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Why We Really Care About Teen Mom

Posted: 11/02/10 03:11 PM ET

As you may or may not have already heard, Life and Style reported last week that an insider (most likely Gary's friend Jordan) spilled the beans about the Teen Mom salaries. Your first thought might be, "Who cares?" But some people do seem to care a lot, admittedly including me. The question is, why?

Many applaud the show for being a hip pregnancy deterrent. Others insist that it doesn't paint a dismal enough picture. Those who believe it does a disservice by making young motherhood look less than hellish often cite their belief that the only thing saving the cast from public housing is the bags of money MTV is showering upon them. But really, are the girls' lives much different now than they were when 16 and Pregnant first aired? Even if we believe that MTV has turned Teen Mom from a docu-series to a scripted drama (frankly I don't think any of the cast are good enough actors to pull that off), they have stayed true to the girls' roots. If the show never existed, would any of them be in dramatically different living situations than they are now? I doubt it.

MTV works hard to portray the Teen Mom cast as broke and struggling to provide for their babies. Catelynn, despite placing her baby for adoption a year ago, is still stuck at home in a dysfunctional and emotionally abusive family. Amber and Gary seem to stay in their volatile relationship for no other reason than having nowhere else to go. Farrah works rough hours and needs her late boyfriend's SSI to help support her daughter. Maci seems to do alright but that could be attributed to her parents' assistance, though she still worries about moving out of their house and paying the rent on a new apartment.

None of their situations strike me as unrealistic. I was a teen mom, I know quite a few teen moms, and I've seen all of these scenarios (and more) play out in real life. What does seem odd to me is that they are living the way they are if they're getting $60,000 paychecks. Compared to the other top MTV stars' salaries, $60,000 a season is chump change. But it's a respectable full-time yearly salary for an American family, especially in the areas where the girls live. They could live comfortably on that particularly with their additional sources of income, which actually makes a lot of people angry.

Recently I spoke to a young woman ("T") who backed out of 16 and Pregnant's second season. She wanted to go on the show because she felt she could be a positive role model to other young mothers. But MTV producers wanted to focus a lot more on her struggles with bulimia, her less than stellar relationship with her mother, and her 20-year-old boyfriend's religious family who kept her a secret and pushed her to place the baby for adoption. She was offered $2,500 during filming and an additional $2,500 when her episode aired. If the father of the baby was involved, he would get $1,000. "Hardly 'rich', but enough to help with the expenses and leftover medical bills," she told me.

I asked her how she feels about the show now that she's a mother:

The show mostly shows the hardships in my opinion, the moments all mothers reach at some point when they are sleep deprived, frustrated, and just need a break, but it is looked on more harshly because of the fact these are teen moms and not 30-something-year-old women.

When I watched season 1 of 16&Pregnant, it psyched me out beyond all belief. They showed the girls tired, run down, emotional, and struggling with everything. I was so worried I could not handle it, because I literally thought my life was going to be made up of only those frazzled moments shown on TV, but when my daughter was born I was surprised to find it was not as bad as I thought. Sure, it was frustrating, tiring, and there were times I wanted to rip my hair out, but it was not like I had hyped it up to be.

And that is the crux of the issue.

People must care about the money because they're searching for an explanation. They want to know why the girls on Teen Mom are not destitute and seething with regret. Every season during the Dr. Drew finale wrap-up, I get the feeling he's doing PR damage control by constantly reiterating, "You love your child but life would be sooo much easier if you didn't get pregnant, right?" Sure, each of them has her own problems (some bigger than others) but they are not "teenage mom" problems so much as they are personality flaws or unfortunate family situations that anyone at any age could be strapped with. Still, because of our assumptions about young mothers, the only way their lives make sense is if they have enough money that the hardships don't matter as much. But a lot of young moms who aren't on TV say the same thing: It's difficult, but it's worth it. It's not as bad as they thought it was going to be. That makes people very uncomfortable.

I asked T what she or her friends think about the claim that MTV glamorizing motherhood and whether she thinks the show curbs pregnancy:

Whether or not it is a deterrent is relative to who watches it. Someone might see it and think "wow I don't want that, I better be more careful!" and others might see how amazing pregnancy and birth is and think they want it NOW. It really depends on the person.

It occurred to me that's the bottom line. We debate whether MTV is encouraging or discouraging pregnancy. When it boils down to it, I'm not sure they're not really doing either. MTV is presenting us with a relatively straightforward narrative about the lives of young women who often have little in common with each other besides giving birth. We're filling in the rest all by ourselves.

Ask people their opinion about the show and you can infer a lot about their politics. The comments on the episode recaps I've been doing for MomHouston.com are often shocking in the depth of hatred and disgust pointed at sexually active young women. Even self-proclaimed feminists who should be supportive of all forms of reproductive freedom chime in with pearls of wisdom like, "The answer to all teenage pregnancy is abortion!" 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom are an endless festival of slut-shaming served up as an educational tool.

Teenage pregnancy sits squarely in the intersection of our most pathological American obsessions: female sexuality, public aid, race, religion. Teens moms are an easy target, because who is going to defend them? MTV tapped into a gold mine with this one -- a topic so emotionally fraught and politically intense that hardly anyone can resist offering their opinion about it. Like the proverbial train wreck, once you see the show you can't drag your eyes away. We care about it because we like scapegoats. We care about it because we like to pat ourselves on the back when our prejudice is validated and enjoy the indignation when it's not.

So next time we as a nation sound off about "babies having babies" and how much money they are or aren't making for doing so, let's question whether we are really interested in social reform or if we are playing into cultural attitudes about age, gender, sex, and socioeconomic status. That, I think, could be the enduring lesson we salvage from the Teen Mom phenomenon.