The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Reality Shows

October 19, 2009

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.

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    { 66 comments }

    Melissa Wardy October 19, 2009 at 11:08 am

    I’ll join you. We don’t watch any “reality” tv in our house — we’re too busy living a “reality” life. I’ve never understood the concept — watching other people pretend to live a real life?

    I support any and all stops to exploiting children. This is a good first step. Great post!

    Annie @ PhD in Parenting October 19, 2009 at 11:08 am

    I’m with you.

    Let’s start with garbage like Super Nanny.
    .-= Annie @ PhD in Parenting´s last blog ..Nestle Answers: Don’t mind the small print about breast being best =-.

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    And Nanny 911. LOATHE.

    Laurie (@GoodByeGracie) October 19, 2009 at 11:11 am

    I have said “no” from the beginning of the “reality” TV movement.

    Sadly, as much as we would like to blame the “reality” TV producers and networks for airing shows it is, honestly, the people who watch those shows who are to blame for this kind of nonsense. If there were no market, there would be no shows.

    Great blog!
    .-= Laurie (@GoodByeGracie)´s last blog ..Fall family fun at Paradise Park in Lee’s Summit =-.

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    Which is why we need to stop watching. Like I am. RIGHT NOW.

    Dave P. October 19, 2009 at 11:17 am

    I always say, “No!” to these shows now. I don’t know much about the saga of Jon & Kate, aside from what I hear on Twitter. I don’t know anything about Nadia Suleyman, unless she also goes by another name that I might know. I watched about three episodes of Wife Swap a long time ago, before I realized that not only is it an exploitation of children and stereotypes and relationships, but it also infuriated me every time I watched it.

    The modern world of “reality TV” and other such B.S. sickens me. People need to stop ruining their, and their childrens’, lives just for fifteen minutes of fame and a “few” dollars. I’ll say right here (albeit under my pseudo-anonymous name) that you could never offer my family enough money to make us go on a show like Wife Swap, or anything that would damage my childrens’ mental health.

    Family, children, and REAL LIFE are too important to sell out for a few dollars, even if a “few” turns into millions. Everyone should stop watching the exploitation of families and write letters to the studios that these shows disgust them. If it doesn’t sell, it will get canned. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the modern Western world likes fake drama, B.S. reality TV, and bitching about celebrities too much to get off the drug of this type of “entertainment.”

    Sorry for the soap-box rant. It is how I feel.
    .-= Dave P.´s last blog ..Trax Farms =-.

    red pen mama October 19, 2009 at 11:31 am

    I’m with Laurie and Melissa Wardy: I don’t watch reality tv. at all. My own life is so very engrossing! *snicker* (actually, I just like to read books.)

    ciao,
    rpm
    .-= red pen mama´s last blog ..Spelling =-.

    mcb October 19, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Definitely! The difference between good parenting and good entertainment is such that nobody would watch good parenting if it was on – the public demands the screaming temper tantrums or they tune out. I was thankfully offline while most of that nonsense was going on this week but it’s appalling.

    TMWW October 19, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Perhaps I am out of the loop and not part of the general public opinion here, but I wanted to post my thoughts. I enjoy shows like Super Nanny because I have learned valuable lessons on how to deal with certain situations that have arisen in my own home with my own children from shows such as these. Granted, I would never allow a television film crew into my home to follow my family and I around – I would be entirely mortified because I know I am not a perfect stay at home mother and there are days when I don’t brush my hair and don’t get out of my pajamas or fix the beds.

    I digress though. I don’t agree with the hoax that the Heene family pulled. I don’t agree that they “may” have coerced their children into going along with a publicity stunt to get their own reality TV show. But nobody knows what REALLY happened except the members of that family. THEY are the ones who will have to deal with the consequences that their actions may or may not have on their children, on their lives as a family. Nobody else has to deal with that. When all is said and done, we can turn our televisions off for the night and go to bed.

    They are left to deal with the media storm they have created.

    I will post more on my blog about this…
    .-= TMWW´s last blog ..Can I Breathe Yet? =-.

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    I agree that the Heene’s will have to deal with this, and that this is – in a manner of speaking – *their* problem. But there’s a reason that CPS was called in this case, and that’s that they seem to have demonstrated that their judgment was skewed, and that they may have – MAY have – been understood to have put their children in (literal or figurative) harm’s way.

    If the pull of reality TV is such that some members of our community become compelled to be irresponsible in caring for their children (qua the Heenes), then it IS a community problem, I think, and one for us to think carefully about.

