The Teen Moms are everywhere. On MTV. At the Supermarket checkout counter. On TMZ and the other gossip sites. And their popularity tells us a lot about what drives our culture, increasingly ever focused on a tiny demographic: White female teenagers.
I’ve seen teenage girls page through fascinated, by the Teen Mom covers of the various gossip mags: US Weekly, People, Star, and so on. And why not? Teen Mom is not, so much the celebration of teenage motherhood, as it is teenage celebrity.
For those unfamiliar with the Teen Mom phenomena, it all started with MTV. Long gone are the days when MTV ran music videos, these days MTV is the launching pad for "reality" shows aimed at teenage girls. Kim Kardashian got her reality show start, by appearing in the MTV reality show "My Super Sweet 16" which featured rich girls getting extravagant sixteenth birthday parties. Her father, the late Robert Kardashian, of the OJ Simpson trial infamy, threw her a birthday party featuring her entrance on a throne carried by a bunch of shirtless Chippendale's dancers. Total cost? Around $250,000, as I recall.
Among MTV's most popular shows, was "Sixteen and Pregnant," featuring the trials and tribulations of teenagers just so situated. A number of the young women featured were spun off into "Teen Mom." The Teen Moms get a pittance, only $50,000 or so ... per season. But they can leverage the fame into appearance fees, and get paid for magazine covers. The money is better than nothing of course.
But the most important thing about MTV's reality shows is that they are not in fact, reality. They like nearly all reality shows are heavily scripted. The writers just don't make union scale and neither do the people playing characters. There are villains, for the teenage girls to hate, and heroes, and most of all, hunky guys. The storylines might as well be lifted from a soap opera, and are as obvious and manipulative as WWE Wrestling, but without the virtue of athletic performance.
If Bristol Palin was an "unlikely" rival to eventual winner Jennifer Grey on "Dancing With The Stars," it was unlikely only to those unfamiliar with the manipulations of reality shows. Every show needs a villain. A character for the audience to hate, with situations manipulated and lines written for characters to say. Both the British "X Factor" and American Idol have admitted to using auto-tune to make certain singers sound better, and others worse. Everything being driven off character, the good girl the good guy, the bad boy, the rebel, the hunk, and the edgy and hip arty girl or guy.
Obviously, some things are improvised. But the "reality" of the shows are only the reality of cheaper, much cheaper, writing and acting budgets. The fore-runner being once again, MTV with "Real World." It is important to recognize, the paucity of ideals or ideas or issues that inhabit the universe of reality shows. The show producers do not feel, and have some evidence (the popularity of their approach) that the teen female audience they pursue actually cares about ideas, or ideals, or anything beyond who is the most hunkiest? Apropos of the old Saturday Night skit "Who Is More Muy Macho? Ricardo Montalban y Fernando Llamas?"
This lack of focus on ideals, or anything beyond personality and character, is not unique to the teen female audience either. Older skewing reality shows (and scripted ones) are subject to the same focus on hunkiness versus nerdiness, Alpha versus Beta male, bad boy versus good guy, with divas, princesses, and so on. Even a relatively escapist show like NBC's "Life" explored ideas and issues: the limits of revenge, how to fight evil without becoming a monster in turn, finding peace and tranquility, overcoming various traumas. All absent in things as varied as "Vampire Diaries" or "Desperate Housewives" or "Teen Mom" or "Real Housewives."
Which does a dis-service to the female audience. While female viewers may not find the limits of revenge interesting, they certainly are interested in exploring what makes a good or bad boyfriend, husband, and father. What makes a marriage strong or weak, bad or good ways to raise children, and how to balance career, family, and self-fulfillment. That they are female-focused does not make them trivial, nor should women and girls of any age be treated as mere soap opera addicts.
Yet overwhelmingly, the focus is on celebrity, diva-esque behavior, romantic entanglements, and other idiot trivia of a psuedo celebrity culture. Teen Mom focuses on the "bad" (and also fat) girl who may lose her kid, and a "bad" girl with chaotic relationships (her ex, a new boyfriend) and a "good" girl with less chaotic relationships. All of this has led to success.
TVByTheNumbers.com reports that Teen Mom in October pulled a 2.4 in the Adults 18-34 demographic to lead all cable, with 4.1 million viewers. That may seem like nothing compared to American Idol pulling in as many as 30 million viewers during peaks. But most of the viewers are indeed, teen girls. Who just cannot get enough of Teen Mom.
If you look at the show, or the website, you will see the synopsis:
In 16 and Pregnant, they were moms-to-be. Now, follow Farrah, Maci, Amber, and Catelynn as they face the challenges of motherhood.
Each episode interweaves these stories revealing the wide variety of challenges young mothers can face: marriage, relationships, family support, adoption, finances, graduating high school, starting college, getting a job, and the daunting and exciting step of moving out to create their own families.
From a male perspective, this is about as exciting as watching paint dry, but the show cleans up among White teen girls. The tabloids do their part to make this all happen as well.
Is this healthy? Nope. Sixteen year olds are not emotionally nor financially mature enough to provide for children in today's society, which is fast paced and brutal on those without competitive advantages to put their kids ahead: good neighborhoods with good schools, safe suburban environment, money (generally meaning two high-income earners), and a two parent family with the mother married to the biological father. Teen Mom is focused first on glamorizing diva-esque behavior, by teen "celebrities" but it does in fact glamorize teen age pregnancy as well. Including the fantasy, tellingly, that teen girls can have a kid by a hunky, bad boy and then pay little penalty in raising their kid or with romantic opportunities. Female hypergamy encouraged.
But just as toxic, is the idea that being famous, or a junk celebrity, is a substitute for having professional skills that pay well, being careful and cautious in personal judgments and behavior, and that adopting diva-like behavior is something that pays off. An entire generation of teen girls are getting exactly the wrong messages. To pursue the hunky bad boy without reservation. To abandon education in favor of chasing fame. To act like a princess or diva. Disastrous messages to young women who need the unvarnished truth. That their youth and beauty will quickly fade. Choosing a father for their child is the most important thing, not the least. That children need a father, and a mother, who can both earn money to support a safe and prosperous suburban lifestyle.