Now that the whole bizarre, decidedly non-Roald Dahlian saga of The Boy Who Sailed Away In The Balloon has been examined, investigated, and revealed to be a hoax – a hoax designed for the seeming purpose of securing a reality television deal – we can get down to the important issues. For starters: finally admitting, as a community, that putting families on reality television is a bad, bad thing. If the allure of getting cameras into one’s household compels even one deranged parent to fake sending their kid into the stratosphere in a duct-taped helium balloon aircraft, can’t we say with some confidence that this has all gone a little too far? Can we now start calling for an end to reality TV shows that feature families with children?
Richard Heene, apparently, wanted so badly to be Jon Gosselin that he contemplated launching his kid into space in a homemade aircraft. Thankfully, he settled for just pretending to launch his kid into space, but still: the fact remains that the allure of the lower-order fame and wealth that attend reality television notoriety proved so irresistible to this man (and, presumably, his wife, although the extent of her complicity remains uncertainty) that he recruited his children to participate in a scam that would make hardened grifters shake their heads in disapproval.
Heene is an outlier, we might say; an extreme example of what can happen when people get caught up in a desire for fame. And his children didn’t really get hurt or anything: sure, they got caught up in their dad’s scheme, but no-one actually sailed away in a balloon, and end of the day, all that happened was that they were induced to lie.
Well, no, and also, no.
Heene’s escapade might seem extreme, but is it really? Nadia Suleyman got herself fertilized so that she could have bucketloads of babies, the better (apparently) to emulate Angelina Jolie and get herself a TV deal. Jon and Kate kept the cameras rolling as their marriage disintegrated, broadcasting the dissolution of their family – children front and center as the walls came crumbling down – so that the TLC cheques would keep coming. Is there really so much difference between enjoining one’s kids to participate in a helium-balloon ruse and compelling them (because really, this is compulsion, given that young children cannot give meaningful consent) to live their lives as performances for television cameras? When our children become props for performances, can we ever call it anything other than exploitation?
It might be asked whether memoirists – among whom, bloggers – do exactly the same thing, and this, I think, is a reasonable question to raise. My children are characters in the narrative that I construct in this space (and this one), and to that extent, I can be said to be exploiting them inasmuch as I am using them for my own creative purposes. But – and this is a very important but – my children as they appear here, on the screen, or elsewhere on the printed page, do not appear as their whole selves. These are written characters, shadows of my real children, sketches, interpretations, flickering, contrived images upon a makeshift screen (there would be, if I had infinite space and time, a long digression here about Plato’s Cave, but I resist). My children live out their actual lives in the sunlit lifeworld that exists on this side of the screen, and it is a lifeworld that you cannot see. I provide here – among other things – a curated, edited, honed collection of stories about that lifeworld, and the movements of my children within it, as I observe these, but that is all.
There are no television cameras here, there is no stage, and that makes all the difference. My children are not forced to be actors. It is the compulsion to act that does the damage, I think: regardless of Kate Gosselin’s insistence that she and her children are just ‘leading their lives’ – the trailing TV cameras just a nuisance, a buzzing distraction that sometimes gets in the way with its wires and microphones and bits – there is no ‘just living’ when an all-seeing lens (and sound-recording system, and director, and producer) commands performance. Where there are cameras and crews and directors of photography and make-up artists and production assistants and Craft services people and producers and lights! camera! action! there is performance. Where there is a stage, there is performance – and putting one’s children on television puts them on a stage, full stop. Putting their lives on a stage puts their entire beings into the condition of performance and this, I think, is a form of abuse.
Everyone is appalled that Richard Heene compelled his children to lie – who wasn’t sickened by the news that little Falcon Heene repeatedly vomited when asked to repeat those lies? But there’s an argument to be made – it was made best by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Letter to d’Alembert on theater – that all theatrical performance (and reality television is, make no mistake, theatrical performance) is lying. Rousseau argued that actors compromise their moral development and integrity by making their lives’ work out of a sort of lived falsehood – they spent their working hours pretending, being inauthentic – and so they can never really develop virtue (as Rousseau understood it, at least). Rousseau makes the extreme case (and, for the record, as someone who once pursued a career in theater, I don’t agree with him entirely), but he has, in his broad strokes, a point, and one that must be taken seriously when we’re considering the case of children: in compelling children – and again, this is always compulsion with small children who cannot understand the implications of what they are being asked to do, and so cannot meaningfully consent – to live their lives in the mode of performance, are not we not risking corrupting them in some important way? In compelling them to act their lives – rather than really live their lives – are we not causing – possibly – some important existential (if not moral, qua Rousseau) damage? Falcon Heene vomited when he was made to lie – it made him physically ill – but what of the kids who don’t know that they’re lying? That significant portions of their lives are (or might be) series of performative falsehoods?
I’ve argued before that there is some good that can come (alongside the indisputable bad) of watching shows like Jon & Kate Plus 8 – such shows can serve to remind us that we’re not the only parents, the only families, that struggle, that we’re not alone in finding this gig so hard. And they provide some opportunity for us to interrogate, collectively, the challenges of parenthood and marriage and family, and to discuss, publicly, what it means to be a family, and how different and similar and strange and familiar and fascinating families can be. Parenting and family should take place, to some extent, in the public – we all suffer when it is tucked away behind the veil, in the private sphere. But keeping discourse about parenthood and family public doesn’t require that we turn parenthood into performance, that some families compel their children to strut and fret their lives upon the stage until they heard only by their therapists. There are other forums for such discourse – *cough*blogs*cough* – and so we don’t need the Live Extreme Family Show. We don’t need it, it doesn’t serve us, and the cost is too high. It should just stop.
So why don’t we call a stop to this? Why don’t we demand a moratorium on reality shows involving children? Why don’t we just say no? Do we like to watch just too much to turn away? Is fulfilling that desire worth the potential cost to the kids involved?
I’m just saying no from now on. Join me.