Delisa Leachman doesn't have a reality show, has never been on the cover of a magazine and doesn't know who Bristol Palin is. Leachman, 18, is one of the roughly 400,000 teen mothers in the U.S. who live their lives off-camera, unlike the stars of MTV's popular series Teen Mom, which entered its third season July 5. Also unlike the Teen Mom cast, Leachman is African-American.
A spinoff of 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom follows four mothers from the original series in their second year of parenting. The series hasn't shied away from capturing the challenges of young and in some cases, single parenting: fallouts with friends and family, colic and sleep deprivation, among them. Where the show fails, some say, is in casting its members to accurately represent the racial breakdown of teen pregnancy rates. In 2005, African-American women from the ages of 15-to-19 became pregnant at three times the rate of white women in America. But Teen Mom's four main cast members are all white, as are the majority of subjects on 16 and Pregnant.
"[The shows don't] reflect what this problem looks like across all sectors of America," says Linda Lausell Bryant, executive director of Inwood House, an organization that works with teen mothers, the majority of whom are minorities, and many of whom are homeless or runaways. "It is for the most part a very middle class look at the teen pregnancy problem. It's not reflecting communities and populations that are even more marginalized. "
Here's the story of a non-reality show, demographically-representative teen mom. By 16, Leachman had dropped out of her St. Louis, Missouri high school and was running around on the streets. "I didn't have a place to stay," she says. "I was bouncing from house to house family members, friends I was in juvenile [prison] once, too." When she found out she was pregnant at 16, both her mother and the child's father were in jail. Leachman ditched the boyfriend. "I was tired of him going to jail," she says. "I told him he needed to stop breaking the law. He didn't want to stop, so I let him go." She moved to five different residences in her nine months of pregnancy, before settling into a children's home at a local church. At 17, she was waking up at 5:30 a.m. each morning to go to high school, and when she got home, she'd drop her son off with a babysitter, head to work at Macy's, and return home around 1 a.m. Today, she's still at Macy's on call, bringing shoes out to customers, and makes less than $200 a month. She'll start college this fall; her mother and her son's father are still imprisoned.
Leachman last watched 16 and Pregnant when she herself was 16 and pregnant. But these days, she says there's very little of the show she relates to. Her friend, Tiera Brown, 22, feels the same way. Both young women are enrolled in an educational program for young parents at Neighborhood Houses, a St. Louis nonprofit that works to support the city's youth community. "The girls on the show go out a lot," Brown says. "I rarely see them working. Some of the emotions they go through when [fighting with] their parents and not getting along with their baby's father, I can relate to. But other than that all the good stuff I can't relate."
"We've been to shelters, gone through times of not having anybody," Brown says. "I don't see them going through that on the show. There's been plenty of times I haven't known where I can stay. I have to call family members, break down my pride and beg them to let me stay."
Billie Thurmond, director of youth development at Neighborhood Houses, says many of the girls she works with don't even watch the MTV series, simply because they don't own a television. "It's fake to them" she says of Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant. "It's not reality because the things that they struggle with, for instance, include not having a place to stay day to day, or worrying about what they're going to eat day to day. They're not [sitting] at home and watching television."
Bryant conducted a focus group earlier this year to discuss the MTV series with the teenage mothers she works with at Inwood House. "Many of them really felt the show was not realistic in that it didn't portray situations like theirs," she says. "There was one episode where there's an argument between the parents and the teenagers. The boy and the girl storm out of the house, and the mother chases sfter them in her car. They thought that was almost laughable that someone would pursue them in a car, no less."
Liz Gateley, a former executive producer of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom who is no longer with MTV, defended the network's casting decisions and says producers specifically targeted middle-class girls through church groups and parenting organizations. "If we did inner-city people who really had difficulty with their upbringing," she says, "we thought the public will discount this as, 'Oh, that doesn't apply to me.'" According to Gateley, the model for the series was Juno, the Oscar-winning 2007 film about a white, middle-class teenage girl who gets pregnant right down to the animated-sketchbook style of the movie's credits.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that white, middle-class teen mothers are applauding either. At least, not all that loudly. Lauren Cracraft, 21, a payroll specialist in Vallejo, California, watches the shows with mixed emotions. "Half of me feels like it's great," says the mother of a five-year-old son. "They're displaying the harsh reality of teen pregnancy and the lifestyle it leads to. For a lot of young adults, that hits home. But the other half of me is really disappointed in how these parents are portrayed."
If 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom had been around six years ago, Cracraft would have been exactly the girl they would be trying to reach. By 14, she was drinking, dabbling in drugs and skipping school. When Cracraft discovered she was pregnant shortly after she turned 16 she was shocked, even though she'd been having unprotected sex with her boyfriend for over a year. He quickly jumped ship. "He was not there for me through the whole pregnancy. He was not there when my son was born," Cracraft says. "You know how the story goes." Even so, Cracraft says MTV cranks up the psychodrama (backbiting, tears and screaming fits) too high. "It's not always so dramatic," she says. "MTV really puts an emphasis on the drama, but it's not as bad as they make it seem." Never expect from Reality TV to deliver real life.