    Issa October 19, 2009 at 11:47 am

    I’m in.

    The difference is that on our blogs we tell each other stories about our lives, sometimes about our children. Catherine, if you lived here (or I there) and we had coffee, I’d tell you about funny things my kids do. I’m sure I’d get to hear about something funny Emelia and Jasper did. But it would be an event in the past. I wouldn’t be watching it on camera.

    We are telling our stories, our kids stories. But they aren’t involved in it. It’s really about us. My blog is about me. I just happen to some days talk about my three monkeys.

    The Jon & Kate’s of this world, made their “fame” because of their kids. They aren’t telling us about their children, they are only around, we only know who they are because of their children. It’s all for the camera, the attention, the money. That’s where it crosses the line.

    jen October 19, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Wonderful essay. I have never watched Jon and Kate or any reality shows with children. I’m not sure why other than it doesn’t interest me. That the example is too extreme for me to relate I suppose.

    I have been horrified watching this unfold. At first being afraid for that family for their potential loss and then being afraid for that family for what this kind of lie really means for them. And those kids. I just can’t understand any parent who would ask their kids to lie to the police. For a quick buck. It’s awful.

    Gah, I am with you on kids shouldn’t be allowed to do reality shows because they cannot give meaningful consent.
    .-= jen´s last blog ..almost enough =-.

    Jozet at Halushki October 19, 2009 at 11:56 am

    My only question that I have to confront as a blogger is whether or not the caveats I offer to absolve myself using my own children as creative fodder are enough to of a “but this is different” to protect my children from harm or embarrassment. In other words, I can scream from the rooftops that “What you get on the blog is not the whole story” just as people in reality shows complain that camera edits choosing shots don’t tell the whole truth, but at the end of the day, if that’s not what people want to hear, then they will still take that material and run with it.

    In other words, once my kids’ friends or parents or teachers start discovering my blog, knowing people to generally prefer the excitement of a circus and bad headlines over the truth, am I still sending my kids up in balloons? I’m not too quick to give myself a pass on this since I know all my explanations will most likely fall on deaf ears and after any potential damage is done.

    My 10yo daughter already has something to say about the parameters she’ll allow for me to tell her story. That she couldn’t set those parameters when she was 2 months or 2 years doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t still err toward being very, very careful and very, very clear to my audience as to just where the lines are when talking about my younger children, as well as hold myself to temperature checks at frequent intervals to make sure that my audience “gets it”, from the frequent readers to the stumble-upons. If I’m offering personae or characters or glimpses, I need to be consistently clear on that and basically, though unfortunately, aim to considering the lowest common denominator in all this.

    I think it’s all part of blogging with integrity and possibly the next area where we need to call ourselves to the mat and continue to analyze and define for ourselves at what point our kids – which are legally not much more than property – should be afforded more right to not have their stories told in any manner without their say-so.

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    I totally agree that it’s a difficult area with more shades of grey than a donkey. Reality TV is easy – writing/memoir/blogging are difficult, because of the distance between subject and medium. But that difficulty shouldn’t stop us from looking at it closely. When does writing about our children cross a line similar to that of putting them in front of a camera? And if we can’t say, aren’t we at risk of crossing it?

    mamabird October 19, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Law & Order just addressed the desperation some people go to in order to have their own reality show. 10 special needs adopted children + one father who got himself in debt with a loan shark + one mother who didn’t want to do the show = one dead mother. It may be more television but I’ve always found Law & Order to have interesting social/political commentation.

    EarnestGirl October 19, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Exploiting children by putting their childhood in front of cameras is inexcusable, and a symptom of our morally bankrupt society.

    We are outraged by child labour practices, but not troubled in the least by the wholesale consumption of family life on reality television which peddles and yes, sells off family life and whole childhoods just as rugs and t-shirts and running shoes and sold off the backs of child labourers.

    As for blogging, I said this, in Full Disclosure over at canadamomsblog:

    “I worry though about the long-term impact on kids if they have been a part of their mother’s father’s on-line narrative even after they are old enough read it and be embarrassed, or worse, feel somehow defined by their mother’s/father’s version of their developing identities.

    So, there it is. I’ll show you my ugly bits, but not theirs.”

    Nor do I have any interest in watching the ugly bits of others: smirking in satisfaction as the +8 (does it bother anyone else that the title of that “show” includes the names of the parents, but relegates the children to a number?)suffer the dissolution of their parent’s marriage, or the inevitable messes octo-mom will make of rearing her insta-babies.

