Welfare Queen Redux: TEEN MOM, Class and the Bad Mother

The bully at work

Earlier this fall I wrote a post about Teen Mom. In it I praised the parenting skills of some of the mothers, such as Maci, and was extremely judgmental of other mothers depicted on the show, like Amber. In several episodes we see Amber physically and verbally abuse her on-again, off-again, fiance, Gary. In one particularly harrowing scene, Amber repeatedly punches Gary in the head and kicks him in the back, all while calling him a “fat fuck.” Gary, a passive, lump of a man, accepts these blows without retaliation, calmly asking Amber “Are you done?” What is most amazing about this scene is that it was caught on tape. In other words, during this violent fight, MTV’s cameras continued to roll. No one intervened on Gary’s behalf. No one called the police. As many commentators have pointed out, had this abuse been reversed — if Gary had been the one beating the shit out of Amber — there would have been a very different reaction. But our society has some very odd double standards when it comes to violence and who may wield it. Men should never hit women. But women? They can beat their men as much as they like because they’re just women. They can’t do much harm with those teeny tiny hands!

She's at it again.

Beyond the damage inflicted on poor, doughy Gary in this scene, we must also account for the damage inflicted on little Leah. Where was she as her mother repeatedly beat her father? Was she playing, unsupervised, by an open window again? A more likely scenario is that she was sitting by the feet of one of MTV’s cameramen, watching this primal scene unfold. What lessons about love, family and basic human decency are being conveyed to an impressionable little girl at such a moment? We giggle when we see little Leah imitate her mother by tottering around in her high heeled shoes. But it would be far less amusing if Leah walked up to her father, punched him in jaw and called him a “fat fuck.”

Also here.

Yes, we can all agree that Amber is a Bad Mother. In addition to beating up her significant other in front of her child, she seems completely unaware of how to care for her daughter. When Leah throws a tantrum, Amber’s response is to scream “SHUT UP!” over and over until Leah quiets down. Sometimes this technique even works (who knew?). Amber is also fond of lounging in bed, listening to her I-Pod or texting on her smart phone, as Leah runs around their bare apartment, looking for some way to amuse herself. In these moments I am amazed at how well-behaved Leah is. When my daughter was 1 she required constant attention and supervision. But at a young age Leah has clearly learned how to fend for herself. And how not to fall out of an open window. Way to go, Leah.

Leah's favorite toys are big girl shoes and open windows.

I’ve devoted the last 450 words to criticizing Amber’s parenting and I could easily write another 450. And that’s exactly what MTV wants me to do. You see, Amber is the arch villain of Teen Mom, its prima facie case for teen abstinence. The message is: “If you don’t use a condom, kids, you WILL become a Mom-monster, just like Amber!” The network has come under fire for “glamorizing” teen pregnancy. But to refute these charges, Teen Mom‘s executive producer Morgan J. Freeman needs only to point at Amber. A villain like that will make even the horniest teenager jump into a cold shower.

However, my opinion and my judgment of Amber was radically altered after watching her on the Teen Mom reunion special that aired on October 19th. The Amber that appeared on this show was a very different woman from the one who appears in Teen Mom. This new Amber was clearly on some kind of medication (anti-depressants, Lithium, valium?). But it wasn’t just the medication. This Amber was sad and contrite. This Amber had clearly watched the Amber that appeared on Teen Mom and did not like what she saw. Indeed, after reviewing a “highlight reel” of her poor behavior, she told Dr. Drew, that cunning exploiteer of human suffering, “If that was said to me, I’d go crazy on somebody.” Self reflection. This is something new for Amber.

Amber on the TEEN MOM reunion special.

Throughout this devastating — yes devastating — interview, Amber alternately sobbed or covered her face with her hands. When Dr. Drew asks Amber if her own childhood resembled Leah’s, Amber truly looks shocked, as if she had never considered the parallels between the abuse she suffered/watched as a child and the abuse her daughter now endures. Dr. Drew asks “Is that what you were exposed to as a kid” and we can actually see the wheels turning in Amber’s head. Her face crumples and all she can say is “Fuck,” before bursting into tears. As I watched Amber I felt empathy for her. I realized that despite her horrific behavior, she was a victim too. This revelation does not excuse her behavior, but it certainly explains it. And I wish MTV had done a better job of giving viewers this background. Instead, Teen Mom presented Amber as a simple villain, which is exactly what they needed her to be in order to promote their message about safe sex. Talking too much about Amber’s shitty childhood would complicate a message that needs to remain simple: “Don’t have sex, kids! For the love of God, DO NOT HAVE SEX! Because if you do, then we will need to cancel the third most watched original cable series! And we really don’t want to do that. Now please watch this sexy music video.”

Leah, making a break for it.

In many ways, Amber is similar to that other archetypal Bad Mother, the mythical “welfare queen” invented by the Reagan Administration as a way to dismantle what they saw as a corrupt and flawed welfare system. If you are interested in reading more about the parallels between Amber and the welfare queen of the 1980s,  please read the article I just published at FLOW, where I discuss these and other illuminating arguments in more detail. Or you could just stay here and look at this picture of Leah stuck in a steering wheel. Don’t babies do the darndest things?