seems a more likely explanation.
That said, it's hard for me, and I think it should be hard for feminists generally, to deny the value of having the experience of teen pregnancy documented. And by "documented," I don't mean "turned into an ABC Afterschool Special." The More You Know, The Less Sex You Will Hopefully Have! approach to discussions of teen pregnancy may safely be declared a failure at this point, at least from a feminist point of view. The idea is not to be afraid of or stigmatize sex, because the hard consequences of that line fall to young women, who are socially expected to bear the brunt of any "moments of weakness," i.e. called sluts and whores and sent out into the world to raise children they cannot afford on grounds of "taking responsibility." Instead, the obligation as I see it is to make sure that young women understand what it is they may get into if they not only have sex, but also neglect to use birth control AND choose not to abort the fetus. Not to lie to them about the great love a mother can have for a child or to tell them their lives will be richer because of the mere presence of the child, not to tell them that suddenly upon birth the father of their child will love them as God intended and then they can get married, or whatever other garbage is being sold by organizations like Feminists For Life these days.
In that respect, the saving grace of Teen Mom is its adoption of a style you might call commercialized cinéma vérité, which resists the urge to directly scold and harangue teenage viewers. There are virtually no fourth-wall breaking, eyes on camera interviews. Voiceovers are kept to a bare minimum, and only tend to sum up, factually, what the viewer's just seen. The filming crew is as invisible as it is in any Frederick Wiseman documentary. Thus, one doesn't come away from watching Teen Mom feeling like they're being sold a product, as in MTV's other reality franchises like The Hills or The City. You're left with the impression that you really have just seen an edited version of these young women's lives.
I don't want to overstate the representativeness of these young women's experiences, of course. It's possible the editing is still obscuring a lot. And the young women who are on these shows are generally white and able-bodied, which necessarily raises questions as to whether their stories can be said to be representing the experience of being a teenage mother as a whole. There is some diversity among the young women in terms of class background, though most if not all seem to live or have lived in the kind of income-disproportionate McMansion-like surroundings that testify to the lingering effects of the housing boom on the lower end of the middle class.
In any event, what shows up on camera is hardly flattering. Particularly bad is the news it dispatches from the front of young American (hetero, cisgendered) "masculinity." It's rare to see young men on these shows openly reject their children once born. (The cynic in me feels it necessary to remark that the kid is the reason they get to be on the show at all, after all.) But they tend to whine their way through pregnancies and afterwards sulk as they shuffle their overpriced sneakers around on-camera, only reluctantly helping out with diapers and babysitting. Then they get angry when they're called out on their neglectful attitudes. On the current iteration of Teen Mom, for example, the most together of its four young women, Maci, initially had trouble even interesting her baby daddy Ryan in spending time with their child, Bentley. Now that she and Ryan have broken up, and she's trying to get on with her life with a new boyfriend, Ryan wants to relitigate their custody agreement so that he sees Bentley more often.
Another striking theme of these young women's lives is that their family and even romantic relationships tend to be fraught with emotional and physical abuse. Catelynn, who, as mentioned, gave up her baby Carly to an open adoption, lives with a mother who seems to deeply and frankly largely inexplicably resent her decision and reminds her of her displeasure constantly. Her boyfriend Tyler recently demanded that he be able to review her phone records after he caught her in a lie, which would have been less upsetting if Catelynn's submission to this overreaction of a request hadn't been so meek and tearful. Farrah, who has been the one most energetically making the tabloid rounds, has a mother who spent much of the first season asking non-requiters like "Don't you love me?" in the middle of arguments with her daughter and was subsequently arrested for punching Farrah in the face during an off-camera dispute. And an entire psychology master's thesis could be written about Amber's relationship with her baby daddy Gary, in which her frequent bursts of anger and bullying would make Gary a sympathetic victim were it not for his oddly intransigent apathy about basically everything in his life. Their very cute daughter, Leah, seems doomed, absent some serious therapy for one or both her parents.
And yet... writing that last bit about Amber and Gary was difficult, which illustrates something rather destructive in the dynamic Teen Mom engenders with its audience. Theirs is a difficult situation, in which there seems, from the imperfect third-party perspective I've got, to be some mutual abusing going on, and these things are difficult to pronounce upon from a distance. And the one unfortunate consequence of the honesty of Teen Mom is that by inviting us to watch it also invites opinions. And not opinions about the systemic disadvantage young and often single motherhood entails. Rather, the doors are thrown open for opinions about whether these young women are doing the best they can in crappy and impossibly difficult situations. Opinions about whether they are being, above it all, "good moms." And feministically speaking, I am skeptical of that kind of "opinion." I'm skeptical of it because it takes us back to viewing each of these young women in a vacuum of human behavior, of seeing their actions as independent of the web of social circumstances in which they find themselves. It takes them out of the net they're in, which is, as are so many situations for women of all walks of life, a damned if you do, damned if you don't, situation. Give up or abort the child, and people will tell you you haven't accepted "responsibility"; keep it, and everyone wants to weigh in how well your "responsibility" is playing out in the real world. And maybe that's the conundrum for any actual "reality television" with any interest in women at all; the reality that people really, really are hard on young women and young mothers in particular, gets reflected right back to you.