Reality Television: Nice Work? (If You Can Get It)

The latest round of headlines as the Gosselins ramp up toward the fifth season premiere of their reality show, Jon & Kate Plus 8, take the work/life balance into pretty depressingly set-the-bar-low territory. In case you've never heard of them (lucky you?!), Jon and Kate Gosselin were already parents to twin girls when the next pregnancy produced sextuplets. Thus, eight. The twins are eight, the sextuplets nearly five. Rumors of marital turmoil–Jon was photographed leaving a 23 year-old "friend's" house this spring at 7:30 in the morning–are running rampant. Kate, in an interview to promote her new book, Eight Little Faces, told the Today show's Meredith Viera that sensational stories in the tabloids go with the territory, and that she's "not inclined to believe the stories." She insists the couple will not address these allegations on the show, and, despite starring in their own reality show, are keeping their marital issues "private."

Extramarital affairs aside, the painful (to witness) reality of the couple's life in the reality limelight is that Kate's accrued more fame (and generated more of the wealth–in terms of media appearances and writing books, their reality show-related enterprises are not divvied up fifty-fifty). She clearly enjoys the limelight more (and some would add, with a snicker, the perks, such as a new big house, luxurious grooming, and VIP travel) while Jon is expressing, somewhat haltingly and through a series of "poor choices," his discomfort with fame and the current division of labor. For example, a video clip from the fourth season finale, in which the couple reflect together on their lives, she says how great his working from home (he does computer something) is while he disputes her, mumbling, "It's not really me to work at home." Well, yes, but her latest book was released in April. The new season is set to begin May 25. The media frenzy–even the bad press–seems alarmingly well-timed.

But what is it about this suburban Pennsylvania couple whose many children wear matching clothing that either inspires people or repels them? With each blitz of Gosselin, I find myself pondering why they have set up shop as the central reality show staple family of multiples, the ones most avidly followed, revered, and ridiculed. Those Duggars outnumber them, after all (they have 18 children); Nadya Suleman had more children at once (eight–to go with the six she already had–and by herself, which may answer, in large part, why she won't become a reality show staple). There are other supersized families with high order multiples around to document. Jon and Kate, though, seem to have secured a very cozy corner on the reality television market.

Kate Gosselin takes great pains to say that theirs is a normal family coping with the arduous task of raising children just like other families do. They just had more children to raise than most of us do, and more at once than almost anyone else. At the start of their reality show journey, this was probably more true than it is now, in that certain circumstances resembled most people's everyday lives, such as their feeling that their family had outgrown the house or the fact that Kate Gosselin was home alone (save for her television crew) with sextuplets during the hours Jon worked and the twins were in school. She often couldn't leave the house all day long, because it was too hard to get the kids out the door. Over time, life in the limelight, though, isn't what most people experience and the associated perks and earnings changed their daily lives so they no longer mirror most "normal, average" families: fancy, big house, appearances on Oprah, and first class travel (the couple renewed their vows in Hawaii, for example).

Kate Gosselin also says that raising children is the hardest and best job in the world. It would seem, though, that the job piece has more to do with managing the media empire building than the raising children part. Although they display no "talent" (you know, like the Jackson Five or the Jonas Brothers), at this point, the family business is to entertain–through being themselves. While Kate Gosselin might argue that for her children "normal" is life with the television cameras running and the crew camped out at home, we all know it's really not. But here's what I started to think about during this pass at trying to wrap my head around the Gosselin phenomenon. Perhaps, we've reached a saturation that not so long ago we couldn't have imagined possible. There is so much "reality" on the television and the Internet, in magazines and newspapers, so much buzz that a kind of parallel "reality" tract appears to be running at all times. Although we are not enjoying private tours at museums or special trips to Disneyland (and other such special favor), we've gotten to the point where such fantasies seem like regular enough realities–if you're giving birth to multiples, surely someone give you a year's worth of diapers or formula for free–as to have a normalcy of their own. Not a normalcy, as in that's happening to you, of course, but a sense that the arc of certain, uh, realities are really fantasies come true. Because, let's face it, that's what the Gosselins–and the Learning Channel–have crafted for us to consume: a modern day fairy tale. Jon and Kate fell in love, got married, and wanted babies. And did they ever get babies. Then, the babies gave them a television show, because normalcy (on steroids) is so compelling and the television show gave them–well, a big house and fame and book deals and speaking tours and possible martial troubles and the tabloids…

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest stories and posts from the Advocate. 


You have Successfully Subscribed!