I don’t think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family. It’s perceived as one because of the notion that a head is a man. Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community — everybody — to raise a child. … the little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it, I don’t know. It isolates people into little units — people need a larger unit.
– Toni Morrison, quoted in Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman
In “A Little Help,” the fifth episode of the first season of Teen Mom, Maci Bookout, one of the show’s four mothers, attempts to take a family portrait with her fiancé Ryan and their son Bentley. The camera flashes, and Maci and Bentley smile. Ryan, by contrast, looks on woodenly. “Dad! Smile! We’re not in prison here!” the photographer yells out. No change. When the proofs arrive, Maci despairs: “We look like we hate each other.” Later in the episode, she declares the relationship with Ryan a bust. By the end of the season, she’s moved back in with her parents and Ryan with his. “Bentley has a lot of moms,” she says, “and a little bit of dad.”
Teen Mom, which entered into its fourth and final season this summer, presents a picture of the family you won’t see anywhere else. Where most representations of the family on television stick with traditional, two-parent models, the family structures in Teen Mom are incredibly dynamic and diffuse. In the face a simple nuclear construction, an ever-changing cast of characters enter and exit the screen—grandmothers, friends, uncles, boyfriends, step-parents, step-grandparents, in-laws, ex-in-laws. Teen Mom curiously and carefully represents one of the greatest contemporary trends in American social life of the last few decades: the gradual diffusion of the household, or the anti-family.
Over the last 20 years, MTV has been quietly documenting large subsets of America practically invisible in other media. The station began to invest in documentary television in the early 90s, when a young director named Lauren Lazin founded the “News and Specials Department.” Many of the department’s first ventures grew out of MTV’s musical focus—pieces on the history of rock and roll and up and coming bands—but it soon began to include a much wider variety of subjects. One of the channel’s first documentary shows was Sex in the 90s, a colorful and poppy discussion of variant sexual practices, and the first television show with a same-sex kiss. Within a few years, the channel included features on vagrants, drug addictions, and school shootings. In 1998, MTV began True Life, one of its longest running shows and a staple in its ever-evolving repertoire. A list of episodes gives a good sense of the show’s range of interests. Drug addictions: “True Life: I am on Crystal Meth,” the body, “True Life: I’m Getting Plastic Surgery,” and shows featuring people who are not usually allowed to describe their own experiences, “True Life: I’m a Sex Offender.”
MTV documentaries take the visual style of reality television and apply them to instances of quotidian life. The format is simple. Each documentary is narrated by the subjects themselves, all teenagers or people in their early twenties as they live their lives day to day. The camera is patient and curious. There is little fancy production. The shows have title cards and a soundtrack, but there aren’t inlaid graphics or cuts to expert opinion. As with much of reality television, insistence on not appearing over-edited leads to a clumsy tone: conversations which occur off-stage appear to be reproduced for plot development; others drag on as the camera lingers on one face or another. The overall effect, though, is that of a quiet observer. MTV’s documentary shows display a frank and non-judgmental attitude to the situations at hand. They’re shows made for teenagers who don’t want to be condescended to, and in the channel’s quick shifts from the serious documentary work to the youthful euphoria like that of Jersey Shore, its producers display a certain confidence that teenagers will make of the programming what they will. Too much focus on nailing down the distinctions of reality and fiction, one producer once said, “would be like saying [to viewers], ‘Well, you know, an episode of Felicity is not true.’” On a recent weekday evening, “True Life: I’m Addicted to Marijuana,” segued gracefully into the stoner comedy Half Baked.
While there’s an educational component to Teen Mom, it is kept separate from the observational footage that makes up most of the show. “Teen pregnancy is 100% preventable,” says a message that several times an episode. “For more tips on how to take control, visit www.itsyoursexlife.org.” The bulk of Teen Mom, however, is simply the documentation of parallel daily lives.
There are four women on Teen Mom: In addition to Maci, Farrah Abraham, a lanky Iowan who aspires to both model and open a restaurant, Catelynn Lowell, who with her boyfriend Tyler gave up their daughter Carly for adoption and Amber Portwood, round and surly, with a history of domestic violence. The four come from low to middle class backgrounds. (Farrah and Maci’s families both appear to be fairly comfortable, while Catelynn and Amber both appear to be less well off). Over the course of the show, each attempts to continue the tracks they were on before they got pregnant, to varying degrees of success. Amber struggles in vain to obtain her GED, where Farrah is able to move away from her family to pursue a degree in culinary management after graduating from a community college. The camera surveys as they try to square their own goals with the thorny difficulties that come with raising a child, from less time for school to custody battles. The popularity that all four have gained outside the show—regular magazine covers and speaking engagements—rarely appears to intervene in the cycles of care and self-development.
