Two things that don’t belong together: Teen Mom and Jersey Shore. Yes, they’re both on MTV. Yes, our knowledge of space and time and the universe tells us that they occupy the same general plane of existence. But if we could alter the space-time continuum and carefully place the two in separate alternate realities, we would. Alternate realities as far apart as alternate realities can get, however that would work.
And yet, there’s our beloved Teen Mom Maci Bookout — the seemingly most grounded of the four young women, with the best support system to boot, featured on the documentary series — in Us Weekly hanging out with the cast of Jersey Shore. (Yes, she also has lots of new blond hair.) This union represents MTV’s internal bipolar disorder — a show with the best of public-service intentions (that’s Teen Mom, in my opinion, to be clear) and a series devoid of redeeming value, a self-perpetuating fame-mongering machine. I’ve long argued that Teen Mom has something to offer the world in its uncompromising portraits of girls struggling with the life-rocking effects of unintended pregnancy. Studies have shown that it and its forerunner, 16 and Pregnant, get the birth control message across to young viewers loud and clear; this is a good thing. The show also brings us real young people with real problems; this also is a good thing in a world too full of Gossip Girls and 90210s, Jersey Shores and The Citys.
But I’m starting to wonder if it will ever be possible to shine any spotlight on any real lives for more than a few episodes of television without burning them to bits. I don’t speak this dramatically just of Maci and her Jersey Shore hang, of course — that mixing of worlds is simply indicative of a much larger trend. Tabloids have trained relentless attention on the Teen Mom girls since the show hit buzzworthy status late in the summer. Farrah Abraham’s dating choices, sordid family life, and fledgling modeling career were even further dissected in magazines and on blogs than they were on the air. Amber Portwood has been demonized to extreme degrees after being caught on camera punching and pushing her daughter’s father, Gary Shirley. (Beating up on your mate? Not acceptable. Beating up in print on a girl with enough problems already? Not helping.) All of the girls’ bodies and fashion choices have been scrutinized as if they were Hollywood starlets; it’s no wonder Maci was hitting the town with new hair. And newer, grosser-than-ever rumors and allegations are swirling through the tabs again this week, this time including Teen Mom 2‘s Jenelle Evans as well. (I’m not going to dignify any with links or details here, sorry.)
But these girls are not Hollywood starlets, nor Jersey Shore fame-for-fame’s-sake strivers. As mentioned, I’ve been an unabashed advocate of Teen Mom from the beginning, as a big believer in birth control, open talk about sex, and the reality check it offers girls about the massive inequalities built into the babymaking process. (Yeah, he’ll probably leave you even — especially — if you have his kid. This series has not been flattering to teenage boys.) I’ve resisted the arguments that it “glamorizes” teen pregnancy — if anything, this makes it look like a special kind of hell — and that girls would be getting knocked up just to get on such a show. But, man, this tabloid stuff is making it tough to keep defending Teen Mom as a force of pure good in the world. Not because I’m starting to buy the glamorization idea — though endless magazine covers, even tabloid ones, don’t help — but because I worry about what such large-scale fame could do to these girls. Oprah has said that fame only magnifies your inherent personality and your problems, and I believe that — please see Ted Williams and Susan Boyle for further proof of what sudden fame does to regular folk, the kind who go from an exceptional low to the highest of high with little warning.
It all makes me wonder if the kind of shows that document these real people — the ones I so want to see documented and championed — do engage, by necessity, in a kind of exploitation. Mind you, I’m not accusing MTV of any particular irresponsibility in its handling of its subjects — I suspect they never expected 16 and Pregnant to blow up beyond its humble True Life-like beginnings, and the producers have told the girls’ stories, for the most part, with sensitivity. (See the deft handling of even the hottest of topics, abortion, in December’s No Easy Decision special, for example.) But these girls are middle class at best, and struggling to raise newborn children with few resources; they’re usually working menial jobs while, if they’re lucky, trying to inch toward college degrees. They need this show as much as it needs them. It looks like a win-win most of the time: The girls get some compensation, most likely, though MTV won’t say how much, and a better shot at a future — Maci, for instance, wants to write a book, which seems like a great idea for the aspiring journalist. MTV, in exchange, gets to air their lives to educate its audiences about teen pregnancy. All good, until the tabloids and sketchy offers and mean-spirited bloggers and rumor mongers come calling.
January’s abrupt introduction of Teen Mom 2 — with a new cast of four culled from 16 and Pregnant episodes — seems like it could be a move in the right direction. Perhaps a constantly rotating selection of teen moms could keep the franchise, and its benefits, going, while keeping the Hollywood heat off its “stars.” (Though MTV still plans to bring Teen Mom 1 back eventually.) Maybe the biggest lesson of Teen Mom — besides “condoms are awesome” — is that fame, like teen motherhood itself, always bears an unforeseen price.
Follow Jennifer Armstrong on Twitter: @jenmarmstrong