This post is a bit overdue, but I couldn’t let Teen Mom, a documentary-style reality series on MTV that completed its first season last week, pass by without comment. As some Antenna readers may know, teen motherhood is a topic that’s close to my heart. For the first half of the ’90s I was a social worker, and my last job was working as a case manager with teen parents in San Francisco. So I watched the last episodes and checked out MTV’s Teen Mom site with the critical eye of someone who’s been there, in the crappy half-day GED programs and Section 8 apartments that are part and parcel of life for some teen moms in urban centers, and as someone who’s witnessed the personal and financial stress that teen parents face. So here are five quick thoughts about Teen Mom:
- It should be called White Teen Mom.
Teen Mom showcases several teens in an attempt at portraying a diversity of situations, but Farrah, Amber, Maci, and Catelynn are all EuroAmerican. While this might help dispel notions that teen parents are always girls of color, why would the series not focus on girls from a variety of ethnic backgrounds? (And I do realize that Teen Mom is merely following the teens from 16 and Pregnant who chose to continue to let their stories be followed, with African American teen Ebony dropping out, but there are justifications for bringing in other teens in this case). Teen pregnancy and parenting rates have been found to correlate with socioeconomic background, which translates to teen parenting being more often a reality for Latinas and African Americans than for white teens. If the point of Teen Mom is to discourage pregnancy among all teen girls, they seem to be off the mark here. Or does Teen Mom merely aim to entertain?
2. It glosses over related socieconomic factors.
It goes without saying, then, that the series usually ignored the socioeconomic factors (e.g., poverty, related issues of troubled families of origin, schools in crisis) that contribute to teen parenting looking like a decent lifestyle choice. Aside from the storyline focused on Amber, who appears to have little to no support from her own family, the series seldom addressed societal factors that encourage teens to choose to become parents.
3. It doesn’t (overtly) proselytize.
Not directly, at least. It doesn’t present teen parenting as easy, but it also doesn’t come across as preachy. It does, however, through choices in editing, clearly present the various teen moms as survivors, as unfeeling, or as victims. An interesting choice was to include one teenager (Catelynn) who gave birth and put her baby up for adoption.
4. It gets the isolation right.
Each of the teens whose lives are followed struggle with issues of isolation and having to question whether their loved ones will step up to help them, which realistically underscores challenges that teen parents face. On the other hand, the camera crews are keeping them company – for now. It’s notable that the series has a message board for teen moms and former teen moms. I made note that threads on the board like “What did you have to give up to become a teen mom?” and “What The Teen Mom Show doesn’t show” had hundreds of responses.
5. It wants to present teen parenting in a neat package.
While the series apparently aims to show the real hardships of teen parenting, it also falls into the trap of classical Hollywood storytelling in trying wrap up each teen parent’s storyline, if not happily, at least neatly by the final episode. Farrah is shown to be taking classes in culinary studies, Maci and her fiance have gone through couples counseling and are trying to work out their difficulties, etc. Such neat and happy endings in fact might undermine the goals of the producers… assuming such goals exist.