My dear blog, I truly apologize for my long absence. The summer is filled with family trips and preparations for fall courses and now the fall is here and I am busy with back-to-school meetings and student queries and the endless forms parents must fill out for their kids during the first weeks of school.
But I wanted to pop in to share some most excellent news–that a portion of my book project on MTV’s scripted identity cycle is currently live on The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker. They paid me and everything, because those folks are civilized. And as I’ve been published on the online version of The New Yorker (life goals: to get published in the print version), you all can read it for free!
Click here to enjoy.
Note to the reader: Below is a work in progress. I am sharing it here in the hopes of generating discussion and recommendations for further reading and research.
American children born after 1980 are the largest, most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. They have seen an African American be reelected as the President of the United States of America. Many high schools now have Gay-Straight Alliance clubs (even as the bullying of gay students continues). Thus, Millennials are often labeled as “post racial,” “post gender,” or “pomosexual,” as if they have solved the eternal problem of human difference that none of us, stretching back for centuries, have been able to solve. However, according to studies conducted by the Applied Research Center, today’s youth still see race (and identity in general):
“The majority of people in our focus groups continue to see racism at work in multiple areas of American life, particularly in criminal justice and employment. When asked in the abstract if race is still a significant factor, a minority of our focus group participants initially said that they don’t believe it is—and some young people clearly believe that class matters more. But when asked to discuss the impact, or lack thereof, that race and racism have within specific systems and institutions, a large majority asserted that race continues to matter deeply.”
Indeed, in my experiences working with Millennials in the classroom, I have found that they are quite eager to self identify by race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and sexuality. In fact, the more invisible the identity, the more eager they are to make it visible. There seems to be a heightened interest in identity, defining its parameters and its meanings. Here I am defining “identity” in very simple terms: it is a vision of yourself that is based on actual traits (your race, gender, sexual preference, nationality, etc.) but which you might also inflate or redefine to suit your vision of yourself (or how you hope to envision yourself). It is rooted in the material conditions of lived experience and also highly constructed. It is thrust upon the individual but also, quite often, carefully selected by the individual.
As someone who studies media images for a living, I see similar evidence of the Millennial struggle with identity happening in a very specific location: MTV reality programming. MTV describes itself as “the world’s premier youth entertainment brand” and “the cultural home of the millennial generation, music fans and artists, and a pioneer in creating innovative programming for young people.” When it first premiered in 1981 it was a 24 hour music video jukebox (and my favorite thing ever). MTV began producing original non-music programming as early as 1987 with its TV-centered game show Remote Control. Other programming, including Singled Out, Just Say Julie, and The State followed, thus aligning MTV’s content with something other than music. The success of the reality television series, The Real World, in 1991 cemented MTV’s move towards non-music based programming. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of music videos aired on the channel dropped by 36% (Hay). Now MTV is primarily known for creating original, non-musical content. Specifically, MTV likes to produces reality shows about segments of the contemporary youth demographic–the very demographic that is watching MTV.
And what I have learned from watching a lot of MTV’s reality programming is that the youth featured on these shows continue to grapple with racial /gender/sexual/class difference. Cast members on MTV’s most highly rated reality shows (Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, The Hills, The Real World, and now Buckwild) willingly serve as synecdoches for their ethnic group, their subculture, their class, their gender, their sexuality, their religion, or their region of the U.S. I agree with Michael Hirschcorn, who offers a lengthy defense of reality programming in The Atlantic:
“Reality shows steal the story structure and pacing of scripted television, but leave behind the canned plots and characters. They have the visceral impact of documentary reportage without the self-importance and general lugubriousness. Where documentaries must construct their narratives from found matter, reality TV can place real people in artificial surroundings designed for maximum emotional impact.”
When, for example, a cast member on The Real World defends a racist/sexist/homophobic comment in an “on the fly” (OTF) interview with the standard “Hey I’m just being real!” excuse, he is, in fact, being real. In other words, he is performing the identity he was cast to perform and which, he feels, he has the duty to perform since he was in fact cast on the show to perform that very identity.
Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino is perhaps the best example of MTV’s labor of identity construction (a runner up would be the Shannon family from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, certainly an integral part of the poetics of TLC). Mike understands that he needs a single identity—that of the guido—in order to thrive on the series. Mike is defined by his abdominal muscles or rather Mike’s abdominal muscles tell us what kind of man he is—a man who is capable of performing the obsessive compulsive grooming ritual known as “Gym. Tan. Laundry” (aka, “GTL”):
I doubt that Mike GTLs as much as he claims to. But it only matters that he claims to GTL. In Jersey Shore and other MTV reality shows, the subject is in charge of defining himself before the camera. Mike tells us that GTLing makes him a guido and so the ritual becomes a clear marker of his identity. As a white American of European ancestry, Mike has the ability to choose his ethnic identity. He can take up a “symbolic ethnicity,” which Herbert Gans defines as “a nostalgic allegiance to the culture of the immigrant generation, or that of the old country; a love for and a pride in a tradition that can be felt without having to be incorporated in everyday behavior” (9). Mike’s identity functions as an “ethnic pull” rather than as a “racial push.” He chooses to be a guido and constructs the parameters of this identity. Nancy Franklin explains the necessity of the utterance in the creation of the reality TV persona “Like all reality-show participants, Pauly D, The Situation, and the others speak in categorical certainties. They know things for sure, then those things blow up in their faces, then they hate those things and take about three seconds to find new things to believe in.” And Mike believes in GTL. Without it, he is unemployed. That’s because clear identity construction is central to the appeal of MTV’s current programming.
Imagine the following scene: a group of roommates have just come home from a night of drinking. An argument soon erupts between two of the female roommates over who gets to have guests in the house; there is only room for seven guests and the house is at capacity. When an urban, African American character named Brianna becomes irate that her friends cannot come inside, her white, Christian, Southern roommate, Kim, replies, “Let’s not get ghetto. Be…normal.” The women then exchange expletives and threaten each other with physical harm. In the next scene, Kim explains the fight to her roommate, Sarah, who is also white: “I don’t care where you’re from, if you’re from the most inner city…” and here she pauses to grimace, “blackville. You don’t act like that.” Sarah, who has, thus far, been a sympathetic listener, giggles nervously and advises, “Maybe you should watch what you say…just a little?”
Had this scene been in a film or a scripted television show about a group of strangers who move in together, we would likely find these conversations unbelievable. We would roll our eyes at Kim’s over-the-top, racially-inflected villainy and cry foul: “Come on, who would say that? A real person wouldn’t say that!” But when we hear Kim say this exact line to Brianna (in an episode of The Real World XX: Hollywood), we know it is real (or realish) and therefore we must engage with this very real racism:
[You can watch the entire scene here: http://www.mtv.com/videos/misc/225650/lets-not-get-ghetto.jhtml]
Kim’s statements implicitly align Brianna’s behavior in this situation—her anger, her willingness to swear and make physical threats—as rooted in her class and her race (i.e., she acts this way because she comes from “the ghetto”) rather than the more plausible explanation: that Brianna is simply a hothead (like so many other young people who have been cast in the series. In fact, being a hothead is one of the primary criteria for snagging a spot in the show’s cast). Kim makes the racial and class bias of her comments explicit when she labels the nation’s “inner cities,” a location where people apparently behave in the most distasteful of fashions, “Blackville.” Yes, Blackville. LaToya Peterson over at Racialicous calls this scene (and others like it) “hit and run racial commentary” because it dredges up problematic racial prejudices without truly engaging with them. She is nostalgic for earlier incarnations of The Real World and Road Rules (ah Road Rules!) when characters who got into heated arguments would have “an actual conversation where they were both screaming and both making very good points, and both walking away determined to do their own thing. Growth. Development. An actual exchange of ideas.”
