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?

Televising New Orleans in 2010…or Why Sonny isn’t Watching the REAL WORLD: NEW ORLEANS

I love the Real World. I’m not proud of this. I’ve tried to quit several times. I managed to stay away from the series in both 2001 (“Back to New York”) and 2002 (“Chicago”). But then in 2003 came the famed “Las Vegas” season, the season that gave us the gift of Trishelle, and I was hooked again. I also skipped the “D.C.” season (even though my husband still watched) and I was so proud of myself. But people, there is no support group for addiction to bad reality TV. There is no methodone for this heroin. So this season I find myself hooked yet again. To justify my addictions I did what I always do — I decided to write about it.

So check out my short piece on Antenna (a media and cultural studies blog operated and edited by graduate students and faculty in the Media and Cultural Studies area of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin – Madison). I’m writing about my experiences watching HBO’s Treme alongside MTV’s Real World: New Orleans and their very different depictions of the city of New Orleans.

Here’s the link. Give it a look and leave a comment!

THE HILLS are Alive…with the Sound of Boob Jobs

Sort of like the opening credits to The Brady Bunch, only with assholes.

As I sat down to watch the premiere of the sixth and final season of  The Hills, MTV’s faux reality battle-ax, I was mentally preparing my snarky blog post.  The Hills has always existed at one move away from reality, becoming more and more detached with each season. As I argued in my recap of the season 5 finale, at this point only Audrina still thinks the show is “real.” But about 5 minutes into the season 6 premiere I realized that my snark meter–which usually provides a continuous stream of snarky comments as I watch programs like The Hills and The City–was totally silent. I found that I was watching The Hills, really watching it, and that I was completely engaged by the narrative and the characters.

But why? Why has a show that has always been the simulacrum of reality suddenly become real again (notice that I didn’t put the word real in quotation marks)? Who do we have to thank? Two words, my friends: Heidi’s boobs.

The episode opens with Lo and Stephanie, fresh out of her second (yes second!) stint in rehab, meeting at one of those outdoor lunch spots that seem to have been built solely for the purposes of these staged conversations. But this conversation (dare I say it?), feels…almost…real. Stephanie tells Lo that she has just finished up an AA meeting and then sighs, “I can’t believe I’m doing this all over again.” She looks genuinely frustrated with herself.  “I’m only 23 and I’ve been to jail twice? I mean, that’s not normal.”  This exchange marks one of the first moments when the world outside The Hills–the world of the paparazzi and Lauren’s clothing line and Heidi’s musical career, the world that the show’s cameras like to pretend does not exist–is entering back into The Hills narrative.

Stephanie's mug shot.

After Lo invites Stephanie to Miami with the rest of the Scooby gang to watch the Super Bowl (a great vacation idea for a recovering alcoholic, no?), Stephanie mentions that she hasn’t seen Spencer or Heidi in months. Lo then tells Stephanie “There’s been some…talk about Heidi. And…a new face.” Lo then lists all of Heidi’s surgeries (which have been exhaustively detailed in the tabs as well as the mainstream press these last few months), ending on “butt job.” “Butt job?” Stephanie asks, clearly puzzled, “Like liposuction?” “No,” replies Lo, making squeezing gestures with her hands “Like a bigger…like a bigger butt. Like a little junk in the trunk.” Stephanie still looks baffled: “But how do you, how do you add?” “I don’t know,” Lo responds, shaking her hand. And then we cut to credits.

I can’t describe how this cold open made me feel–not only was the show directly acknowledging the media spectacle that it truly is, but the show’s cast actually seemed to be having fun with it. This does not happen in the world of The Hills. I waited for the TV screen to collapse into itself. But it didn’t.

This makes me weep.

But this scene was nothing compared to the scenes featuring Heidi. When we first see Heidi, she is being filmed from behind, as she packs her suitcase to prepare for a trip home to see her family in Colorado. Spencer is talking to her from the livingroom, begging her not to go in her fragile post-surgery condition. What is great about this scene–even clever–is how the camera will not give us a view of Heidi’s much-discussed Frankenstein face or even her comically large breasts. We only see her wrists and legs. It is a tantalizing omission.

When Heidi arrives at her home in Crested Butte, CO, the camera continues to play coy. However, we are offered a series of close ups of framed family photos from around her mother’s house: Heidi as a young girl, Heidi with her siblings, etc. Looking at these photographs we are reminded of the Heidi from earlier seasons–a beautiful, fresh-faced girl. Seeing these photos now provokes…I can’t even believe I’m about to write this…nostalgia.