    Truthfully, it all makes me sad. Sad not only for the participants – the children in particular who cannot give consent while adults do know some of what they are in for – but for our culture as a whole that this has become our entertainment.

    Albiana October 21, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    I so whole-heartedly agree, Reality Shows are anything but REALITY.

    There has to be some long-term detrimental effects for the children on these shows. If by watching these things viewers aren’t complict in the harm it causes, we certainly bear witness to the poor characters of the parents who would subject their kids to this intrusive and unwelcomed disclosure of their privacy.

    If nothing else, we can cite the various negative outcomes experienced by childhood movie and television stars who went on to struggle in their later years with self-worth, drug and alcohol abuse, criminal behavior, and….oddly enough…warped senses of reality for their experience.

    Life is not a television show. Life is hard enough without the pressures and demands of invasive media and the Alice In Wonderland warped views provided by melodrama for the cameras and hyper-dialogue that doesn’t coincide with the normalcy of childhood and adolescence.

    If we think the false sense of entitlement is bad in the average teen, wait until we see what these poor “childhood reality stars” end up like.

    Might as well fingerprint them now. We can take the mug shots in a few years when they’re hauled in for questioning by the police.

    watercolor October 19, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    The problem isn’t reality television. It is the human desire for more than we have and seeing reality tv as a easy fast way to it. It isn’t, of course.

    I happen to like “reality tv” knowing it is as far from reality as scripted tv. It is a good way for people to see they are normal and to learn skills they would otherwise be exposed to and provide good talking points about personal boundaries and good behavior and fairness. Now, granted, it is the big competition shows I most prefer (Top Chef, Project Runway, Amazing Race, Survivor) and not the family shows. But mainly because I find the families boring. Good grief, the world caters to families enough, must I watch them bickering on tv? Nope. lol!
    .-= watercolor´s last blog ..Body want walk. Head want nap. =-.

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    I love a lot of reality TV, too – it’s just the stuff that includes kids that has my back up.

    Beth October 20, 2009 at 12:32 am

    Okay, now I’m on board. When I thought Top Chef, Amazing Race, and Project Runway were in jeopardy, I was worried.

    The only time I like kids involved is when they sometimes have kids as part of the judging team/cooking team on Top Chef because, darn it, that looks like a lot of fun for the kids, you know?
    .-= Beth´s last blog ..And on with the show . . . =-.

    watercolor October 23, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Okay. The post wasn’t clear about that to me. Yeah, I don’t especially like the ones with kids. Even the specials about “Mermaid Girl” and “the World’s Smallest Girl” rankle me. On one hand, it gets their rare disorders some badly needed attention. As someone with a rare illness, I completely understand that need. On the other hand, oy vey, these sweet kids are on tv relentlessly with special after special. Ick.
    .-= watercolor´s last blog ..Body want walk. Head want nap. =-.

    cagey October 19, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    My favorite footage of my own kids are the shots I sneak in while they do not notice me. Otherwise, they begin acting different, throwing off weird grimaces and grins. I cannot even begin to imagine what all these “reality” children are experiencing.

    Long ago, I tried to watch the Jon Kate Whatever show. I did not make it 5 minutes because there was something that bothered me about the whole thing.
    .-= cagey´s last blog ..Four =-.

    Marinka October 19, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Because how would we schandenfreude all over the place without reality TV?

    I have a bad day, I snap at my kids, but I go to sleep reassured that I’ve never forced my kid to hide in the attic like a modern Anne Frank and then lie on national television about it.
    .-= Marinka´s last blog ..The Fight =-.

    LAVENDULA October 19, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    is reality tv the problem or are the Heenes just such publicity hogs that they would stop at nothing to appear on the boob tube? thats really terrible getting your 6 year old to LIE on national television.most of us parents are trying to teach our children to tell the truth not lie.that poor little boy! shame on those peolpe!as far as reality tv is concerned its pretty shameful to exploit your children in that fashion

    Judy October 19, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    I can’t stand reality shows. Oh, things like The Great Race or Survivor or Biggest Loser, things where adults compete – those things may have some interest (although none of mine). I’ll confess watching “Jon and Kate” back when the kiddies were toddlers, just because the kids were so darn cute – even though it bothered me that someone was always grievously crying about something.

    I think what bothers me most is that reality shows are the majority of what’s being televised now. There is a dearth of creativity. Don’t tell me there are not writers with intelligence and senses of humor enough to write something like “I Love Lucy” or
    “Cheers” or “Gunsmoke”. There just is no creativity, and I see that in movies too, where there are so many remakes of movies that did not need to be remade.

