The new season of the MTV program 16 and Pregnant is two episodes old, and so far, it’s mostly making me pine for the young women profiled in the show’s first season. The series follows several teen girls as they navigate a world in which the two most hormonally volatile times in a woman’s life–pregnancy and the teen years– collide in dramatic, often troubling ways. What made the first season of the show so compelling was how well it captured the struggles of teen parenthood; and in most of the stories, viewers could find themselves crossing their fingers, hoping for the best for these young moms and their babies. What the second season of the show lacks so far is this point of connection between viewer and subject, the humanity that makes the audience care about the person being profiled on the show.
Case in point: Last week’s Season Two premier brought us the story of Jenelle, a whiny, obnoxious, insufferable girl who–as her mom pointed out–treats her newborn baby “like a dog or a cat,” leaving him at home whenever she feels the urge to go out with her friends (and by “whenever,” I mean, “all the time,” beginning a mere three days after giving birth). Jenelle cusses at her mom and refers to her child as “it,” yet has the clueless audacity to ask her friends, “You know what’s great about me?” and then answer this question by saying what’s “great” about her is that she’s going to be a wonderful mom who will stop partying once she has a child.
It’s not clear why MTV chose to profile Jenelle; most fans of the show agreed that she had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and on the 16 and Pregnant message boards, more than one viewer noted that Jenelle made last season’s Farrah (who also often seemed selfish and self-absorbed) “look like mother of the year.”
Jenelle’s general skankishness made last night’s episode featuring a barely-sixteen Nikkole a bit of a relief. As someone who didn’t abandon her son to the care of his grandmother, Nikkole was already a marked improvement over Jenelle. Still, the episode was downright squirm-worthy, with Nikkole repeatedly falling under the clutches of her immature, selfish, emotionally abusive boyfriend, Josh, who is so hideous that he cheats on Nikkole, lies to her, and exhibits a remarkable knack for making everything about him (and by “everything” I mean “Nikkole’s excruciatingly long, painful labor that stretched out for more than twenty-four hours”). Josh’s self-centeredness appeared downright pathological as he picked a fight with Nikkole’s mom over nothing while Nikkole cried out in pain from her hospital bed right next to him. What made the scene especially difficult to watch was that one could not reach through the TV and punch Josh in the face. Nor could viewers ask Josh’s mom, “What did you do to raise such a hideous, hideous son?” All frustration with no catharsis.
Of course, that kind of thing is to be expected from a show that chronicles teen pregnancy. These kids may be parents, but they are still kids. Season one’s Farrah, for instance, struggles to accept the ways in which motherhood is changing her life. She wants to be able to “have it all,” to date and socialize and still be a mom, even though her responsibilities as a mother often mean that she can’t date and socialize whenever she wants. This screen shot of Farrah in labor says so much about how little she understood about the challenges that lay ahead:
It’s worth noting that Farrah went into labor in the middle of the night; yet there she is, hair done, makeup on, apologizing to the doctors for “having to look at my crotch.” She retains a teenager’s self-consciousness at a time when, for most people, modesty is as unnecessary as eyeliner, mascara, hairspray and lip gloss.
Like this season’s Jenelle, Farrah initially “farms out motherhood” as her mom put it, leaving her baby at home so that she could still chase boys and hang out with friends. What redeems Farrah and makes her more appealing to watch than someone like Jenelle, however, is that she is truly a teen mother: she exhibits the willfulness and naivete of a teenager by disobeying her mom and sometimes shirking her responsibilities, but she also clearly cares about her daughter, even if she makes some mistakes along the way. She talks to Sophia and interacts with her, whereas last week’s Jenelle doesn’t seem to say one word to her baby, even when she is feeding or dressing him. Plus, Farrah’s mom shouldn’t put herself in line for any parenting trophies anytime soon, which makes Farrah’s frequent attempts at going out and “being a teenager” seem less about her trying to get away from Sophia and more about her getting away from her manipulative, domineering, abusive mom.
16 and Pregnant, isn’t all tragedy, however, and in fact, much of what made the first season great were the moments of triumph in the toughest of situations. No story illustrates this point better than that of Catelynn and Tyler, two teens from less than perfect families who decide to put their baby, Carly, up for adoption. Tyler’s dad (who married Catelynn’s mom after Tyler and Catelynn had been dating for two years) has been in jail for most of Tyler’s life, and Catelynn’s mom has had a host of problems, including drug abuse. Because of the instability of both of their households, the young parents realize that they cannot offer their baby everything they feel she deserves, so they place Carly with adoptive parents Brandon and Theresa. The episode is painful to watch: Catelynn’s mom is so against the adoption that she does manipulative, hurtful things like buy a bassinet and put it in Catelynn’s room, despite the fact that Catelynn and Tyler have already decided on adoptive parents. Meanwhile, Tyler’s dad tells him that “giving [Carly] away” would mean that “he didn’t man-up, that you wasn’t the cowboy I thought you were.”
In spite of this overwhelming lack of support, the two remain committed–to their decision, and to one another. At one point, Catelynn says that she has reservations about holding Carly after giving birth because, “I could see myself getting really selfish in that moment.” Her remark reveals that she understands that giving Carly to Brandon and Theresa is the selfless thing to do because it places her child’s needs before her own, something the other teen parents often struggle to do, in no small part because they are teen parents.
Most reality TV centers around what our culture has come to regard as “drama”: fighting, backstabbing, trash-talking ugliness–in other words, precisely the kind of loud boorishness that makes most people regard such content as anything but “reality.” MTV itself is no stranger to this formula; its usual offerings in the genre (programs like The Real World and The Hills) thrive on the willingness of the show’s stars to escalate minor disagreements to the level of raucous fistfights and screaming face-to-face confrontations. By contrast, the drama of 16 and Pregnant‘s first season (and that of its equally-compelling spin-off, Teen Mom) came from its commitment to, in raw detail, portray the struggles that come with taking on adult responsibilities when one is still a child. The young women featured served as worthwhile protagonists, while their stories were true cautionary tales. The viewer wants to see these young mothers do well, even when their financial situations, their lack of a partner, or even their own personal shortcomings make “success” difficult. So far, the second of the season of the show is missing this key element: someone to root for. Jenelle is so hideous that one can only hope she will give up on motherhood altogether and decide to place her baby in a loving home where he will be well-cared-for. Meanwhile, Nikkole’s emotional dependence on her awful boyfriend and her lack of any real personality make her a less than enthralling protagonist. For any other “reality TV” program, this might be the kind of thing that makes the show work–people viewers love to hate, doing things that make us hate them more. But a show like 16 and Pregnant should have a larger goal: If it seeks to portray reality for the sake of educating teens about the excruciating decisions that come along with getting pregnant too soon, it needs to profile people whom the audience can relate to, people who make young viewers see themselves–and their relationships–in their less-than-perfect state. Offering up someone like Jenelle actually dis-serves that purpose, turning television with a message into the usual voyeuristic, gawk-worthy fare reality TV is known for. 16 and Pregnant ostensibly seeks to reduce teen pregnancy by providing viewers the kind of unblinking glimpse into life after unprotected sex that most sex education sorely lacks. If MTV can maintain that focus with the rest of season two, viewers will benefit; if not, they will mourn the loss of the closest thing to reality “reality TV” has had in a long, long time.