MTV's Teen Mom Comes With A Boatload Of ProblemsS

Reads the MTV casting call: "We realize that [teen pregnancy] is a sensitive subject that many young women are experiencing, so our goal is to show what pregnant women, from varying backgrounds, are experiencing in their everyday lives."

The ad runs alongside open calls for Superfans! and The Stepfamily Project. It continues:

From morning sickness to mood swings, and to even the day of the baby's arrival, we would like you to let us document this exciting, life changing event. This show will allow young women to share their story in their own voice. As time is of the essence, please email me ASAP at 16andPregnantcasting@mtvnmix.com. Please include what city and state you live in, your contact details, a picture and why you would want to take part in this series.

Why, indeed: what is the true incentive for these young women? Exposure only does them so much good. What's not mentioned, but assumed, is the money participants earn. And while the network won't disclose the amounts, an "insider" indicates that they earn "around $5,000 per episode" — at nine episodes, this would be helpful, if not a fortune. This in itself is somewhat confusing: we see some of the young women working part-time at a pizzeria and a tanning salon; while the struggles are doubtless very real, the amount of employment we see seems insufficient to pay living costs in even the least expensive areas. Yet beyond a few references to food stamps, we hear nothing about government assistance — and certainly not about MTV payments. I can't imagine the latter is princely, but the murky financial details (and it's almost-guaranteed existence) add a strange element to an otherwise "real" and "gritty" program. And MTV has indicated that the children of the teen mothers will receive scholarships.

Beyond any financial incentive, there's also the chance to serve as an example (albeit a cautionary one) to other girls in the same situation. When the first series of 16 and Pregnant ran last year, and later, its follow-up Teen Mom, it actually seemed remarkably educational: an unvarnished look at the unglamorous realities of having a baby. We saw families implode, relationships crack under the strain, and friendships and social lives die under the pressures of a new reality. Catelynn and Tyler, the young couple who give their daughter up for adoption, even provided an honest perspective on the difficulty of being separated from one's baby. Altogether, it seemed like a laudable, ultimately positive show and that MTV's demographic could do a lot worse than to watch it.

Lately, though, things have changed. The "teen moms" are no longer just teen moms. Perhaps inevitably, they are celebrities, with a seeming lock on the covers of tabloids. And however daunting an example these teen mothers might provide, to a young person, celebrity conquers a lot. And overshadows a lot. Says psychologist Nancy B. Irwin to Fox News' predictably outraged Pop Tarts,

The media here is being extremely irresponsible by glamorizing teen pregnancy...Teens by their very nature are self-centered; where does that leave the baby? Knowing you were only born to pole vault your mother to fame is not the healthiest psychological base for a child.

While that's hyperbolic — we're pretty sure these kids were gonna be born, MTV or not — it does beg the question: is the show exploitative? It's something you have to ask whenever kids are involved in entertainment, and, whenever the show's goals seem to slide away from honest education, these questions loom larger. At this point, it's been two years since Catelynn and Tyler gave up their little girl; while it made sense to watch the aftermath of the decision, at what point to they cease to be "teen parents" and become simply teens? To what degree is MTV tying them to this act? The suspicion can't help but intrude that the kids' dysfunctional family situation — the parents who have married one another and show their combined family a shocking lack of support — might be proving too attractive for producers to abandon. Now, we learn, they want daughter Carly to be their flower-girl. Whether the adoptive parents knew what they were signing on for is an open (no pun intended) question.

Then there's Amber Portwood, an Indiana teen mom who, on more than one occasion, has lashed out violently against her boyfriend Gary in front of their small daughter. The decision to show the assault where the Network pulled footage of similar violence against a woman on Jersey Shore has led to charges of a double standard, but my concerns are more general. Whatever MTV's intention, the exposure serves to normalize the violence. What's more, at some point this ceases to be about a "teen mom" and simply becomes a voyeuristic look at someone who's shown on more than one occasion to have anger problems.

The show's two breakouts are probably the hard-working Maci Bookout, from Nashville, and the feckless Farrah Abraham of Nebraska, both of whom have rated magazine covers in the past month. It doesn't seem to be a coincidence that these are the two most conventionally attractive of the subjects, and the message here is thorny: if you're pretty, it will be okay.

Even for those cast members whose trajectory has not garnered the same glamour, there's the gloss of fame. These are no longer just teen moms — they're celebrities. While I don't think this has overshadowed the show's initial intent — yet — it's a concern. Because however "real" TV is, it's still TV: it's edited, it's scored, it's given the gloss of public acceptance. We're conditioned, consciously or not, to expect resolution along with that music, and to assume Big Brother will move the bus, pay the fees and, at the last second, turn everyone into beautiful celebrities. In short, we're guessing that ad gets a lot of interested hits. Especially if Bristol Palin does a good ha-cha.