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

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Old July 8th 11, 09:41 AM posted to alt.tv.mtv,misc.kids.pregnancy,rec.arts.tv,alt.tv.reality
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Default Teen Moms Are Taking over Reality TV. Is That a Good Thing?

By 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

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.

"If Barack Obama isn't careful, he will become the Jimmy Carter of the
21st century."


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