Is Teen Mom one of the most important shows in television history?

All the Teen Moms together Farrah Catelynn Maci Amber

Tonight is the beginning of the end of MTV’s “ground-breaking docu-series” Teen Mom as the fourth and final season of the show premieres with back-to-back episodes featuring Maci Bookout, Catelynn Lowell, Amber Portwood, and Farrah Abraham, who invited the world into their lives almost three years ago when they first appeared on 16 and Pregnant.

As even a casual reader of Starcasm knows, our site covers Teen Mom extensively, and has since the show premiered in December of 2009, so I thought I might take a break from reporting on the day-to-day, off- and on-camera story lines in these young women’s lives to reflect on the impact the show has had on me, our site, and the lives of its millions of fans young and old.

We started Starcasm as a part-time venture in September of 2008. I was the only writer in the beginning, and at the time I was doing pen and ink drawings on notebook paper for each and every post. As you might imagine, when I saw my first episode of 16 and Pregnant (I think the first one I saw was Whitney Purvis) I was instantly “drawn” to their similar choice of graphics. But it wasn’t just the notebook doodles that drew me in, it was seeing the reality of teen pregnancy and feeling like I was watching something culturally taboo.

I know that we are decades beyond mysteriously shipping young girls off to their “Aunts” for five months, but the reality of teen pregnancy in 2008 was that it was a topic usually discussed in condescending tones, or with the reading of statistics combined with a shaking of the head. It was a terrible thing meant to be suffered through in private among close family only, and it was exactly this cultural “will not to know” that was doing the most to perpetuate the ignorance and unawareness among teens that was responsible for so many teen pregnancies in the first place!

Teen Moms Amber Portwood Maci Bookout Farrah Abraham Catelynn Lowell together

Teen Mom shined a bright spotlight directly at this shrouded darkness, revealing to millions of television viewers the unknown realities of the struggles of the young moms and dads all around us. Many have been quick to criticize the show for “glamorizing” teen pregnancy as these young moms have become celebrities in their own right, often making the covers of tabloids and making appearances on talk shows. In their opinion the “spotlight” could only have increased the number of teens getting pregnant in hopes of achieving the same levels of fame.

But the actual statistics argue exactly the opposite. After a 5% increase in teen pregnancies from 2006-2007, they dropped dramatically in 2009, and then another 9% in 2010. The current rate, which is approximately 34 teenage births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19, is the lowest it has been since 1946! The drop is being called the “16 and Pregnant Effect” among researchers and members of the media.

We’ve mentioned the statistics in previous posts and invariably we get comments along the lines of, “I don’t care what the statistics say, everybody at my school is getting pregnant!” Or parents stating something like, “there are way more pregnancies at my child’s high school than there ever was when I was young.” Ignoring the glaring lack of logic in disputing statistics based on local observations, these people need to realize that part of the “16 and Pregnant Effect” is that teen pregnancies aren’t hidden as often as they used to be because people don’t feel obligated to keep pretending they don’t exist.

I’m middle-aged and have never been a parent, so I certainly learned a lot about what it’s like just taking care of a baby, not to mention being a teenager taking care of a baby! But something else I learned that doesn’t get talked about much in Teen Mom discussions is the “ground-breaking” concept of a reality show following the lives of teenagers for three years – pregnant or not. We’ve had the wonderful 7-Up series that checked in with people every seven years for almost an entire lifetime, but we haven’t had an extended look at the lives of teenagers.

Teen Mom original cast

As much as the show has helped young people understand exactly what’s in store if they have unprotected sex, the show also relayed to older generations what life is like as a teenager nowadays. Although a lot of “teenage” life is just as it was when we were that age, we usually forget or misremember a lot of the details. Plus, there are new elements now, like technology, which have completely changed how young people interact.

So the show has been very educational not only for teens, but for their parents as well. I can’t imagine how invaluable it must be to watch 40 different parents try to deal with finding out their teenager is pregnant! That wisdom (and accompanying hindsight) is usually only gained by going through the ordeal yourself. The show demands that parents of teens accept the fact that lots of teens do have sex, demands that they deal with the possibility that their son or daughter is at risk of becoming a parent, and demands that they not put off talking about sex with their child!