Though Peterson sees such scenes as indicative of a new kind of reality programming on MTV, where cast members (who were cast precisely so that they would say something like this) make a racist statement and then are chastised and asked to repent (rather than engaging in a productive dialogue about how and why they came to acquire such a racist/sexist/homophobic vision of the world), this kind of dialogue has been MTV’s bread and butter since it first started airing The Real World over 20 years ago. As Jon Kraszewski argues, “The Real World does not simply locate the reality of a racist statement and neutrally deliver it to an audience. Although not scripted, the show actively constructs what reality and racism are for its audience through a variety of production practices” (179). In The Real World (and other MTV programs), intolerance stems from identity. One is racist because one is from the South. One is sexist because one is a male jock. And over the course of a show these individuals are informed that their identities have led them astray–that they are in fact racist or sexist–but now they will know better! Yes, as outrageous as Kim’s comments are, they are nothing new for The Real World.
Currently, I am embarking on a new research project that seeks to understand the contours of MTV’s new cultural terrain, the images it creates for youth audiences, and the way Millennials consume and interact with its programming. Though I have written quite a lot about MTV programs like The Hills, Teen Mom, and Jersey Shore over the last few years, I am only now starting to think about these programs in relation to each other and how MTV understands youth selfhood. I imagine (I hope!) that this project will grow richer and more complicated as I move through it, but for now I’d like to outline how MTV has fostered what I see as a new poetics of being-in-the-world. While MTV initially catered to Generation X, a generation of passive spectators, Millennials are a generation of active spectators. For them, MTV is an “identity workbook”: cast members speak their differences openly, try on different identities, and pick fights in order to see how these identities play out and to what effect. The Jersey Shore cast members actively and self-consciously constructs “guido” identities for themselves while those on Buckwild tell MTV’s cameras what it means to be “country.” Thus, the difference between the MTV of 1981 and the MTV of today is not simply the difference between music videos and reality TV—the difference is in the way MTV conceives of youth selfhood. Instead of watching and observing, MTV’s contemporary youth audience is generating the identities they consume on screen, and marking out what they believe it means to be an African American, a Southerner, a Christian, a homosexual, or a transgender youth in America today.
This is not to say that Generation X (and I am speaking here not of actual people, but the image of this generation that exists in popular culture) was not also interested in identity, but we rarely took an active role in its construction. Exhausted or embarrassed by our parent’s endless spouts of energy and their marches for equality, we preferred (prefer) to toss our hands in the air and declare things to be “racist” or “sexist,” complain about it, maybe even blog about it (ahem!), but ultimately we don’t do anything. The image of this generation appearing in popular culture is one of apathy and spectatorship. As Jonathan I. Oake writes “Thus, the deviance of Xer subcultural subjectivity lies in its perverse privileging of ‘watching’ over ‘doing.’ While baby boomers are mythologized as those who made history, Xer identity is presided over by the trope of the ‘slacker’: the indolent, apathetic, couch-dwelling TV addict” (86-87).
But Millennials, like the Baby Boomers, are a generation of doers. Or rather, they “do” by “being.” They project themselves into the world—through social media, blogs and yes, through reality television. For this reason, Adam Wilson calls them the “Laptop Generation”: “If the 1980s was the Me generation — marked by consumerism and an obsession with personal needs (Give me hair gel! Give me cocaine!) — then we are living in the iGeneration, in which the self is projected back toward the world via social media.” This generation wrangles with our divisions, even if they lack the language and the critical distance to do so in a way that pleases us.