    I don’t watch them. I’m not getting on a soapbox by doing it, I simply do not find them interesting.

    And talking about your kids in your blog is NOT the same thing. We don’t know everything about your kids, we don’t see their heartbreaking melt-downs or their forays into potty training. For a long time we didn’t even know that Wonderbaby’s name is Emilia. What you do is share your kids with friends. That’s not exploitation.

    Mrs. Smith October 19, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    No, don’t cancel all of them! I can’t live without Jeff Lewis and Kathy Griffin! What else would I watch??? Also, I don’t think anyone should draw the conclusion that people who watch reality TV do so because their lives aren’t interesting enough. I watch it, my life is interesting (I think), but I, like many of you, wouldn’t for a million dollars sign up to be on reality TV.

    Just like with everything in this world there are good reality TV shows and bad ones. Unfortunately the “bad” ones are the ones that everyone wants to watch because, let’s face it, we love the drama. And reality TV offers something that “regular” shows don’t – when the show ends the “characters” continue on – so if you really want to know what Kate Gosselin is up to after the show is canceled, you can likely find out. Now, I’ll admit that I *was* a big Jon+Kate fan, but the last season has left me feeling a little disgusted, especially when you read about their behavior in the tabloids. I haven’t watched the last few episodes and don’t really plan on it either.

    I think that some programs do it right. For example, both the Duggar’s and Little People, Big World don’t seem as forced or staged as Jon+Kate. You rarely see them in the tabloids (for attention seeking behavior) and never hosting Vegas pool parties just for the fame.

    I agree with what Jozet said above – it’s a hard line to say that what we write about on our blogs vs. what we see on TV is really any different. If we don’t tell the whole picture of who are kids are on our blogs how is that different than watching only parts of other kid’s lives on TV? We make the decisions on what to write about just like Jon+Kate make the decision on what will be filmed. I might tell you about how disgustingly messy my kid’s room is, even post of picture of it…but you won’t see them film in the children’s bedrooms. I think it goes both ways.

    Of course, one of the main differences is that regardless of what we write, we can do it in a way to protect our children’s identities (if we choose to…and I do) and they likely won’t have the paparazzi at their school bustop everyday just from what we say on our blogs.

    Jon+Kate, while it’s hard to watch, are the parents of these children and did make the decision to film their lives. We are the parents of our children and we make the decision on what we’ll write about our children’s lives. I’m having a hard time seeing a difference…while you could say that those 8 children are being psychologically damaged from having to “perform” without being able to give consent – what is to say that my child isn’t going to be psychologically damaged from what I write about on my blog without her consent?

    It’s easy for me to get my kid’s permission (she’s almost 10) before I post something she might not like (and there have been things that I *say* she said not to post at the time, but later she said it was okay) but many of us write about our children who are at an age where they cannot consent. Maybe little Johnny might not like that I told the world his farts smell like a skunk 10 years from now.
    While I will respect what my 10 year old thinks, does she really have a say or should she have a say, when it comes down to it?

    These are just things to think about — I’m not trying to be accusatory (I really don’t like conflict and will generally run the other way, so please don’t hurt me)– I’m genuinely not sure that the line is that wide between reality TV and blogging about our children’s lives.

    Also, if you’re not a fan of reality TV, you may not want to go to my blog to read my last post – it was about how Jeff Lewis from Flipping Out teaching my daughter a valuable lesson.

    Cheers!

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    I actually am a fan of reality TV and trash television in general – it’s just the shows that involve kids that has my back up, as I said in response to Jozet, above. And I agree that bloggers need to pay close attention to the line between story-telling/memoir/anecdote and exploitation – we at least need to know where that line is.

    Issa October 19, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    I have to disagree on the Duggars. Just a tiny bit. I do agree that it doesn’t seem as staged, the children seem happy and all that good stuff.

    However, they go on The Today Show every single time they get pregnant. Every. Time. How is that not seeking attention?
    .-= Issa´s last blog ..This just in: The Internet is just like the real world =-.

    Mrs. Smith October 19, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    You’re right…it is attention seeking…to promote their show…not themselves (like I think Jon+Kate are doing). I probably could have stated more clearly what I meant above by “attention seeking”.

    I guess the difference boils down to that I don’t think that the Duggars would be on the Today show to talk about the new pregnancy if they didn’t have their show (or a new book) to promote whereas people like Jon+Kate seem to be on every major network they can to talk about their divorce. For example, did Jon really need to tell the world he despised Kate? Did he have to go and spend the weekend in France with the paparazzi? What will his children think when they see this 5, 10 years from now? Did Kate need to host The View when her children probably really needed her at home? That’s the kind of behavior I’m talking about.

