May 12, 2011

"Reality" TV, Stereotypes, and Teen Parenthood

clip_image002By Kim Cochran Kiesewetter

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.


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It's not surprising that people get a bad stereotype about reality TV stars. The viewers and stars both know it isn't actually real, yet the stars progress from the realm of fiction to actually getting arrested for domestic violence and DUI and a whole bunch of other misdemeanors. It's sad.

I think reality tv shows are contributing to the population becoming dumber. Seriously, there are no good lessons in reality tv shows.

I agree with you entirely. With the ever-expanding reality shows we might be beginning to shape our generation. Not only are we saying that ALL teenage mothers drop out, but that they are dating dead-beat dads who do nothing with their children. Macy's boyfriend, Ryan, was one of the best dads on teen mom. Teenage mothers need to do what's best for them and not what society expects out of them.

I enjoyed reading your blog, I agree with almost everything that you have stated and believe that the overall message that it created is good. The behavior that the teens portray in these television shows do create a negative deviance as a stereotype to their predicament. I believe that instead of condemning these girls for keeping their child and trying to make a better life for themselves, their striving to make a better life should be featured on television instead of the millions of girls who use their child as a crutch and as a prop for their 15 minutes of fame.

Loved your blog!! Definitely in depth. I'm a blogger myself. Check out my page if you ever get the chance. :)


In my sociology class we are currently talking about change and this is one thing that has changed a ton over the years. Back in the 50s and 60s you wouldn't dare talk about anything sexual, now there are a ton of shows that back then would've gotten someone in jail just about.

i think all of these example just influence more teenager to be in T.V and be doing things that are not right like being a bad mother just because of 15 min. of fame more people will continue watching these kind of programas and all they do is harm our society but in special our teens.

I personally chose this article to evaluate on because as a teenage women in a society where I am well aware of such reality television shows and where teenage pregnancy of my age group is seeming increasingly common, I was very interested in reading about an expert’s view on these issues. After I became aware of the fact that the author of this article was a teenage mother herself, I began to realize how truly false the stereotype against young mothers really is. By using herself as a counterexample and explaining valid points about the media’s depiction and stereotypical generalization of teen moms, Kiesewetter opened my eyes to a majority of teenage mothers positive lifestyles that are seldom seen because of such reality television shows as “Teen Mom.” I can imagine how such an article can be sociologically enticing to my peers, especially female teens, simply because so many people are aware of this topic and its negative connotations thanks to the media and reality television.
As an eighteen-year-old college student, I am very aware of television programs like “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom.” I have watched these shows also, as have many of my peers simply because of the intriguing drama in the life of a teen mom. However, I have noticed as the shows gained popularity and as years passed, these shows have gotten more dramatic, extreme and negative. Because of this, I personally stopped watching the shows because of the excessive amount of drama the shows were based around.
I come from a small town with not much to do, which means very bored teenagers. Usually, bored teenagers’ leads to not so smart choices and negative consequences. In my town, teenage pregnancy is becoming the norm. I discuss with my family and friends how we feel like the outcasts for not being pregnant at our age. It has truly gotten that bad. It is completely normal nowadays to see my peers upload Facebook pictures of their ultrasounds, baby’s progress and pregnant belly pictures. Backing up what Kiesewetter explained in her article, these young women from my hometown have given up on school, career goals and educational dreams and the majority of them are using governmental assistance and welfare to get by. I am aware of this firsthand as most of the teen mothers in my hometown I have been or are currently friends with. I think reality television shows focusing on teen pregnancy do indeed glamourize it and make it seem appealing for young women to get pregnant as teens because hey, they might get a television show out of it. With so many options for birth control nowadays, extremely helpful educational programs created specifically for mothers and parents, and an extraordinary amount of financial assistance available to teen moms seeking further education, there is no excuse or reason any teen mom should live the way the reality show teenage mothers choose to live their lives. There are options.

In my sociology class we're learning about the effect television has on teenagers. More specifically, the violence that it seems to influence. It seems to me that more teenagers develop their violence from the reality shows they are viewing. Even with Teen Mom, many teenagers attempted to become pregnant just to get on the show and receive that paycheck. Television obviously has an effect on how some teenagers may act.

Reality TV shows are all fake they are not real. The material presented in reality television shows also seems to reinforce many stereotypical gender roles. Reality shows often depict women as calculating and over-emotional, while men are frequently depicted as aggressive and competitive.

I enjoyed your blog, and am studying Sociology right now. We are to choose a tv show that depicts deviance. Well, as you mentioned Teen Mom, there's SO many reality shows that do the same, I think they all do, and I believe that a LOT of it is scripted, do you? I've watched Housewives of Orange County and I'm 43 so near their age. I've got more guy friends than women, and they prove me right with all the gossip and backstabbing! Truth told, my best friend since age 9, really is NOT the one I confide in! I tell the guys everything, and they're blunt with their advice which I love b/c I'm very blunt.There is no way I'd hang around rich women that do nothing but spread friend's secrets around, they'd be sorry they ever met me, I just DO NOT put up with stuff like that!!
I am pretty deviant myself, I choose to be unique and different, I don't follow, which is why we're made to be different. I'm Bipolar, not diagnosed until 35, I faithfully take my meds, there's no cure! I think it's a large part of my personality. We have grandiose thoughts, and a euphoria so if confronted in that state of mind, things can get really ugly! I wouldn't ever walk away. It's healthy to let your anger out when warranted, I treat people how I wanna be treated, I live on a laid back island off the east coast, right now it's all us locals, perfect! It's the rude northerners that come down w/their attitude problems. I make them feel stupid b/c I point out quickly they aren't local, they're on OUR turf, and why be so mean on vacation??
I worry about our jury system, I've seen studies where almost all conform with 1st person the foreman in jury. See, had I been on Casey Anthony jury it'd have ended in mistrial. She was guilty it's been proven, and no way I'd change my mind whether they all hated me or not. Don't back down from your intuition, gut instinct, and beliefs.....don't doubt yourself!

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