In 2005, a show called My Super Sweet 16 premiered on MTV. I was 14, fixated yet mildly disturbed as I watched teenagers just a couple of years my senior scream at their parents for buying the wrong type of Mercedes as a birthday present.
Hillary Duff sang the infections theme song (which is stuck in my head as I type this). The episodes typically involved 16-year-olds barking orders at their parents and outlining outlandish demands, such as a casual half million dollar budget. The birthday princess would change costumes more times than Rihanna at the VMAs.
We watched in lurid fascination as catfights unfolded between friends, celebrity guests, and parents. We witnessed harsh consequences for parents who bought their children an underwhelming amount of diamonds:
Yashika, aka the Veruca Salt of diamonds, makes herself clear. (Photo courtesy of MTV)
This was the golden age of early 2000s reality TV. As always, MTV defined what was in vogue—and at the time, it was delightfully depraved, unscripted programming.
Flash forward to 2008. America’s economy was disintegrating faster than Ava’s Sweet Sixteen after she threw a tantrum over receiving a pre-owned Range Rover. Millennials were thrust into adulthood by helicopter parents, and realized they didn’t have parachutes. Our so-called “trophy generation” grappled with the fact that they couldn’t, as they had been promised for 18 years, do anything if they set their minds to it. A generation of would-be astronauts, Olympic athletes, and physicists found that their five-year plan would most likely consist of a series of unpaid internships.
Prepared for life? Not quite. (Getty Images)
“Take a generation raised in not just economic prosperity but the personal prosperity of overpraise, and put them in the most severe economic recession in decades,” writes Dr. Jean Twange for Psychology Today, “And something has to give.”
Something did give—our youthful obsession with unhinged consumerism, especially when it came to bratty teenagers. Media networks may have taken notice. Around this time, reality TV seemed to get a bit more…real.
My Super Sweet 16 gave way to 16 and Pregnant. The network produced documentaries like T.I.’s Road To Redemption that served a more noble purpose of encouraging teens to stay out of trouble, like the cautionary tale depicted in Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2.
Now it’s 2017, and MTV’s target audience of millennials have evolved once again. We’ve become socially-conscious, social media mavens. MTV has always been a vanguard for generational trends, keeping up with the ebb and flow of youth culture—from igniting cable TV in the 1980s with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, to fueling the grunge movement in the 1990s with MTV Unplugged, to spawning the first truly interactive TV show, the iconic TRL. Now the network is in the midst of a gilded, glamorous resurgence of its early 2000s heyday.
Watch My Super Sweet 16‘s new trailer:
The network also revived NBC’s gruesome game show Fear Factor, and gave it a millennial twist—according to MTV’s website, the new installment is “custom-created for a generation that is increasingly empowered, while also more anxious than ever.”
The network isn’t just focused on bringing back the early 2000s—MTV President Chris McCarthy told Deadline that the ultimate goal is to reboot the best MTV content from each generation into this new repertoire. “We have 35 years of amazing [internal programming],” said McCarthy. The goal is an amalgamation of seminal scripted series, live music, and tons of outrageous reality TV. “That’s what made MTV stand out,” said McCarthy. “Great, soapy reality series that appealed to young viewers.”
That’s the crux of MTV’s staying power—the forces behind these shows know their audience.
Members of Gen-Y use smartphones and social media to enact social justice. According to The New York Times, my generation is “complex and introspective.” Millennials are prodigiously sentimental, using the hashtag #ThrowbackThursday on Instagram posts with reckless abandon. We’re thirsty for all things vintage, from ’90s chokers to Daria. We long for the shows, fashion, and food of our childhood while constantly striving to improve this repository of nostalgia.
MTV’s new “old school” programming feeds this millennial paradox, indicating that the network understands the way we think. This slate of shows is the perfect combination of old-school silliness and dignified exhibitionism, a hallmark trait of “Generation Nice,” as The New York Times branded millennials in 2014.
Take the star of My Super Sweet 16’s season 10 premiere, Diamond, for example. She’s a wealthy teen and “YouTube sensation” from Florida who, despite having her diva moments, seemed genuinely grateful for her parents’ generosity and aware of her extensive privilege. Diamond held a YouTube contest so one of her fans could attend her party. When she met the winner, Natavia, the girls dished about makeup and high school drama. But they didn’t just share beauty tips, they discussed the difficulties African American girls have finding a foundation that matches their skin tone. And Natavia noted “black girls rock,” a casual nod to BET’s award show and nonprofit organization of the same name. Did Natavia drop this reference consciously? We don’t know, but the fact that she said it at all shows how culturally-aware discourse is seeping through the surface of teenaged girlhood, and MTV’s show is picking up on it.
Watch a clip of Diamond’s Sweet 16:
The reimagined series will also showcase more culturally diverse coming-of-age ceremonies, such as quinceañeras and debutante balls. Plus, get ready to find out what a “Bro Mitzvah” is. If the first episode is any indication, these teens will be extravagant, but (relatively) humble and talented. And MTV is now casting via the social media app Musical.ly, which gives would-be reality stars more access to audition than ever before.
“The casting for My Super Sweet 16 is just the beginning of engaging the audience more deeply into current and future MTV programming,” said McCarthy in a press release.
McCarthy also spoke to Adweek about this push for live programming: “That ability to be live, in culture—not responding to it but driving it—is where we belong.”