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?
“Media stars are spectacular representations of living human beings, distilling the essence of the spectacle’s banality into images of possible roles.”
-Guy DeBord, Society of the Spectacle
“I’m more famous than president Barack Obama. I’ll say that to President Obama’s face. My portrait is higher than his on the wall at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut restaurant. That’s such a statement. Spencer Pratt is above the President of the United States in fame. No matter what I say or do from here on out, I’ve imprinted myself on the culture. Ask somebody why I’m famous, they’ll say I’m annoying or have a big mouth, but there’s no tangible thing.”
-Spencer Pratt, interview in Spin Magazine Online
I am well out of MTV’s target demographic. I am not a consumer of the bands featured on the show (or its accompanying soundtrack), nor do I plan to party at Les Deux any time soon. I don’t want a career in fashion or public relations or whatever it is that Audrina Patridge does. And truly, I care very little about The Hills’ young, overprivileged, spray-tanned cast. I do however, read a lot of gossip magazines and I even read academic analyses of celebrity culture in my free time. In other words, I enjoy The Hills for the same reason that I enjoy films like Glen or Glenda? or The Room — I love how the text of the show constantly pushes me beyond the frame, to the extratextual. I can never see an episode of The Hills as a self-contained world. I am constantly thinking about the casts’ lives outside of the show — who they’re dating, how much they’re making and whether or not they still have that pesky eating disorder.
The young cast of The Hills is a regular feature in tabloid magazines like US Weekly, In Touch and OK!. They are also featured on celebrity gossip websites like PerezHilton.com and The Superficial. Fans who enjoy the “stars” of The Hills can also buy their clothing, listen to their music and read their novels.
This kind of “multiplatform” engagement with the text is an ideal way to target Generation Y (aka, MTV’s prime demographic), who enjoys consuming their entertainment through multiple venues. This type of engagement also leads to a peculiar viewing experience. As I have written elsewhere, The Hills’ “media savvy audience is likely aware of the characters’ offscreen lives and yet they continue to tune in (in record numbers) to see what transpires onscreen each week.” Viewers tune in to see these characters, rather than to see “what happens next.” For example, I did not need to watch last night’s Hills’ premiere, subtly entitled “It’s On Bitch,” to know that Audrina and Kristin would butt heads — I read all about their growing animosity in last week’s US Weekly. I also love knowing that the only reason Kristin Cavallari is back on reality TV is because her attempts at a film career tanked. No wonder she’s such a bitch. The Hills’ multiplatform structure almost demands that its viewers consider the extratextual. It is central to The Hills experience.
Of course, the most entertaining personalities on the show are Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt (aka, Speidi), a couple for whom the term “fameosexual” must have been invented. Unlike their co-stars on The Hills , Speidi is fascinating precisely because it is almost impossible to locate where their textual personas end and their extratextual lives begin. While castmates like Lauren Conrad and Lo Bosworth have been caught by the paparazzi’s lens sans make up or biting into a greasy hamburger, Speidi seems to have the preternatural ability to avoid being taken by surprise. Every single paparazzi image of the couple is staged, as if they were able to construct a special fantasy world around themselves — a life-size Barbie dreamhouse that includes shopping at Kitson and going to brunch.
Spencer and Heidi exist in a constant state of performance before an ever-present camera. I imagine Heidi getting into bed at night — in full make up, hair freshly blown out — and turning on a video camera that is mounted to her ceiling. Indeed, their entire life appears in quotation marks: Spencer and Heidi go “golfing,” Spencer and Heidi “shop for toys,” Spencer and Heidi “breathe.” This couple, and the world of The Hills in general, seems to be the emodiment of Guy DeBord’s thesis in Society of the Spectacle (1967) (and I am sure that somewhere a graduate student has already written this paper). DeBord writes “Understood on its own terms, the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance.” Perhaps its is for the best that DeBord did not live to see the rise of The Hills.
I do not say these things to spite Spencer and Heidi. In fact, if Speidi read this blog post, my guess is that they would agree with everything I’ve just written. In a recent interview, Pratt explained “Heidi and I got married on the show. You know as much about us as anyone. We tell people everything. No one is more honest than Spencer and Heidi.” The thing is, I believe Spencer. I believe that I know as much about his life as Heidi does. I believe that if we took their clothes off we would discover smooth, plastic, genital-free bodies with a “Made in Los Angeles” stamp. And for this I salute them. Long live the Spectacle!
A few other thoughts about The Hills premiere:
1. I love that Lo, once referenced in her onscreen title as “Lauren’s friend,” is now labeled as “Audrina’s friend.” Isn’t Lo important enough to just be “LO”? And more importantly, don’t Lo and Audrina hate each other?
2. Did anyone get a little creeped out when the recap segment at the beginning of the episode featured Kristin’s voice over narration, rather than Lauren’s? It felt dirty somehow, like I was cheating on Lauren.
3. Finally, although I have never been a fan of Kristin, I was definitely enjoying her in the premiere. Moments after her first cat fight with Audrina and Stephanie my husband turned to me and said “This girl’s way more fun than Lauren!”
So, what do you think? Can the show go on without Lauren? Or will Lauren show up at some point this season, mascara streaming down her cheeks, telling the audience that we betrayed her? And if we all keep watching this show, will the world collapse in on itself?