One of the pop-culture media’s obsessions this week is a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research which claims that the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant has actively reduced the number of teen pregnancies in the United States, by about six percent. People are very excited about this, even as just a few days ago some other research by other university professors found that the people who watch the show heavily have no concept of what a teenage mother’s life is really like. You can get whiplash following this stuff too closely.
If you are, like me, a longtime follower of these shows (note that I do not say “fan”), the confusion about their effect isn’t news. Even since 16 and Pregnant and its spin-off show Teen Mom appeared, people have been debating whether or not they “glamorize” what they depict. And the reason the debate continues is that the glamor calculus is way too complicated here to yield a single answer.
As far as self-conception goes, Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant operate on a fairly clear intent. The producers find young women who have made what nearly everyone agrees is the life-ruining choice of giving birth before the age of 18, and film them. The frame of the show is pretty clear that it intends to depict a reality so depressing no sentient human being would ever choose it. It is sponsored by an entity called the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. I really don’t know how much clearer it can get on this point. If people choose to ignore the frame, I’m not sure how much of that is about the show, in a vacuum, failing at its stated intent.
Most of the time, I have to say, I don’t think it does fail.
Perhaps I’m naïve. I tend to think that the bulk of teenage girls, being humans and not automatons, don’t make decisions on a straight, “Oh, I’d like to be on television” type calculation. Yes, many people in America find the simple fact of appearing on television glorious, no matter the context or the implication. But I am not sure that most of these people are in the teenage girl demographic that Teen Mom chases. Teenage girls, in my experience, consume so much media that they are relatively savvy consumers, hyper-alert to the “game” of celebrity. Even the most cynical among them know that fame is not just about being pasted all over a billboard, but also about image management. Think The Bling Ring, you guys: half of what was so disturbing about that was how aware the girls were of the rules of the game. They weren’t clueless; in fact, what they suffered from was an excess of “clue.”
I think you have to consider that the kind of fame Teen Mom et al deliver, too, is not really Bling Ring-type fame. First, there’s precious little to indicate that these shows make anyone “rich” in a real way. Yes, people say they do, but they tend to speak from an information-free place. MTV refuses to confirm what any of these women are paid. Internet rumors of astronomical sums are just internet rumors.
(Yes, there was one custody case in which one Teen Mom star confessed to making over $200,000 in a single year. But there are many reasons to presume that isn’t typical: She was a few years into the franchise, at that point, and probably had some leverage in the renewal of her contract. I also suspect that a lot of that income is really from speaking fees, speaking fees which depend on the reality star in question remaining humble and reiterating the message that made her brand in the first place: that she’s sad and humbled and positively crippled by the experience of teen motherhood. And the second you step out of line, that money’s gone.)
I also wonder what “rich” is in this context. Being able to afford a decent apartment and a car of one’s own, which these young women are indeed typically able to do, strikes me as subsistence living conditions once you have a child. I am, however, from a socialist country, so. But beyond that: none of these young women tend to have ostentatious personal outlays, at least not anything the truly rich would call such. They do not have enviable wardrobes and fitness trainers. I doubt they are contractually prohibited from owning the odd expensive handbag, but none of them seem to. So whatever the material reality, very little of what they do signals a celebrity lifestyle.
In fact, the only trapping of the celebrity lifestyle these women manage to get is the relentless criticism of their peers. Check out Teen Mom fan fora and you’ll find minute and careful dissections of the mothering merits of any young woman who appears on the show. Most appraisals are not what you could call sympathetic. In at least one case in the history of these shows, that relentless criticism has resulted in a prosecution for felony assault. And as the mere existence of these studies confirms, intelligent people think these young women are also responsible for the future of teen pregnancy in America, too? Christ. It’s always seemed like an awfully raw deal to me.