But really, we should probably be concerned about Jenelle Evans
by Marisa Carroll
MTV’s Teen Mom 2 just wrapped its third year. As the season became a snooze—the most exciting aspect of Chelsea Houska’s storyline was learning that her rich dad owns a dental office—the only mom who kept things interesting was Jenelle Evans, the North Carolinian with an affinity for terrible boyfriends and worse tantrums. Jenelle is so compelling that I also watch her life play out online. I follow her Twitter, which lures me into a sinkhole of her YouTube, UStream, Stickam, and other video chat sites with increasingly unfamiliar names. The more I get to know Jenelle, the more I see her for what she is: A raging, Ke$ha obsessed embodiment of all that is wrong with the Drug War.
Jenelle is a teenage mother who was afraid to have an abortion but quickly signed away custody of her son to his grandmother. She has been diagnosed with a severe case of bipolar disorder and struggles with addiction. On Teen Mom, Jenelle says she can’t quit pot; her criminal record shows she also uses cocaine and opiates. MTV’s archives must include 100 hours of Jenelle screaming at her mom. “Right now if I had weed I wouldn’t be depressed, I wouldn’t be crying.”
Her drug dependence is so severe that she repeatedly violated her probation, which she received due to a drug offense. After testing positive again, she was arrested and jailed for days. Her mother, tired of bailing her out, refused to help.
The point of all this is not to say that teens can’t recreationally use drugs or make mistakes or grow out of bad habits. It’s that the criminal justice system forever marks girls like Jenelle—girls who typically grow up poor, with few options and, in Jenelle’s case, little help for her mental illness—through its tough laws on teen drug offenders. Any hopes Jenelle expresses on the show, like going back to school, are shattered by each new mark on her criminal record. Since she has landed in the system, she hasn’t been able to climb her way out. The prison industrial complex is built that way, like a well with sloping sides.
The most well-known moment of this Teen Mom season was rooted in Jenelle’s legal issues…and Ke$ha. Jenelle was on probation, and she couldn’t quit smoking pot. She said it was the only thing that helped her bipolar disorder. Since she knew that she couldn’t stay sober on probation, Jenelle begged to serve jail time instead. This choice, she was told, would sabotage her future, including financial aid and work options. Jenelle still chose pot. Viewers laughed that she would make such a poor choice, but it is one that young drug offenders make every day. Remember how much it sucked to be grounded? Imagine being grounded by the police– for nine months. For many teenagers, opting for a month in jail instead of what feels like a lifetime on probation makes sense.
When her attorney—a public defender who wears Pacsun polo shirts and cargo shorts to work—tells Jenelle what days she will start serving time, she tells him to reschedule. She has a very important Ke$ha concert to attend. “You don’t understand, this is my idol. She’s my idol and I’m never going to get to see her again.” This would be funny were it not disturbingly sad, or at least not representational of how kids navigate the criminal justice system every day. “Could you call [my probation officer] and tell her? Isn’t there some way?” Now that she’s served jail time, Jenelle is ineligible for student loans. The 1998 Higher Education Act denies or delays access to federal student aid to anyone convicted on drug offenses, including minor infractions like misdemeanor possession of marijuana. “That’s why I got all these feathers in my hair. It’s for the concert.”
Her drug record also cuts off her access to government assistance. The Teen Moms only make $60,000 per season—a criminally low salary considering the millions the brand brings in for MTV—and the show won’t last forever. Jenelle has started selling stories about the other Teen Moms to tabloids to make an extra buck. More than forty percent of teen mothers live in poverty by the age of 27. “It’s not just a concert, it’s Ke$ha. It’s the person. It’s Ke$ha. The girl I watch videos on YouTube thirty times a day.”
The Drug War isn’t just about prisons. It’s built into education and health departments across the country. Jenelle and her friends got “Just Say No” drug abstinence education in school, on billboards, and from television. It ‘s no shock, then, that all of Jenelle’s friends are on probation for drugs. We teach kids to just say no, and ruin their futures when they don’t.
I know I shouldn’t take Jenelle to heart, but she breaks mine. In December she shotgun married her Slim Shady looking boyfriend named Courtland. The two had only dated a couple weeks, but they wanted to have a baby. They both lost custody of their children—she to her mother, he to his daughter’s mother—and wanted to start over, together.
Jenelle has already filed for divorce, and their split has been messy and public. They post videos of each other snorting dope on YouTube and Instagram photos of each other’s cheating text messages. Jenelle’s back with an old boyfriend, Gary, who allegedly punched her in the face and threw her into a wall last summer.
Although fame has allotted Jenelle some advantages, she’s still centered in in her rural Southern community. In towns like hers, you can never really start over, especially when you have drug charges on your record. For most women like Jenelle, the cycle stays local: They’ll keep going back to the same abusive boyfriend and having their cases heard by the same district judge.
But for Jenelle, now that she’s had a taste of fame, the hopeless stakes are raised. She has a fully publicized breakdown weekly, and it’s not kid stuff. Last week it was her miscarriage and Courtland’s heroin relapse. Who knows about next week. In a few years, Teen Mom will have ended and the Drug War will have created another living casualty. Jenelle will be just another woman copping dope on a porch in North Carolina, smoking Newports and talking about how she used to be a star.