When MTV first started airing 16 and Pregnant, its documentary series about teenage girls having babies, I was riveted. Though the show was accused of glorifying and implicitly endorsing teen motherhood, 16 and Pregnant covered a fairly wide range of girls and experiences in a realistic way. We saw girls who got married and girls whose boyfriends disappeared, girls from middle-class families and poor ones, girls who had divorced parents and girls who had married ones. And it looked like MTV was doing a great service – until Teen Mom came along.
Designed as a companion piece to 16 and Pregnant that would take a longer look at the realities of teen motherhood, Teen Mom selected four young women from the 16 and Pregnant cast and followed them for an entire season. The show has been a huge hit for MTV, and the four original stars – Farrah Abraham, Maci Bookout, Amber Portwood, and Catelynn Lowell started getting followed by paparazzi and being featured on the covers of magazines. When Amber was arrested for assaulting her then-fiance (and the father of her daughter) Gary Shirley – an act which was captured by MTV’s cameras – the show went from being a cable favorite to a bona fide pop culture touchstone.
Because of Teen Mom‘s success, a followup, Teen Mom 2 was quickly greenlighted. The show pulled another four girls from the second season of 16 and Pregnant – Jenelle Evans, Chelsea Houska, Kailyn Lowry, and Leah Messer. The formula stayed pretty close to the original season, and the four moms matched up to the moms from the first season – Leah/Maci (the competent one), Chelsea/Farrah (the spoiled, princessy one), Kail/Catelynn (the one who had a troubled family), and Jenelle/Amber (the troublemaker). Before the show even aired, there were tabloid reports about the girls. Due to the show’s timeline (the whole season is taped and edited before airing, so there’s a several-months-long lag from happening to being on TV), stories about Jenelle’s arrest and Leah’s divorce were on blogs and in magazines before taking place on the show. Cast members are now appearing on other shows and even trying to get themselves cast on Dancing with the Stars. The Teen Moms are no longer ordinary young women struggling to raise their children and get their lives together; they’re celebrities.
The end goal of 16 and Pregnant has changed. Instead of being a way to make a little bit of money while educating others about teen pregnancy (some of the season one girls have said they were only paid small amounts of money or given big-ticket items for the baby in exchange for doing the show), the goal of being on 16 and Pregnant is to get enough of a following to get cast on Teen Mom. While I think it’s likely that Jennifer Del Rio and her baby daddy would have provided the same amount of drama in their episode no matter what, the fact that many of the girls from the show have Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts with the word “MTV” in the title before their episode even airs says that the girls are hoping to parlay their five minutes of fame into something more substantial – and lucrative. Instead of feeling like standalone vignettes, most episodes of 16 and Pregnant now feel like extended auditions. I don’t want to watch hourlong commercials for a future Teen Mom 3; I want to see realistic portrayals of teen motherhood. But something tells me that our innocence – like Maci’s and Farrah’s – has been lost.