Tube Tied: “Teen Mom” and the Problem With Social Realism In Reality Television

Michelle Dean
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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.

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17 Comments Have Been Posted

Great post

I haven't seen Teen Mom but I did watch 16 and Pregnant. As someone in the same age range, I felt as though 16 wasn't showing the "truth" behind having a baby. It was heavily edited and set to a soundtrack, corny voiceovers, and "sketchbook" cut aways. It usually showed pregnancy, birth, and then the outcome three months later. I do agree that MTV reaches out, with their series "True Life" and shows like this to show teens realities different from their own, or realities that could be theirs. It is hard for me to swallow though, that a network that has gems like "The Jersey Shore" and other shows that have highly sexual elements are side by side with depictions of what irresponsible sex can lead to, i.e babies.

the term "gave up"

This is a great article, but I have to comment about the term 'gave up' in relation to adoption. As an adoptee, I really dislike the term (and I think most adoptees do) because of the connotation that the birthmother is abandoning the child or that adoption wasn't a choice. The more accepted term is usually "chose adoption" Here is a great little is article on adoption etiquette


Thanks, Magstraz, for pointing me to that. I had not realized this debate about terminology existed, though I know some people who use "given up" to describe their personal experiences with adoption. Will keep it in mind in future.

Great link

Thanks for the comment; the link is well worth reading.

As someone with an adopted

As someone with an adopted sister, I shudder at the PC terms that surround adoption and paint the process as something we all wish adoption really was while cloaking and shaming the truth. I know there exists some people who may love their baby so much they realize the best home is somewhere else and thus choose adoption. But most babies, like my sister, are given away when poverty and drugs are "chosen" over the child's welfare. It's really the adoptive parent/s that are making an informed choice. There are so many class issues with adoption. Introducing a "choice" for the birth-mother where the situation has already snowballed into the birth of an unwanted baby subverts the reality of adoption. Teen pregnancies are an example of this. Can a 16 year old really make an informed 'choice' about giving away her child for adoption? Why is it that lower class teen moms 'chose' to give their kids to adoption more often than middle class teen moms?

Watching Teen Moms with my own mom

She was 16 when she gave birth to me, 17 to my sister and 18 to my other sister and "chose" to have us stay with foster families during certain intervals where she couldnt financially support us (she also chose to visit us everyday- i thought it was just a sleepover.) She's very honest with us about the difficulty of raising 3 children even with my father present but also clear that these were very conscious choices. Why do people assume that because you are 16 you "know so little about the world" and you aren't able to examine your own situation, your emotions, your resources, your support group and make a good decision? I don't think society gives young (or any) mothers enough credit for making decisions. I've heard so many brush off decisions by teens as "emotional" or immature. Sounds like what I was told so often when I first came out as lesbian- you're too young to make that decision....

What I think is ridiculous

What I think is ridiculous is that these girls are on the covers of these tabloids, saying that they're broke, but at the same time, MTV is paying them to be on the show, AND the tabloids are paying them a hefty sum (I'm guessing around $100,000). It's like when Bristol Palin complained about how financially difficult it is to be a teenaged mother. Well, maybe in the real world where you're not getting thousands of dollars in speaking engagements.

The problem I have with that is that it's simply not realistic, and I think it sends a bad message to young girls. We all know how impressionable and dumb some teenagers can be (I was one of them), and I worry that they'd watch this show, and see the magazine covers and think "Hey! That can be me!"

I do think it's important to document this, but at the same time, it's sending mixed messages. I really think that these mothers are only seen on-camera as "poor" or "broke" but actually have it quite easy, financially, due to MTV and the tabloids paying them.

Is MTV responsible?

I'm hooked on Teen Mom, partly because this type of documentary format just draws me in and partly because I can't turn away from the horror. The points brought up in this article seem very true to me, particularly about Amber and Gary's relationship, but even more the sadness around Farrah's story. Whenever I watch the show, however, I wonder if MTV should take more responsibility for helping the girls. Farrah has a therapist, and Catelynn seems to get that kind of support from the adoption agency, but for the most part, the girls don't seem to get very much psychological help. Does being in front of the camera make it more stressful to be in the situation? By getting into their lives (and clearly making money from their stories), is MTV more responsible for helping them out, more than just a check here and there? Am I the only one who gets that feeling that "now that we know about them, we really should help?"

