Feminist or Not?: 'Teen Mom'

MTV’s Teen Mom — and the show from which it evolved, 16 and Pregnant — have taken their share of blame for everything from “glamorizing” teen pregnancy (with some critics even claiming girls were getting themselves knocked up now just to be on TV) to standing by as the young mothers have abused their mates and neglected their offspring. The latter criticism is more valid than the former — we have watched as Amber punched baby daddy Gary and as Farrah let her baby fall off a bed — though producers say they’re there to make a documentary, not to interfere with the girls’ lives. But as the subjects’ lives have also become tabloid targets, questions about whether there’s really some societal good to be gleaned from what some see as an exploitative show have become both murkier and more persistent.

With the show back this week for the third season featuring original cast members Amber, Caitlynn, Farrah, and Maci, two things seem clear: These girls’ lives are more complicated than ever — and for all the series’ imperfections, it does still do a spectacular job of highlighting the massive inequalities between what young mothers face versus young fathers. Particularly for Farrah and Maci — who no longer have their kids’ dads around, for very different reasons — life is one feminist lesson after another. Farrah, who lost her boyfriend in a car accident, has been trying to make her way in the world and provide for little Sophia, but the girl can’t catch a break. She’s patched things up with her mom, who served community-service time for hitting her during a heated argument last season, but she’s still, it seems, relatively broke. (The network and the girls are mum on how or whether they’re compensated for the show, but it doesn’t seem like much given what we see.) Farrah’s trying to go to culinary school while waitressing; the stunning girl has also decided to take up modeling, which could be more lucrative, though she’s decided she needs a boob job for that. Alas, after a string of rejected loan applications to pay for the surgery, one bank approved her during last night’s season finale — which kind-of bummed me out, even though I’m rooting for the poor thing. Maci, meanwhile, can’t get her ex to pay his share of child support, but she’s still stuck trying to keep the peace between him and her new beau for the sake of her son. Plus, of course, she can’t move too far away to be with her boyfriend — because she has to share custody with her ex.

Even Amber and Caitlynn, whose baby daddies are sticking with them — or trying to — are stuck with perpetual guilt: Amber for clearly not getting along (to say the least) with the father of her child, and Caitlynn for giving her baby up for adoption (a fact her mom won’t let her live down). Via Amber’s storyline last night, we also got a lesson in domestic violence as she and Gary went to a counselor, who told her that if she gets physical in front of her daughter, that little girl is more likely to become a victim of domestic violence when she grows up. That’s an important feminist message regardless of which gender is the perpetrator.

Is the show good for the girls starring in it? It’s hard to make an argument that it is. But as far as showing the realities of young motherhood, in all their stark grittiness, it sure beats Juno and The Secret Life of the American Teenager.


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Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up deep in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, then escaped to New York to live in a succession of very small apartments and write about pop culture. In the process, she became a feminist, a Buddhist, and the singer/guitarist in an amateur rock band. She also spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded SexyFeminist.com, and now writes for several publications, including Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, Fast Company, and New York‘s Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013; her collaboration with Heather Wood Rudulph, Sexy Feminism, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is the author of the Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club published by Grand Central in 2010. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, A&E, and ABC, and teaches article writing and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jmkarmstrong

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