The Heidi of yesteryear

Then Heidi sits down on the couch with her mother, Darlene, and we get our first look at Heidi’s face–tight, swollen and chiseled all at the same time. The best term I can use to describe it is “uncanny”–something which is simultaneously familiar and foreign. A not-Heidi. Her mother nails it on head when she tells her daughter, moments before she breaks down in tears, “It’s very weird, it’s very awkward, I’m sorry…” Darlene recovers a bit and asks Heidi what exactly she had done. Heidi describes her browlift and Darlene asks “Is that permanent? They’re not going to come down a little bit?’ Darlene looks dejected when Heidi informs her that the look is permanent.

Darlene then switches her tone, becoming indignant, even angry, with her daughter: “I just feel like when you left home [for L.A.] you had more confidence and more self-esteem than anyone person I’d ever met.” Heidi begins to talk about how she always felt self-conscious about her chest size but Darlene isn’t buying it:

Darlene “It sounds to me like you want to look like Barbie”

Heidi: [brightening]: “I do wanna look like Barbie.”

Darlene: “Why would you want to look like Barbie? To everybody else that saw you, you were Heidi. No one in the world could have looked like Heidi Montag.”

Heidi “Are you telling me I don’t look good?”

Heidi then breaks down and begins crying real tears (at least she can still do that).

My snark meter was tempted to make some joke–like “Right, no HUMAN could have looked like Heidi Montag”–but I quickly told that snark meter to shut up because I got what Darlene was saying.Her mother’s words–that no one could have looked like Heidi, the Heidi we were just looking at in those family photos–are heart breaking. Heidi sacrificed her individuality–her Heidiness–for some twisted ideal of beauty that only plastic surgery addicts seem to understand.

She looks great–who’s her surgeon?

Later in the episode Heidi goes out to dinner with her family. Her sister, Holly, asks “Don’t you think it’s so weird though? That you were always so outgoing and confident? I was envious of the confidence you had. I don’t know what happened.” When Heidi explains that she started to feel insecure, the following conversation takes place:

Darlene: “I would like to see the choice made to deal with the insecurity on a psychological level.”

Heidi: “And that’s great for you. And you live in the mountains–you don’t live where I live.”

Darlene: “Does that make a difference?”

Heidi: “Of course it does.”

Darlene: “So should you not live in that area?”

Heidi: “I don’t want to get into this.”

This may be the most compelling, the most real conversation I’ve heard yet on The Hills. This young girl, once beautiful and confident, learned to hate herself and her body, after only a few years of living in Los Angeles. Heidi, as she exists now, is almost monstrous. She has become a Heidi-monster. But it’s too late to go back. Heidi begins to weep at the table as she attempts to chew her dinner with a swollen jaw. Her family watches the Heidi-monster in amazement.

This is amazing melodrama, people. Amazing.

Further adding to the emotional complexity of the scene is the fact that the family ia surrounded by The Hills cameras–the very cameras that have followed Heidi around for the last 4 years, scrutinizing her face and body, pointing out her (non-existent) flaws. These cameras are responsible for the Heidi-monster that weeps on the couch and at the dinner table and now they continue to watch her, passively recording the spectacle of her demise. They created her and now they mock her. It’s all so cruel. If I were Darlene I would stand up, grab a wine glass from the dinner table, and smash the camera lens. After all, these cameras stole her daughter. She should be livid.

Little girl lost

I have never before been moved by The Hills. I’ve always viewed it as a piece of pop culture fluff, as a way to discuss how reality television has ceased to record reality. But this particular episode, with its pathos and its melodrama, reminded me about what good reality TV–and good melodrama–can do. Dare I say it, friends? The Hills, at least for one episode, is real.

BET’s BALDWIN HILLS: Injecting Race and Class into the Projective Drama

For those of you who are regular readers of this blog (hi Mom!), you may have noticed that my posting has dropped somewhat over the last few weeks. This is due to the mid-semester crunch as well as some other writing deadlines I had to meet.

Picture 1

One of these deadlines was for the wonderful site Flow TV, “a critical forum on television and media culture published by the Department of Radio, Television, and Film at the University of Texas at Austin. Flow’s mission is to provide a space where the public can discuss the changing landscape of contemporary media.”

bh

If you’d like to read my article on BET’s reality show, Baldwin Hills, it went live today and can be accessed through the link below:

BET’s Baldwin Hills: Injecting Race and Class into the Projective Drama