Great post indeed! That's

Great post indeed! That's all I really have to say except I basically agree with everything you said in the post. Thanks! :)

As it is

Let's all just treat this as it is. These types of situations are entered into by young women everyday, these four women are just a tiny snowflake on the tip of a huge iceberg. This is an entertainment show, and if you think for a second that they aren't payed well, your WRONG! After reading this article, I realized a few things. The first being that when a corporation has an interest, especially one that makes a lot of money, they are going to protect that interest no matter what. That means they will do anything, even if it is unethical to keep that show on the air. When we feel sympathy for these girls, I guarantee we are the only ones. Mtv sees them as a paycheck period. The second thing I realized was that just because these four girls got on television, doesn't necessarily mean that they will try to become better mothers, and , furthermore, there are a lot of babies that will grow up out of the spotlight that will have it a lot worse than these children do. So before we all start calling our shrinks to help these girls, I think we should focus our attention on better ways of educating the youth and women in our country. Not trying to be sexist, but when you educate women, in turn you will educate a future generation. This article helped me get over my apathy for these young women, and helped me see the bigger picture. Thank you!

This show is so fake if

This show is so fake if there so broke how can they have new cars and there own places cause a apartment + bills is way more then someone can take care of on a min.paying job. They need to make a real story on the real teens who dont have rich familys to help them. Amber and gary lay in bed all day and yet have a new van a appartment a car and go out to eat all the time well amber only works 15-25 hrs a wk at a min paying job. Thats fake. her family is poor and so is garys so explain how that is reality. Reality is a teen gets prego there parents say i cant help you and you have to do it on your own all of it. They have to find a job to pay all there own bills not 20 hrs a wk well there parents are picking up the slack. Teen mom is someone who does it on there own , they make it look easy on here and little girls are like i want my own house and a car and a baby to dress up. OK Min wage around here is 7.25 i think 40 hrs a wk thats about 280 a wk now take out taxes youll bring home about 230 a wk hoiw much is rent about 450 for the ghetto places well 230x4 is like 920 a mnth gas and electric car insurance food day care It takes alot more then 20 hrs a wk at work not mention school u better forget about that if your a teen mom cause 40hrs at work then 6hr days at school do you know how much day care costs you wold work just to pay daycare pluse an extra 6 hrs at day care is alot of money so the reality of this show is once again FAKE.... Im a teen mom and i have no help i had to drop out of school get a full time job find a place to live and had no car cause noone would help me ive had to walkj everyday in the snow or rain with my daughter toget her to doctors to a babysitter and i had to go to work 8-10 hrs a day then walk a little over 2 miles to the babysitters then about a mile home in the rain or snow through the ghetto i mean ghetto. All I want is to be a great mom and give my daughter a life i never had. Now MTV wheres that in your reality show??

MTV paid the "16&Pregnant"

MTV paid the "16&Pregnant" girls $5,000/ea to be on the show. Someone I know was considering going on the 2nd season.
I am certain the "Teen Mom" stars are paid better now but no one should assume it's very much. Certainly it is not $100,000 as someone suggested. (Even if it's 10x what they were paid for "16&Preg"-as much as $50,000- is that a lot of money to make in a year? Car pmts, rent, utilities, child expenses...not rolling in dough. And would Catelynn live with that vicious mother of hers if she had wads of cash? As for Farrah moving out, she comes from a family with money and her mother owns a rental property)

Regardless, kudos to them for finding ways to support themselves. Who cares if they get paid by MTV or the tabloids or waiting tables or whatever?

As for the show not showing the "true" side of teen preg: actually, it does. Most teen moms are not 14 yr olds living in generational poverty in public housing who shake their babies. Most are exactly like these girls. Working- to middle-class 18/19 yr olds. (majority of teenage pregnancies are in girls 18 and over)
And studies have shown that socioeconomic status, not merely age at giving birth, determines outcomes for young mothers, and that women in poverty do not see financial advantages by waiting until their 20's to have children. Teenage mothers tend to end up, as adults, in the same economic class they were raised in. It's all about resources and support systems.

