Tuesday, December 16, 2008

True Life: I'm Looking For My Mother

For this assignment I watched an episode of MTV’s “True Life.” This episode was called “I’m looking for my mother.” The episode focused on two individuals. The first is Debra, a young woman from Sacramento, California who is about to graduate from college. According to the show, Debra was taken away from her drug-addicted mother and put into foster care when she was five. She has tried to get in touch with her mother before, and to her knowledge her mother is currently homeless. Debra is portrayed as a successful, upwardly mobile, hard-working young black woman who wants her mother to be present at her college graduation. She decides to try and find her mother and drives from Sacramento to San Bernardino, where she believes her mother is living. With the help of her cousin, it takes several days of looking through the streets, motels, and homeless shelters before she finally is able to find her. One of the first things Debra does for her mother is take her clothes shopping and gets her a hotel room for some bonding. However, once inside the room, Debra broaches the subject of rehab, after which her mother demands that Debra take her back to the place where she (her mother) had been staying. Debra had hoped that her mother would come back to Sacramento to live with her and attend her graduation, but her mother refuses, though she does promise to attend the graduation. However, when it comes time for the ceremony, her mother doesn’t show up. Still, Debra is happy to be surrounded by friends and family and claims she'll never give up on her mother.

The second story focuses on a Richard, a teenage boy from Scottsdale, Arizona. Richard lives with his father and half sister, and hasn't seen his mother since his parents divorced when he was a toddler. Although he appears happy living with his dad and seems to have grown up in a supportive household, Richard is primarily fueled by a curiosity to know why his mother left and what it would be like to have a relationship with her. I surmised that he hoped that his teenage status and having grown up would facilitate the beginning of a new, fun, relaxed but grounded relationship with his mother. He first attempts to use the Internet to get in touch, but after that does not work, he gets in touch with his uncle who gives him his mother’s phone number. They speak on the phone, but his mom isn't terribly enthusiastic about the idea of him coming out to visit her. She cancels shortly before Richard's scheduled to fly to Florida and see her and then stops answering Richard's calls. Richard decides to wait a few months before reaching out to her again in hopes that his mom will be more receptive in the future.

There were a couple things going on in this episode. First of all, the use of racial tropes played a significant role in this episode of True Life. In particular, stereotypes about drug addiction, homelessness and foster care were employed in telling the story of Debra’s mother and creating the context through which she left her. Debra’s mother is homeless, has been addicted to drugs for a very long time and had 11 other children before they were taken into foster care, facts that were mentioned several times throughout the broadcasting. This particular contextualization of motherhood within a racialized framework is juxtaposed against Richard’s situation, where there is no reason given for his mother’s absence. While both mothers are eventually and ultimately depicted as monsters for leaving their children, MTV’s investment in certain racial tropes to tell a more “interesting” story at the expense of Debra’s mother is evident.

The show also displayed a desire on the part of the wronged children to return to family values as defined by religious fundamentalism/right wing politics. Ultimately, both of the children were portrayed as abandoned, yet they were depicted as notable, heroic figures for never giving up hope. Both Debra and Richard, despite the securities and privileges their lives have provided them, benevolently want to know their mothers, and want to take care of them even when they don’t have to. Additionally, the way that family was displayed in the advertisements, in dialogue with the “reality” displayed on the show, further emphasizes this desire to “return” to the nuclear family and the values that allegedly come with it. The children are depicted as on the “right path,” not just in having securities and ambitions, but in also in relentlessly trying to get through to their mothers, reminding these women of their primary obligations as mothers first and foremost, and grounding themselves in the moral groundwork to do the right thing, something their mothers obviously lack in their continued abandonment of their children.

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