This week marked the end of an MTV show that has been both polarizing and extremely popular since its inception three years ago. The show is Teen Mom, which began as a 2009 spin-off of MTV’s documentary series 16 and Pregnant. Created by Lauren Dolgen, 16 and Pregnant depicted the lives of real teen parents before and after the birth of their children. After the first season of 16 and Pregnant aired, MTV selected four girls to be part of the Teen Mom spin-off, and filmed their first years of motherhood. Since then, MTV has aired three more seasons of 16 and Pregnant featuring three different casts. Two of these seasons have spawned a Teen Mom series: Teen Mom 2 (in its second season) and Teen Mom 3 (greenlit by MTV). So despite the end of the original Teen Mom series, the Teen Mom franchise remains active on MTV.
Given the makeup of the network’s other successful programs (Jersey Shore, the Real World, Campus PD, The Hills, etc.), it would be easy to write off Teen Mom as another sensationalized “reality” program that exploits its protagonists for profit. It is important to acknowledge that Teen Mom has changed as a series throughout its four seasons, and that these changes have affected its impact as a hard-hitting expose on being a pregnant teenager in the United States. However, it is a political and cultural event that warrants closer examination for its impact on discussions of teenage sexuality in contemporary arenas.
Teen Mom features season-long narrative arcs that involve the women and their families, partners, and children, focusing largely on negative or dramatic events in their lives. This focus is in contrast to 16 and Pregnant, which focused on the financial, educational, and familial issues of one pregnant teen per episode. As a result, Teen Mom focused less on the everyday difficulties of teenage parenthood and more on the dramatic interactions between the mothers and their partners, friends, and parents. This makes the show more entertaining to watch, but takes away much of the “reality” that characterized 16 and Pregnant as a groundbreaking and interesting look at teen motherhood.
By the end of the show’s run, Teen Mom did not represent a “real” depiction of life as a young parent. The show’s stars received a salary for their seasonal appearances and outside engagements. Corporate sponsorship and product placement in the show also helped to erase many of the financial realities of teen parenthood; we saw the girls wearing brand name clothing and shoes, and using brand-name cell phones and computers with visible logos for various companies. The Teen Mom brand has allowed the stars of the show to build personal brands and capitalize on the success of the show, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Outside of the show, the girls have gained success as authors, public speakers, and entreprenuers. Farrah, Maci, Catelynn and Amber are now famous for the sole reason that they allowed their dramatic lives to be filmed on national television, but without the show, it is possible that more of them would have not been able to finish school, find work, or get mental health treatment. While MTV’s depiction of the girls and their struggles has been over-dramatized and arguably exploitative, these women have largely been able to use their fame to benefit their own lives in the face of systemic barriers to education, financial success and community support.
Another positive outcome of Teen Mom’s success lay in the show’s frank discussions of sexuality, particular female sexuality. It is a rare thing to see teenage girls speaking for themselves on television in such candid ways about school, boyfriends, family life, hopes, and dreams, and it is rarer still for them to be heard by their peers. The girls on Teen Mom are obviously carefully selected for the show because they offer a chance for a dramatic narrative, but they are also given the opportunity to ask and answer questions about sexuality during their sit-down sessions with the often-frustrating Dr. Drew. This is especially noteworthy considering the political climate in the United States and the ongoing battles over reproductive rights and sex education in that country. If anything, Teen Mom is visible proof that abstinence-only education does not work - these girls have sex, and their main refrain is not that they wish they hadn’t had sex, but that they knew how to do it safely. This is a big departure from political discussions of sexuality that often exclude or shame women for their choices. In this sense, Teen Mom offers one of the only outlets for frank discussions about sexual health, protection and empowerment without stigma. One such example of these discussions was a special called “No Easy Decision” about abortion that aired in 2011. This special featured some of the women from 16 and Pregnant, and provided information and discussion about abortion in an informative and balanced way. The video is only available on American MTV.
Notably, the show does not focus on urban teen mothers who may be living in much more challenging conditions due to inflated housing costs and other financial and social issues. On Teen Mom, the stories are set in small “real American” middle class towns, or else the girls’ environments are not documented at all. It may be that the majority of girls who audition for the show are from middle-class families, but MTV has the power to seek out teen mothers who live in much more difficult situations in order to provide a wide range of stories to their audience. In the past few weeks, TLC has picked up on this trend with High School Moms, a show set in Denver, Colorado, that takes a documentary approach to students at Florence Critteron High School, which is exclusively for teenage mothers. MTV could have taken this approach, and it would have been an effective one for furthering the idea that teen pregnancy is not an isolated issue among one group or another.
Finally, one of the most lasting effects of Teen Mom has been the community-building among the stars of the show. A common topic of discussion on both Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant is the overwhelming loneliness and boredom that comes with being a parent, and especially a teen parent. The moms themselves have been able to reach out to each other and express support for one another in a public way that acknowledges their struggles and further humanizes them as people instead of statistics. So while the Teen Mom franchise is not without its faults, it still represents an interesting point of view regarding reproductive rights and the struggles of young mothers to get beyond statistics and become successful. As with most successful MTV shows, it is likely that Teen Mom 2 and Teen Mom 3 will remembered more for their drama than for their information and behind-the-scenes looks at real struggles of teenage parents. But before that happens, we can remember the original show as a fascinating look at a segment of society that rarely gets the opportunity to speak frankly about universal issues through the medium of popular entertainment.