You wouldn’t necessarily think that Teen Mom – the show about teenagers ‘falling’ pregnant (see what that word implies?) and moving from one apparent ‘life-disaster’ to another – and the discussion on its star Farrah Abraham’s recent sex tape have anything in common, aside from Farrah Abraham herself. But take a closer look and you’ll find more – the control, refinement, simulation and packaging of girls’ sexuality and how the shaming of teenage girls has become so normal in our cultural narrative.
This story makes for some depressing reading when you consider the relationship between pop-porn culture and the commodification of women’s bodies. I’d suggest it doesn’t really matter whether Abraham hired a well known company to make the sex tape for her own entertainment, whether it was accidentally leaked or whether it was a full porn-movie venture; what matters is that her story is not atypical of young women having their sexualities (and self concepts) commodified and defined by the hideous hybrid that is pop-porn culture.
Abraham’s guy friends apparently think her film is hot, though (until recently) she has said she’s not watching it. This possibly bears some connection to the prevalence of shame and remorse young women are expected to feel about their own sexual interests but I do wonder if Farrah Abraham initially saying she wasn’t watching is indicative that the film is not really about her sexuality (because if I had reason to believe I was hot in some form, I’d be checking it out). It’s mainly about the use of her body and sexuality for money, the ethics of which are currently undergoing a very public media scrutiny, with attacks on both Abraham’s decisions and her as a person.
I suspect Steve Hirsch would probably have us think that the venture is about a 20-something taking an interest in her sex life. Close, but no cigar: it’s about a young girl rebranded as a younger girl (read title: Backdoor Teen Mom) and paid to have sex for the gratification of Pornhub viewers.
Teen Mom reinforces the cultural consensus that teenage girls are trouble and full of wrong decisions
You see, it’s not in the interests of the patriarchal-capitalist majority for young women to feel free to construct or define their own sexuality or self-concept. Or to even know what that sexuality/concept is. It’s in the interests of this system for women to feel the need to consult men for guidance.
Teen Mom and the like are fuel to the fire of industries who want to believe that women exist for the needs of men – I would say this happens right across the cultural spectrum from beauty advertising to representations of women in media produced by dominant institutions to much of porn.
Teen Mom also reinforces the cultural consensus that teenage girls and young women are trouble and full of wrong decisions. In the programme, we see them fighting, in court for assault or embroiled in custody battles or decisions about adoption. More widely, we see young women preserving their (still deemed ‘hot’) bodies on film in mainstream porn. In these conditions, Abraham’s relationship with Vivid Entertainment seems to invite the prevailing attitude that “She was whorish enough to get pregnant in high school, so everyone knows she’s up for it. Let’s capitalise!”
Anyone wonder why Teen Dad didn’t really take off in quite the same way? Well, probably because the public is not as interested in the humiliation of men, their ‘bad choices’ and their culturally determined consequences (because, in this area, it seems that – for men – there are very few).
These programmes occupy an expanding domain where young women’s life struggles are framed as mere entertainment
Programmes like Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant are depressing and bleak. They occupy an expanding domain where young women are presented as nothing more than charming debris, while their life struggles are framed as mere entertainment. They get pregnant and are shamed for it; we watch them suffer and are implicitly told to feel better if our lives worked out differently and that these women apparently don’t matter. But we’d better watch out, because treading the tightrope between ‘slutty’ and conservative is what we have to do to be successful.
It’s a cultural landscape where young people who attempt to break the mould are labelled as too bold and confident: too big for their own boots; we can look to Cher Lloyd and the women at Glasgow University Ancients for proof of this. And a proportion of such ridiculing is done by other women, some of whom seem to be so saturated with the male gaze that they can’t see beyond it.
I’m not sure if the ‘teen pregnancy crisis’ has gone away or if I’ve just got older. Is pregnancy an inevitable side effect of the pressure on teenage girls to be seen as ‘sexy’ according to current cultural norms or a comparative non-issue? Either way, the media’s treatment of women’s bodies and obsession with their reproductive decisions seems to have hit a ruthless peak.
I feel angry at the media representations of young people as unimportant, reckless and asking for it. I feel sad at a pop culture which views young people as nothing more than entertainment. And I feel like giving up. But campaigns like No More Page 3 and The Everyday Sexism Project give me hope. They are taking small steps and at once giant leaps in critiquing porn and ending the normalisation of slut-shaming, misogyny and sexism in our mainstream. Perhaps one day when we can open a red-topped newspaper not to be met with two perky nipples before our morning coffee, we’ll start to rethink how we treat women in other areas of our popular culture, too.
Pink background overlaid with light blue MTV logo (top left) and a red/white/blue pom pom (top right). Underneath this is a grey book (possibly depicting a yearbook or photo album) with line drawings of an orange-beaked rubber duck (top left), a blue-topped safety pin (top right), a green-ringed dummy (bottom left), a red heart with a ribbon over it (bottom right) and ‘TEEN MOM’ in large yellow print (middle). This is the cover for the Teen MomSeason One DVD.