Take for example, Buckwild, MTV’s new series about West Virginia youth that premiered this week to respectable ratings. MTV is turning its cameras to this region of the country to capitalize, no doubt, on the recent cycle of hillbilly-sploitation (Hillbilly Handfishing, Swamp People, Bayou Billionaires, Rocket City Rednecks, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, etc). The difference, of course, is that MTV presents this subculture from the point of view of Millennials. And, as in all of MTV’s recent reality shows, it centers on a clear definition of identity. To see what I mean, let’s pause and take a look at the trailer for MTV’s new identity series, Buckwild:
It is fitting that the Buckwild trailer opens with a sign that reads “Welcome to West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful” since for so many of MTV’s programs (Laguna Beach, The Hills, The City, Jersey Shore) location breeds identity. It is also crucial that the trailer is narrated by one of the show’s cast members since all of these programs are about self-construction. As we hear the narration, “West Virginia is a place founded on freedom. For me and my friends, that means the freedom to do whatever the fuck we want!” we see a montage of youthful hi-jinx: bridge diving, tubing, “mudding,” drinking and shooting firearms. In some ways these activities are region-specific—driving off-road vehicles through the mud and skinny-dipping in the local swimming hole are not activities in which Lauren Conrad (The Hills) or Snooki (Jersey Shore) are likely to participate. And yet, for all its specificity, this Buckwild trailer is also highly generic: we have a group of unemployed or underemployed young people in their late teens and early twenties drinking, having sex, and passing the time, believing that their way of life, their identities, are unique enough to warrant the presence of constant camera surveillance. “We’re young, free and Buckwild,” our narrator concludes. But she could have just as easily said “We’re young, free and Jersey Shore!” or “We’re young, free and living in The Hills!” In this way, MTV’s identity project works to both highlight and eradicate differences in contemporary youth cultures.
MTV is not shy about its identity project. Every series has a distinctive look marked by its cinematography, editing, lighting, and/or soundtrack choices. For example, as I have argued elsewhere, The Hills, Laguna Beach, and The City employ a seamless cinematic style—including the use of widescreen, shot/reverse shot sequences, high key lighting, and telephoto lenses—mirrors its cast members’ positions as wealthy white consumers living in a fantasy world. By contrast, Jersey Shore, with its out-of-focus shots, visible leaders, and 70s brothel-chic house, all give the impression that the text (and the people contained within that text) are sleaze. Programs like Making the Band employ “bling” style editing, a surface layer of glitz that mimics the ambitions of the gamedoc’s participants. And Buckwild aims for a naturalist aesthetic, with cast members filmed primarily against the backdrop of leafless trees, mud holes or open green spaces. Buckwild defines West Virginians as naturalists: individuals with little money who must rely on nature for their amusements.
Even MTV programs like The Real World, which maintain the aesthetics we typically associate with documentary realism (long takes, mobile framing, imperfect sound and lighting quality), cast members speak their difference openly so that by the end of each new season premiere most of the cast has aligned themselves with a particular identity: the homosexual, the homophobe, the African American, the racist, the Christian, the foreigner, the Midwestern one, the city child, the girl with a history of abuse, the boy who is borderline abusive, etc. These cast members are not simply participants in a reality show—they are also its progeny. MTV cast members were suckled at the teats of reality television and they understand how identity works within its confines. Identity must be visible if it is to mean anything. And so Jersey Shore’s The Situation must “GTL” in order to be a guido (and to keep his job performing guido-ness) and Buckwild’s Shaine tells what it means to live in the “holler” and go “muddin” (in order to keep his job performing West Virginia-ness). Identity is lucrative today.
So a poetics of MTV is, simply, an engagement with American identities as they constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. We film ourselves, we watch ourselves, we hate ourselves, we write about ourselves, and then we film ourselves again. It is our challenge to watch these programs and parse through the identity politics they present. I am not trying to argue that MTV is taking premeditated strides towards mending our broken social bonds. Rather, MTV is doing what it has always done—it is filling a gap, in this case, our desire to figure out what identity means in a society that really wants to believe it is post-identity.
Gans, Herbert. “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 2:1 (1979): 1-20.
Hay, Carla. “Proper Role of Music TV Debated in U.S.” Billboard. 17 Feb 2o01. Web. 10 Jan 2013.
Kraszewski, Jon. “Country Hicks and Urban Cliques: Mediating Race, Reality, and Liberalism on MTV’s The Real World.” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. Eds. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette. New York: NYU Press, 2004. 179-196.