    I guess because I don’t see people like the Duggars doing that kind of shameless attention seeking behavior just for the ratings or to win the PR war, it makes me think that they are doing it right. I imagine they have conflict like every other family does but we rarely see it or if we do it’s done thoughtfully and carefully. I also can’t imagine that they don’t have “real problems” just like everyone else – I mean, what are the odds with that many kids? :)
    .-= Mrs. Smith´s last blog ..Better parenting through reality TV. Thank you, Jeff Lewis. =-.

    gretchen from lifenut October 19, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    It’s not the reality shows themselves. I think people can be on them and maintain normalcy and dignity.

    Amazing Race contestants spring to mind. When was the last time you saw one of them on the cover of a magazine? The one season when they allowed families with children to participate was a ratings bomb and they’ve never done it again.

    Nobody goes on Amazing Race hoping to become world-famous. I think most do it to have an adventure and a shot at some money.

    I think the desire for fame is what brings people to do low and inexcusable things. It’s the drug of the decade.

    Should kids be allowed to be reality show stars? I think many child labor laws are already in place, but aren’t being enforced. Children aren’t to be put in dangerous situations and it’s very easy to argue the 24/7 limelight is dangerous.

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    desire for fame, yeah… and reality television has brought fame into the reach of a lot more people.

    Bella October 19, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Indeed, ABSOLUTELY, you will not find me watching anything like these shows.

    Great post. I’m also compelled by taking this argument further. What about social media platforms like Facebook, MySpace and such? Should we allow our 10 year-olds? Our tweens? Our teenagers, to participate in these forums. Because it seems as though they these online platforms, in the way they are designed, pull for precisely a stage-like experience. And in the hands of children and adolescents, is it clear that the downfalls of Rousseau’s stage are not similar to those of Facebook to a 13-year old girl? In constructing a “profile”, in putting up just the right pictures and deleting many, in posting videos of certain things in our lives and not others, in talking about it in a certain tone, with certain people (and not others), isn’t there some degree of acting and isn’t it well beyond what we used to do when we gossiped on the phone with our friends when we were teens? I realize of course that kids and adolescents aren’t be coerced to engage in these social media contexts (quite the contrary). But it may be fair to assume that they don’t have the capacity to fully understand the nature and consequences of interactions on these sites that do seem to have a large level of “performance” incorporated in their very structure.

    Off topic, I know. But still… your words really resonated with me on this different issue.
    .-= Bella´s last blog ..Friday Link Love: Brain plasticity =-.

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Totally agree – children using social media ‘performatively’ very well might be part of the same problem (or vulnerable to the same problems.)

    Amira @ DefineMature.com October 19, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Count me in, although I don’t really watch reality shows to begin with.

    mcb is right in that good parenting wouldn’t be ideal for television ratings, so incentives are made.

    The Heenes are a pathetic example of that (and so are the Gosselins).

    I’m personally tired up to my eyeballs with “family” reality shows like the Duggars and Jon and Kate plus 8…

    Amber October 19, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    I don’t own a TV, so you know I’m on board. Also, I blog about my kids and include their photos and names, so you know I’m not opposed to that.

    HOWEVER, I think there is a real potential for abuse within blogging. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen people take real-life struggles with their spouses, children, and step-children online. Struggles that could, at minimum, hurt someone’s feelings, and at worse result in legal issues and destroyed families. So I don’t think we can say that blogging is, you know, totally cool.

    I think the underlying issue at play is responsibility. People exploit their kids in whatever media is going. Before reality TV there was the child TV star, or the child singer / dancer / stage performer. I am personally comfortable with blogging, but not with stage parenting, but that doesn’t mean that all stage parents are abusive. The Heenes were irresponsible, and sadly many others are too. But I don’t see how eliminating one avenue of expression will really solve that problem, unfortunately.

    Having said that, you know that I won’t watch it. I didn’t even see the live news, because as I said I have no TV. Turning our attention away is powerful, but I think it needs to extend beyond reality TV if we want to be really effective.
    .-= Amber´s last blog ..I Can, Can You? =-.

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    Well, there’s another whole issue here – the Internet (beyond blogging) as a vehicle for this stuff: I didn’t watch the story on TV, I followed it on Twitter and over various news feeds on my computer. We don’t even need TVs to get sucked in.