In the show’s first episode, we watch as Catelynn has an IUD inserted. The camera lingers as she discusses birth control options and the doctor pushes in the device. Several minutes later, Amber yells at her boyfriend for not understanding that she needs to get out of the house to retain her sanity. “My whole life consists of four walls!” The show addresses the economics of motherhood. “If I got a job, I would only make enough to pay for daycare while I work,” Maci says while finding ways to continue her education after the birth of her son. But it hardly bills itself a catalog of hardships. In one episode, Farrah buys a puppy and the camera focuses on her daughter Sophia in the pet store, laughing as tiny dogs jump and lick her.
There is a limit to the radicalism of the show’s vision. Over the course of the last season, much of the weight of the show has shifted onto Amber, its most dramatic subject. At the end of the second season, Amber was caught on television hitting her fiancé Gary. Distressed viewers called upon MTV to have Child Protective Services look into the situation. The event set in motion a series of criminal justice procedures for Amber, who began a five-year sentence on a drug charge in June. MTV doesn’t quite know how to handle such a stereotypical “bad mother,” and in more recent episodes, prefab housing and wall-to-wall carpeting are replaced with a swanky Malibu retreat where Amber appears to be the only guest. A sly paternalism also sneaks in at the end of every season, when the women meet up with Dr. Drew for a discussion about their mothering. Lined up on the couch, they sit in front of a studio audience while Drew acts as a condescending parent, showing the mothers where they’ve failed. “Have you not learned that this is a cycle?,” he asks Maci when she discusses her mother’s own teenage parenthood. More prominently, where the show is comfortable discussing all forms of contraception, it never mentions abortion. When Amber thinks she might be pregnant again, she and her fiancé contemplate the burden of another child without ever raising the prospect of not giving birth.
But overall, Teen Mom puts a great deal of effort not to judge the women it presents. “Shame is toxic. Shame breeds shame,” Catelynn learns at a retreat for birth mothers where she’s asked to literally burn away her regrets about putting up her daughter for adoption. Almost every episode features some sort of discussion between a woman and her mentor—GED counselor, school advisor, or shrink. “Do you think I’m doing pretty well?” Amber asks her GED counselor; “I see tremendous growth in you guys,” Catelynn’s adoption counselor repeatedly tells her. These mentors play an almost parental role in each woman’s life. Catelynn, whose mother is verbally abusive and often distant, goes to see her adoption advisor when she needs counsel. The response is usually reassuring. “I don’t think that anybody is ever ready to have a kid.”
Teenage pregnancy has been on a steady decline since the late 1950s, but nothing brings America into more of a panic than the thought of “unwed teen mothers.” These women, often poor with little access to education, are tracked like plague victims. One can’t find statistics without falling into a discussion of disease. “Teen pregnancy—a preventable epidemic,” “U.S. teen pregnancy and syphilis rates rose sharply during George Bush’s presidency” read the reports.
There’s no biological reason to think of teenage pregnancy, in particular, as a form of sickness. Everyone knows that pregnancy is an organic result of sexual intercourse, whether it happens at 15 or at 35. The language indicates fear of a social disease: the threat of reproduction occurring outside the condoned sphere of the family.
Panic at the idea of young mothers is a relatively recent phenomenon. After all, the average age for a first child was barely over 20 a few decades ago. Instead, the problem of teen childbearing entered the political sphere in the mid-1970s, when the advent of sexual liberation and the women’s movement meant that more women were having sex outside of wedlock, and fewer were covering up pregnancies with shotgun marriages. When the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Programs was established in 1978, teen childbearing was at a historic low, but adolescent sex was on the rise and marriage was beginning its decline. Through the next decade, the political importance of teen pregnancy grew as it was used to represent threats to the American social pattern as a whole. By Clinton’s presidency, teenage pregnancy had become a recognized political symbol, a common enemy that right and left could agree had no place in American life. Teen mothers were a social ill to be expunged.
