Teen Mom Ethnography

During my career as an anthropology undergraduate, I was tasked with doing several ethnographies. I used dictaphones (ha!) to record barista/customer interactions at campus coffee shops and did research on gender roles at local elementary schools. I studied the differences in engagement ring advertisements in predominantly straight versus those in predominantly gay magazine publications (spoiler: predominantly gay magazine adverts were more explicitly sexual). I read all about social divisions at British nightclubs. I have so much ethnographic experience. And tonight, without further ado, I present Teen Mom 2: The Ethnography (in which I pass judgment, employ ethnocentrism and paraphrase interactions, thus breaking every fundamental rule of ethnography).

I have chosen to focus my study on the following conversation between Teen Mom (and noted disaster) Jenelle and her long-suffering, hugely ineffectual mother Barbara, who are both so beaten down either by life or the several takes it took to get this filmed that they are able to discuss almost every major traumatic issue in Jenelle’s life with the urgency of a person on horse tranquilizers:

Jenelle: I’m off probation on Tuesday.

Jenelle’s Mom (asking a question to which she already knows the answer): Does that mean you’re gonna start smoking weed again?

J: Yeah, probably.

JM: Jenelle, really?

J: It’s not like I’m gonna smoke meth or heroin. Calm down. [Note: JM is already remarkably calm.]

JM (monotone): What about Kieffer? What’s up with that? [Note: Kieffer is Jenelle’s ex-boyfriend who has been in prison for the better part of a year and who is universally known for being insufferable douche and a terrible influence.]

J: I’ll probably see him. It’s not like I’m gonna move in with him or something. It seems like he’s matured. [Editor’s note: It’s not like she’s gonna move in with him, okay? Jesus, Barbara, CALM DOWN. Just stop with the…breathing and blinking. You’re embarrassing yourself. Also, when I told my mom that a guy I was dating in college was “mature,” I meant that he owned a house in the Hollywood hills and worked in finance. (It didn’t work out, because I will never be that mature.) However, for Jenelle, “It seems like he’s matured” = “He’s just been released from prison and I’m off probation and can finally see him in person again.” This is not good.]

After witnessing that exchange last night as I finally caught up with my beloved TV shows, I turned off the episode. Sometimes, I just can’t.

I love being a snarky jerk as much as the next twelve-year-old boy, but I am legitimately upset by these girls and their lives. They have zero agency. With the exception of moving apartments and filing court papers, they don’t actively make choices in their own lives. There’s been lots of hand wringing about the show promoting and glorifying teen pregnancy. I say that if that’s your concern, you’ve obviously never seen an episode. What we all should be worried about is that we’ve got a major television franchise on a huge network that stars teenage girls who are so apathetic about what happens to them that they coast through even the most horrible situations with zero conscious thought.

This is how the decision-making goes, for all the girls: Maybe I’ll be with him. Maybe I’ll finish my GED. Maybe I’ll get a job. Maybe I’ll break up with him. Maybe I’ll meet my lawyer in a burger joint and try to persuade him that blowing my inexplicable last chance at avoiding jail in order to go to a Ke$ha concert is sound logic. My dog just got eaten by another dog! Maybe I’ll get another dog in that exact same color. I’m still in love with the father of my twins, but maybe I’ll divorce him and get engaged and get off my birth control and get pregnant again. Maybe I’ll have unprotected sex with my horrible ex-boyfriend who has been nothing but an absent ass for two years. Maybe I’ll get pregnant!

Jeezy chreezy lemon squeezy.

The last thing teenage girls need is more public modeling of women without agency. The message this show sends is that young adult women are so helpless and useless that they are better off waiting for their abusive exes to sweep them off their feet than they are taking steps to actively improve their own quality of life.

If I had an impressionable teenage daughter who was not a ninety-year-old woman trapped in a child’s body (like I was as a teen) and she watched Teen Mom as often as I currently do, I would be more concerned about her assuming that that cycle of abuse is normal than that she’d want to get pregnant at 16. However, if I have anything to do with it (and as her mother, hopefully I will), she will be as crippled with hypochondria and anxiety as I was and will not have sex for the first time until she is 25.

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