Tuesday, April 14, 2009

conspicuous consumption begins within you

Hello there, Internet. I'm not sure at what point today I'll post this, so I will refrain from temporally-bounded greetings.

I soldier on with final papers and the general malaise that I like to call "semester endgame clusterfuck blues." On top of finishing papers, grading my students' work, and worrying about the world, I am also scrambling to apply to jobs.

Anyway, without further ado...
Today's Recommendation is....Watching horrendous reality shows about FrankenFamilies on TLC.

Yes. I know. I am able to hide my true love for reality television under the guise of being a "media scholar." You may not be in this situation, although I hasten to point out that since I am a media scholar, watching this crap is the sort of thing that passes for "pleasure time" in my life. But read on.

TLC used to be The Learning Channel. Now, apparently, they are trying to be The Life Channel and thus, approximately 90% of their programming revolves around baby shows and freak shows portraying ginormous families (the other 10% involves fashion crap). Because clearly, this is the best way to Celebrate Life: portray hideous American excess by showing us super-sized wealthy families and how they do such-and-such activity with ZOMG SO MANY PEOPLE!

I am being unkind when I say these shows are freak shows, but let's call a spade a spade. I am referring, of course, to the following TLC offerings: Jon & Kate Plus 8; to 16/17/18 Kids & Counting, and to Table for 12. These are shows that fetishize large families. And not kinds that involve selfless people adopting tons of kids - no, not at all. I mean people who:

1. were intent on reproduction at all costs - This is the subject for another post, but I feel that invasive fertility treatments are more of a class marker, an attempt to demonstrate class and social standing than anything else;

2. who would not selectively reduce when they had high order multiples - their
choice, I'm not criticizing that at all - what is important to realize is how these shows present these people as martyrs for not/making that choice, and never portray anyone who makes different choices (such as someone who chooses to adopt special-needs children, for example). It is in keeping with TLC's subtle rebranding into what is effectively the Anti-Abortion Network.

3. who subscribe to completely bizarre, marginal ideologies, such as the completely insane and hypocritical Duggar cult from Arkansas, who adhere to the "Quiverfull" movement and don't believe in hand-holding before engagement or kissing before marriage, even though they cake makeup on their daughters for all their one-on-one interviews.

Now, let me say right off the bat that I have some unpopular opinions, especially for someone who doesn't have any kids, and I really do want to qualify that, because maybe if I ever have children (which also means adoption), my opinions may change. I believe strongly in adoption. I think that overpopulation is a huge crisis, and one few people want to address. I know that climate change is a big problem, and Western levels of personal consumption (including: food / food miles, medical care, etc., as well as cars and the other crap you buy) are largely to blame.

Frankly, I don't know how people can have 10 kids and still get to sleep at night knowing there are babies starving elsewhere. I barely can sleep at night knowing this; apparently the guilt is dissipated if your DNA is personally consuming 10 times as many resources as it would be. Hell of a legacy.

I also want to qualify this essay by noting that I'm sure all the families involved are good people who simply want only what's best for their kids, although the reality show structure / editing often does not portray them that way (Kate Goselin, I am looking at you).

Anyway, so that's my position. It breaks my heart that instead of portraying some people who very worthily adopt special-needs children, TLC instead persistently focuses on wealthy products of IVF and other fertility treatments. If they are to be the "learning" channel in name, it is too bad that they cannot be so in practice by presenting things that are really in the public's best interest to learn about (e.g., the environmental impact of having enough kids to have 2 softball teams). It is too bad that they reinforce the American dream-world that ignores virtually everything outside its own borders.

Moreover, the shows really have no redeeming features other than the fact that, at least within America with its shrinking family size, they are freak shows. The editing style fetishizes shots that emphasize, holy shit, that's a lot of people: sped-up footage of a long line of people walking out of the house. CLose-ups on feet as they do so just so, hey, in case you weren't paying attention? That is a BIG family. Pop up stats smarmily informing us how many diapers have been tossed into landfills due to these people, or how many pizzas they consume in a sitting.

So let's examine each of these shows briefly, and then I may or may not make another recommendation...If you're a hater, keep in mind that I'm writing about these shows because I watch them, and that in and of itself is a punishment.

Jon & Kate + 8: Institutional Child-Rearing

This show horrifies me. Not just the fact that they have 8 kids, not just the fact that they built a set into their home to enable their reality TV dream, not just the fact that TLC seems to subsidize every aspect of their McMansion-y existence...it's the fact that, at least the way the show portrays them, the children are not allowed to have m/any individual personalities. Or just to be children. The high-strung, castrating Kate Goselin freaks out whenever the children, you know, act like children, spilling ice cream or stepping in mud or something. The children dress alike. The children receive the same Christmas presents. The children are only "the children."