As far as the “glamorizing teen pregnancy” argument, I just don’t get it. These girls’ lives are hard – and in the case of every single one of them, their lives were made harder by having a child. For the last 11 weeks I have been live tweeting the 16 and Pregnant Season 4 episodes, and each and every week I reach a point where I feel obligated to tweet, “Tell me again, how is this show glamorizing teen pregnancy?” I’ve rehashed this topic so many times over the years, I just don’t feel the need to revisit it. Besides, regardless of what I say, there will be commenters insisting that these girls got paid to get pregnant, and now they’re on TV, and on the cover of magazines, and what kind of message is that to young girls, etc.

Oh, and speaking of commenters…

I seriously cannot comprehend how these young women deal with the tidal wave of hatred, bitterness, and vitriol that they face each and every day thanks to the magic of the internet! After doing some posts on the first season of 16 and Pregnant, our very first official Teen Mom post was on the announcement of the cast. Here is our very first ever Teen Mom post comment, the sentiment of which has been repeated thousands of times in various forms on our site alone:

Ok seriously Farrah is the worst mother EVER, she is a selfish b!tch. She has NO CLUE how hard it REALLY is and she MAKES ME SICK

And then there are the criticisms. I’ve learned that if there is one thing you do not want to be on television, it’s a parent! It’s just impossible to do everything perfectly, and the Teen Mom fan base will be the first to point it out when you’ve done something wrong, regardless of the scenario!

Here is a comment from the latest Teen Mom post we did from earlier today about a Season 4 preview clip in which Farrah Abraham and her daughter Sophia visit the grave of Sophia’s dead father Derek Underwood. Farrah is sobbing in the clip and talking about how Derek died too young and that she wishes he could have done the things he wanted to do while Sophia played in the grass:

It’s time to take that pacifier away. She’s going to screw up Sophia’s palette. It’s probably already screwed up.

[***NOTE*** The previous few paragraphs were edited from the original post]

Perhaps I’m just being defensive of these girls young women, something our site has been accused of a few times in the past. (My favorite was a commenter who wrote that we at Starcasm think the Teen Moms sh!t rainbows) So let me just make it official by saying we love these women. We’ve spent the last three years covering every aspect of their lives and then reliving those moments when they air on screen. Sure, they have faults like everyone else, but they’ve invited millions of strangers into their lives and I don’t feel creepy in saying that they all feel like extended family to me now.

With that in mind, let me wrap this up by sharing my messages to each of the mothers from last Mothers’ Day with a few alterations and additions:

Teen Mom Maci Bookout scrapbook photo

First up is Maci Bookout – mother of the imperviously joyful and wondrous (and I’m sure a perpetual handful) Bentley. It seems like forever ago that she was still infatuated with the downright lovely (but otherwise not very helpful) baby daddy Ryan Edwards. But, Maci has since moved on and Ryan has since stepped up, and the result is about as ideal a co-parenting situation as I could imagine.

Teen Mom Maci Bookout's son BentleyThe thing I’ve admired most about Maci, who is was the consummate modern All-American teenager, has been her mature, no-nonsense approach to being a teen mother. She was in a terribly tough situation, and you could tell it was a huge weight on her tattooed shoulders, yet she never allowed herself (on camera at least) to get caught up in petty drama (a little bickering with Ryan aside). She showed a great deal of strength, but was also willing to share her weaker moments, all while continuing to push toward those things that would make her and her son’s life better.

This strength made her perhaps the most “critically acclaimed” mom on either Teen Mom series. But, it is exactly this admiration for Maci that has also inspired tons of detractors and critics. I read negative comments all the time about how “Maci ain’t so great!” Sure, I think Maci likes to have a good time a little more than we see on the show, and of course she’s not perfect (and never claimed to be), but I just don’t see how you can be a detractor of what she has done with her life given the situation she was in.

In case you missed it, Maci has broken up with Kyle King as well as Kyle Regal and is currently living single. She is reportedly working on a book (although her laptop was stolen on a recent trip to Florida, and it apparently had a lot of the work she had already done on it) and continues to pursue becoming an on-air journalist at Chattanooga State University.

Ryan Edwards has hit a rough patch recently with his girlfriend Dalis Connell (who you will meet this season), but the two are reportedly back together and doing well.

Bentley just becomes more Bentleyish every day and recently began attending daycare. According to Maci he was miked up for every shoot during Season 4 filming, so we should get a nice dose of Bentleyisms every week in addition to his already famous “Hell no!” from the Teen Mom Season 4 trailer.

