Okay, I'll admit it. I have a (probably somewhat unhealthy) addiction to reality television. It started in the mid '90s with MTV's The Real World, and only grew as shows like Survivor, Big Brother and almost every single thing on TLC appeared.
I've done my best to get my reality TV habit under control, and I mostly just watch shows like Top Chef, The Voice, and the occasional Real Housewives of Somewhere Fancy. However, that doesn't mean I'm immune to or unaware of the vast amount of reality television shows that supposedly depict "real" families. Shows like Wife Swap, Supernanny, and Kate Plus 8, have come and gone, only to be replaced with the newest incarnations: Teen Mom, Toddlers & Tiaras, Sister Wives, Dance Moms, 19 Kids & Counting, my "beloved" Real Housewives, and more.
I understand that reality television has to have some sort of "hook" to get you, the viewer, interested enough to stick around. For the most part, that's usually drama. Even when shows are about parenting, it's not the day-to-day rhythm that gets airtime, but rather the sensational, unbelievable, and usually questionable parenting decisions that take center stage.
So...is that really the "reality" of parenting?
I think we all know that it's not. The types of families being broadcast are hardly representative of the diversity of families in our country. These shows focus mostly on middle-class, white, heteronormative families. Very rarely will you see a non-white family (although to their credit, TLC is starting to test those waters with their new show, All American Muslim, and have defended it despite the controversy over various sponsors pulling their ads). LGBT people are seldom visible, or else are presented as the token family member inserted to create drama or comedic relief. Disability is only talked about when it serves as a plot point to stir up more drama, or to exploit somebody, rather than as a day-to-day reality for many people. Poverty is rarely explored, and in fact, these shows often promote consumerism. (For more on reality television and the wealth/poverty dichotomy, check out Gretchen Sisson's current guest blog series, The 99%.)
So what are these family shows portraying? Mostly they're perpetuating negative stereotypes and poor examples of parenting. I highly doubt the intention of any of these shows is to instigate a dialogue about what healthy parenting looks like. Rather, they capitalize on creating situations that usually turn out humiliating for the parents and kids alike.
What it comes down to is that the majority of these shows are less about real situations, and more about stringing together manufactured and sensationalized moments of conflict. They're not showing real moments in parenting, just like they're not actually showing "real" families. While you can find some shows that don't follow these "rules" (i.e. Sister Wives and 19 Kids And Counting), most are actually comprised of people using reality television as their first step in making entertainment their career.
Many of the Real Housewives have gone on to launch jewelry/clothing lines, write books, record "music," or sell alcohol. Eden Wood dropped out of Toddlers & Tiaras once she found fame, appearing on numerous talk shows and making her own music videos.
These shows hardly skim the surface of reality. Instead, they're made up of people who are willing to put their families and their problems (whether real or contrived) on display. What does this say, not only about them, but about a country that tunes in week after week, allowing these shows (and their participants) to be a part of a multimillion dollar enterprise?
In the backbiting The Real Housewives of Orange County, parenting is not off limits. One of the women, Lynne, is constantly harangued for her parenting skills (or lack there of in the eyes of the other OC housewives). Perhaps Lynne should serve as a cautionary tale, but there seem to be plenty of those...where are the "success" stories when it comes to parenting on reality TV?
A fairly new trend in reality TV focuses on parents (almost always moms) whose kids are involved in pageants or dance. Shows like Toddlers & Tiaras and Dance Moms have come under fire for promoting the sexualization of young girls, yet they continue to be produced, with record high audiences tuning in to watch. These shows end up focusing more on the drama and scandalous behind-the-scenes footage than on the actual activity the kids are performing.
In this Dance Moms clip, two mothers get into a nasty argument over dance costumes. While it starts off away from the dancers, it continues in front of them as well. The girls hear their moms flinging insults (about the kids!), and nobody seems to have the sense to take the fight away from impressionable ears. By the end of the fight, one young girl, Brooke, looks absolutely crestfallen and like she has no interest in going on to compete. She makes the point later that she knows her dancing was impacted by the costume-related argument.
The sad fact is that both of these clips pretty much exemplify how most families are portrayed by reality television. Between very occasional glimpses into happy, "normal" times, it is the loud arguing, crying, and tantrums that get the most screen time.
As somebody who rarely airs her own "dirty laundry" in anything that could be deemed a public forum, I have a hard time wrapping my head around folks who allow cameras into their homes to film theirs. These shows continue to push not only tired stereotypes about moms and families, but questionable parenting practices in general.
Maybe one day there will be a true reality show about parenting. It won't be all that glamorous, that's for sure. It might show a parent (and not necessarily the mom!) scrambling to make breakfast for everyone while simultaneously getting ready for work. Perhaps the big argument of the day revolves around who will take the trash out, or whether ice cream is an acceptable alternative for dinner. Maybe there's a soccer practice or band rehearsal, but not one where the kids are decked out in make up, wigs, spray tans, or questionable costumes.
Then again, would anyone tune in to watch that?
For more on the reality of reality television in general, check out Jennifer Pozner's book Reality Bites Back.