“It’s Shika, bitch.” A burst of glitter dances off the screen to reveal this week’s featured sixteen-year-old on MTV’s series My Super Sweet 16. It’s the network’s teenage answer to inexplicable hits like Toddlers in Tiaras and Jersey Shore, a visual escape into the real lives of entitled teenage girls. Reality TV remains popular with teens and particularly girls. It’s a way to see outside of their own social circles into the glam of someone else’s. But for all the show’s ritz and drama, it’s worth a shot for teenage girls to question why this thing is on the air.
On the face of it, there isn’t much wrong with following around a teenager in party-planning mode, chronicling her journey from little girl to the momentous and sexy destination of womanhood. The coming-of-age for girls event is widely celebrated in American culture, reaching everywhere from the sweet sixteen itself, to the religiously grounded bat mitzvah, to the culturally significant quinceañera. There’s a lot to be said for gathering friends and family in a show of mutual support for girls as individuals, a celebration that’s totally separate from the only other big celebration in life: marriage. That said, this isn’t really what’s going on in My Super Sweet 16. And the effect is profoundly damaging.
Today was my first experience with the show, and aside from the major feminist red flags of excess, vanity, entitlement, and overall bitchiness running rampant through the docudrama, the most glaring pitfall about the show is its mode of delivery. The show is billed as reality TV—a term I use very loosely. It’s fairly common knowledge these days that all reality TV is just a big, scripted mess that only exists because some TV producers stumbled upon a gem with shows like The Real World that underpaid aspiring actors to fumble through some day-to-day drama while purporting to be “just living” in front of the camera. Most adults are familiar with the drill: Executives churn out these shows faster than most of us can watch them, and when you compare today’s reality TV with that of the nineties, it seems that the production value is steadily decreasing. The drama is all staged, and the people in the show are just acting, a dimension that seems particularly transparent when you have to find high-school-age contestants. Everything feels fake, and the scripted drama fails to land, giving the educated adult viewer little reason to believe that what she is seeing is real or even worth taking in.
For kids, though, it isn’t quite as clear cut, and that’s where the damage comes in. While it’s valid for girls to want to see other girls their age starring in their own TV shows—as a nod to the fact that their voices are being heard on an international scale—it’s manipulative for adult executives to market a disingenuous product like My Super Sweet 16 to them. Many teenagers are smart enough to see through the facade (that the diva who demands a $150k diamond necklace isn’t really as diva-ish or unreasonable as she performs on screen). But, the show is insulting to those girls in its assumption that it will be viewed as “reality.” In addition to selling girls short, shows like this one do a disservice to the girls who don’t fully understand the show’s fabrication by showing them that it’s okay to be not only entitled and demanding but also cruel and shallow in the pursuit of getting what you want (the party). It takes the positive ideas of something like a quinceañera, a celebration of coming of age and a loving tribute, and uglies it up into a falsely progressive world where the girl is taught to get what she wants using extremely negative means. In the Yashika episode specifically, the party’s theme is Diamonds Are Forever, a campaign that could just as easily be a corporate-driven ad placement (I’m looking at you, De Beers) as the misguided infatuation of teenage girls who are not only tied up in the idea of matrimonial diamonds but also have zero regard for the cost—not to mention the politics—of owning something that exists only to bestow value on its wearer.
More than the obvious damaging content (the diva, the fake drama), the peril ultimately lies in the fact that this is what MTV thinks of their teenage girl market. With all of MTV’s experience breaking out as a new and subversive media outlet for teenagers, this is how they see half of their market?