In his 1997 national address about teenage motherhood, Clinton barely made mention of the actual health complications that can come along with an early pregnancy: increased rates of miscarriage, dangerous blood pressure, underweight babies. Instead, he blamed teenage pregnancy for high school drop-outs, crime, drugs, and even poverty itself. “[No problem] stands in our way of achieving our goals for America more than the epidemic of teen pregnancy…What we’re doing to prevent teen pregnancy as a nation is an example of how we can master many of the challenges of our time.” Clinton did not explain how the reduction of teen pregnancy would prove to be the key to all of America’s problems. Instead, his speech merely adopted the worst possible paternalism. You want to do that? Not under my roof! This speech was delivered from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The panic, which continues today, is not only linked to the idea of early sex, around which we already have forbidding legislation. What’s frightening about a teen mother is that her existence defies the patriarchal structure. It’s not only that teen mothers reproduce when poor, or uneducated. They haven’t conformed to the institutional model of marriage. Clinton continued his speech by highlighting that it was matrimony, not adulthood, that made pregnancy valid. “All of you need to help us send the strongest possible message: It’s wrong to be pregnant or father a child unless you are married and ready to take on the responsibilities of parenthood.” If teenage women produce children, they aren’t just irresponsible—their sexuality is deviant and potentially undermining. For where teenage childbearing, in particular, has been steadily declining over the past few decades, the larger structural diffusions that it represents have only increased. Fewer Americans are getting married and having their children in two-parent households. Two-thirds of children born to parents under 30 are out of wedlock. Teen mothers are held up as accountable for this change. A now notorious anti-pregnancy advertisement campaign developed by Clinton’s National Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy displayed women with the words “dirty” and “cheap” written across their bodies. Anyone who passed by would know to fill in the missing word: slut.
Teen Mom understands that there is no potential deviance to be worried about—the families displayed on the show have already collapsed. None of the women on Teen Mom became pregnant with the intention of marrying and settling down. Only one woman remains with the father of her child, and this is the couple who gave up their child to another family. Only one woman even has married parents. What takes place of a simple structure of parallel, co-existing nuclear families is a rotation of relatives and friends. Babies spend time with uncles, grandparents, friends, relatives, daycare. So do the mothers move in and out of their own parents’ houses, attempt independence, move back home. There are no simple structures: Catelynn’s mother is married to her boyfriend’s father, Butch, who stays with them after returning from jail. (In one of the show’s best moments, he delivers a pitch-perfect rant on the criminal justice system: “I know so much about rehab I could be a drug and alcohol counselor” ). The effort and time of raising a child is spread out onto dozens of others. “We all want you to be successful, we all want you get your education. That is why we are sacrificing to do this,” Farrah’s mother says to her.
In presenting these relationships in with dignity, Teen Mom acknowledges what it viewers may not wish to know: this is the shape of the family in America today. The show does not attempt radical advocacy, but it does understand that the most fundamental patterns in American life can’t be covered up. Teen motherhood, single motherhood, unmarried cohabitation—these are not plagues or social ills that pose a threat to the otherwise normal structures of everyday life. They are our new social reality.
What the show doesn’t get to is that this is a good thing.
There is nothing wrong with teenage or single motherhood. The things children need: economic livelihood, emotional support and an education, are not dependent on a nuclear family structure. Poverty is poverty whether it’s endured by two people or four. A couple cannot raise a child better than one can. Once we get rid of the idea that marriage is the privileged form of cohabitation and that women cannot raise children without the help of a man—ideas that the Left has been working to eradicate for decades—there is no reason that a teen should not be financially and emotionally assisted for her choice to have a family. The potential diffusion of the family (as the New York Times recently reported, it doesn’t look like the trends will stop anytime soon) is one of the most exciting things to happen to the American social pattern since sexual liberation. It means the end of what were just decades ago universal truths: every household must be headed by a breadwinning man; only when married will a woman have social value.
The problem is not teen motherhood. The problem is the legal system that makes the lives of teenage and single parents impossible. The shaming and belittling of teenage mothers is not just rhetoric: Teenage parents are actively discriminated against. Teen parents cannot receive financial assistance unless they live with their parents or marry. They cannot get welfare if they are not enrolled in an educational program.. In some cases, the state can deny all benefits to babies born to unmarried teenage parents. Welfare reform has taken money earmarked for families in need and diverted it toward programs aimed at promoting marriage and abstinence (For example: “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage”). All of this comes on top of the routine discriminations against single parents—higher insurance and tax rates, difficulties in obtaining housing and jobs—and those against the poor, who with the Hyde Amendment may not even have been able to abort if they had wanted. These policies were created with the explicit goal encouraging a two-parent model. They make any other option out of the question.
Teen Mom does not go into these developments—they are outside the scope of the camera’s lens. But it does recognize that what it is presenting is new and exciting, as do its viewers, who have not only watched the show by the millions but followed the teen mothers as if they were celebrities. 40 years ago, Maci and Ryan would have been unhappily married in a union characterized by resentment and impending break-up. Now, they barely interact. “Do you think we should stay together for Bentley?” Ryan asks Maci at the close of the second season. “No, not if we are not going to be happy.” What we as viewers must realize is this: Aside from access to contraception and abortion, crucial as they are, we need is a way to raise children without prioritizing the construct of the nuclear family. Teenage pregnancy is not the enemy. Coercing a society to conform to outdated models of family life is. “You know how hard it is to take care of you alone,” Maci tells her son while she contemplates her break-up. It shouldn’t be.