Mamma Mia

So much for posting every day this month – but 20 consecutive days are pretty good. I leave for Florida in 12 hours and I just had a 3 hour burst of creativity rather than industriousness in packing. I got the idea for this post on the 22nd but only got around to writing it on the 30th and publishing it today. So here’s a bit of pop culture theory for you.

A lot of people have given reality television a bad rap over the last few decades and they’re mostly right.

There are two categories of reality shows: competitive and non-competitive. Today’s focus is on the noncompetitive shows. It all started with American Family, where America pretty much followed around the Loud family of California. It had a cultural impact, but today, the family mostly lives in obscurity. In the 1990s, MTV started “getting real” with The Real World, putting seven typical 20-something strangers in an apartment together to live, work, and cooperate with new people in a new city. I was too young for the full Real World experience, but earlier seasons seemed to have more substance, with the cast focusing on starting their lives, talking about hopes and dreams for the future, and coming to terms with stereotypes and cultural divides. The first season was set in New York, but later seasons in places like Hawaii or Vegas or Miami made the show a joke, about seven usually quite-good-looking strangers living in a luxury apartment, getting drunk, fighting, and basically having a several month-long vacation on MTV’s credit card.

Other non-competitive shows have joined the market in more recent years, from those based around occupation (Cake Boss, Say Yes to the Dress), to activity-based (Dance Moms, Hoarders), but the ones that have had the most impact continue to be the shows centering on families, from the Osbournes to the Duggars to the Kardashians. Generally, most reality TV families are not your average family. Ozzy Osbourne is famous in his own right in a different field. The Duggars live an unconventional religious lifestyle and have nineteen kids. I don’t know anything about the Kardashians but they’re famous for something and they have a large family.

Coming full circle, reality TV shows are now tending to focus back on a single family unit, like what happened on American Family. Two of these seemingly normal families, both with powerful matriarch figures, are (were?) the Gosselins of Jon and Kate Plus 8 and the Shannon/Thompsons of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. In a brief comparative analysis, let’s compare the two and see what these “average moms” tell us about motherhood in the 21st century.

We first met Kate Gosselin of southern Pennsylvania through a Discovery Health special on having sextuplets. Their show, Jon and Kate Plus 8, focused on this newly large family with 8 young children (including the couple’s twin girls, age four at the season’s start). People oohed and aahed over the cute mixed-race babies in matching outfits (Jon Gosselin, the childrens’ father, is half Korean) and sympathized with this couple who were just normal people – she, a nurse who put her job on hold to raise the children, and he, an engineer, struggled to make ends meet while taking care of a larger-than-normal family.

Though initially it was mostly centered on the kids and their milestones in babyhood, as the kids got older the show became less about them and more about the parents themselves. After you’ve watched fifty or so episodes featuring the same kids who do pretty much the same things, it’s not as interesting as it was because the “firsts” (word, crawl, walk) are just that – they only happen once. The older daughters played less of a role as they were in school most of the day, and though they were part of the 8, they didn’t really have much of a role in raising their sisters/brothers since they were only 4 years older than them. Episodes such as visits to the dentist, going grocery shopping, and having birthday/holiday parties with Jon and Kate’s circle of friends, sometimes proved to be insightful, or educational, or at least something to think about.

One of the oddest things about the show was that neither Jon nor Kate’s parents ever appeared. When asked, the couple said that their parents didn’t have much of a role in the daily lives of the kids. Maybe this had some validity. Some possible reasons include: the parents didn’t want to risk losing their jobs, they lived too far away to become a fixture in the show, there were health reasons (maybe one had Alzheimer’s or something), or maybe they had no interest in being on television. Or maybe they disliked their kids and grandkids and decided to cut off contact from them, show or no show.  Then, one by one, the other adults in Jon and Kate’s life started to disappear. One of Kate’s brothers even went public on how the Gosselins acted in real life and the fact that they were not being paid for their regular participation in the show or for watching the kids when the couple were doing solo interviews/appearances elsewhere. In the latter cases, if I was in that situation and felt strongly about the people in my life, and didn’t want to lose them, I would petition the producers to help out someone who’s basically a cast member without the same surname. Families generally take care of one another without being paid, whether it’s sending the kids to grandma’s house, having your adult sibling or sibling-in-law watch the kids one afternoon so you can get errands done, or watching out for an elderly person’s welfare, but from the way Kate’s actual family members were approaching the media, it was easy to tell that they were good-hearted people trying to help their sister and her family who got turned into a free babysitting service on a show which is supposed to be about parents and children. It’s even in the title.

