Until this week I had never watched Teen Mom. The gossip-hound in me was aware that one of these moms had done a sex tape (thereby earning the nickname “Backdoor Farrah”) and that one or more of the
women girls were addicts and maybe all-around no good. Otherwise, I didn’t bother with it because there is an aura of outrage that surrounds the show and I seldom pay much attention to [moralizing] outrage. …unless of course it’s my outrage, in which case, take a seat!… In any event, in watching Teen Mom I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the show is a docu-soap with likable characters. But what struck me most was the production approach: a seemingly complete rupture of the 4th wall (or “4th lens” as a recent network exec I worked with would have it), and an acknowledgement that a reality show is the combined creation of cast and producers.
This acknowledgement is overt and well past due in Reality, in my opinion. For instance Taylor, Maci’s boyfriend, states in scene that he won’t propose until the end of the season, to guarantee he’s on the following season. And Farrah Abraham (who truly is a reality godsend) hilariously claims that she’s been disinvited from a Hamptons White Party because of her association with Teen Mom. Even a cast member refusing to shoot with production (a frequent bugbear on docu-soaps) becomes grist for story on the show.
Kudos to 11th Street Productions (the creator of this show as well as 16 and Pregnant) for conceding that the presence of production (and producing itself) effects the Reality (even if they still get up to some less transparent shenanigans in post). However, in so doing, they may have opened a big ol’ can of worms. Because if production is willing to acknowledge the impact the shooting of the show is having on the participant’s lives, then they have to acknowledge the impact the show is having on the minors (read: children) on the show.
Cue the outrage.
Reality producers can defend most of the horrors we visit upon the adults in our clutches with our patented, “Hey, they signed a release!” defense. But it’s far more difficult to say that of someone whose parent signed said release for them. And I’m not even talking about Reality’s laissez faire attitude toward child labor laws. Because while I’ve heard of competition sets where kids are worked 24 hours a day, I feel that most Reality productions follow the spirit – if not always the letter – of child labor laws. Moreover, LA has very strong and well-enforced child labor laws, so there’s no messing around in CA, and it behooves bigger shows to be mindful of child labor issues post-Jon Gosselin’s lawsuit against TLC.
The thing is, the real damage to these kids is emotional, and it’s hard to estimate the extent of it.
Exhibit A: Amber Portwood’s daughter Leah.
Portwood asserts that “Leah is not in the middle of this though because she doesn’t know what we’re doing,” regarding her the messy custody dispute between Portland and babydaddy Gary. (season 5, ep. 13 for you fact-checkers) Uh, yeah, I suppose 7-year-old Leah doesn’t know about the custody dispute, unless of course you factor in the whole it being on television thing. That little Leah’s playmates are well-aware of what’s going on is later confirmed when a child at a playground they go to shouts to her friends that Amber is “the Teen Mom!!” It beggars belief that some sweet young kid hasn’t taunted Leah about any of her mother’s numerous tauntable weaknesses, including drug addiction and now a custody battle. Hell, the wrong kicks are worth a throw down these days.
When you’re a kid you are absolutely judged by your family (once other kids have gotten past how you look and how you dress). In my neighborhood I was the child of two alcoholics. It was shameful enough that the neighbors knew; I can’t imagine the horror I’d have endured if it was made a part of my identity on a national or international level. The same cannot be said for either Leah or any of the other kids on Teen Mom: Leah’s that hot mess, drug-addicted Amber’s child, just as Sophia’s mom Farrah is “Backdoor Farrah,” and Jace, Jenelle Evans’ kid, will have to live with her publicized arrest record and drug abuse.
But there’s more to it than simply teasing. The kids on Dance Moms, for example, are being harangued on camera by Abby Lee Miller. It’s one thing to be humiliated in class by a dance teacher – something dance teachers, in my experience, revel in doing – but how would it feel for that humiliation to play nationally? And how does that impact the self-esteem of these young dancers moving forward? Because, unlike their acting peers, these kids are playing themselves. If Abby says someone sucks, she means that exact someone who lives in the world (not a character). This is nothing short of child abuse as entertainment. It’s worth mentioning that Dance Moms‘ network is Lifetime, the same network that produces the moralizing, Reality-trashing scripted show UnREAL: apparently abusing Talent is fine on Lifetime, as long as you’re not producing The Bachelor for ABC.
There’s also the whole issue of growing up on TV. As discussed previously on this blog, when we produce Reality shows we are also creating character archetypes: e.g. the Crazy Bitch, The Hot Mess, or The Asshole. This is no less true of children. In a two child family we may, for instance, produce one child as being more chatty and smart, and the other as more needy and dim. How does this portrayal effect the way they’re viewed by their peers? How does it effect the way they view themselves? Might not the “dim” child act out in her teenage years by fucking around, seeking some way – any way – to glean some self worth? And yes, sadly, I am referring to real kids in this instance. Then there’s the whole Duggar mess in which TLC was, to all intents and purposes, enabling the cover up of abuse.
The fact is we simply should not be messing with kids: regardless of how much of an “aw!” factor they bring to scenes, and regardless of whether their parents signed releases. Parents are humans, and – as such – cannot be trusted. Parents all too often act in their own perceived best interests. Laws govern many other aspects of children’s lives, including education, health, care and so forth specifically because not all humans can be trusted to act in the best interests of their offspring. This is no less true when it comes to Reality TV. All it takes is one fame-hungry couple and all bets are off.
In fact, while contemplating the whole Teen Mom situation, it occurred to me that the cast of the show were once, themselves, too young to sign an appearance release for 16 and Pregnant. Those were signed by their all-too-human parents (some of whom have evolved into extremely questionable folks on screen: I’m looking at you Debra Danielson). Isn’t it possible that the appearances of these kids on the show (which I will say is a powerful follow doc and nothing like the docusoapy mess of Teen Mom) have probably played a role in the mess most of them morphed into.
Food for thought.