I guess my interest in this show revolves around how stunningly banal it is. Once you get past the ZOMG 8 KIDS factor, there is nothing remotely interesting about these people, other than the fact that the parents gleefully seem to play their faults to the camera, bickering constantly. The only reason this is not a collection of incredibly boring, yet professionally-produced home movies is that there are ZOMG 8 KIDS.

16,17,18, whatever kids and counting
I really don't understand what TLC is doing with this show, because lately, the editing and time slot (right before Toddlers And Tiaras, the subject of another blog rant) seem to suggest camp. The non-diegetic sound effects, the Jim-Bob-and-Michelle-visit-a-head-shop episode, the constant professed cluelessness / "innocence" of the Duggars - it all seems to come across as rather mean-spirited on TLC's part.

I have always had a healthy disgust for the stunningly self-righteous, self-absorbed, holier-than-Thou media whore Duggars. Their reality show reads as an ethnography. An ethnography about a primitive group of people whose income essentially comes from providing media to the mainstream, all of which they sneer at and think are going to hell and live a worthless existence (as well as selling used cars and being landlords, presumably to the same hell-bound people). A lifestyle of "modesty," which like I said earlier apparently involves caking makeup onto 11 year olds, selling images of your kids to the entire nation, and fetishizing the virginity of all your children on public in camera. A lifestyle that involves prescriptive approaches to family life, complete with recipes for barf-inducing "American casserole slop" like - get ready with your barf bucket - tater tot casserole. Yes, with Velveeta.

Anyway, again, the show basically revolves around the trope of ZOMG WE HAVE TO KEEP CHANGING THE NAME OF THE SHOW BECAUSE THERE ARE SO MANY OF THEM and then the whole Fundamentalist Quiverfull vaguely-separationist aspect. The Television Without Pity forums skewer this show way better than I ever could, so I'll leave that to them and again say: the show is exploitative for all involved. I don't know if that makes it brilliant or dangerous, or maybe both, but frankly, I think these people get way too much attention as it is, and if you are concerned about the overrepresentation of Fundamentalism in American cultural politics, the best thing to do is to ignore crap like this.

Do as I say, not as I do, and I'd love to hear suggestions for better things to watch on Tuesday nights on basic cable.

Table for 12
The newest of TLC's FrankenFamily lineup, this show is the only one that deals with a seemingly middle-class family. Because it's the newest, I've only seen a few episodes. They're from South Jersey (I'm from northern NJ and Thom is from South Jersey), so I guess I'm predisposed to like them more, but at the end of the day it's the same thing as the other 2 shows. The show's episodes do little more than answer gawker questions like, "How do you do _____ with ZOMG TEN KIDS including one with cerebral palsy?" This show at least addresses children with special needs, and I think TLC should be commended for that. However, at the end of the day, this is still another freak show based on scale. Nobody's interested in watching a family of four have a pizza dinner; a family of 12 does it and suddenly, you get a reality show.

I do want to reiterate that my problem is not with any of these families' lifestyle choices. I really believe that like virtually all parents, they truly have what they think is best for their children in mind. My problem is with TLC for reiterating, fetishizing, and promoting this stuff as though it's perfectly natural, feasible, and sustainable. I think most people realize it's not, but TLC could use its position to promote more positive change in the world. They could add shows to their lineup that promote more sustainable lifestyle choices, or that address issues of world poverty and empower the viewer to take action, even by doing something token like donating to a charity. I realize it's a classic liberal move to tell people what I think is best for them, but that's not really what I'm doing. I hope. I think. I think most people will agree that the problem of world poverty is serious, and that it needs to become real to people - even Americans, who mostly experience the non-American world through the television set. I think TLC can use its position as a popular network to actually help people learn about things - not just Big Serious Issues, but, geez, I, at least, would appreciate some shows about basic home plumbing skills or how to hang a picture frame or how to mend clothing or just, you know, Things I Always Wanted to Learn But Got Cut Out of my School's Budget when I was in High School.

Ahem. Breathe. Sorry.

While I hate to resort to contemporary mainstream media cliches like "in these times..." Well, in these times, while our conspicuously consumptive way of life has clearly been demonstrated as environmentally and economically unsustainable, I don't think these shows need to show the BIGGERBETTER American way of life. I don't think I"m an authority on What America Needs, but I'm American, and I personally would strongly prefer to see shows privileging adopters, rather than those who reproduce like bunnies, everything else be damned. These shows are about the (human) Hummers of basic cable, when what the public is interested in is the Prius. God, I can't believe i just used car metaphors.

