The sixth season of MTV’s Teen Mom 2 is upon us, disrupting our Thursday nights with the usual turmoil: custody battles, problematic exes, run-ins with the law, souring relationships, and so forth. At this point, the four young stars of the series, who we first met in 2010 on the network’s flagship show 16 & Pregnant, are well into motherhood, not to mention young adulthood. But the cameras haven’t stopped rolling, and MTV’s contention is that those cameras have actually helped: A 2014 study by Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine argues that since 16 & Pregnant (and its immediate spinoff, the original Teen Mom) first aired in 2009, teen pregnancy in the United States has dropped by 5.7 percent. That could be a coincidence, of course, but it certainly serves the network well if you believe that its franchise about knocked-up teens has actually resulted in, well, fewer knocked-up teens. It’s just a bonus that those knocked-up teens also do bonkers ratings.
For background, when Teen Mom 2—same format as the original, just four different girls—first premiered in 2010, it nabbed the highest ratings for any MTV series ever. Last year, the Season Five premiere won the night for all of cable, and continued to pull high numbers from there. So high, in fact, that MTV added extra episodes to existing seasons and expanded the franchise further: more woefully unprepared young mothers, more awful exes, more drama. In other words, more motivation to keep filming until there was nothing dramatic left to film.
All this is by no means aspirational television, but why are cameras still documenting these girls, now that they’re so many years removed from being, well, 16 and pregnant? Personally, I find them utterly fascinating because their lives are so far from my own, and yet these girls aren’t really different from me at all. They’re going through a lot of the same young-adult stuff I went through just a few years ago, the same stuff I still deal with day to day. They just have a baby to take care of, too.
Teen Mom 2 stars four 23-year-olds now shepherding around 5-year-old kids. Chelsea Houska, a cosmetologist from South Dakota and the mother of Aubree, is navigating a happy new relationship and a very unhappy custody battle with her ex. Kailyn Lowry, a mother of two living in Delaware, is married to a man who is not the father of her children, but may be heading for divorce. Jenelle Evans is sober now, living with her boyfriend and their new baby baby in South Carolina, but she’s still constantly fighting her mother for custody of her older son, Jace. Leah Calvert Messer is a mother of three in West Virginia now fighting with her ex-husband over the custody arrangements for their twins, fighting with her soon-to-be-ex-husband over everything, and fighting her own battle with drug addiction.
That is to say, there’s a not a whole lot to actually look forward to this season: We can spot the drug relapses, divorce proceedings, and family dramas from a mile away. While it’s heartbreaking to watch, there’s an undercurrent of compassion to it all: In spite of the never-ending struggles, these women are fighting many of the same battles all mothers fight, and in many ways are growing up right alongside their children. For most of the series, they’ve been kids themselves.
It’s really hard to watch these stories play out sometimes. It’s great to see Chelsea thrive: She has parents who love her and have been there every step of the way. But for the other three, life isn’t looking as positive. It sucks to call their lives “stories,” at all, actually: A season ends, and you’re dying to know what happens next, often forgetting that these people are just living their normal lives, that this is only half-scripted.
Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory is sometimes used to explain why people watch reality TV that showcases the hard lives of people we don’t envy. It theorizes that individuals evaluate themselves by comparing themselves to other people, and derive their view of self by looking at the people around them. In other words, watching young women and their families struggling on MTV makes us feel better about ourselves. It doesn’t feel good to see Chelsea’s new boyfriend Cole meet her child’s father at a school event for the first time. It’s awful to watch a drugged-out Leah fall asleep on the phone talking to her children’s doctor. It’s gut-wrenching to see Jenelle crying on the phone, trying to get permission from her mother to see her son. And it’s horrible to witness Javi and Kailyn have a screaming match in the company of their friends. It’s gripping, eventful TV that makes you feel terrible for everyone involved, but better about your own boring, largely uneventful life.
Not every iteration of this show is a success: Last year’s Teen Mom 3, starring an all-new 16 & Pregnant quartet, only made it one season before being canceled. Now those women are left to cling to the fringes of reality-TV fame through Instagram promos and weird stunts: See 20-year-old mother of two MacKenzie Douthit, who recently recorded an album and a sex tape. Meanwhile, there’s also the original group, now on MTV as Teen Mom OG, which just finished its first season since 2012 last month. Those women all have their own unnerving situations, most notably Farrah Abraham, who made a good bit of cash by doing a porno with James Deen and licensing a line of sex-toy molds of her own body. Fame and money make people do crazy things, and that’s a huge part of the appeal here, too: Farrah didn’t show up on Teen Mom OG until the sixth episode—to put it mildly, she doesn’t get along well with her castmates anymore—and her return gave the ratings close to a 10-percent bump. This is where things get blurry: Who decides what moral codes to follow once teenagers have grown up on reality TV? Who helps them figure out what to make public and what to keep private? If their livelihood is entirely based on their TV personas, how do they grow into their own as adults? Three out of four mothers on Teen Mom 2 have had another child; are they only doing it for the show?
The most compelling part of this show is that every woman on it has fought to create her own sense of family since having her first child, whether that’s with close friends, with parents, or with a new partner. You see them get better, as parents and as humans: Even if they’re not married, they’re all striving to stay in committed relationships, and above all, it’s clear that they love their kids. They also have each other: Their casts have become part of their families, too, with Dr. Drew (the show’s in-house therapist) and even the producers implied to be beacons of positivity. But Dr. Drew, as you probably already know, is a pretty evil guy: During reunion shows, he subjects the women to therapy in front of a live studio audience and millions of viewers at home, inevitably hectoring them for not using birth control.
That sort of shaming is a huge part of the whole series, of course: Look at this bad parenting! Look at these terrible choices! Look at this woman: She was a good teenager, she was a cheerleader on the honor roll and had college on the horizon, and now she has to be a mom, forced to be an example for millions of other women and girls! Some people on the show buckle under that pressure: Leah sure did. Others are amazing examples of just how strong women are, persevering as beacons of courage in the face of great adversity. That’s why so many people watch. That’s why I watch. Or at least I hope that’s why I watch.
This sort of voyeurism, for good or ill, is why reality TV now dominates MTV’s (and VH1’s) lineup, as opposed to, you know, videos and music and stuff. I can’t stop watching this shit because we all love watching this shit. You can revel in real-life drama without it affecting your real life. There’s an Ohio State study that explains that we watch sad movies like Blue Valentine because it’s cathartic, and it makes us happier in the end even if what’s onscreen is the precise opposite. Watching a real-life 23-year-old mother argue with her husband in front of their kids about going to some stupid concert is not that different. It’s all a release. The question is what you’re actually releasing.
So what’s going to happen this season on Teen Mom 2? We’re going to see Leah’s relationship deteriorate as she descends into drug addiction. Kailyn and Javi will fight and fight and fight, and they may end up splitting up. Jenelle will get engaged, then unengaged, and remain at odds with her mom the whole time. Chelsea is going to go to court again to fight her degenerate ex. And above it all, the harsh reality is that the worse it gets, the better you’ll probably feel.