Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In Praise of MTV

I often hear my generation referred to as being the "MTV generation." It's hard to talk about today's 20-somethings (and those a bit older and younger than that) without talking about the huge influence that our ravenous watching of trash television has had on our delicate psyches. Now, honestly, I have to start off by saying that I didn't watch MTV as a kid. I didn't actually watch it to any extent at all until I was out of high school. Lately, however, I've been a bit wrapped up in a few of their shows that I think are actually quite incredible in their own right. No, MTV is not about music anymore, and yes, MTV does air shows like "NEXT" that I think are exceedingly awful for the young 'uns. Bear with me.

When I first watched the "True Life" series, I was fully prepared to roll my eyes and get seriously nauseated. The first episode I remember seeing was "True Life: I'm Happy to be Fat." I could only imagine what heinous portrayal of fat people awaited me and millions of eagerly watching teenagers. And then, well, I wasn't so disappointed. The characters on the show weren't the caricatures you see in most of the heavy-handededly scripted "reality" shows on the network (like I said, "NEXT"). The people struck me as real, and surprisingly, they weren't being portrayed as lumbering monsters awaiting their imminent doom. One of the girls was working on starting a body image club at her college, as well as working on her trouble getting a date-- and that wasn't even strongly attributed to her weight. There was a guy who was part of the "chubs and chasers" community looking for love, and even though he was what doctors would term "morbidly obese," there were no references to his health and the entire sub-story was pretty much about him being attractive. Then there was a lovely girl who saw herself as completely fabulous. In the end of the episode, she went to a doctor and found out her weight was likely causing her some health problems, so she began working out to improve her health. Her journey toward weight-loss wasn't framed by a quest for conventional attractiveness, and instead it was clear she still loved her weight and didn't want to be skinny-- just healthy. That's a message we can all get behind.

So I watched some more "True Life," on topics ranging from self injury, to body dysmorphic disorder, to life on the Jersey Shore (yes, MTV was fascinated with the Jersey Shore before they did THAT show), to being bisexual. Every single episode was taken seriously. I found myself thinking that a show like this could really help young people by showing different hardships and lifestyles in a really honest, open, non-judgmental way. Anyone who's been a teen can attest to how absolutely isolated and troubled you can feel for being different. It's a tumultuous time, and not just because teens are supposedly bratty and entitled. One of the most important things a teen can feel is normal. So, an MTV show that was educational and inspiring? Be still my beating heart.

And then I watched "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom," which have both seem to have gotten some flack for glamorizing teen pregnancy. But I have to say, you guys, that this is so far from the truth. I truly believe that anyone who would say that hasn't actually watched the shows and is just reacting to the name and the concept. Yes, these shows follow teen mothers, but they do it with such incredible honesty and heart. You see all the hardship and pain these girls go through as well as their triumphs. "Teen Mom" follows four of the Season 1 "16 and Pregnant" girls and it's amazing to see how most of them (barring Amber) have blossomed into incredibly strong women and mothers. Catelynn and Tyler's story even shows a different side of the teen pregnancy story: the two chose adoption. They also seem to have a wonderfully healthy, loving relationship, which was helped through some rough patches by couples counseling: adult couples, take notice. Another mom, Farrah, goes to counseling to deal with the loss of her baby's father and the trouble she has at home. I just can't express how great I think it is that teens are being shown that it is okay and normal to go to see a therapist.

This show, like Jersey Shore, does show some violence. Amber and Gary have a disturbingly volatile relationship, lately causing many of their segments to be followed-up with the number of a domestic abuse hotline. Amber is mostly the abusive one, and her worst outburst actually occurred-- wait for it-- because Gary, the baby's father, threatened to call child services. She beat him because he wanted to take her baby away... which, you know, probably indicates that the baby should be taken away. The way Gary deals with Amber is heart-wrenching. He maintains that he loves her and wants to work it out even though he's being screamed at, blamed, ridiculed, punched, and hit on what appears to be a regular basis. Gary's case is especially jarring to viewers because it's a really rare thing that we see a man as the victim of abuse in the media.

I have a hard time witnessing the violence that goes on between them-- emotional and physical-- especially because their daughter is always underfoot. Her daughter has actually seemed to learn that the appropriate way to deal with someone who is upset is to frown, point, and say "Quiet, now" (yes, what you see in this .gif did happen). This poor child is obviously being raised in a terrible household by two parents that were quite ill-prepared for children (in her episode of "16 and Pregnant," Amber even says that she had never wanted children... and it seems abundantly clear that her original plan would have been best for her). It's hard seeing this stuff happening knowing MTV probably can't intervene (because these shows are supposed to be like documentaries). Abuse isn't something a lot of will witness firsthand unless we're in the situations ourselves. I applaud MTV for showing these scenes because they're so clearly not okay. It's frightening, and maybe seeing other people that are abused will help young people realize that they shouldn't be treated like this and to get help.

So is MTV trash? Sure, some of it is, but I see a whole lot of room for many of its programs to be used as educational touchstones: watching these shows provides parents with an opportunity to talk with their kids about some really important issues. But, of course, even though this can be such a difficult time, teens often don't want to talk to parents. An opportunity for kids to be seeing how people their own age deal with the same hard questions and challenges isn't one we should be passing up. If there's one thing I know I needed in my teens, it was anything that would help me feel like I wasn't alone.

And no matter what way you slice it, MTV has come a long way since "Beavis and Butthead."

When was the last time you watched MTV? Have you ever seen "True Life," "16 and Pregnant," or "Teen Mom"? What did you think?


Jem said...

You raise some very good points in this post- its true not all MTV shows are bad (I mean look at Daria!). MTV's True Life is really interesting. I personally, was most interested in their episode called I'm Deaf. As someone who's hard of hearing and also has many deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing friends it was an interesting one to watch. As great as the episode was, it wasn't so great that they only focused on deaf people trying to fit into the hearing world. It wasn't completely representative of the deaf community- not everyone is like the two teens portrayed in the video- it was inaccurate. However, that said... its still a great show and I love that it portrays what reality is like for all different types of people. Also, sorry if this sounded like a complete rant about that one episode! :)

Vanessa said...

Jem: hey, rant away! I hadn't seen that one, and it's great you bring that point up about the I'm Deaf episode. I think one of the problems that they run into that is kinda inevitable is that the two people of a certain demographic aren't always going to be as representative as they hope. I'm going to have to watch that episode now!

Jem said...

Vanessa- Be sure to let me know what you think of the episode! You raise a really good point- two people can't represent a whole population however I think it would have been interesting to show both someone trying to fit into the hearing world but also someone who's trying to fit into the deaf world, or into both worlds. Anyways... as always your blog always makes me think! :)

Allison said...

I really like the True Life show too. I always remember the episodes about teens with Tourette's syndrome and the one with really young alcoholics. Many 20 somethings think that alcoholism is a middle-age disease, but it can strike early with the right conditions.

PS- Daria was the best cartoon of all time. Also my best halloween costume of all time. Mix Harry-Potter glasses, green jacket, skirt, and combat boots; shake vigorously and add a dash of sarcasm. Tadaaaaaaaa!

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