Therefore, my nefarious, secret recommendation is...Write to TLC and ask for programming that does not fetishize conspicuous consumption. Ask for shows that valorize the heroes who take in the children nobody else wants, or at least programming vaguely in keeping with their name as "The Learning Channel."

And, I recommend you keep reading, because eventually I'll talk about the train wreck that is Toddlers & Tiaras.

wow guys! this is so totally tl;dr. Thanks if you read all this.


  1. To be honest, I enjoy most of these shows--though perhaps in part because I have my own plans to be a conspicuous over-producer. But I think your critique is quite valid. These shows--and many others on TLC, like "Little People Big World", really are modern-day freakshows. (And I don't mean that the dwarves are themselves freaks, but that the only reason they're on TV is because TLC knows that their audience wants to watch shows about freaks--likewise the programs about the two-headed conjoined twins, autistic savants, families with all autistic kids, toddlers in tiaras, people with no fashion sense, etc.)

    The entire network, really, is aimed at a more mainstream version of people like me--stay at home moms who are at least somewhat intrigued by the idea of having lots of kids, appreciate fashion, and want to feel 'sensitive' about people with disabilities and deformities while still getting to gawk at them. I find the whole business vaguely creepy, but gosh darn those little sextuplets sure are cute.

    And it encourages, IMO, very unwise behaviors. While I might happen to think that the world would be blessed to have a dozen little mini me+Klarfaxes running around in it (and having seen one of them, this is obviously true), this doesn't mean I want everyone else doing the same thing. I am surely not the only person who thinks this whole quiverfull movement is very, very bad for America. Likewise, I am probably not the only person who thinks that when you have high-order multiples, not selectively aborting is irresponsible--not to mention immoral. Sure, John and Kate's kids are cute and have come out okay, but they're hardly the norm. Let's see some parents who refused to selectively abort, and so ended up with 6 dead fetuses. Or 3 dead fetuses and 3 kids with severe mental disabilities.

    BTW, they do have shows featuring parents adopting kids, but those shows tend to come on in the middle of the day and don't get much advertising. I caught one of those once; the family adopted a little boy from Russia. I cried.

    As for the families themselves, I try to reserve judgment on people whom I don't know personally, especially when they are being edited for TV. Personal experience teaches that taking care of just one toddler can be pretty trying; Link has recently figured out how to pull off his diapers, and loves to pee (and poop) as soon as it's off. So I take off his diaper to change him, and whoosh, he pees! I turn my back to get a sweater, turn back, and he's wiggled out of his diaper and pooped on the floor. Today, while I was cleaning poop out of the carpet, he knocked chips all over the sofa and floor, and I think there are still chips caught in the crack between the cushions. Multiply that by six, and I can easily imagine why Kate is often grumpy. While John seems to be the non-grumpy, non-asshole through most of the show, this doesn't necessarily mean he isn't at least partially at fault for the obvious problems in their marriage. The 'laid back one' in a marriage can also be the one who just somehow doesn't get around to taking the trash out all week or doesn't plan ahead well enough that you get to grocery store in time, causing more stress for everyone else.

    Either way, I think it's sad that Kate accidentally getting pregnant with septuplets has basically destroyed their marriage. (One died in the womb.) Unlike the Duggers, John and Kate weren't actually going for a mega-family, they just wanted a third kid, and then refused to abort. Certainly some people can raise 8 kids without snapping, but that's an enormous amount of stress even for the best of people, and clearly Kate doesn't have the disposition to deal with toddlers, much less 6 of them at once.

    (I don't think it's exactly fair to say that the kids aren't allowed to have personalities--I've certainly gotten a feel for their personalities through the show. Rather, I think the format and the editing just doesn't allow much of the personalities to come out.)

    Anyway, that's a start on my thoughts. Nice post.

  2. miranda -

    wow, your post today completely blew mine out of the water. well done.

    you know how i feel about a lot of your points in here, so i won't reiterate them. i do want to address something you said, though:

    "I think TLC can use its position as a popular network to actually help people learn about things - not just Big Serious Issues... basic home plumbing skills or how to hang a picture frame or how to mend clothing..."

    as i remember, that used to be what tlc used to play years and years ago. sadly, i suspect that such programming would be economically unfeasible in the current cultural environment. basically, with youtube, you can pull up a how-to video for almost anything you want on demand. ergo, no reason to watch for an instructional program and make sure you are home for it. ergo, poor advertiser rates. ergo, the show makes no money. ergo, cancel. ZOMG MORE BABIES!!!!!!!!!!11111oneoneoneeleven

    or at least that's my philistine and probably overgeneralized assumption.


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