    UGH.

    Alison October 19, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Great and thought provoking post.

    I have worked on ‘reality’ shows I’m ashamed to admit when I was a lowly TV researcher here in the UK. Not any ones involving children but it was clear to see how the situation gets engineered, extra stress added, reaction shots filmed over…It left a bad taste in my mouth. However, most of the willing adult participants were desperate for their 15 mins.

    I agree we as bloggers are only showing the ‘selected highlights’ but the whole issue does worry me. Lionel Shriver was quoted at the weekend as saying she ‘sold her family for a novel’ and there was uproar here recently when a hitherto much loved novelist was outed as the anonymous author of a newspaper column detailing her life with her children, who only knew about it when their classmates put two and two together.
    .-= Alison´s last blog ..Drought =-.

    Mandy October 19, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Are reality shows causing the downfall of our society or do reality shows reflect the mores of our society?

    You know, chicken and egg stuff. Personally, I’m not sure, but I would think that reality tv can only exist with:

    a) people who have no problem participating on the shows

    and

    b) an audience that will watch said shows.
    .-= Mandy´s last blog ..PSA =-.

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    I agree totally. And I think it’s both.

    Lisa October 19, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    I just read your “Crazy, Narcisstic” post. I gotta say, you blithely dismiss the exploitation argument simply because you don’t make a lot of money. Neither in that post, nor this one, do I find you really considering that you *are* using your children and what that might mean for them.

    I’m not sure I buy your argument about your blog. No, you haven’t created a stage for your children – and I do buy your ‘build a stage and they will perform’ argument.

    However, you *are* putting your children up for display. You say it’s an edited version, just snippets here and there. But so are the reality shows, the most dramatic 45 minutes of the week.

    What happens when your kids are old enough to read? When their friends are? Are you going to be telling us about puberty? Dirty sheets? Dirty underwear? Fights with friends? Touching moments that make us smile but would embarrass a 13-year old to death?

    I see a difference in degree, but only in degree. Your kids are fodder for your blog. It’s not about just your life, but theirs. If all your posts were like the ones about dealing with your dad’s death, that would be different. But to a much lesser extent, by your own words you package your children for your own use.

    Here’s my take: I’m a blabber. I’ll tell anyone just about anything. My husband is not. The complete opposite, as a matter of fact. So there is a lot I choose not to share about our relationship that I normally would, left to my own devices. Because I respect him and his greater need for privacy. At this point, you don’t have a concrete idea what your children’s needs for privacy are, in that respect. Can you say with any certainty how they feel – and will feel in the future – about their childhoods being on display? You’ve taken away their choice in the matter.

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    The narcissist post doesn’t get this point across as well as other posts that I’ve written, but I do worry about this. And the amount of money that I make isn’t the issue – I make a living from this, but even if I didn’t, the issues would be similar.

    I edit myself before I even consider sitting down to tell a story that involves my children, just as I do when I think about telling stories that involve anyone other than myself (including, not irrelevantly, my deceased father). And with a very few exceptions, I’ve always erred on the side of rejecting entirely any stories that might unduly embarrass my children, or that I imagine their adult, consenting selves might have a problem with. Sleep issues, nursing issues, conversations about death – I’m pretty comfortable telling myself that such stories involving them won’t bother them. I can’t claim to have a perfect record in this – and if you include Twitter, my record gets spottier – but overall I’ve been extremely reserved in the stories I tell about my children, to the extent that (as I said in the narcissist piece) even when I do write about parenthood, my children are rarely the central characters. And as they get older, that will become rarer still.

    But I see your point, and believe me, I worry about it. It’s a distant remove from the Gosselins and the Heene’s, I think, but it’s still on the same spectrum, and that’s enough to keep me awake at night some nights.

    Issa October 19, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    The thing is, at four and not yet two years old, the stories you do tell about them are ones you’d tell an acquaintance. It’s something we all do, as parents of young children, to not feel so alone. To know that are kid isn’t the only toddler who NEVER sleeps.

    I don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s not embarrassing them. Not yet. I’ve been reading here since E was a tiny rolly baby (who never slept) and I fully know that when the time comes, you’ll know when to stop telling the world about her life. Jasper’s too.
    .-= Issa´s last blog ..This just in: The Internet is just like the real world =-.

    pamela October 19, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    I watch thrashy reality tv. The kind that doesn’t show kids being exploited. Sometimes I like to watch thrashy crap bc it makes me feel like my life isn’t all that fuckedup like I thought… But that’s just me

    Mrs. Wilson October 19, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    I have to say that I’m GLAD that Jon & Kate Plus 8 is ending. For the sake of the children, I am ecstatic for them. Apparently (according to People Magazine) the kids are upset about the filming stopping – but I don’t think that 5-year-olds can see the big picture when it comes to their parents divorce or about it being shown to millions of people worldwide.