With fewer friends and family members to rely on, the show shifted more towards the kids having new experiences. In the beginning, it was fun, seeing them spend the day at an amusement park or go to the beach. At some point, it got out of hand. Every week was a trip to a new city or state. Every week became an advertisement, whether it was for Hershey Park or Disney World or that creationist museum where Adam and Eve walk with the dinosaurs. To make things worse, every week Kate yelled a lot more, Jon slacked a lot more, and the kids did what kids do, getting into trouble, looking at things, either enjoying it and laughing or not enjoying it and crying, which was usually the case. Before long, these kids became more traveled than I was at their age, with trips to the Outer Banks, Utah, Alaska, and Hawaii, among other places. This also brought about my least favorite episode, where Jon took the boys and one of the older daughters to a baseball game, and instead of enjoying it like a normal family, they got meet the players before and after the game, they got pictures with the mascot, they were given tons of freebies from stuffed animals to pictures with the players, and whatever they didn’t get, Jon bought for them in the stadium’s souvenir shop, as well as souvenirs for himself and for the other four kids back home. I don’t know how they managed to fit all that stuff into the car on the ride home.

Fifth season rolls around, and guess what? Jon and Kate get a divorce, with one of the main reasons being that Jon doesn’t want to do the show anymore, either for the kids’ sake or his own. The divorce is finalized, Jon moves out and disappears from the show altogether, and it gets renamed KATE PLUS 8 (with KATE in all capitals) and is now mostly about Kate and her shenanigans in her personal life, as the kids are in school and therefore have less time to do the show. After the seventh season, the show gets canceled. That was already years ago, and Kate is still in the news and trying to make a name for herself in the media. So much for being a mother.

Then, two years ago, along came Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. One episode of TLC’s show about child beauty pageants (Toddlers & Tiaras) featured a sassy little girl who was too smart for her age with a very odd-looking, odd-acting, obese, and clearly uneducated mother. Apparently, TLC thought that these two were a gold mine for a spin-off, so Alana Thompson and her mother June became the stars of their own show, which also featured Alana’s father and sisters (none related to the father – each the daughter of June and a different man), who all live together in a little house on the Redneck Prairie, AKA MacIntyre, Georgia.

From the very start of the show, people had much stronger reaction than to Jon and Kate. Critics, bloggers, the media – they all had their own take on things but most agreed that June, AKA “Mama June,” was disgustingly fat and a horrible parent just in it for the money, and that the whole family were the armpit hairs of America. The family had CPS called on them even before the show started airing! When it did air, however, people usually reacted in one of two ways, a) these people are disgusting and awful and not attractive to look at and smell bad and are what’s ruining the entire TV industry, or b) these people are indeed real people, and since we had low expectations of them from the beginning, the only way they can go is up.

For some things on the show, as Mama June says, “it is what it is.” Yes, they have disgusting habits like sneezing, burping, farting, scratching themselves, and leading generally unhealthy lifestyles with lots of candy and sitting around being lazy. What shocked people the most about this show what not about their redneck attributes, but about how they acted towards themselves and one another. Nobody hits anyone. Nobody hurts anyone. Nobody really yells or gets yelled at. Mama June and her daughters do try to lose weight in an episode arc, but they don’t hate themselves before, during, or after the process. In general, they seem to enjoy each others’ company and do activities that emphasize being together, not just doing things that are flashy or “make good TV.”

In an interesting pattern, the perceptions of Kate Gosselin and Mama June by the public  developed in a completely, diametrically, opposite fashion. One plummeted, and one had no place to go but up.

