The XX Factor

The Cost of Starring in a Morality Play, or the Amber Portwood Story

Teen Mom star Amber Portwood has allegedly threatened to commit suicide , according to many gossip websites. That this is national news highlights the central contradiction at the core of the MTV teen pregnancy franchise: The shows themselves have real social benefits , but starring on these shows can be pretty terrible.

As I wrote last year in an article about 16 and Pregnant ( Teen Mom ‘s antecedent), there’s some research that shows that watching TV programs with dramatic narratives about teen pregnancy makes adolescents more likely to use contraception . Another study I wrote about last week shows a correlation between watching these depictions of teen pregnancy and support for abortion rights .

Having cameras follow you around during a vulnerable time in your life, however, is not always such a positive proposition. The women who star on these shows have become endless tabloid fodder. Last year, Teen Mom ‘s Farrah Abraham had a call she made to 911 about a domestic violence incident posted online . Portwood has arguably had the roughest time of all the Teen Mom stars: She lost primary custody of her daughter last month , and her frenetic life has been all over the likes of Life & Style. Maybe her life would be equally chaotic without the public attention-but the paparazzi cameras flanking the young woman in her worst moments certainly aren’t helping.

This is an ancient kind of story, Amber’s is. We hold up “fallen” women as cautionary tales so that others will know not to follow their wanton paths. But being propped up as the fallen woman is never very much fun.

Photograph of Amber Portwood: Teen Mom © 2011 MTV Networks, © and ™ MTV Networks. All Rights Reserved.