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Born to Consume

For MTV, teen pregnancy is big business.

For MTV, teen pregnancy is big business.

For those who don’t watch MTV, it may take a hundred turns through the grocery aisle to realize who these attractive young women are. They look like any other celebrity—stalked by paparazzi while doing everyday chores, babies slung on the hip in one frame, bikini-clad in the quintessential beachcomber shot in the next. There’s the requisite drama with the familiar bold-letter headlines, the words interchangeable: police, custody battle, diet, plastic surgery, wedding, party, sex.

They look familiar, but you can’t place them—unless you’re familiar with MTV’s top-rated “16 and Pregnant” or “Teen Mom” reality-television shows. These young women are celebrities all right: they’re famous for having babies in high school.

Big media corporations—which liberal scholar Robert McChesney once compared to the 19th-century British Empire, with teens “like Africa”—have drilled the depths of youth exploitation once more, successfully packaging the titillation of teen sex, the burgeoning “baby mama” market, and the old voyeuristic pleasure of watching someone else’s domestic dysfunction unfold.

MTV would have us believe this human spectacle is a public service, a “cautionary tale” for young girls akin to the “after school specials” of the 1970s. But one glance at the marquee-name advertisers taking up real estate in MTV’s pregnant teen universe—on the programs’ websites and weekly broadcasts—and it’s obvious this is big business.

In a free society, Milton Friedman wrote in Capitalism and Freedom, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” But a parent must wonder whether MTV is pushing past the boundaries of what Friedman called “ethical custom” and into “deception,” going beyond mere exploitation to put teenage girls—as well as society—at risk.

“With ‘Teen Mom,’ you are playing with real lives here—the lives of real women and their children,” says Gail Dines, a professor at Wheelock College and author of Pornland, which examines modern pornography as a business and its influence on popular culture. “They should not be treated as fodder.”

But that’s exactly how they are treated. MTV executives deny it, but when their young subjects vie for space with J-Lo and Jolie on the covers of People and Us Magazine, it’s hard to say the shows aren’t glamorizing teen motherhood. At a time when poorer, less educated teens in the U.S. are statistically more at risk of having children out of wedlock, this drive for market share feels predatory and seedy and feeds right into an American culture beset by narcissistic, self-destructive behavior.

Futurist and pioneering media critic Aldous Huxley saw it coming. In Brave New World Revisited, he talked about children being “highly susceptible to propaganda,” and indeed the perfect “television fodder.” But even Huxley could have never imagined the extent of today’s convergence of multimedia entertainment and corporate marketing. This is the machine through which Americans are cultivated as both commodities and consumers, cradle to grave, with teens, perhaps the most vulnerable of any age group, convinced that their budding identities are intrinsically bound to what they watch, eat, drink, wear, play, and listen to.

“Our problem is that children are inundated by ‘screens’ from birth. The content of the screen becomes more and more important in their lives as they get older. This is taking away from other, real experiences and shaping their perceptions of reality,” charges Susan Linn, a fierce critic of commercial culture and author of Consuming Kids: the Hostile Takeover of Childhood. “So they soon aspire to be like the people on the screen. [Extreme behavior] becomes normal. Maybe not for all kids, but I think for a lot of kids.”

The corporate media has become an authority in teens’ lives. Television, says Melissa Henson of the conservative Parents Television Council, is the “sexual super peer.”

“If you think of the amount of influence a peer group has on your teen’s behavior, then television is like that to the nth degree,” she told TAC. Through multibillion dollar advertising budgets, elaborate focus groups, and market testing, the business world knows what kids want—and even more importantly, knows how to convince kids they want what corporate America is selling.

But giving them what they want doesn’t always make them happy. In a national survey commissioned by the Center for a New American Dream, a think tank critical of commercialism, more than half of teens surveyed (ages 12 to 17) said buying certain products made them feel better about themselves—setting up a lifetime of material dependence. Critics like Juliet Schor have found links between the immersive consumer culture and depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and conflicts with parents. Researcher Diane Levin sees a correlation between the sexual imagery in ads aimed at children and eating disorders in girls.

With the “Teen Mom” series, MTV—perhaps the most trend-setting “sexual super peer”— is at its most cynical, pretending to be socially conscious while turning teen pregnancy and single motherhood into yet another marketable lifestyle, another tool of mass consumption.

Not every expert who spoke with TAC is convinced that MTV set out to exploit pregnant girls in “16 and Pregnant” or in its tremendously popular “Teen Mom” spin-off. (“Teen Mom 2” hit a peak of 4.5 million viewers the week of March 31.)

“I do think they started out with pure motives,” offered Henson, “but once the MTV marketing department got their hands on it … it sort of took on a life of its own, so that these girls became celebrities rather than cautionary tales.”

But if MTV is a moral creature, it’s a schizophrenic one at best, considering its other “young adult” programming: “The Hills,” “Jersey Shore,” and the newest addition, “Skins,” a drama series that features simulated underage sex among disaffected, working class teens. Milton Friedman was right: by its nature, the corporation is amoral, responsible only to its shareholders and the bottom line.

“There’s money in them thar ‘Hills’,” exclaims Douglas Rushkoff, author of Life, Inc: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back. He narrated and directed “The Merchants of Cool” for PBS’s “Frontline” in 2001, wherein he explained the highly commercialized nature of MTV, how nothing happened on the network without a marketing angle or a pipeline to revenue. That’s true throughout pop culture today, he tells TAC. “There is no human intervention in the creation of the media experiences kids are having today. It’s purely market-based.”

MTV’s responsibility is to the health of Viacom, the fourth-largest media conglomerate in the world, and its many holdings, which include Paramount Pictures, Black Entertainment Television (BET) Networks, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, and more. MTV “is really a 24-hour infomercial. Every second on the air is selling something” for itself or the Viacom family, McChesney said in “The Merchants of Cool.”

