The third season of Teen Mom 2 premieres on MTV this week, reintroducing Leah, Jenelle, Chelsea, and Kailyn as they parent the toddlers they birthed on the second season of 16 and Pregnant. Teen Mom 2 continues to toe the line between soapy teen melodrama and pedantic educational program, but it ultimately functions as a modern day morality tale. MTV isn’t the only network producing shows that feature teen pregnancy, but its productions foil glossier versions seen on ABC Family and The CW where teen pregnancy is more likely to occur within a middle-to-upper class cocoon of privilege.
Amanda Ann Klein argues that the working class status of MTV's teen moms directly informs the teens’ depiction as unfit parents. Teen Mom 2 relies on its stars’ working class lifestyles—with all attendant instabilities—to add drama and gravitas to well rehearsed warnings about teen pregnancy. Teen Mom 2 portrays the teens’ lives as bleak and unpleasant in order to cement the sermon-like nature of the show. Teen Mom 2 intensifies commonplace warnings about teen pregnancy that focus on the burden of parental responsibility to include losses of what sparse privileges the teens might have had access to pre-pregnancy. This intensification is evidenced in last season’s storylines featuring Leah’s struggle to find safe, adequate housing and Chelsea’s attempt to earn her GED.
Teen Mom 2 is anti-aspirational television. The show makes the teens’ socioeconomic class visible via their struggles to afford rent, tuition, and car repairs. Their class status is also signaled by the aesthetics of their clothing, poorly kept artificial nails, and cluttered, non-designer-styled homes in government-subsidized apartments, older trailers, or rooms in a parent’s house or trailer. These signals of class are complicated by the reports of and speculations on the stars’ salaries, but these teens operate within a historical narrative of unfit parents who are unable to manage money when and if they have it (Klein).
Whether the teens are incapable of successfully parenting or not, news outlets have spent many words asking if MTV is exploiting its young stars. Potential exploitation of labor aside, MTV absolutely exploits the working class status of its stars in order to illustrate the point that teen pregnancy is undesirable. As Jenelle screams at her mother in the trailer for Teen Mom 2’s new season, “This is an unstable environment!” It’s impossible to disagree, by design.