De-racializing “Deadbeat Dads:” Paternal Involvement in MTV’s Teen Mom
Samuel Jay / University of Denver
In American film and television of the last 30+ years the “deadbeat dad” has been framed as a problem of the black community. Since the 1965 Moynihan Report attributed the near “complete breakdown” of the African-American family to the absence of fathers, black men — especially those in lower-class, urban areas — have become the face of failed fatherhood.1 It is common for movies to show black mothers raising children alone while their male counterparts partake in dubious activities outside the home (Boyz in the Hood (1991), Training Day (2001)). Television maintains the same narrative. HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008) has been heralded for its progressiveness, yet absent fathers are to blame for many of the transgressions made by the show’s African-American characters. This view is found outside of the fictive world as well. President Obama called out absent black fathers on the campaign trail in 2008 and it was around this same time that Bill Cosby began “bluntly speaking about an epidemic of fatherless African-American families.”2 This essay looks at MTV’s Teen Mom (2009-), one of the rare texts that de-racializes “deadbeat” fatherhood and frames it as a white problem.
The show first aired on MTV in December 2009 as a spin-off of 16 and Pregnant, a show detailing the lives of pregnant high school girls. Teen Mom follows four mothers, Maci, Farrah, Amber, and Catelynn as they deal with family, school, and boyfriend/father issues. The father of Farrah’s daughter is never featured and it is learned in Season Two that he died before Sophia -the daughter- was born. Catelynn and her boyfriend Tyler make the decision immediately after childbirth to give their baby up for adoption against the will of both of their families, most vehemently by Tyler’s own “deadbeat” father, Butch. The relationships between Maci and Ryan, and Amber and Gary are prominent in each mother’s narrative. As these relationships evolve from Season One and into Season Two Ryan and Gary come to embody the deadbeat fatherhood often represented by African-American men in American media.
Maci, Ryan, and Bentley
After the birth of Bentley there is positive growth in Maci and Ryan’s relationship. They talk about marriage and at one point get engaged. The child-rearing is done as a couple and they trade nights between each of their parents’ homes. Not long into Season One it becomes clear that Ryan is not planning on being much of a father. He has no job, but rather claims unemployment in order to make the payments on his new truck. When Bentley cries in the middle of the night Macy is the one that gets up to take care of him. Ryan’s laziness is evidenced through various shots of Maci feeding, playing, or changing Bentley as he lies in bed or sits on the couch watching television.
By the end of Season One it is obvious that marriage is not an option. Their arguments are no longer about Ryan taking care of Bentley, but about child-support, time spent with Bentley, and Ryan being a good parent when he does have his time with Bentley. In an early episode from Season Two, Maci attempts to wean Bentley off his pacifier. She is shown awake throughout the night as the child cries and begs. She goes to work tired and later in the day takes Bentley to Ryan’s for the weekend. She explains the importance to Ryan of not giving in to Bentley’s fussing and leaves in hopes that he will listen. When she returns to pick up Bentley at the end of the weekend she grabs him from his crib only to see a pacifier lying next to him. Perhaps most telling about this sequence is the fact that Ryan’s new girlfriend is the one taking care of Bentley.
Ryan’s irresponsibility eventually leads Maci to give up on getting any sort of parenting help from him. Throughout the second season the two argue over legal issues with Ryan continually looking like the deadbeat father who remains involved in his child’s life only superficially. On many occasions viewers see Ryan’s parents pushing for visitation rights, whereas Ryan lacks the agency to do more than dip tobacco and hang out in his garage.
Amber, Gary, and Leah
The relationship between Amber and Gary has been tenuous since the two were featured on 16 and Pregnant. Whereas Maci has the financial and familial support to sever ties with Ryan and raise Bentley on her own, because Amber’s family is mostly absent (except for rare meetings with her father and uncle) and has no high school education or job, she is dependent upon Gary.
It appears that Gary has a job, but considering the amount of time he is at home, he does not work often. He is often shown sprawled out on the couch watching TV while Amber attends to their daughter, Leah. His obesity is highlighted during each episode as he wears shirts too small for him and binges on fast food, often giving Leah a fry or a sip of soda. In addition to the continual fighting between Amber and Gary, Season Two has been marked by Amber’s weight loss juxtaposed with Gary’s weight gain. Since the beginning of Season One she has lost 65 pounds in comparison to Gary who has gained significant weight since Leah’s birth.3
Gary’s incompetence as a father is mirrored in his faulty relationships with family and friends. During Amber’s birthday episode from Season Two Gary agrees to take care of Leah while Amber’s goes out with friends. On his way to pick up her birthday cake Gary is persuaded by a friend to “act like a man” and not let Amber out of babysitting duties. Gary takes the advice, calls Amber to complain, and refuses to take care of Leah. Instead of having the maturity to act like a good father and boyfriend, Gary listens to an ignorant friend and adds turmoil his and Amber’s relationship, which had been smooth up to that point in the episode. Another example of Gary’s immaturity comes from his relationship with his mother. Often times when he and Amber fight it ends with Gary storming out of the apartment and leaving Amber with the child. He drives to his mother’s home to complain and she often agrees with Gary’s opinions of Amber as a bad mother and girlfriend. Whereas a mature father might take the time to consider his own actions, Gary runs to the support of family and friends to avert any blame.
Gary is a “deadbeat dad” not because of his absence, but because of his inability to be an effective father. Amber has matured from season to season and their fighting shows this. Amber has stopped raising her voice, especially around Leah, but Gary continues to get defensive. He does not see himself at fault in any way. This makes he and Amber’s relationship even more toxic and has a negative effect on the development of their daughter.
Lastly, Teen Mom puts a non-African-American face on “deadbeat” fathers by making Butch a significant character in the show. Butch is Tyler’s father and Catelynn’s stepfather. It is a complicated familial situation that solidifies Catelynn and Tyler’s decision to give their child up for adoption rather than placing her in an unstable home – a decision Butch continues to disagree with.
Butch stands in as an example of what Ryan and Gary could be in twenty years. He has a terrible relationship with his son and Tyler admits that many of the issues in he and Catelynn’s relationship stem from not having Butch around as a child. During Season One Butch’s jail time becomes an issue for Tyler and he vows to never break the law again. However, early in Season Two Butch fails a drug test (for cocaine) while on probation and must return to prison. He plays a peripheral role in both seasons of Teen Mom, yet there are connections between Butch and the younger fathers in the show. All have failed to be positive influences in the lives of their children and are paternally ineffective. All three embody the “deadbeat dad” character too often represented by black men in American media. Through these representations Teen Mom takes a progressive stance on absent or incompetent fathers by de-racializing the depiction and showing poor fathering to be more than just an African-American issue.
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