ColumnWhere celebrity becomes conscious.
It’s a reality TV world, and we’re just living in it. The cast of Jersey Shore knows their marks. The Kardashian sisters can work a camera angle on false eyelashes like no others. In almost all cases, the participants are in on the storyline while the rest of us choose to tune in or not. But where does this formula of complacency completely fall apart? It’s among the ruins of baby blankets, broken dreams, and bad baby daddies of MTV’s Teen Mom.
I’m not the first person to clutch my pearl necklace over MTV’s hugely-successful series Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2. The two shows are Vegas-styled off-shots of a once interesting attempt at a real documentary, 16 & Pregnant, which followed young girls as they moved from childhood to parenthood. The ratings are huge for the entire franchise.
Some claim teenage motherhood is evil, sucking the rest of society down a collective drain. I’m not one of them. Plenty of young mothers rise to the occasion. But MTV’s assertion that their “ground breaking” documentary is some kind of socially-conscious public service announcement, and that they’re actually helping kids by exposing the real struggles of being a teen mom, is nothing short of smug. Teen Mom is Jerry Springer-style shock television, not an after-school special. You can dress it up as a public service announcement, but it still smells like baby vomit.
First, the entire premise of the show is that being a young mother is a struggle – unless you are actually on Teen Mom. Some of the stars earn as much as $65,000 an episode. You wouldn’t know it from the show, where the theme of low-income jobs, tuition bills unpaid, and living with parents plays out over and over. And yet, there are cracks in the façade. Teen Mom Maci “has savings” and suddenly rents a two bedroom condo to be near her boyfriend. Teen Mom Jenelle has bail money, even though she’s living on the streets.
It’s heartbreaking to watch Teen Mom Chelsea Houska keep going back to a deadbeat boyfriend who, in her own words, “seems to care more about his car than his daughter [Aubree].” The only person this information ultimately benefits is Aubree’s future therapist, who is likely to cash in on multiple sessions with the little girl who suffered a tremendously public, disinterested father.
But perhaps the drama is most pronounced amongst the flying fists of rage belonging to stars Jenelle Evans and Amber Portwood. Just in time for the season finale of Teen Mom 2, Evans has been arrested and booked on two misdemeanors for assault and affray after beating another teen mom into the ground. Sound familiar? Maybe it’s because the first bad girl of the series, Teen Mom Amber Portwood, has already been arrested and charged with felony domestic violence charges after beating boyfriend Gary Shirley.
What are we supposed to be getting out of this? A true representation of what it’s like to be a young mother? As quantum theory tells us, in the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality. A few years back, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science conducted a highly controlled experiment demonstrating how a beam of electrons is affected by the act of being observed. As Science Daily writes, “The experiment revealed that the greater the amount of ‘watching,’ the greater the observer’s influence on what actually takes place.” We might apply this theory to teenagers under a microscope.
And of the effects? It’s no secret that celebrity can be extremely toxic. See: Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan. Wil Wheaton, child star and now prolific blogger, poignantly referenced the tragic loss of co-star River Phoenix to the Fame Monster. As Wheaton wrote, “Richard [Dreyfuss] put it best when he said that there is this monster in Hollywood that everyone knows about. It lurks just out of view, and occasionally it reaches up and snatches someone…and it got River.” Imagine this experience for a scared child who is embarking on parental responsibilities before they can even legally drive in some states. It’s concentric surreality, and it’s foisting fame on kids who need as much support as they can get – not magazine covers and new paparazzi stalkers. (These girls are all now tabloid stars, hounded by paparazzi and appearing on magazine cover after cover.)
Teen Mom Maci Bookout (right) hangs out with the cast of Jersey Shore.
There does seem to be a good intention at the heart of the concept. The shows are often peppered with the declaration that “Teen pregnancy is 100% preventable,” and each episode scrupulously offers up a website for information, It’syoursexlife.com. Some of the stars are clearly intent on doing the best for their children, and there are glimpses of heart-breaking selflessness and decency. For Teen Mom, it’s in the “story line” of teenagers Catelynn and Tyler, who gave up their daughter Carly for adoption. They both exhibited maturity and strength in their decision. Teen Mom 2 brought us Leah and Corey, admirable parents of twin girls, who struggled with daughter Ali’s medical issues. Both couples display insight beyond their years. And stoic Teen Mom 2 Kailyn Lowry, who wants to make a better life for her child, recently addressed the criticism surrounding the show. As she explains, “This is about me trying to help other teen girls and guys…everyone else thinks we want to be celebrities….that’s not what the message is about.”
Perhaps not. But somewhere, this show jumped the tracks from being a poignant cautionary tale for young mothers to a cautionary tale for celebrity. (See here: Amber Portwood.) Is MTV to blame for the behavior of their less-responsible stars? Maybe not. But where’s the socially-conscious value in these babies to see their mothers acting out like this? What’s the benefit for these babies to grow up knowing that their fathers were basically absent or disinterested in their lives? We don’t have to watch, but others still will, and no one, least of all the company that started it, seems to be taking responsibility.
In addition to cutting them a giant paycheck with more money they might see in a decade, the network should get these children real help – help outside of a stern Dr. Drew or pop psychology at a series reunion. Arrests, girl fights, and drug possession might make great ratings, but this cast is no Snooki and company. They’re babies.
This is another installment in Katherine Butler’s column, Shade Grown Hollywood, where celebrity becomes conscious. “Shade grown” refers literally to shade grown coffee, a farming method that “incorporates principles of natural ecology to promote natural ecological relationships.” Shade grown is our sustainable twist on Hollywood.