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Teen Moms Are Taking over Reality TV. Is That a Good Thing?

8 minute read
Feifei Sun

“This is the happiest day of my life!” So says Maci Bookout, according to a recent cover of OK! magazine, where the 19-year-old Teen Mom star and rumored bride-to-be flashes a beauty-queen smile. Sharing cover space with Bookout — and sporting a bikini, plus a baby on each hip — is Leah Messer, 19, whose dream wedding was featured in last spring’s season finale of Teen Mom 2. (One month later, she filed for divorce.) Elsewhere in the celebrity mediasphere, one might find Teen Mom‘s Farrah Abraham, 20, staging a photo op for paparazzi on a Florida beach, or Abraham’s castmate Amber Portwood, 21, posing for photographers outside her latest court hearing; she was recently sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to felony domestic battery against the father of her child.

A spin-off of MTV’s popular reality series 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom recently entered its third season. With more than 3 million viewers each week, it’s the network’s top-rated show after Jersey Shore, and its subjects provide endless fodder for the tabloids. But MTV’s teen-pregnancy franchise is a more discomfiting venture than most artifacts of the reality-TV age. Not quite famous for being famous, as the denizens of The Hills and Jersey Shore are, these young mothers became famous for making unplanned detours into parenthood — and inviting cameras along for the ride. Though MTV recruited them to be the subjects of cautionary tales, the network has turned them into success stories: television stars and cover girls, gainfully employed just for being themselves. (Last December, Portwood disclosed that she earned $140,000 from a six-month contract with MTV.) The contradictions of Teen Mom — brand fame might be encapsulated in a 2010 cover of Us Weekly: Bookout and Abraham stand back to back, cradling their adorable toddlers and grinning sunnily above the somber headline INSIDE THEIR STRUGGLE.

(See photos of teen moms in Detroit.)

It’s an uneasy mix of messages from programs intended to document and deter teen pregnancy, not exalt it. Lauren Dolgen, senior vice president of series development at MTV and the creator of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, got the idea for the shows after reading that each year, 750,000 15-to-19-year-olds become pregnant in the U.S. “This is an epidemic that is happening to our audience, and it’s a preventable epidemic,” Dolgen says. “We thought it was so important to shed light on this issue and to show girls how hard teen parenting is.”

Each episode of 16 and Pregnant tracks one teen from the latter stages of pregnancy to the first months of her child’s life. The series does not sugarcoat the challenges its subjects face: the slights and scorn of peers, friction with disappointed (grand)parents, colic, drudgery, arguments, sleep deprivation and — with dismayingly few exceptions — the burden of a feckless, absent or outright abusive boyfriend. Both 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom (which features alums of 16 and Pregnant such as Bookout, Abraham and Portwood) beckon viewers to the website ItsYourSexLife.com which offers sex-ed resources and promotes dialogue between teens and their parents about sex.

(See 16 and Pregnant in 32 epic moments in reality TV.)

The approach works. An October 2010 focus-group study commissioned by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 4 in 10 teenagers who watch an episode of 16 and Pregnant talk about the show with a parent afterward and that more than 90% of them think teen pregnancy is harder than they imagined before watching the series. “Any show that provides an opportunity to get more direction from a responsible adult, whether it’s a parent or an educator — that’s a terrific opportunity,” says Leslie Kantor, national director of education initiatives for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

But Kantor adds that despite their quest for gritty realism, the shows may create a distorted view of teen sexual activity. “Showing the consequences of risky behavior can be helpful to some young people,” she says. “What you don’t want is to send the message that everybody is having unprotected sex. These shows create a perception that tremendous numbers of teens are becoming pregnant or becoming parents.”

See why teen pregnancy and abortion is on the rise.

And actually, they’re not. The teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. has consistently declined over the past 20 years, except for a small spike from 2005 to 2007. Approximately 7% of girls 15 to 19 years old became pregnant in 2006 — a significant number but perhaps not an epidemic. Nor does the casting of the shows reflect the actual racial breakdown of teen pregnancy. While Teen Mom focuses heavily on white girls, unplanned pregnancies affect African-American and Hispanic teens at nearly three times the rate of whites.

Liz Gateley, a former executive producer of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom who is no longer with MTV, says the network specifically targeted middle-class girls through church groups and parenting organizations. “If we did inner-city people who really had difficulty with their upbringing,” she says, “we thought the public will discount this as, ‘Oh, that doesn’t apply to me.'” According to Gateley, the model for the series was Juno, the Oscar-winning 2007 film about a white, middle-class teenage girl who gets pregnant — right down to the animated-sketchbook style of the movie’s credits. (Dolgen would not directly contradict Gateley’s account, but she maintains that the show casts a wide net in recruiting subjects.)

(See “Teen Pregnancy: An Epidemic in Foster Care.”)

Bookout, subject of the premiere episode on June 11, 2009, was cast after her mother happened upon a Craigslist ad for the program while searching online for maternity-modeling jobs for her daughter. “When I first watched [the premiere], I had no idea it was going to be as big of a deal as it is now — such a controversial phenomenon,” Bookout says.

But she has no regrets. During her two years in the limelight, she has left the father of her now 2-year-old son Bentley and fallen in love with a new man (though she says she has no wedding plans). She’s appeared on dozens of magazine covers, spoken alongside Bristol Palin to groups about teen-pregnancy prevention and enrolled at Chattanooga State Community College, where she’s studying English literature and creative writing. “I don’t necessarily think I would change anything,” Bookout says of her stint as a reality star. “I’m very proud of what my life has become and what the show has done.”

(See why parents sex-talks with kids are too little, too late.)

Her castmate Catelynn Lowell, 19, is proud too. “I’ve changed girls’ lives since the show started,” she says. “I go to schools and talk about adoption, preaching contraceptives and abstinence.” In many ways, Lowell is the outlier of the group. Unlike Bookout and the other Teen Mom parents, Lowell arranged an open adoption for her 2-year-old daughter Carly, and her relationship with her child’s father remains intact; they plan to marry after graduating from college. The tabloids, for the most part, leave them alone. “I don’t know why that is,” Lowell says. “Probably because we don’t get into trouble.”

Other cast members can’t say the same. Portwood is a fixture on TMZ.com and other tabloid sites; primary custody of her daughter Leah currently rests with the girl’s father, and in June, Portwood was hospitalized after a reported suicide attempt. In March, Teen Mom 2 star Jenelle Evans, 19, was arrested for assault, and in February 2010, Abraham’s mother Debra Danielson struck a plea deal after she allegedly choked and hit her daughter.

These skirmishes may not come as a complete surprise to regular viewers of the shows. Tension, despair and sometimes explosive conflict are among the ingredients that make the series such addictive, even shocking television. That’s why Bookout, the most glamorous star in the Teen Mom firmament, is also the last person to suggest that the shows glamorize their subjects.

“In every episode, someone is trying to figure out if they can pay their rent or go to school or find a job or when they’re going to be able to take their next nap, because they haven’t slept in 24 hours,” Bookout says. “In every episode, someone has their heart broken.”

This article originally appeared in the July 18, 2011 issue of TIME.

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