That being said, I was a 17 yr old middle-class pregnant high school drop out. What I see on "Teen Mom" is like getting in a time machine and seeing myself and my friends 13, 14 yrs ago. Today, I have a Master's degree and teach high school. My friends, former teen moms as well, are all pretty typical 30-somethings with jobs and kids. Many are more successful than childless people I know.

Having a baby is not a death sentence. If "Teen Mom" is not scary enough, maybe it's because in reality, the situation just isn't all that horrible. For me it really wasn't much different than having a baby at age 30 was.

Thank you for writing this

Thank you for writing this piece. I personally do watch the show and at times find myself wondering about the message it sends and how closely it relates to real teen moms. I agree that there are a wide range of situations that could put a girl into the 'teen mom' category and that not all of these have to necessarily be negative. On the other hand, i feel the show does not present a good picture of what it's like to be a teen mom because of the fact, as stated above, that the girls on the show are "generally white and able-bodied." I feel that the show and the fact that these mom's are now appearing in the tabloids just gives evidence of how the media interpolates our views of these girls to increase ratings. Instead of documenting these mom's lives and struggles in the hopes of informing teens of what they may get themselves into by having unprotected sex, the media is just transforming these teen moms into reality T.V. "celebrities."

the real protagonist

I have always thought that there was a right time to have a baby and I now know that to be an illusion.
You could probably be ready to have a baby and even that is a dangerous idea.
The point being that it is a personal point of view that should consider the new person totally.
At this point of knowledge you do not choose to be born and even less choose your parents but obviously
as a newborn you should be born with all the rights you should have.
I mean that maybe it is important to be a parent regardless of how it can be evaluated.
A child needs that feeling of closeness we loose later on. We loose it because we see it hard to get and
even harder to give. A child will need it and claim it his right. That will be the mark of a parent, the capacity
to give love, as we personally know it, when it becomes its utmost essence. Its maximum expression the
love for a child that is yours, that is something of yours.

Teen moms have a feminist voice

What I really liked the first time I saw '16 & pregnant' was the way the girls where given a voice and could express themselves through a feminist narrative such as complaining of the lack of involvement of the baby's father, questioning gender roles relating to motherhood and claiming their independence as being able to do it on their own if problems arise with their family or the baby's father. I think this 'bitch' article doesn't recognize the agency these women have in the show even if it is shaped by many systems of oppressions that need to be acknowledged. In 'Teen Mom' the emphasis is also put on the strenght of the women in many ways. The part that i was disguted by was the interview with Dr Drew which only try to victimize them.

While I agree with this article, there was something which I found in this show that I have never found elsewhere: I am a single mom by choice, still a student and got pregnant at 24, I have watched so many usual motherhood shows and have been frustrated over and over at the way they create this image of motherhood which I can't identify with since it always represents a perfect all american white middle-class heterosexual couple.

I can't say i approve. What

I can't say i approve.
What about educational value, really?
Is this right? What do children think when they watch it?
What thoughts cross their minds?

Teen Mom Stats


1. Only 62% of children born to teen Moms complete high school by age 21 (that includes GED) compared to 92% of children born to women who are older than 25 and married.
2. 69% of men in prison were born to teen Mom's, 92% of men in prison were raised by single Mom's.
3. Children of teens become teen Mom's in almost every case. New statistics say around 80%. So get ready for you're grandkids when you're 30.
4. Children born to girls age 18 and younger are 33 times more likely to be molested by "stepdad" or Mom's b/friend. 33 TIMES MORE!!!!!
5. 27% of children born to girls age 15 and younger have attachment disorder. When they are age 18, it is called sociopathic. It means they can not understand or have meaningful relationships with other people and lack empathy.
6. More than 50% of children born to single Mom's have some sort of learning disability, fetal alcohol syndrome, ADD and ADHD, or are born addicted to drugs. HALF of all children born to teen Mom's start off with extreme disadvantage.
7. Children born to teen Mom's live in poverty, unless they are living with the baby's grandparents. Period. So if you don't get yours (period) get plan B or have an abortion.
8. Single Mother's are targeted by child molester's b/c they want to get close to your kids. Molestation is RARELY done by strangers--look around you CLOSELY.

I could go on and is soooooooooooo easy NOT to get pregnant now that you have no excuse to be this irresponsible to yourself and society. Get a shot in your ass and fuck all day. At least I won't be raising your baby.

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