10.18.10

Teen Mom Cover Girls

Maci, Farrah, Amber, and Catelynn have morphed from cautionary examples to celebrity magazine staples, but MTV isn’t extending them the red carpet. Joyce C. Tang on the balancing act between morality tale and entertainment juggernaut.

Will Maci and Kyle reunite? Will Amber overcome her anger issues? These were the questions viewers were left with after last week’s season finale of MTV’s Teen Mom. Although Tuesday night’s reunion show may provide some answers, the celebrity magazines have already been beating the network to it.

As the curtains close on the show’s second season, its “stars” find themselves at an awkward moment, straddling the line between the harsh reality of teen parenting and the potential to cash in on the celebrity of reality television. Teen Mom’s season finale hauled in 5.6 million viewers, making it this summer’s second most popular show on the network. And the teen mothers’ ups and downs have lately become fodder for celebrity weeklies, from People to Us Weekly to OK! Magazine.

After seeing the strong ratings for the show, Us Weekly was the first to put the girls on a cover. “It was the right combination of a large enough audience that was passionate that could drive a sale for us,” said Lara Cohen, news director at the magazine. And the decision paid off, she said: Us Weekly had one of its biggest sales of the summer with that issue.

For MTV and entertainment magazines, cashing in on the show’s success is business as usual. But for the teen moms, their success and popularity, not to mention their show’s integrity, rely on a narrative that highlights their struggles and hardships, and the notion of suffering the consequences of one’s poor decisions.

“Teen pregnancy is not easy,” said show producer Morgan J. Freeman, and it’s clear the onus is on Teen Mom to underscore that fact. The girls “have an enormous amount of responsibility. The focus is on that.”

Since the series’ origins in 16 and Pregnant, it has hewed to a story line familiar to high school classrooms across the country. And as the girls have graduated to become teen moms, one fights to get a GED, another juggles school and a full-time job, and a few battle for custody rights and child support. Viewers, and the media, would be reluctant to embrace a show that compromised that narrative.

“It certainly would change the dynamic of the show if they had money to spend on nicer houses and nannies,” said Cohen of Us Weekly. “It would ruin what’s really interesting about the show. The whole reason that we wanted to cover them to begin with was that their struggle was compelling and very real.”

If anything, the show’s message combined with MTV’s packaging mean that Teen Mom works as a very clever and glorified public service announcement, for which the network has received considerable praise. Petite Maci laments losing her virginity to ex-fiancé Ryan, whom she broke up with after it was clear he was too immature and selfish to be a responsible and caring father. Dark-haired Farrah flip-flops between relying on an abusive mother for economic and emotional support and flailing for independence. In the season’s first episode, Farrah and her mother are trying to find a way forward after Farrah’s mother struck her. Then there’s Amber, who was captured on camera punching her daughter’s father and trying to push him down the stairs. MTV quickly turned the incident into a domestic-violence teaching moment. When Us Weekly featured all four girls in an issue, the piece was packaged under the headline “ What We’ve Learned.

Teen Mom’s lesson is clear: Teen pregnancy begets nothing if not struggles, sacrifices, and hardships, and the only near winners are the teens who chose to give their daughter up for adoption. Although they’ve had to deal with infidelity and other troubles, Catelynn and Tyler make it to the end of Season 2 more bonded and at peace than ever with their decision to give up their daughter for an open adoption. Incidentally, they’re the only parents who are still together. Yet when the two made it to the cover of People, their story focused on the emotional trauma of giving up a baby.

“It’s showing an honest portrayal of the challenges associated with teen pregnancy,” said Amy Kramer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “I strongly believe that the show does not glamorize teen pregnancy.”

But does the show's morality tale conflict with its status as an entertainment juggernaut?

While the teens are reportedly being paid $5,000 an episode, MTV withholds invitations to red-carpet events like the VMAs. A spokeswoman from MTV said she was unable to confirm or disclose compensation but did verify that the cast is not invited to glitzy, high-profile events.

“I don’t think they’re going to be the next Kardashians,” Cohen said. Which may be good for their characters, but what if it could improve their lot in life? Statistically speaking, teen moms are at a disadvantage for future education and socioeconomic status.

If the girls were ever to fully plumb the opportunities of reality television, the show would likely lose its way. But their sort of delicate fame but non-celebrity means that Maci, Amber, Farrah, and Catelynn’s stories can be exposed for the benefit of television and magazines, while the girls themselves can never fully reap its rewards.

For their part, the teens “are looking for ways to promote the issue and to tell their stories in a way that fits the brand of the show,” said Freeman. Instead, they speak at schools, and Maci is working on a book about her experiences as a teen mom. MTV is even helping her look for a publisher.

While their compensation may not be as large as that of other reality-television stars, it may make viewers wonder about the show’s authenticity. Why is Maci waitressing and Amber kvetching about paying the bills?

“I don’t think they’re making so much money that that’s going to be a situation,” Cohen said.

But the show’s dubious authenticity is a sine qua non for all reality television. The bigger concern is what happens to these girls, whose prominence relies on continually confronting the challenges of teen parenthood and their representation of a social taboo.

“It certainly would change the dynamic of the show if they had money to spend on nicer houses and nannies... It would ruin what’s really interesting.”

Life & Style reports in its current issue that the Herald-Bulletin, a newspaper in Amber’s hometown in Indiana, recently published an editorial criticizing how she’s portrayed on the show. “Reality shows prey on featuring people who appear to be undereducated, narcissistic, and full of anger,” wrote the paper’s editors.

As for the entertainment lifespan of these teen moms, “if their stories are still useful, and there’s still some educational value to share, we’ll continue to track them,” Freeman said.

Once the hardships go away, the cameras likely will, too. What’s unclear is what the girls will be left with.

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Joyce Tang is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, Double X, and The Miami Herald.