Relationship Violence on Teen Mom

Okay, last week I wrote about MTV’s Teen Mom and the preview they aired for tonight’s episode that showed a clip of Amber punching Gary’s head into a wall. I just finished watching this week’s episode (a little late on DVR) and wow. Just wow.

I now realize the context for airing the clip of that punch. After watching the whole scene – with the name-calling, threatening, physical intimidation, slapping, hitting, punching, yelling, and a final kick – I realize that this situation was much bigger than the punch.  I’m still don’t condone the use of the clip in the promo because there was no accompanying educational message (last week, I mean), but in the context of the full scene, I understand the choice a little better now.

First of all, I want to congratulate MTV for recognizing that this was a domestic violence situation, and providing a resource for help and more information. After the segment where Amber verbally and physically attacks Gary, (and intimidates him by trying to pushing his stuff down the stairs – including a TV) they showed a black screen with narration that said “If you or someone you know has been a victim of domestic violence visit loveisrespect.org.” They then showed that at each commercial break and at the end of the episode. They also instructed viewers to go to MTV.com to see a video interview with Amber and Gary discussing their abusive relationship. They write:

On tonight’s episode of “Teen Mom” you witnessed what initially appeared to be just another loud argument between Amber and Gary escalate into something very serious. Amber got physical with Gary many times while Leah was in close proximity.

Following the video of the two of them talking about viewing the footage for the first time is an analysis from Katie Ray-Jones, Executive Director of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. She writes:

Amber and Gary are involved in an abusive relationship. In a series of episodes, Amber has demonstrated a pattern of abusive behavior toward Gary that includes the use of intimidation, as well as physical and emotional abuse.

In this particular video clip, Amber acknowledges that she is abusive and that she “can’t help” herself. When Gary begins to speak about how he would like Amber to treat him, she interrupts him, rolls her eyes and tells him that he is the reason she cannot confide to him. She constantly interrupts him during the interview and dismisses his feelings. In abusive relationships, it is common for the abusive person to blame the victim for the abuser’s actions. Gary tries to communicate that he wants to be treated with respect–and that is what he deserves. However, Gary appears to withdraw during the interview by keeping his eyes on the floor and limiting his role in the interview.

Amber states that she cares about Gary. It is important to note that in an abusive relationship, the relationship is not abusive all the time. There are moments when the couple may believe they are “getting along.” This gives the victim hope that the relationship is going to get better. However, in most abusive relationships, this is not the case.

As we’ve watched the season of “Teen Mom” unfold, we’ve consistently seen Amber using power and control to tear Gary down. But we continue to believe that Amber, as well as any abusive partner, would greatly benefit from professional help to address her abusive behavior. It will be important for Amber to take responsibility for her actions and commit to wanting to change. Additionally, Gary deserves to be in a healthy relationship in which he is treated with dignity and respect. It is difficult to imagine that Gary will be able to have that type of relationship with Amber unless she seeks out additional help.

Finally, there is another link to loveisrespect.org, where one can chat online with a peer advocate.

All in all, I’m satisfied with the way MTV handled this terrifying footage. I’m glad they recognized the serious nature of the abuse, and acknowledged their responsibility to provide education and resources for viewers. The only thing I wish they had done was make it clear in their messaging that domestic violence knows no gender. Obviously, we see that in this case, it is a woman abusing a man. But to drive that point home by vocalizing it or plainly stating it within the messaging, either on TV or on MTV.com, might help people connect Amber and Gary’s situation to similar cases in their own lives.

Domestic violence is difficult because it happens in private. We don’t usually get to see relationship abuse escalate to violence like we did on TV tonight. In fact, we rarely see much at all. Only once it has escalated to a very dangerous point do we ever see physical signs like bruises  – and even then, many victims will deny the abuse and most abusers will not recognize that their behavior is abusive.

It’s hard to know what’s really going on in someone else’s relationship because life isn’t a reality TV show and we don’t get to watch what happens behind closed doors. And a lot of times that contributes to the discomfort or disbelief we have with the idea of men being victimized by women, especially when we don’t see the whole picture. It’s easy to tell our guy friends to “stick up for yourself” (and imply that they are to blame for the way their partners treat them) because we just don’t see men as victims of relationship abuse. Our assumptions blind us to the signs and as a result, many men do not receive the support that women in a similar situations might.

All in all, MTV handled this better than I expected but there is always room for improvement. For example, a lot of viewers (and commenters) are surely wondering about the safety of Amber’s daughter Leah and whether abusive behavior towards a co-parent is grounds for removal from Amber’s custody. Hopefully MTV will address some of these issues as well in the future.