“They couldn’t care less about teenagers. Teenagers are just people to turn upside-down and shake the money out of their pants and then you let go,” he said.

Given that, it’s not surprising that MTV executives have done nothing to discourage the sensationalism now surrounding the teen moms off camera—which helps guarantee huge ratings, after all. In the last year, teen mom Amber Portwood was arrested and thrown in jail for “attacking” her baby’s father (on video, of course). Janelle Evans lost custody of her daughter to her mother and was arrested for getting in a brutal first fight with a “former friend” (also on video). She’s now living with her boyfriend, who is not the father of her baby. Maci Bookout, reportedly with new hair extensions and breast implants, has been photographed partying with the stars of “Jersey Shore.” Farrah Abraham aspires to be a model and has been filmed strolling about in her bikini, sans baby, with her own reportedly new implants.

Recently, friends of the teen stars were accused of becoming pregnant in a bid to cash in on the fame. MTV struck back against the bad buzz, though just how bad it was in marketing terms is open to question, considering the scandal was talked about everywhere—including prime segments on “Good Morning America” and the “Today Show” in March. Ratings soared, just in time for the season finale of “Teen Mom 2” and the season premier of “16 and Pregnant” on April 19.

“MTV does not solicit and would never knowingly cast anyone who chose to get pregnant on purpose—that is the exact opposite of the intent of our show,” said the network. The shows, it continued, are intended to be “about the difficulties, joys, and unforeseen moments that can occur so that our audience has a greater understanding of the consequences of unprotected sex, and the reality of being a teenage mother.”

Does that include the “reality” of teen moms becoming bona fide celebrities, interchangeable with all the other pretty faces on the glossy magazines today?

By all accounts, the teen moms’ introduction into this world has been seamless—hardly surprising since pop culture is particularly obsessed right now with Beautiful People and their babies. In fact, a celebrity today doesn’t appear to be at full measure until he or she is coupling, reproducing, and flashed a million times toting a child like an expensive handbag.

There is no emphasis on celebrity pairings staying together, however, and certainly no judgment on couples divorcing quickly to raise their babies in separate homes. Single mothers are ubiquitous. The media lavishes attention on popular unmarried teens like Ashlee Simpson (mom at 18) or Jamie Lynn Spears (mom at 17), younger sister of pop icon Britney Spears, who was married, had two children, and divorced by age 24. By the way, Mommy Spears has a new album out and exciting topless photos to promote it.

“Our kids are being exposed to this all of the time. And the problem is it’s not just the shows, it’s the culture. We have our pregnant teens showing up on the cover of magazines, they’re getting paid, they’re getting endorsement deals and being calendar models,” charged author Logan Levkoff in a February interview with “Good Morning America.” He says it’s “creating a culture that says it’s exciting to be a pregnant teen.”

Some may balk at that—and in fact, MTV seems to have enlisted watchdog organizations like the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy as cover, highlighting the group on MTV web pages as a resource for teens. In return, the organization has embraced the teenage mother programs as “teaching tools.” It also sponsored a survey of teens in October that—surprise—found that only 15 percent of respondents thought MTV was “glamorizing” teen motherhood.

Officially, there is good news regarding the birthrate among girls ages 14 to 19. The teen birthrate overall dropped 37 percent over the last two decades to an all-time national low of 400,000 births to teenage mothers in 2009. Yet the teen birthrate among uneducated girls in poor Southern states, as well as among black and Hispanic teens, has stopped falling or risen, and the aggregate teen birthrate in the U.S. is still as much as nine times higher than those of similar Western European countries.

Not surprisingly, “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” have chosen to follow girls from at-risk populations—girls from modest single-parent homes already struggling and fragile in their personal relationships. “These are young, vulnerable women who have an incredibly difficult job raising children alone. [MTV] is minimizing it, romanticizing it and turning them into freaks to follow,” charges Dines.

On a recent show, Chelsea acknowledges she is on Medicaid, while Janelle strolls indifferently with her boyfriend through the local food pantry, cameras rolling. This is slickly packaged to show the perceived downsides of single motherhood, but one wonders if MTV is deliberately embracing the class fissures in its audience—giving educated middleclass viewers something to ridicule, while those in the truly at-risk group see these programs as normalizing, if not idealizing, their own self-destructive behavior.

For the millions of girls who perceive themselves in Amber, Janelle, Maci, or Leah, MTV reinforces low expectations and communicates, however subtly, that settling for a life of deadbeat dads, inadequate education, abusive parents, endless disappointment—and most importantly, dependence—is normal, if not inevitable.

As for the cast members and their friends, they have seemingly found a shortcut to fame and fortune. But as Heidi Klum, high hostess of “Project Runway,” one of the more conspicuous cultural indoctrination efforts on television today, says, “In fashion, one day you are in, the next day you are out.” It’s painful to think where these girls—and their babies—will land once MTV moves on to the Next Big Thing.

None of this necessarily calls for a flurry of regulation. Consumers can exercise pressure on the free market by demanding higher standards and refusing to be tools for the machine. Meanwhile, parents need to wake up and become their children’s advocates against the media’s weapons of mass consumption. “You can’t just start when they’re teenagers because it all begins when they are babies,” says Linn. According to the American Psychological Association, the average American child is exposed to some 40,000 television commercials a year—over 100 a day—not to mention what they see online or even in school. (Corporate creep is fully entrenched there, too.)

“Unless we educate our children and give them the tools to analyze their world,” adds Dines, “they’re sitting ducks,” tender prey for Viacom.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and a TAC contributing editor.

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