    I think that, when they’re older, they’ll be glad that the cameras finally left – and wish that they had left sooner.
    .-= Mrs. Wilson´s last blog ..decisions decisions =-.

    norm October 19, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Shakespeare in the title, and a reference to Plato’s Cave? <3 but I think maybe you’re using nuclear weapons on the ant infestation? But still; love.

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    Maybe. But nukes are fun.

    jodifur October 19, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    I’m with you, and at a minimum I’d like to see some laws covering kids in these shows. Right now child labor laws don’t apply because hey, they are not working. But you know, THEY ARE WORKING. And make the parents set up a trust for goodness sake.

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    This might be a good post for MamaPop – WHY don’t child labor laws apply? I mean, how are they NOT working?

    jodifur October 19, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    oh, I’ve done it on mamapop, like a million times. On All of my Gosselin posts.
    .-= jodifur´s last blog ..Sadness Shield =-.

    Amy October 19, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    The way I see it, when parents blog about their children, even if they make money from the blog, the children are not involved. They are not performing. The public sharing of them is happening DESPITE their actions. When families put themselves on television, the children are preforming and the sharing is happening BECAUSE OF their actions. That is sickening to me. I don’t own a television, so I’ve never seen any of these shows, but the more I hear about them the more I’m glad I don’t waste my time with that drivel.

    As far as the “what will happen when your kids can read your blog” question, I think the reality is that since so many aspects of so many of our lives are online in some form, it will be the norm for kids to grow up and be able to find stuff their parents wrote about them on blogs, FB, twitter, email, etc. Nothing any of us type is fully private. I’m not going to judge whether it is good or bad to have all that info out there, but it is out there. Many of the commenters here link to their own blogs. How many of you write anything about your children? Probably most of you. It doesn’t matter if you have a huge readership or ads or any of that. The fact is, what we write is available for anyone to see, including our own children.

    Her Bad Mother October 19, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    As I said above in response to some of the other comments, I think that some similar issues come into play with blogging, but there IS a critical difference when it comes to *performance* – that reality show kids are performing and must perform puts them in a different situation than that experienced by kids whose parents write about them sometimes. For my money, anyway ;)

    Motherhood Uncensored October 19, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    What’s scary to me is that they become famous for being themselves. There is some separation, for actors, etc. in that they are famous for being someone else. They can separate the character from themselves.

    And yes, while they are being followed around by the paparazzi, there isn’t anyone in their home, filming their arguments and their obsession with cleaning floors.

    They opened themselves up to scrutiny, not knowing the consequences – that we are a society of voyeurs, of judgy mcjudgersons. And the money, which I completely understand btw, is pretty damn attractive, especially when you’re trying to support a family of 10.

    But I think what happened was it became their life. They bought a huge house and had fancy cars and like Kate said, they needed it to maintain the lifestyle that they had created for their kids.

    Which hello, stop for a moment and think about this – the kids will be fine without the gihugic house and the big cars and whatever else.

    It’s amazing how reluctant people are to let go of the material things (the fame even – but god, who wants to be followed around at Target – jesus!).

    Her Bad Mother October 20, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    I think that’s right – that being famous for playing one’s self on TV is a much more insidious thing (potentially) than just acting (where even children, one presumes, can tell make-believe from not make-believe.) When everything is performed, what isn’t?

    And yeah – like they wouldn’t just rather have their mom and dad together than an inground swimming pool.

    Boy Crazy October 19, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    OK, first of all I have to say I love it when you go all smarty-pants intellectual academic on us. LOVE it. :) And second of all – I don’t watch that crap either. Never have, never will. Nicely done, Catherine. As always.
    .-= Boy Crazy´s last blog ..A little gift for YOU! =-.

