Like pretty much anyone else with an opinion on the TLC show Jon & Kate, mine has been rather negative of late. I publicly declared my own, personal Jon & Kate blackout in in a recent blog post, writing of the episode three weeks ago, “This is disturbing, and I feel dirty having allowed myself to watch it. I won’t be watching again.
I totally meant this when I said it, and I didn’t tune in for the next J&K episode, the one where the Gosselins finally announced their intention to divorce. But I have to admit that I have cheated since drawing my J&K line in the sand; while I might not have actually watched the last episode, I’ve continued to follow the Gosselins fairly avidly via the media – both online and in line at the grocery store. Plus – true confession here – I sometimes even spend a few minutes perusing Gosselins Without Pity, the community for obsessive Jon and Kate haters. I don’t approve of the vitriol there, but that hasn’t kept me from taking a peek. If you add to this evidence the fact that even after I publicly swore off the Gosselins, I went on to blog about them yet again, one can only conclude that I’m actually a wee bit obsessed myself with the very thing I have more than once claimed to loathe.
I am not alone in my secret, shameful, and continuing consumption of Gosselin, Inc. Even as most of America claims to be appalled and bored by couple’s painfully raw on-air disintegration, we continue to watch and read. In fact, last week’s episode – featuring the couple’s much-hyped “big announcement” – drew more than ten million viewers (that’s a lot). This sustained level of extreme public interest is why the editors of US Magazine, who can lay claim to a pretty good understanding of the cultural appetites of the masses, chose to put J&K on their cover for a record-breaking seven times in a row over the last two months.
So what is it about these people that turned them into the first true superstars of the reality TV era?
Usually, when we speak of “reality TV” programs, we aren’t talking about reality at all; instead, we are talking about people, lifestyles, or dramatic conceits that are as far removed from the “reality” most of us will ever know as the worst episode ever of Fantasy Island ever was. We don’t drive big rigs over treacherous ice passages for a living, or party every night in The Hills. We don’t have parents who are little people, and Bruce Jenner isn’t our stepfather. We aren’t desperate D-list celebrities or former child stars with “issues.”
We are, like Jon and Kate Gosselin were for the first several seasons of the show, families who live in modest brick and vinyl homes in the suburbs. We bicker with our spouses when we are stressed, sometimes sounding pretty shrewish. We take our children on ever-so-thrilling excursions to places like Costco and the pediatrician, and we sometimes get to go out to a grown-ups-only dinner. We worry about money, and our children throw tantrums and make messes. And yes, once every few years, just like Kate Gosselin, we end up with our own regrettably awful “hair-don’t, which we only realize was that bad in hindsight.
Before the first episode of the TLC show aired, Jon and Kate were nobodies in the most honest, down-to-earth, American sense of the word. Even with eight small children, Jon and Kate Gosselin’s “reality” was closer to that of their viewers than any other reality show. They could be us, and we could be them. That’s what’s captured our attention in such a powerful way.
We watched these people, our cultural doppelgangers, for the same reason “mommyblogs” have exploded in popularity; both the TV show and the blogs offer us a reflection of ourselves via the prism of mundane details of Other People’s Lives. While there are certainly many parent-penned blogs featuring high drama and out-there storylines, these kinds of mommyblogs haven’t gained the mainstream popularity and supportive following of the “classic” momblogs, like Dooce, Finslippy and BusyMom. These bloggers may offer the occasional glimpse into their family’s tough times – miscarriage, depression or job loss – but these are dramatic elements we recognize from our own lives. And the momblogging superstars maintain a content balance tilted decidely toward the everyday – weaning, daycare, diapers and those hilariously competitive other moms at the playground. In other words, they, like Jon and Kate, have are a hit because there is something affirming and comforting in the realization that our lives are actually no more or less crazy or interesting than anybody else’s.