Teen Mom Farrah Abraham scrapbook photo

Next up is Farrah Abraham. Farrah was the popular, attractive cheerleader in high school who was forced to abandon her relatively unencumbered life and mature almost overnight in order to deal with the responsibilities of motherhood. And, as Dr. Drew often points out, very few teen mothers get any support from the father of their children, which was true for Farrah in a uniquely painful way because the father of her daughter Sophia, Derek Underwood, died tragically in a car crash at the age of 18.

Here’s a paragraph from my Teen Mom Season 2 Finale Recap post that expresses my admiration for Farrah’s growth on the show:

Farrah seems to be the Teen Mom that has made the most progress in Season 2. Not only has she made steps towards repairing the damaged relationship with her mother, Debra Danielson, but she has also allowed herself to begin the grieving process for her deceased former boyfriend and father of her child, Derek Underwood.

Teen Mom Farrah Abraham's daughter Sophia in a ballerina tutuAs I mentioned above, Farrah was a very attractive and popular high school cheerleader on top of the world when she got pregnant. She has shared the implosion of that reality with us as she boldly (and perhaps a bit naively) confronted the realities associated with gaining her own independence – paying rent, getting a job, buying a car…

The experiences (which included some failures) seemed to have a humbling effect on Farrah. But, humility is a part of maturity, and I think learning that humility allowed Farrah to not only open up about Derek’s death but also to be willing to find common ground with her mother.

Farrah has still retained a large amount of her boldness though, as evidenced by her move to Florida to attend Culinary school, as well as her seemingly endless list of business endeavors that now includes professional modeling, writing a book (My Teenage Dream Ended – due out June 26 August 14!), launching the “Mom & Me” line of food products beginning with an Italian hot sauce, serving as celebrity host of an online dating service, making how-to cooking videos, a possible workout video, making appearances where she talks about teen pregnancy and more, shark fishing (not really a “business venture” per se, but the photo is priceless!), offering college scholarships to young parents, and getting her own spin-off television show. Farrah is in a position to be hugely successful and seems poised to be Teen Mom‘s version of Bethenny Frankel. With all of the other girls on the show I have my doubts that they will pursue a career in the public spotlight, but with Farrah I have no doubts. We will be seeing lots of her even after the final season of Teen Mom.

And daughter Sophia is a healthy, beautiful little girl that will see the benefits of her mom’s ambition! As a matter of fact, she already seems to have taken a liking to living life in sunny Florida, as evidenced by these photos of her and mom strolling the beaches near Miami.

Teen Mom Catelynn Lowell scrapbook photo

Catelynn Lowell and Tyler Baltierra are an amazing success story. They were crippled by a home environment that to describe as “unhealthy” would be a huge understatement. There are many that still deride these two for giving their daughter Carly up for adoption (including Catleynn’s mom April on occasion), but the act was nothing short of heroic in my book. It doesn’t matter how mature and admirable these two teenagers were, there was only so much they could do for Carly in their situation, and it was clear to them (and most anyone else) that the best thing for Carly would be to grow up in a better environment.

Photo of Teen Mom Catelynn Lowell and her daughter Carly togetherSome critics (and lots of haters) have asked why MTV continues to feature Catelynn and Tyler, but to me their struggle to rise out of the toxic reality they were born into is nothing short of compelling. This show is about the lives of teen mothers and that’s exactly what we get with Catelynn, even though her struggles (aside from the emotional and psychological ones) don’t revolve around her child. Hers is the story of adoption and I think it is a brilliant addition to the show.

Choosing adoption is always going to be accompanied by some doubts about your decision, but Catelynn and Tyler, I want both of you to know that many of us believe the tough decisions you two have made make you absolutely fantastic parents! Stay strong and stay focused on the future – yours and Carly’s. Don’t ever forget that it was those futures that shaped your decisions and those futures that will eventually prove you both chose correctly!

Catelynn and Tyler are both taking college courses now, Catelynn with the intent of becoming an adoption counselor and Tyler wants to counsel troubled youths. They recently completed a very successful speaking tour of the Northeast in conjunction with Bethany Christian Services, the adoption agency that helped place Carly. (Click here to find out all the details on Carly’s new little brother and what role Catelynn played in the adoption!)

