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Why We Can’t Get Enough of ‘Teen Mom,’ Weinergate

For the past few days, I’ve been planning to write about a young woman from the “Teen Mom” series on MTV and her apparent suicide attempt. I’ve been pondering this genre of “teen fertility reality TV” for a long time, particularly whether there’s a genuine educational benefit and how that benefit might weigh against the toll the instant celebrity takes on the young, troubled women who are its stars.

But I kept getting sidetracked from this line of thought by reading my fellow Sisterhood bloggers’ incisive thoughts on the fallout from the Anthony Weiner scandal and feeling like I should weigh in, too.

I particularly appreciated the opinion that the media’s behavior throughout this week has been appalling. Perhaps the most egregious example of this was at Nancy Pelosi’s press conference last week, when she was discussing the budget, unemployment and other crucial issues. When she announced she wouldn’t be answering queries about Weinergate, the major networks stopped their feeds. These networks clearly demonstrated their priorities about which moral crisis mattered to them — the one facing a single hapless congressman versus the one facing most of the country.

It was only last night that I realized that the two phenomena are linked in crucial ways. First of all, scandals like Weinergate and the “Teen Mom” genre of television shows have something shared and insidious in their DNA: They are both centered on watching, from the safety of our desks and couches, others being brought low. While “Teen Mom” has an educational component, I can’t help but wonder if much of the satisfaction derived from this kind of spectacle is of the “I may have my problems, but they’re not at messed up as that person’s!” variety. Ditto for sex scandals in politics. But beneath that self-satisfaction is another layer, one of deep insecurities. Because of course, we all do have problems, and many may actually be as messed up as Weinergate, if not as sordid or public. Thus, these lives falling apart on the other side of the screen become a diversion from our own family feuds, tragedies, bad behavior and disappointments.

And there’s another link between “Teen Mom” and Weinergate: the fact that it’s easier for the human brain to wrap itself around individual stories with dramatic arc than to look at the vast, bleak, landscape of many of our major social afflictions. Instead of trying to find a solution to the closing of schools for pregnant teens or for the rising levels of STDs among young people, we think about whose is at fault for the recent blowup on “Teen Mom.” Instead of thinking about the implications of our current budget-cut mania on countless real people’s lives, we speculate on how Anthony Weiner’s wife is feeling right now. I totally get this natural human impulse — that’s why I’m so passionate about the use of art and fiction to help us understand widespread problems.

But I think we also have to honestly ask ourselves about the root of our fascination: Is it about understanding and learning, or is it an effort to distract ourselves from the real issues — the world’s, our own — that require solutions far more complex than a simple resignation and apology?

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