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I make no apology for the fact that I’m hooked on the MTV shows about young moms. But I do need to explain it a bit.
When “16 and Pregnant” first aired, it had been a little over a year since I’d moved to Copenhagen for love. After living together in the States for a year, my guy and I decided to give it a go in his native Denmark. And despite all the things I loved about my new city -- wide bike lanes, marzipan cakes, 20 hours of sunlight on summer days -- I was incredibly homesick.
Since I’d seen a commercial for the show weeks prior, I’d been anticipating the televised trip down memory lane. You see, Gary and Amber -- you may know them as the abusive couple from Seasons 1 of both “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” -- are from my Indiana hometown.
I wasn’t homesick for the actual city of Anderson. I haven’t lived there in over a decade, and only two of my close friends are still in the area. Instead, I missed the familiar sights and sounds of anything I understood. I was far away from home for an undetermined amount of time, and for me, watching “16 and Pregnant” was a little like watching Boston flicks like “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Departed.” I’d lived in a Boston borough (Allston Rock City holla!) before I’d moved abroad, and catching a glimpse of Fenway or the Charles River was enormously comforting. (Seriously, I cried when I went to see “The Town” in a Copenhagen theater. Shut up already because it was even more embarrassing when it happened than it is to admit years later.) Similarly, spotting Anderson soft serve joint Frazier’s Dairy Made was visual evidence of my life, of somewhere I’d lived, of a place I had (mostly) loved.
I started out watching “16 and Pregnant” for the b-roll footage. As the drama between Gary and Amber unfolded, the smallest, most unimportant details of that episode became fodder for reminiscing. A scene in the local Steak n’ Shake prompted a conversation about high school-era employment. In a different scene, Gary wore a t-shirt that read, “Fall Creek Heritage Fair,” the craft annual craft bazaar held mere blocks from my high school. The otherwise ordinary faded gray tee sparked a long debate with my sweetie about county fairs and the European equivalent.
(I feel compelled to point out that similar shows are produced in other countries. The Danish version, “De Unge Mødre (The Young Mothers),” also featured underage pregnant girls from small towns. But because poverty is markedly different in a social welfare state, most of my European pals didn’t understand why I could relate to the American themes about teen unemployment or staying in bad relationships for financial reasons. Most of the Danish young mothers had markedly less drama in the televised parts of their lives.)
When “16 and Pregnant” spun off into “Teen Mom,” I kept watching because by then, I was just hooked on the combination of hometown novelty and possibly exaggerated drama. (Everyone was riveted by Catelynn and Tyler's rather mature take on their long-term future, right? What about Farrah and her mom?!) When Amber angrily moved out of the apartment she shared with Gary, I pointed out the extended stay motel that locals often rely on. “The H&K has weekly rates,” I explained. I knew this because as a waitress teen, I’d driven several of my down-on-their-luck co-workers to the run-down inn where they shared a room with up to four other family members.
Another time, I shrieked and pointed at the screen when Amber and a friend went to the Real Hacienda, a local Tex-Mex joint that occasionally has a live mariachi band. “No one is sure whether or not to call it the real hacienda or the re-al hacienda,” I said, rolling my eyes at the Midwestern mispronunciation of the Spanish word for “royal.”
The longer I watched “16 and Pregnant” and its spin-off, “Teen Mom,” the more I realized that I appreciated the somewhat realistic peeks into the lives of poor young women and men in Middle America. No matter how provincial or backwards your own home may be, it’s easy to pick on reality show caricatures. And more than once, against what seemed like my own best judgment, I found myself passionately defending the teen moms’ fast food habits or difficulties breastfeeding, enraged by others’ insensitivity.
“It’s just a stupid reality show, Brittany,” friends would chide.
For me, the shows represent the difficult experience of growing up poor and undereducated in suburbia. Sure, it’s an imperfect representation, sometimes uncomfortably devoid of people of color or discussions about why sex ed isn’t taught in most public schools. There’s little abortion talk, and it’s never about access, which is an enormous problem in some of the areas where the teen moms live. There are massive, unavoidable flaws in these shows, and I’m not defending how poorly the producers sometimes mishandle or altogether sidestep teachable issues. But I do believe that the shows also showcase situations and offer a narrative to which many people can relate -- people, mind you, who rarely see even vaguely similar depictions of themselves in popular culture. In my case, these programs present a somewhat realistic storyline complete with familiar backdrops that meant a lot to me when I was a disaffected youth. Most of what happens on "Teen Mom" bears little resemblance to my life, but that doesn't mean I wholesale disregard the show. I maintain that it can be useful, if also deeply problematic.
It’s a cop-out to simply romanticize MTV reality shows, and I’m not aiming to do that any more than it’s already done on the cover of US Weekly. There’s nothing sexy about unplanned pregnancy, and there’s nothing particularly glamorous about poverty. But the show does mean a lot to some people, and it does, arguably, for better or worse, reach its target demographic and beyond.