Teen Mom Amber Portwood scrapbook photo

Where can I possibly start with Amber Portwood’s heart-wrenching story? Perhaps it’s because I’ve watched so many scripted television shows and Hollywood movies, but I just expected that everything was going to work out for Amber by the time the show ended. Just after it was announced that she was choosing to serve out her five-year prison sentence because she didn’t think returning to rehab would do any good, I was trying to think of something to tweet to Gary Shirley to express my (and our site’s) feelings about the news. I recall talking with another writer and saying something along the lines of, “How in the world do I convey what I want to say in 140 characters or less?”

I think that was the first moment when I realized just how close I had gotten to these young women.

Of all the girls Amber has clearly had the most difficulties adjusting to the responsibilities of being a mother, a nearly impossible task for someone with severe anger management issues, unresolved emotional problems stemming from the death of her sister at a very young age, and a very serious prescription drug addiction. Reality television is sometimes actually reality television, and in Amber’s case, reality has been very difficult.

Teen Mom Amber Portwood's daughter Leah in a pink princess carAmber’s story is about way more than teen pregnancy, and I think it has enlightened viewers (like myself) about emotional health and drug addiction, as well as living with someone one who suffers from these conditions. It’s important to remember that despite all of her issues, Amber cares deeply about the well-being of her daughter – more so than her own. We sincerely wish her the best and remain optimistic that a happy ending is still in the cards once she gets clean and is released from prison.

Our love and well wishes also goes out to Gary Shirley and their daughter Leah. I confess that I wasn’t the biggest fan of Gary for the first couple of seasons because it really did seem like he wasn’t stepping up and spent a lot of his time pressing Amber’s buttons, but over the last year or so my opinion has changed. Perhaps it’s because he hasn’t been with Amber and I haven’t seen the unpleasant traits that toxic relationship brought out in him, or perhaps it’s because Gary is maturing, but either way I’ve since grown quite fond of Gary and his good-natured personality. (Plus, the “It’s Gary Time!” brand is the best executed of all the Teen Mom business ventures – sorry Farrah – thanks in large part I’m sure to Gary’s graphic design buddy Evan.)

It’s going to be tough for Leah, Amber, and Gary to deal with all of the things shown on Teen Mom when Leah gets older, but it is my opinion this family is a lot better off having been on the show. Amber’s issues were there before the MTV cameras started rolling and I think things could have been much worse without the public spotlight on her. (The police never would have even gotten involved in the domestic violence issue if it hadn’t been aired on the show.)

Tell me again, how does this show glamorize teen pregnancy?

All of that being said, judging from all the family photos and videos Gary has been kind enough to share on Twitter and Facebook, it seems as though Leah has been resilient through all of this, and she appears to be quite the joyful little girl.

Original Teen Moms with Dr. Drew after the Reunion Special

In summary, let me say that Teen Mom is compelling television, and I believe it will go down as one of the most important series in the history of the media. Art is all about revealing things about the human condition so that we can better understand ourselves, others, the world we live in, and how it all relates. It would be very difficult to find another show (or book or movie or album) that does a better job than this show.

Sure, there is a lot of pettiness, anger, fakeness, backstabbing, etc – but all of that is inherent in the human condition, and dare I say, every Shakespeare play I’ve ever read. No, this isn’t “art” on the level of a Shakespeare play, but it IS documentary film making that is powerful enough to convey some of the same insights and truths as a Shakespeare play. Perhaps I’m just riled up after having written this article and am overstating my case a little. I think you get the point.

I feel I should add the disclaimer I included in the Mothers’ Day post about why we cover the good, the bad, and the ugly Teen Mom stories, and how we cover them:

As a celebrity site that covers Teen Mom extensively we are obligated to report on the stories making headlines on any given day, which as you probably know are usually not very favorable. I want to clarify once again that we are big fans of the show and of Maci, Catelynn, Farrah and Amber. Though we do report on tabloid stories and rumors, we usually identify them as such – quoting the sources and often offering our own opinions as to whether or not the story may or may not be true. And sometimes we may have a little fun in the form of some Photoshopped images or humorous references, but we try to never be hateful in our coverage. As a matter of fact, if anything, we’ve become rather defensive of all eight girls from both incarnations of the show!

As an addendum to that disclaimer, I should go ahead and announce now that we are officially going to be defensive of the next four girls to be featured on Teen Mom 3 as well.

Be sure to tune in tonight at 10/9c on MTV for the Teen Mom Season 4 premiere featuring back-to-back episodes! Of course we will be live-tweeting the event and invite you to join in our conversation 🙂

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