"This is an unstable environment”: Teen Mom 2 and Class

Curator's Note

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 PregnantTeen 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.



Chelsea, thank you for this intriguing post. What really struck me is the difference between reality formats and fictional formats concerning their representation of class. While the former seems to tend towards a representation of the two opposite ends of the economic spectrum, the latter usually focusses more on representations/imaginations of middle and upper middle class. As you point out, shows like Teen Mom 2 basically have one (in this particular case also sexually conservative) moral: be careful, otherwise you'll end up broke and lonely. And it obviously shares this with many other "anti-aspirational" reality formats that focus on (supposed) lower class representatives. A central aspect of these types of reality series is that they stress their protagonists' lack of agency. They are often completely incapable of coming up with solutions to their problems without the help of others. On the other hand, we have many fictional series that are very aspirational and highlight the exact opposite: agency. Many characters in fictional (teen) series struggle with more or less serious problems, but they do not rely in this structural manner on external help - rather the opposite. I would be very interested in your thoughts on this fundamental difference between fictional and reality formats.

I really really like the notion "anti-aspirational television." And think this is a great and though-provoking post. I wondered though if you could define "anti-aspirational television? And even describe what other shows might fit within this subgenre? And then I wondered what work you see it doing (differently than aspirational reality tv)?

Hi, Florian. Thanks for your response! I hear what you're saying about the difference in representations of class in scripted/non-scripted programs, though I can think of exceptions for each (of course). What I would say is that the onus to perpetuate neoliberalism is on reality television more than dramatic programming. In other words, Teen Mom 2 judges its characters and frames the government-assistance they frequently receive as a punishment (for failing at being a self-reliant, self-governing neoliberal citizen), whereas The Secret Life of the American Teenager casts no such judgment on its characters whose pregnancies are cast entirely within the private sphere. Many of The Secret Life's characters and families are--as you mention--solidly middle to upper class and able to provide for new family members, expected or not, without outside assistance. However, characters like Ricky are depicted as working class and financially unstable, yet any neoliberal agenda is buried within layers of plot rather than featured as a central focus.

Thanks, Phoebs! Your question gets at a tricky point within my article. Most simply, I think of anti-aspirational television as programs that foil aspirational ones such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians or some versions of the Real Housewives wherein wealth, material possessions, and conspicuous consumption are featured front and center (and usually serve as major plot points, too--think about Nene Leakes', "I'm rich, bitch!" or the constant tension on the Kardashian shows between quality family time and working engagements). Teen Mom 2, instead, showcases lives and characters in a way that viewers are supposed to learn how to NOT imitate their mistakes and avoid the same consequences (lack of wealth/resources/opportunities and greatly diminished cultural capital). It's hard to think of other shows that would fit within this subgenre that aren't explicit intervention narratives (which none of the Teen Mom shows really are). Though not as narratively driven, shows like Cops might be the most similar in terms of the class of people usually shown and the clear connection between action and consequence emphasized as an educational lesson. The work I see it doing is just that--serving to fill in the gaps of formal sex ed and also (like many shows) maintaining a clear neoliberal agenda of self-sufficient citizenship.

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