A confession: I wasn't going to write about The Thing. Everyone else, it seemed, had their think pieces written this past Sunday night, and I couldn't imagine what else there was to say about The Thing that everybody else hadn't already said.
But, as I watched the video of The Thing—and I assume you've figured out that I'm talking about Beyoncé's closing act of MTV's Video Music Awards, her performance of "Flawless" in front of a screen on which the word “FEMINIST” glowed in neon white—I realized that this was, in many ways, one of the reasons that Bitch was founded back in 1996: this was a moment that proved that popular culture is a crucial locus of feminism.
Throughout this series, I have tried very hard not to write about the gigantic elephant in the room: Dan Savage. He's a controversial figure, particularly when it comes to his statements on bisexuality, and though I quoted him in my post about Bi the Way, I haven't wanted to dwell on him. I find much of his commentary on bisexuality thoughtless and insensitive, but he insists he is not biphobic, and I choose to believe him. I may disagree with a lot of his ideas, but I like some of them, I respect his efforts to campaign against LGBT youth bullying and suicide, and I am not interested in making assumptions about what lies in his heart.
But in discussing bisexuality and the media, mentioning Savage is unavoidable. And since his new MTV show, Savage U, premiered on Tuesday, there's no better time to open this can of worms.
Those things we think we know about teen moms? The limited education, welfare use, the doomed romantic partnerships, the poor outcomes for their children? When we control for poverty, those adverse outcomes virtually disappear. It's not that they had a child while they were young, it's that they had a child while they were poor.
It's no secret that 16 and Pregnant is marketed to women. Each episode is narrated by the teen mom, who also provides the testimonials and has the camera on her at all times. The commercials shown during the program are obviously geared toward teen girls, and the chat on MTV.com's 16 and Pregnantpage is filled with girls, mostly teen mothers themselves. As viewers we never see teen parenthood from the father's point of view and the possible value from including their experiences is completely lost.
You know how we've all been wondering how MTV could continue to air Teen Mom and 16 & Pregnant while avoiding the topic of abortion? Nearly one-third of teen pregnancies end in abortion, yet the popular MTV shows have skirted the issue for a few seasons—until now.
MTV's been having a good summer. In part, that's because the second season of its reality series Teen Mom has been generating huge ratings for the network—it is this summer's third-most-watched original cable series in the coveted 12-34 demographic. The show, which documents the lives of four young women after they gave birth to children as teenagers, along with its sister show and predecessor 16 and Pregnant, has already generated a fair amount of cultural chatter on the question of whether the show is a valuable educational tool or just, as most seem to have concluded, regular old exploitation of the young women in question. There's something to this argument, of course. MTV's ratings success makes for a strange contrast with the fact that Teen Mom's stars have been occupying the front pages of celebrity weeklies like US complaining that they are dead broke, doesn't it?
I'm of two minds about the argument. On the one hand I certainly don't have much faith in MTV's dedication to social messaging, at least not enough to believe it extends much further than what advertisers are comfortable with. I'm not the first, for example, to point out that abortion, as an option, is not something that's seriously discussed in the context of the show. You can spin that fact as having something to do with showrunners needing to have a more extended narrative arc than, "Now I'm pregnant, now I'm not." But Teen Mom does follow one young couple, Catelynn and Tyler, after they've given their child up for adoption, so sponsor queasiness seems a more likely explanation.