Oake, Jonathan I. “Reality Bites and Generation X as Spectator.” The Velvet Light Trap 53 (2004): 83-97.
As a child of the 1980s, I was literally raised on MTV. I’m not using the word “literally” here in the way that my students do (“Dude, I was literally puking my brains out last night!”). I mean: I spent so many hours of my youth watching music videos that I could argue that the music station raised me. It shaped my musical predilections (I still love 80s music), my fashion tastes (yep, still fond of leggings), and my idols (to me, Hall & Oates will always be cool). When MTV started airing original programming, I watched that too. My favorite show was Remote Control, a game show that rewarded the one thing that I did best — watch TV! The show’s theme song really spoke to me “Kenny wasn’t like the other kids, TV mattered, nothing else did. Girls said yes but he said no! Now he’s got his own game show. Remote Control!” Finally, something I could win. But I needed to be 18 to play. Needless to say, I was devastated when the show was cancelled in 1990.
In 1992, when the wonderful first season of The Real World premiered, I was there to see it. The season enthralled because it was the first time that I had ever seen “a group of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” How could they agree to this? Were they crazy? I was also enthralled because the first cast was filled with such fascinating people. They had interesting careers and career aspirations: a folk singer, an indie rocker, a rapper, a poet, a model, a painter, and a wide-eyed, young Southerner. As a 16-year-old living in central Pennsylvania I loved seeing these smart, artistic people, living together in New York City, putting up with each other’s differences, arguing, and coming to resolutions, however brief. They were very different from my 16-year-old peers. And their conversations were way more interesting.
From that season on, I was hooked and watched almost every season of The Real World up until Back to New York in 2001. At that point my reality TV plate was pretty full, what with American Idol, Survivor, and Temptation Island all vying for my attention. I didn’t miss it too much. But then, in 2002, the Las Vegas season happened. The scene that pulled me back in was the one in which Trishelle, Brynn, and Steven make out in a hot tub. If memory serves, they had only known each other for a few hours (though really, when is the “appropriate” time for a three-way in a hot tub?). I was appalled and intrigued by the sleaziness and the exhibitionism of these well-toned twentysomethings. I was back in.
Although this version of The Real World was quite different from the series I had originally fallen in love with, I remained fascinated with each new casts’ total incapacity for introspection or self reflection. They seemed to exist in a perpetual now. They’re like those birds that keep flying into the same glass window day after day. This is the mindset of the typical Real World cast member. The same mistakes are made over and over — they get drunk and make asses of themselves, they throw themselves at lovers who just aren’t interested, they shirk commitments made to employers and to each other — and yet, no one emerges any wiser. When these situations blow up in their faces, they’re usually surprised. Just like those birds. “Why am I puking my brains out? Why is there a window there?”
I suppose I also enjoyed watching these young people screw up because it reminded me of what I was like in my early twenties. I often drank too much and made an ass of myself. I too fell in love with the wrong people. I let down bosses, friends, and family. This is the how life is when you are old enough to live on your own, but too young to concern yourself with living a responsible life. To see this behavior so raw and bare on my television screen reassured me about my own youth. Or rather, it reassured me that my youth had passed. I was no longer that out of control 20-year-old. I had stopped flying into windows. So I continued to watch The Real World, basking in the Schadenfreude of it all … until Cancun and Ayiiia made me rethink the series.
Ayiiia is an ideal Real World cast member: she is young, physically fit, a heavy drinker, aggressive, outspoken, thin-skinned, and, unfortunately, mentally unstable. MTV has a history of casting mentally unstable people whose exposure to MTV’s unrelenting cameras ultimately drives them to perform an onscreen freak out or breakdown (see Irene from Seattle, Frankie from San Diego, Paula from Key West, Ryan from the most recent season in New Orleans). True, Ayiiia was not picked by MTV’s producers; she was the winner of a contest in which MTV fans were allowed to choose the final cast member for the Cancun house. Nevertheless, all potential cast members for the show are subject to background checks and psychological evaluations. The producers would have known about Ayiiia’s history of self mutilation. Now, I’m not saying that The Real World shouldn’t feature cast members who are struggling with addictions, phobias, or even fatal diseases. Pedro Zamora is a great example of how casting someone with a particular ailment, in his case, HIV, creates an opportunity for dialogue and awareness.