    Her Bad Mother October 20, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Sometimes, I just can’t keep the pedant in ;)

    Tina C. October 19, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    it would be interesting to see if critics said the same about ‘cheaper by the dozen’ back in the day. that can’t have been the first ‘exploitation’ of a family’s drama for print, but not that much has changed from those stories to the more contemporary ones adapted to tv. were there any copycat books published in response to that one? my gut tells me reality shows, and their explosion across channels, are only contemporary iterations of drama already produced in another format, and folks conniving to get their own piece a new modern thread.

    separately, does it matter if the shadows are real or completely made up? how do readers and viewers know if it ‘really happened that way’ or not? how much does that matter? though we accept the trope that it’s reality, only a fool would think it really happened that way??? part of the reason why i’m drawn to some of these stories is trying to figure out why people would want to be exposed on tv…

    Her Bad Mother October 20, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    I don’t think it matters whether the ‘performed’ lives are real or not so real or whatever – what matters is that they’re being sold as real. And for kids – the premise that they’re not working (such that child labor laws don’t apply) is based on the idea that they’re ‘really’ ‘living’ in front of the cameras. Performing as a matter of daily life.

    Either way: UGH.

    Rachel H. October 19, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    I’d like to hear more some time about what went into your decision to use your children’s names on the blog. I’m a therapist, and for that reason I’m a bit sensitive about what comes up when you google my name. I have to wear somewhat of a professional face to the world, and if there were stories about my childhood available on the web, it would make it more difficult for me to do my job. Just wonderin’, I’m sure you have good reasons for what you do– you seem to be thoughtful and careful about these issues.

    Her Bad Mother October 20, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    I wrote about it around the time that he was born – I can’t, of course, find that post now ;)

    Basically, my reasoning was this – I’m not anonymous, far from it. I’m published online and off and anyone who knows my name can find me and my work. And so anyone who knows my children will find my work. Using their first names – or not – doesn’t really change that. And the pseudonyms, in a way, were feeling silly and contrived, and end of the day, whenever Emilia or her friends look at the stories I’ve told, I’d rather that they find *her*, and not an eternal Wonderbaby.

    And – it keeps me honest. I’m more careful, I think, because she’s less of a constructed character to me if I use her (and his) name. They *are* characters – but I might be tempted to take more license if they were just Wonderbaby and Sprout rather than Emilia and Jasper.

    (Their last names? Much harder to find out. We don’t share a surname – that is, my professional name is not their surname. And My husband keeps his on the downlow, so. Future friends googling their full names will not find this content. For whatever that’s worth.)

    liz October 20, 2009 at 8:50 am

    I’m with you. Have been with you as regards shows with children in them from the beginning.
    .-= liz´s last blog ..More MM =-.

    Susan Getgood October 20, 2009 at 11:20 am

    I don’t like reality tv period, and there is a special place in hell for the shows that exploit children.

    Where they can be joined by the organizers of child beauty pageants.

    What’s most disturbing is that so many of the shows that involve families and children seem to revolve around very large families. Duggars, Gosselins, Octomom — these are all out of the range of average experience.

    Contrast this with the Louds, from An American Family, arguably the first reality show family. Pretty normal for the time, all in all.
    .-= Susan Getgood´s last blog ..Good advertising makes all the difference: Ad Club Hatch Awards =-.

    Her Bad Mother October 20, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Oh, do NOT even get me started on the pageants – or the pageant SHOWS. Toddlers and Tiaras? PURE EVIL.

    T. Stone October 21, 2009 at 2:05 am

    Amen brotha!!

    frugan amy October 21, 2009 at 3:19 am

    Thank you, Catherine, for yet another smart, thought-provoking post. Rousseau and reality TV…swoon.

    I think that the distinction you make in your “Crazy Narcissistic…” post is key to whether a “mommy-blog” can be exploitative of children. Like you, I see my blog as about me and my experience of motherhood. I am not attempting to tell my daughter’s story; I’m telling my own. That is how I justify giving my 8-month-old an online presence, at least.

    Still, though, I worry. Even if we aren’t making our children perform, own performance here must have an effect on them. It brings up the obvious question: at what point does the desire to post cause us to experience our real life as fodder for blogging? And, even more frightening, how often do we ever-so-subtly construct our reality to give us that better post?

    I think this is an issue all bloggers – all writers – have, but it strikes me as more serious for mommy-bloggers, especially when we’re anecdotal. What happens when I’m cradling or playing with my baby and the thought comes to me, “I should write about the way I’m feeling right now”? I don’t think my small performance is damaging her for life, but I am concerned it’s not always fair to her in the moment.

    avsgirl October 21, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    Heene Family: Fame called. Your 15 minutes are up! Try living in Colorado where this all took place…I think he got his reality show on the 9 o’clock news! I agree. Enough already.
    .-= avsgirl´s last blog ..hey henne family: =-.

    driver36 October 22, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    I just wanted to be famous. ,

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