"Reality" TV, Stereotypes, and Teen Parenthood
Instructor, Sandhills Community College
I think most people would agree that there is little to nothing “real” about reality television… which is why we enjoy is so immensely. Millionaire Matchmaker? I may or may not have subjected my poor spouse to more than one episode of that particular show’s highly uplifting material. When it comes to “reality” TV though, no one wants to watch the every day exciting-ness of most of our lives and producers of these shows are well-aware of that fact. They choose subjects that ensure that the people involved are sure to bring drama, suspense, and emotion to boot. It brings in the ratings!
I am guilty of filling my brain with mindless media on occasion, and as a former teen mommy myself, I was very interested in the MTV 16 & Pregnant and the Teen Mom series when they first appeared in 2009. I wasn’t overly disappointed at first. Especially on Teen Mom, it was apparent that both the trials and tribulations of these young women were highlighted. I could relate some of their experiences to my own and to the ones I saw with the young mothers I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years. The second season, though, I started to get uncomfortable watching the dynamic going on in Amber’s storyline, but felt that it was an adequate representation of some of the issues that teen parents faced. I also felt that her issues were balanced by the fact the other three girls seemed to earnestly be trying to make their lives better to the best of their abilities, with of course, pitfalls along the way.
But then I started seeing these young women in the tabloids and I quickly saw what had been a more documentary-style television show take a drama-filled turn. The last season of Teen Mom 2 with Jenelle, Leah, Kailyn, and Chelsea became unfortunate to say the least and the current season of 16 & Pregnant is notable for tabloid exposure and court cases involving everything from drug use to domestic violence. A show that started off as a potential cautionary tale to teenagers about the challenges of teen parenthood and also offered positive role models for teen moms, has quickly made a turn for Maury territory.
Some people might try to interject here and say that all of this ugliness is what teen parenthood is all about and that all MTV is doing is revealing the truth. However, I would make the argument that, first of all, I don’t think what is being portrayed currently is what is real across the board for all teen parents – I think MTV has stumbled on what works and is attracting/selecting girls who want their 15 minutes of fame and are aware that drama sells and adjust their behavior accordingly (also known in research as the self-selection bias).
That is not to say that parents/couples don’t deal with the negative issues that are portrayed on the show; domestic violence, poor parenting, and drug use are very real in our culture… but it’s important to note that teen parents aren’t the only ones who have these problems.
These two particular shows and the storylines MTV has chosen to highlight contribute to negative stereotypes about teen parents. The dictionary defines a stereotype as: “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”
When people stereotype someone, they look for behavior from anyone in that group of people in order to confirm their belief in the validity of the statement while often ignoring many other people who act the same way but may not fit the idea of what they are looking for. Obviously, the show itself is stereotyping the majority of the young women by choosing to display only behavior that reinforces the stereotype that teen parents are irresponsible, immature, and at times, even abusive.
People begin to look for the Ambers and the Jenelles in every teen mom they encounter and assume that these troubled young women are representative of the hundreds of thousands of teenagers who embark into parenthood with a “teen” still attached to their age.
The funny thing about stereotypes-- or perhaps ironic is a better word?--is that they lead to what is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I am a mother at 16 and everyone around me, including the media, is telling me that this is what teen motherhood is like, that’s the shape my life may start to take on.
Research has indicated this phenomena over and over again, for example, when documenting the poor performance of certain groups in our educational system. Of course the purpose in highlighting the pitfalls of teenage parenthood is to discourage teenagers from procreating, but on the flipside of that, they also discourage teenagers who have already procreated, creating an environment of feeling disheartened and defeated before these young women and their partners have even begun the journey.
In multiple episodes of the shows, I have been disappointed to see young people lamenting that, because they had their babies in high school, they can no longer pursue their dreams of college while their parents nodding their heads in disappointment right along beside them… Um, what? Why have we created an environment where we so severely punish teenagers for having sex that one of the best things they could do to change the negative outcomes of their early childbearing in our society — obtaining an education — is no longer viewed as a viable option?
As someone who went to college as a teen mom, it was no walk in the park (my mom can attest to the fact that I called her an embarrassing number of times the first semester, homesick and ready to drop out), but it was definitely feasible, and it was definitely easier than some of the other options I had on the table in front of me like working full-time at a minimum-wage job that was going to take me nowhere.
Many colleges across the country offer family housing so that single parents can even live on campus, some have daycare, and some offer special programs for first-generation college students who may not know how to navigate the system.
Even if moving out isn’t possible, local community colleges often offer extremely affordable programs that can lead to decent paying jobs. Where are the girls on Teen Mom who are doing these beneficial things and why isn’t that aspect emphasized more? With the show’s high profile, the young mommies who are inevitably watching might be motivated to look into those options for themselves and their children.
Some people might make the argument that shows about teenage parents have an obligation to focus on the negative outcomes to serve as a PSA about the dangers of teen pregnancy. But one could also make the counter argument that showing inspirational stories of young parents achieving goals (and still making mistakes!) would provide a lot of societal good by disseminating information that young mothers might not otherwise have.
Additionally, balancing the stories with a little less drama would work to de-bunk some of the negative stereotypes that the general population has which would create a culture that was more conducive to ensuring teen parents have the support they need to succeed, if not for themselves, for their children. With the percentage of teenage mothers obtaining a four-year college degree hovering around 1.5%, and with college education being directly associated with upward social mobility in our society, our society needs to start asking these questions.
Teen parenthood has always existed and always will exist. While I am glad there are people working to eliminate and reduce teen pregnancy through various avenues, I am hopeful that one day we’ll have the social support that’s needed to ensure that there are better outcomes for these families.