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?

Notes on TEEN MOM

When 16 and Pregnant debuted on MTV in the summer of 2009,  I had no desire to watch it (I had assumed, wrongly, that it was some kind of Pro-Life propaganda show). When the follow up series, Teen Mom, premiered last winter, I was more intrigued, but figured it was too late to jump on board. I only agreed to watch Season 2 of Teen Mom because my husband was so passionate about it. He even rewatched the Season 2 premiere with me, pausing the DVR every few minutes to fill me in on each mother’s backstory. Yes, he’s a good husband.

After just one episode I was hooked. In fact, more so that any other reality TV show, the cast of Teen Mom has wormed its way into my everyday existence.  When, for example, I am cajoling my 4-year-old into eating dinner while hand feeding the 8-month-old and also intermittently washing the dinner dishes so that I can get them both into the bathtub before the 8-month-old has a meltdown and Can’t-you-please-just-finish-your-dinner-now-Maisy!, I stop and think “If this scenario is driving me, a 34-year-old woman, crazy, how must it be for a 17-year-old girl?”  Or, when I read about one of the Teen Moms in US Weekly (they’ve been all over the covers of the tabs the last few weeks), I find myself excitedly relating the news to my husband, as if I’m telling him about a close friend: “Did you hear? Farrah’s dating Pauly D from Jersey Shore!” or “I’m so disappointed that Amber and Gary are still together. They really need to break up.”

My unnatural attachment to these young women is based on two divergent affects. On the one hand, I identify with the Teen Moms. Watching these girls encounter the various pitfalls inherent in being a first time parent reminds me of the first year of my daughter’s life, and how incredibly challenging and rewarding it was. For example, in one episode, Farrah takes her daughter, Sophia, to the car wash and realizes that she has forgotten to bring diapers. But she can’t drive back home, or to a store, because her car is being detailed. “I’m such a bad mother!” Farrah wails. With Sophia in dire need of a diaper change, Farrah fashions a makeshift diaper out of towels (for the record, if the entire event had not been recorded by MTV’s cameras, there is NO WAY that the owner of the car wash would have consented to giving Farrah his towels to use as diapers. Blech).

Now those of you without children may agree with Farrah’s self assessment — that she is a bad mother for dressing her daughter’s precious bum in car wash towels. But, let me assure you: every new mother will make the mistake of going somewhere and forgetting to bring the diaper bag. It will likely happen just once because the consequences of that mistake will remain seared in your brain for eternity. I found myself in a similar situation when my first child was only a few months old. I’ll spare you the details but it involved an unexpected traffic jam, a screamy, screamy baby, and me gripping the driver’s wheel repeating the mantra “I will never leave the house without the diaper bag again.”

This is not the typical life of an American teenager.

While part of Teen Mom‘s allure is this bittersweet reminder of my own struggles to raise a young child (as well as the Schadenfreude that comes from watching truly bad parenting in action), I am also drawn to the show because I view the Teen Moms as their parents as well. The mother in me wants to pull each girl aside and give her a reassuring hug. I think back to when I was 16 — how I slept until noon on the weekends, got drunk at parties, obsessed about my appearance and social standing, and generally thought of nothing but myself. In other words, I was doing precisely what a 16-year-old should do. So when I watch single parent Farrah working overtime at a pizza joint, then returning home to take care of her daughter, and then study, I feel an incredible sadness for her. Now I know Farrah loves her daughter and one day, both of their lives will be easier. But at this age Farrah should be going to Homecoming dances and gossiping about boys and staying out past curfew and spending long stretches of her free time listening to music and writing tortured poetry while locked in her bedroom. But she can’t because she’s a mom. And mothers of young children don’t get to be selfish or spontaneous. Or at least not as often as they need to.

I should hate this relationship but I don't.

This is why the inclusion of Catelynn and Tyler, the only couple of the group who decided to put their baby up for adoption, is such an interesting counterpoint to the other stories on Teen Mom. Given Catelynn’s wildly unstable home life — her mother is verbally abusive and her step father (who is also her fiance’s father, natch) is in and out of prison and rehab — her decision to give Carly up for adoption was both wise and mature. We therefore expect to see Catelynn and Tyler having a wonderful time in comparison with the harried mothers featured on the show. Instead, the adoption remains an open wound for the young couple.

A beautiful touching moment. In reality TV. Go figure.

While Catelynn dealt with her guilt immediately after Carly’s birth, this season has focused on Tyler’s attempts to come to terms with what it means to be a father and yet be childless at the same time. The episode in which Tyler calls another, older, adoptive father for support and advice was one of the most moving scenes in reality TV history (yes, really). When his mentor tells him the act of adoption was a loving and selfless act, Tyler replies (with tears starting to trickle down his cheeks) “That’s something that I struggle with a lot. Admitting that, you know, she deserves better than me. I mean, when you’re the man, the father, you are the provider. And to admit…that I can’t give her that, that’s the hardest thing.”  How many 17-year-old boys are this self-aware, this in touch with their own complex emotions? I bawled through this scene. Thus, it is oddly the couple who chose not to raise their child that speaks most poignantly to the high emotional costs of an unplanned pregnancy. You can bet that I will make both of my children watch Season 1 and Season 2 of Teen Mom when they start dating.

Random thoughts and questions:

1. Is anyone watching Catelynn’s little brother? Did you see him making out with the refrigerator the other week? Dear Lord, can he go live with Carly’s adoptive parents too?

BREAK UP NOW.

2. I am totally exasperated by Amber and Gary’s horribly dysfunctional relationship. Mark my words: after spending a childhood watching her father pack and unpack his bags, leave and return, over and over, Leah will have a warped vision of how a loving relationship is supposed to work. How about we send her to Carly’s adoptive parents too?

Maci tries to juggle motherhood, work, school, and her good-for-nothing ex.

3. While the parents of all of the other Teen Moms seem to be in a secret competition for “World’s Biggest Douchebag,” Maci’s parents prove time and again that they are exceptional parents. I’m thinking in particular about the episode in which Maci considers moving in with a group of girlfriends, and bringing Bentley along. I love how her parents didn’t immediately say “Are you insane?” but rather gently pointed out how difficult it would be for a group of college girls to live with a toddler. Thankfully, Maci agreed.

This mullet can only be the product of meth.

4. Butch says his drug of choice is cocaine. Bullshit. That man is on meth.

Cigarette smoke is the 5th food group in Catelynn's house.

5. Does Catelynn’s mother realize that the big metal machines following her around are video cameras? And that these video cameras are recording her atrocious behavior and then broadcasting it to millions of people across the world? Or she is just on meth?

6. Tyler’s monogrammed “Baltierra” baseball cap. Where can I get one of those?

In light of the many US Weekly cover stories about the show’s cast,  blogs and online  news sites have been debating whether or not Teen Mom glorifies teen pregnancy. Others point to how people like Maci and Farrah seem to be doing okay and how that sends the wrong message about the “reality” of teen pregnancy. I agree that Teen Mom is not realistic, primarily because it’s cast is all white (with the exception of Farrah whose father is Hispanic, I believe?). I do wish MTV had included more women of color to better reflect the reality of teenage pregnancy in America. However, it is difficult to argue that Teen Mom glorifies teen pregnancy when you watch Maci miss out on the fun of college life, or Amber fail her G.E.D. practice test because she simply cannot remember what she learned in high school, or Farrah getting swindled out of $3,000 because she is far too young to be handling her own finances, or Catelynn cry because her mother can’t forgive her for giving her baby up for adoption. Yes, these girls love their children, but they are girls who have been forced to become women way too soon.

So why do you love Teen Mom? Or better yet, why do you hate it?