People who self mutilate do so under extreme stress. When they feel angry or powerless or attacked, they will cut and tear at their own skin as a way to manage their pain. And being on The Real World is highly stressful. By the end of any given season, almost every cast member has been involved in at least one screaming match with another roommate. And many of these battles are ongoing, cropping up whenever two particularly hot-headed roommates are forced to interact and work together. Indeed, roommates are cast because they are likely to fight with one another. It’s like placing a mongoose and a cobra into a glass case and then wondering why there’s blood all over the walls.
Sure enough, after weeks of constant fighting with her roommates, Ayiiia began cutting herself again. And after watching this season I felt complicit in this young woman’s pain and exploitation and so I gave the series up all together. And my husband promised to stop watching too. However, a few months later, I came home from teaching to find my husband curled up on the couch watching the premiere of The Real World: Washington, D.C. “What are you doing?” I demanded, “We quit this show!” My husband replied “But I didn’t even record it!The DVR just…did it. And there was nothing else to watch.”
And just like that, I was back in it. Now I find myself watching season 25 (!) of The Real World. As I sat through the first two episodes last weekend, I felt like I was trapped in the movie Groundhog’s Day. Everything I was seeing, I had already seen before. For example, when Heather, an attractive young blonde, introduces herself to the MTV audience she tells us, “I’m very impulse driven. I do what I want to do.” And this makes you different from every other college student how? Later, Heather is gobsmacked by the differences between Leroy, a sexually frank, adventurous African American, and Michael, a sexually naive, sheltered Caucasian, “They just couldn’t be any more different!” she marvels. Later on, Adam, a former juvenile delinquent, calls his “girlfriend” (those are MTV’s quotation marks, not mine) and complains: “Some of these people might not like me because they’re completely different from me.” This is true. But they may also not like Adam because he gets black out drunk on his second or third night with the roommates, acts the fool, and refuses to apologize for his awful behavior. It’s a good thing that Nany is probably going to reward his douche-y behavior by becoming “his girl” (and dumping her long term boyfriend back home). Yes, Nany, I’m sure Adam will treat you much better than the string of women he has already brought home for one-night stands.
There are many good reasons why I should stop watching The Real World once and for all: each season blends into the next; many of the young people cast on the series are mentally ill and should not be placed in situations where their vulnerabilities can be provoked and exploited; and finally, there is so much great TV out there, do I really need to spend one hour a week on this? But I will keep watching. Not because it’s a great program, but because I can’t quite give up my MTV just yet.
When criticizing an artifact of popular culture people often toss out hyperboles like “It’s everything that’s wrong with this world.” Well, you know what? Jersey Shore really is everything that’s wrong with this world. Nothing is more useless than an underemployed twentysomething reality television star with an inflated sense of ego and the relentless desire to press his or her naughty parts against the naughty parts of drunken reality TV groupies (the worst kind of drunken groupies). And Jersey Shore employs seven of these individuals (the eighth cast member, Sammi, mercifully exited the show a few weeks ago). It’s not just that I know I could spend my limited television viewing time more productively (8 Firefly episodes await me on my Netflix instant queue); I know that a lot of the behaviors I’m watching are highly problematic and that they’re being played for laughs.
I don’t approve of grenade whistles (c’mon, that’s just too mean folks):
But how can I stay mad at a show that gave me this?
Also, I can’ stop watching Jersey Shore because I can’t stop writing about it (click here for my thoughts on why the Jersey Shore men are like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). This week I’m writing about Jersey Shore for Antenna. You can read it here. And please do feel free to comment and join the discussion at Antenna. That kind of thing warms my heart. Thanks!
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
4. Butch says his drug of choice is cocaine. Bullshit. That man is on meth.
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?
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!