Last night, MTV premiered the second season of Teen Mom 2, which means that—with three seasons of 16 and Pregnant, three seasons of Teen Mom, and the first season of Teen Mom 2 (plus several specials with the infamously problematic Dr. Drew)—the channel has devoted many, many hours to broadcasting the lives of young parents. And I'll admit it—I've watched most of them.
You know what I haven't seen though? Any of the pregnant high schoolers talking about going to WIC and getting on food stamps. Any of the young mothers dealing with the stigma of receiving public benefits. Any stories of the impossible bureaucracy of Medicaid. Really, I haven't seen any discussion of the huge overlap between economic disadvantage and early parenthood at all.
There's occasionally a nod to getting financial aid for school, or a brief exclamation of "diapers are expensive!" But there's certainly no real, meaningful exploration of the fact that poverty is the single largest indicator of whether or not a young woman will become a teen mom.
Several of the young parents on Teen Mom appear to be solidly middle class—Chelsea's father provides her with a house, for goodness sake; Jo (Kailyn's ex) lives in a beautiful home with his parents that at least looks quite expensive. Of course, all of this is skewed by the undisclosed amount that MTV pays these young families, but it's been reported to be over $60,000 per season. Sure, $60k is peanuts to MTV for the amount of programming they've extracted from these young people's lives, but it's also a huge amount to most young parents who make ends meet without being paid to have cameras follow them around.
These oversights are important for several reasons. Firstly, I don't believe that the stories MTV shows actually portray what young parenthood in the United States looks like. The show is often criticized for glamorizing teen pregnancy, but that's not my objection. I don't believe there's anything glamorous about custody battles, domestic violence, adoption loss, and deferred dreams. It's not that the shows present young parenthood as glamorous, it's that it focuses on the wrong issues. Teen Mom will depict an argument with a romantic partner in great detail, but consistently overlook the real sources of struggle that lots of young mothers face: constant stigma and ridicule, lack of social support, and the challenge of accessing public benefits.
Secondly, and more importantly: all the problems the show likes to comment on, all the simplistic statistics about teen pregnancy that the show likes to spout, they can be more accurately attributed to poverty than to pregnancy.
Those things we think we know about teen moms? The limited education, welfare use, the doomed romantic partnerships, the poor outcomes for their children? When we control for poverty, those adverse outcomes virtually disappear. It's not that they had a child while they were young, it's that they had a child while they were poor. If we want to improve the lives of young people, let's not focus on demonizing (or, in MTV's case, exploiting) young parents—let's work to provide better education and better job opportunities, so that young people can envision bigger futures for themselves and create their own incentives for delaying parenthood.
This is why it's not just another unfortunate misrepresentation; it's not just a glossing over the real issues of class and poverty. Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant fundamentally misinform while claiming to be a legitimate sources of sex education and spaces for activism. (I attended a panel where the producers called themselves "inadvertent activists" regarding their work on the show. I wasn't the only advertant activist in the audience who cringed.)
I have written a lot about this, and I hope you'll explore what I've said in more detail. I invite you to read this if you're academic-minded, and this piece if you're less so. If you want to hear what teen moms really sound like, without the filter of TV producers, check out The PushBack.
What other class issues do you see at play in 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom? There are a lot, and I've only just touched on some of them here. I'd love to read your thoughts! Previously: "Money Can't Buy You Class", Exploring Wealth, Poverty, and Inequality in Popular Culture