The 99%: The Hidden Class Politics of Teen Mom 2

Teen Mom 2Last 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

by Gretchen Sisson
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Gretchen is a research sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. She studies cultural representations and constructions of parenthood and reproductive choice.

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10 Comments Have Been Posted

I agree completely. They keep

I agree completely. They keep showing up with mysterious new cars, always have their nails done, and are always able to put food on the table. Somehow Kailyn is managing to pay for an apartment, car, and tuition on top of raising a kid and childcare...on a part-time job. (Unless I missed something, but that's how the show is presenting her situation). The mom with twins was driving a new Ford Fusion last night on the show.

I would at least like them to acknowledge "if I wasn't lucky enough to get be getting a salary from MTV/whatever, I would be on food stamps" or something.

I'm happy that this ridiculousness is being noticed by someone else.

No surprise here; there are

No surprise here; there are also real issues of race / racism / white supremacy. When they had the abortion special with Dr. Drew, they featured a black mom who chose abortion rather than carry a pregnancy to term and have a second child. Somehow it's more socially acceptable for a black woman to chose to terminate a pregnancy; there is the idea that there is less of a loss if that pregnancy is terminated. (I totally disagree with that line of thinking on many levels, but I think it's important to point out.)

Yes, it's catchy to talk about this in the "99%" rhetoric, but I think it's also important to talk about poverty and name it openly. We don't need a "war on poverty." We already have a prison industrial complex that's ravaging non-white, poor communities. We need honest discussion about poverty. There's a huge difference between middle-class status and poverty-- especially when it comes to stigma, state intervention, and health outcomes.

Teen mom only has white

Teen mom only has white girls dealing with their pregnancy. Even 16 and pregnant has shown a majority of white girls too. I've see about two girls of color on there. What's with that?

You're absolutely right (and

You're absolutely right (and thanks for all your comments)! There's a serious lack of racial diversity on the show. I think they make some (small, tiny) gesture towards diversity on "16 and Pregnant" by including some Latina young women, but even then they don't acknowledge much cultural difference (which can often be very relevant).

There also aren't very many girls who live in anything close to a city. They're mostly small-town girls from the South or Midwest. I think the urban experience of young parenthood can also be very different (and I'm talking about geography here, not just using "urban" as a euphemism for race, as some shows love to do). There's a denser population, and much less likely that they'll be the only teen parent in their high school, and consequently they're less of an oddity.

Well, they used to. A lot

Well, they used to. A lot actually. In the first season of Teen Mom we see Amber have to go to an SRO for a few nights because she has no place to live. The show doesn't shy away from her calling motel after motel only to realize that she can't afford even $50/night and then settles on an SRO and even that being a financial struggle. The same season we watched Catlin and Tyler deal with poverty-- they bring up money as the biggest reason they had to give Carly up over and over again. Maci and Farrah are (upper) middle class and we see their lives pan out much differently. As the seasons went on Teen Mom Season 2 and then Teen Mom 2, MTV starts ignoring issues of money and class more and more. Like you said, it may be because the women are getting paid (they all seem to be doing really well now without having jobs... Catlin & Tyler get their own place, Amber rents a house, Maci can afford day care, Farrah quits the pizza job) or it may because it sucked watching these young women have no money and I think most people watching were rooting for them and so MTV released their trusts and let them have access to the money now. My understanding is in 16 & Pregnant no one gets paid but MTV buys some big ticket items for the baby (car seat, crib, etc). and then in Teen Mom Season 1, they got paid but the money went into a trust until after filming to give a better sense of real life. I'm torn on this... I think the women all having money and mobility gives a very skewed vision of what it's like to be a teen mom but I also think its fucked for these women to not get paid. I guess more transparency would be a step toward some balance...

I don't know, I don't really

I don't know, I don't really think Amber calling places to find an SRO is sufficient to really capture the lived experiences of most young moms. And the fact that now she has her own place seems to imply that it was a very temporary setback, rather than a way of life that she has to cope with for an extended period of time.

As far as Caitlynn and Tyler -- I didn't write about them because I'd have too much to say in one blog post. I think the way MTV handles their adoption is awful, and I think it's a cruel reality that so many woman who make adoption decisions do so because the systems of oppression are working against them, rather than because they're choosing the option that's best for them. I've written a bit about this, too: "Choosing Life: Thoughts on National Adoption Month" and "Adoption in the United States: Harder and More Complicated Than Most Believe"

It would be great if MTV were actually open about how much they pay these young women for their episodes of "16 and Pregnant" as well as their seasons of "Teen Mom." Don't get be wrong -- I believe they absolutely SHOULD be paid. But their being paid also changes the story, and as viewers of a showing purporting to show something of a "reality", we deserve to know how much that story is being changed. It needs to be acknowledged.

Watching the show makes me want to cut public assistance

Watching how irresponsible these people are with money sickens me. Vacation trips to Florida, going out to restaurants all the time, nice cars, etc. All the while they're receiving free health care (medicaid) food stamps, diapers, welfare, etc. while I scrounge and save only to pay taxes so these irresponsible idiots can keep making poor decisions.

Mistaken minds.

<p>I agree with alot of what you said Gretchen. But I do think that these shows are glamorizing teen pregnancy. All though you are right about there is nothing glamorous having to deal with, custody battles, domestic violence, adoption loss, and so on, but what these shows are saying to teens all around the world is, get pregnant at a young age and get on TV or the cover of people magazine. Unfortunately alot of teens are not looking at this show as a way to teach them to be safe and responsible when having kids but looking at it as, well these girls got to be on TV and in magazines for their mistakes. Having a kid can't be so hard. And if it is, who cares. Im famous!</p>

I definitely agree! Not

I definitely agree! Not everyone can get pregnant in high school and still live this glamorous life. Most teen parents have much more of a struggle than these girls have!

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