Spectacularly Trivialized: Teen Mom 2 and Abortion as Entertainment

Spectacularly Trivialized: Teen Mom 2 and Abortion as Entertainment January 20, 2014

About thirty years ago in his signature work Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman warned that the encroaching entertainment industry threatened to undermine society’s ability to deal with fundamental issues. American culture, Postman argued, had become so dominated by triviality and hyper-emotionalism, spread through television, that even the weightiest of issues and the most sacred of topics are trapped in absurdity, divorced from reason. Such is certainly the case with season 5 of MTV’s Teen Mom 2, premiering tonight at 10:00 p.m. For here the complicated and consequential topic of abortion will become embroiled in the exhibitionism of the show, as star Jenelle Evans has allowed the producers to film and air her 2012 abortion.

Like most reality shows, Teen Mom 2 capitalizes on the real-world difficulties of the participants. MTV bills the show as a peek inside “the wide variety of challenges young mothers can face: marriage, relationships, family support,” among others. Such situations would create much drama to be sure, always great fodder for television programs, but converting these women’s formative experiences into entertainment for public consumption is irresponsible; adding abortion to the mix is reprehensible. While recent news highlights a promising study by economists Phillip Levine and Melissa Schettini Kearney crediting several versions of Teen Mom and its predecessor 16 and Pregnant with lower teen birth rates, the vacuity of public discourse on family issues promoted by the show remains distressing. Evans’s on-air abortion ensures that this discourse will become further emaciated.

Detractors might claim that, single parenthood—particularly among teens—being what it is and abortion remaining a hot political topic, MTV performs a service in its broadcasts, making the public intimately aware of the stories behind the statistics. Depicting Evans’s plight might kindle empathy, encourage responsible action, and promote discussion. From afar these conclusions seem justified; however, closer investigation reveals that any empathy, action, or discussion resulting from the show is superficial at best and mawkish at worst.

Take Evans’s interview with The Stir, which promises to explain her decision to allow MTV to air her abortion. Oddly enough, however, the interview has no such explanation, despite the interview’s title and Evans’s social-media promotion of the article. There is only recapping of the conversation Evans had with MTV producers and recounting of her family circumstances at the time of the abortion. She makes no connection between these circumstances and her decision either to have the abortion or to allow it to be filmed. Even still, such an explanation’s absence seems lost on the commenters below the story who take the opportunity equally to vilify Evans’s selfishness and irresponsible lifestyle or to laud Evans’s selflessness and courageous stand for women’s rights. The interview, along with the abortion broadcast itself, seems engineered primarily for attention and emotional effect, not thoughtful public discussion of a vexed personal, ethical, and political question. And the commenters demonstrate that this engineering is quite successful.

While MTV’s precise handling of the abortion episodes remains to be seen, unless the show is overhauled this season, their depiction will be unworthy of the seriousness of the issue, a concern thoughtful pro-life and pro-choice advocates should share. Like the emotionally-driven fan responses to Evans’s interview, the show thrives on increased tension and turmoil, encouraging voyeuristic—not sympathetic or reasonable—attitudes in viewers. The Stir interview highlights the controversial and taboo aspects of the show, suggesting that Teen Mom 2 must continually raise the stakes to keep viewer interest. Thus, no topic is sacrosanct; in fact, the more taboo, the more potential for ratings draw. In his later Technopoly, Postman explains that the contemporary entertainment economy drains symbols of their power, their sacredness, their serious connotation, using Hebrew National’s hot dogs and sausages as his example. Their slogan, “We answer to a higher authority,” claiming religious blessing on their commercial venture, is no less ludicrous than MTV’s offering Jenelle Evans’s abortion as enticement for watching their show.

Regardless of one’s position on the abortion issue—pro-life, pro-choice, somewhere in between—most people would on reflection agree that the issue touches on key aspects of human identity, communal responsibility, and moral duties. Some of us, myself included, consider abortion an irremediable tragedy on a grand scale, but hardly anyone would argue that an abortion is cause for celebration. Even many pro-choice advocates call for abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare.” Such an issue demands careful consideration; a woman grappling with the abortion question, committing to the procedure, and experiencing the aftermath requires care. Offering neither compounds the tragedy. Offering neither and broadcasting the spectacle denies our humanity.

Photo via MTV Australia.

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