Mommyish Debate: Should MTV Be Educating Their ‘Teen Moms’?

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The original set of Teen Moms just started their third season on MTV. I have to admit, I was never an avid fan of the show, but I decided to see what all the fuss was about. While watching these teenage girls stumble through parenting a young child, I began to feel a little guilty. I felt like I was watching a crime and failing to report it. From Maci’s evolving love life to Amber’s angry outbursts, were these young women aware of the impact on their children? Shouldn’t MTV, the company that’s making money off these girls’ hardships, be helping them in some way?

I decided to talk to B5 Media’s very own Teen Mom guru, Lilit Marcus, who has a lot more experience in the reality TV world than I do.

Lindsay: I truly believe that MTV should be providing these women with parenting lessons. Much in the same way that they used to give Real Worlders internships. I realize that everyone else found it boring, but it was one of the more interesting aspects of the show for me. At least then, you get to see people grow as individuals, instead of merely gawking at their ineptitude.

Lilit: I don’t think they are under any such obligation. Their job is to create a show, not to be a counseling center. If they help the girls too much, they get accused of creating an unrealistic portrayal of teen motherhood. If they don’t help at all, they’re accused of neglect. They can’t win.

Lindsay: No one can force these women to be good mothers. But they can provide tools to help them learn. Showing an image of teen motherhood as a depressing and horrible existence may educate teenagers about the seriousness of teen pregnancy, but it does nothing to help those who are already in this situation. They could provide a true service to an ignored group of mothers about how to learn to be a better parent.

Lilit: You can lead a horse to a parenting class, but you can’t make her drink it. Amber has spent the last three seasons studying for her GED and not getting it. Maci keeps failing classes and switching schools. Most of these girls have huge egos and think they know better than their parents, teachers and social workers do, so would they even benefit from classes?

Lindsay: And I think that MTV inserts themselves into the role of counselor when they continue to follow these girls beyond the original “16 & Pregnant” premise. I can understand staying out of the pregnancy, but if they’re filming everything after, as well, they can help these people. That can be part of the learning process. Some of these girls may benefit and some won’t. I’m not saying that they can mold these young ladies into wonderful mothers. But they could show that there’s another option out there. Young motherhood doesn’t have to be a bleak and terrible existence. Women really can grow up and become functioning parents.

Lilit: Look at Farrah. She is the only one of the four girls to complete any higher education (a two year culinary program) and her parenting skills have grown by miles. It’s definitely possible for these girls to get their lives together and improve their parenting, but you can’t force them.

Lindsay: You can’t force anyone to be a good parent. But you can show them what a good parent looks like. Because these women are on MTV’s payroll, they don’t see the consequences of their actions. They have money and can provide for themselves. Wouldn’t it make sense to teach them how their behavior effects their children? Because there are children involved, even if they’ve become peripheral characters at most. Or adorable screen-shot fodder, which is the probably the best way to describe the kids on this show.

Lilit: I disagree. I think Amber is super aware of how she has been coming across on TV, and she also knows she has to get it together or lose her kid. She’s not really trying to become a better mother, she’s trying to look like a better mother on TV. And that’s disingenuous. Hence why the show is all about playing to the cameras now. The girls are all much savvier about their public personas than they were at the beginning.

Lindsay: It’s true that like any reality TV show, after the first season, the characters seem to become representations of themselves. They seem like they are trying to portray the image that MTV has given them. The most interesting parts of Teen Mom is when they forget. Or when they still don’t realize how they’ll be perceived. Like when Amber admits that she doesn’t have anywhere for Leah to sleep because her crib is filled with junk. It’s amazing to me that she doesn’t realize how awful that is. But I wish that someone was there to tell her how hard it must be on her daughter when she doesn’t have a consistent place to sleep and she has to be moved around constantly. I wish there was someone other than Dr. Drew giving a bullshit interview at the end of the season and pretending that he’s helping these young women.

Lilit: Have you seen what happens when people try to give good advice to these girls? Farrah’s mother suggested she get a lawyer to deal with the custody/visitation stuff, and Farrah bit her mom’s head off. Maci’s mother told her that her education was more important than her love life, and Maci responded by quitting school to be with Kyle.

Lindsay: Its just so depressing to admit to defeat. It’s hard to stomach that we’re watching young women hurt their children’s future and calling it entertainment. As a society we’re learning more and more about early childhood education and how important it is. But we see examples of the kids who need it most and we sit back and do nothing.

Lilit: Amber wasn’t turned in by MTV, she was turned in by viewers of the show. Maybe we’re actually preventing a domestic abuse case and helping save Leah by putting these girls on TV and making them accountable to the public. There are probably lots of “Ambers” all over the country, lots of moms and dads who neglect their kids. And plenty of them never have to answer for their actions. In a way, TV made them have to be honest. Who knows if anyone would have intervened otherwise?

Lindsay: So even if MTV doesn’t need to provide the girls with parenting classes, at the point where their behavior becomes criminal, do they have a duty to report it? And if they report it, are they in some way responsible for the behavior that happens in front of their cameras?

Lilit: Plenty of people do things that are dangerous and/or illegal and just keep getting away with it

Lindsay: True, but once MTV witnesses a criminal act, shouldn’t it have an obligation to report that act, just like any other citizen?

Lilit: It falls into this weird, nebulous area. Their job is to get footage, period. Remember the Real World Hawaii episode where Ruthie drove drunk?

Lindsay: I do! it was one of the last seasons I watched.

Lilit: They followed Ruthie as she drove and luckily she didn’t hit anyone. Then after they got home, that’s when the producers intervened and told Ruthie she needed to go to rehab. That has always been MTV’s MO. They’re a network, not a counseling center.

Lindsay: And all I can think is, “What if she wouldn’t have made it home? What would their excuse be then?”

Lilit: Look, if they interfere, then they get the usual round of “But it’s reality TV so you have to be REAL!” comments

Lindsay: I realize that… but say Ruthie crashed into another car and killed someone. What on earth could MTV say to that family? I just don’t think there’s a justification, no matter what the artistic merit is. At some point in time, MTV needs to grow up and grow a spine, just like their employees.

Lilit: Do you think they should have stepped in during the Ronnie/Sammi fight on Jersey Shore?

Lindsay: I think that the producers of the shows have a responsibility, just like any citizen, to step in and prevent a crime from occurring. If I saw someone crash into another car and then drive away, I would call in their license plate. It’s the same principle.

Lilit: On one level, I want to agree with you. But the only court case I can think of where a TV producer was implicated in a crime like that was the Jenny Jones thing in the ’90s. I’m just trying to think about this from a more legal perspective… you know, despite not being a lawyer.

Lindsay: You could probably argue me into a small and lonely corner. But I’m not being logical, I’m being emotional. So it’s probably not fair.

In conclusion, neither Lilit nor I want to be lawyers. We just don’t enjoy arguing enough. So on the matter of MTV’s responsibility to their talent or to their show’s integrity, we agree to disagree. What about you guys? How do you feel?