Kate Gosselin was shown to us as a pretty, young mother of eight adorable children, a nurse who quit her job to be a full-time mom. Everyone was rooting for her to become supermom. Over time, she became demanding, controlling, and bitchy to a point where even her most ardent fans turned on her. Her marriage fell apart, she was seen partying and dating other men, she had a stint on Dancing with the Stars, and now her third book (I think it’s her third, I’ve seen two different books with her name on them at the dollar store but haven’t picked them up), and has now become a self-promoting reality TV celebrity, the exact opposite of a self-sacrificing mother. We met Mama June and saw the rolls of fat, grotesque face, and crooked teeth, and heard her pig-squeal laugh and her horribly stained and crooked teeth. We judged her as a disgusting lump of lard at first, but then we realized that even though she’s probably not one of the brightest and prettiest people on television, she at least knows how to behave – if the producers saw her being a raging bitch, we’d probably have seen it much more by now, instead of seeing her play with her younger daughters and joke around with the older ones and her husband.

One thing about reality television that puts the emphasis on “reality” is that it can’t edit what a person does in real life, either when the cameras stop rolling or when they go away entirely. It’s been two years since there’s been a new episode of Jon and Kate Plus 8, yet we hear reports of the Gosselin kids having behavior problems at school and both Jon and Kate being negligent as parents, spending lots of money on things like travel, appearances, and material goods. With “the economy” being as it is, people who work less/have fewer things to offer who earn and spend large amounts of money are becoming more and more hated by the average American, who can’t do those things. A recent “shocking story” uncovered that instead of Mama June and her family acting like uneducated hicks and blowing through their new-found wealth on material things – a better house, expensive clothes, technology, travel, plastic surgery – that the most expensive thing they’ve purchased with the money is a car. And it’s not even a new one, it’s a used Jeep for the actual purposes of having a car (using it to get from place to place) rather than for show. The money, according to Mama June, is all going into trust funds for the kids, with Mama June sticking it to the media by saying “I want my kids to remember, ‘Mama played it smart.'”

And this is shocking?

It’s shocking in the fact that it’s probably (well, actually, definitely) a good decision. Mama June also announced that the show would end at some point and the family would go back to focusing on things like school and work and living their lives relatively normally. Mama June and Sugar Bear, Honey Boo Boo’s father, recently made it official and started their marriage, (rather than ending it) by having a wedding that ended up being fairly normal, other than the outfits. Mama June, who is also known on the show for saving money with coupons, announced that most of the wedding budget went to feeding the guests home-cooked barbecue, with a cake made by June’s sister – though on the informal side, it really boils down to what a wedding is, having a ceremony uniting 2 people in marriage, with your family and friends while you wear different clothes than you normally do and eat a meal together. And another thing, even though Mama June doesn’t have the prettiest face and body, she dresses in clothes that are appropriate for her size and shape and always looks well-put-together in public (lounging around at home is, of course, fair game for baggy T-shirts and old sweatpants) and she encourages her daughters to do the same. Even though the older daughters make fun of her all the time, you can tell that they don’t mean it, and June usually laughs at herself very easily anyway. If Mama June can keep calm and manage her behavior as she’s doing, she and her family are going to be just fine – you can point and glare at her and judge her all you want for being ugly and fat, but you can’t say that she should have her children taken away or she should be ashamed of how she acts. Finally, she also announced her daughter’s retirement from pageants – an activity that sucks up both the bank account and time that could be spent doing constructive or educational things.

And what has this taught us about motherhood in the 21st century? Really…not that much. The family values that we like are still the family values that we like. We cheer for the underdog mom trying to rise above (as seen in initial Kate and current June), and we like families that love themselves and each other. We like families that play jokes, laugh, and have fun. Having a happy life with the bare minimum rather than living a tortured life while hurting the lives of others with your actions was and is most people’s idea of family. It’s all about moving forward rather than clinging to the past. In real-life situations, a mom who is high-strung, strung-out, or out-of-focus probably ends up being the one whose kids never get invited to other kids’ birthday parties – not because of the kids, because the other parents who want to have as little to do with the  mom as possibly, and a down-to-earth mom whose life is her family and children is probably someone you’d want to go to for help planning the party, if she hasn’t already volunteered.

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