Made for TV: Marriage as reality TV plot device

Whenever I’m sick I give myself license to watch whatever trashy TV I want. And since my toddler started daycare, well… I’ve had a lot of colds lately! And with all this bed rest, has come a lot more time in the world of reality TV. It’s my guilty pleasure!

While watching Kourtney & Kim Take New York and Real Housewives of Atlanta (ATL is the best one!) a thought occurred to me that these shows are pretty telling about the hetero-normative value-structure of marriage in our society. I know some of you are shaking your heads.

What could Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage say about the real value of marriage in our society? What could the multiple divorce plotlines (and kept-woman/mistress plotlines) of the combined Real Housewives franchises say about how seriously marriage is valued? Plenty!

After all, what’s more central to the American narrative than the White Picket Fence storyline? That picture isn’t complete without Mom, Dad, 2.5 kids, and the family dog. But the White Picket Fence story is just that, a story. It’s not reality — and I’m not just talking about TV. The reality is that Americans are postponing marriage, co-habitating more, and the divorce rate is still very high (with Nevada as one of the highest!).

Because we’re in a presidential election year and the news is abuzz with all the Republicans making their way through the congo line of primaries/caucuses, we’re hearing a lot about “family values,” the definition of marriage (hint: it’s not for “the gays”), and all the ways that women are too stupid to manage their own bodies. If the South Carolina primary results are any indication, news that Newt Gingrich asked his second (now ex) wife for an open marriage, is not such a big deal, which is funny if you don’t remember the Clinton Inquisition. (But it might be a bigger problem then it seems at the moment, since research shows that 62% of Republicans view adultery as a big deal.)

But all of this just points to the elephant (no pun intended) in the room all the more!

Political (of all stripes) candidates trip over themselves trying to show how much they represent the White Picket Fence ideal (and often don’t). Celebrities want to bathe themselves in the spotlight of wedded-bliss of media-darlingness. Even if their marriage crumbles like a house of cards Kardashian-style (or is that Britney-style?) or a mere year, Russel Brand-style.

If you think that pop culture and politics are not mirroring back what our true ideals are, then you are genuinely out of touch with reality:

  • One-third (!!) of teen mothers didn’t use birth control because they didn’t think they could get pregnant… Hmm, sound like some Teen Moms?
  • Americans are way more cool with co-habitation (especially if it leads to marriage) than in the old days, ala Kim Z. on Real Housewives of Atlanta and Kourtney Kardashian.
  • And, let’s face it, we’ve come a long way from the days when the inclusion of an openly gay and HIV-positive roommate, Pedro Zamora, on the Real World seemed scandalous. Well, maybe not a long way. But a lot more people say that homosexuality should be accepted now than 20 years ago.

I’m not saying that everything on reality TV is realistic or even a good example of how people should live. In fact, in most cases I think these shows reveal the worst in people. From wig-pulling to sexist competitions to homophobic and racist comments, there’s a lot about reality TV that is very, very wrong. And not in the good way.

But I can’t help but wonder if what reality TV is less fun-house mirror and more junior-high yearbook.

Happily married, I will celebrate 15 years with my husband this June. He’s my high school sweetheart. Ours is a story that so few have today. It is, in some ways, the White Picket Fence. But because of that, our story is completely different than so many around us and so many people I meet. I come from parents who have divorced many times over. And at the age of 35, I have more friends in my peer group who are or have been divorced than not.

This is not about touting my life or putting down anyone else. Marriage, like becoming a parent, is a deeply personal experience (and one that should be allowed for all people). And each individual has to decide if it is right for them. Each marriage has its ups and downs and only the people in it can decide if it is successful and happy. And it’s nobody’s business but those people.

But reality TV turns this personal experience into a very public spectacle — from love and courting to engagement to marriage and divorce — it’s all on display. People can live-tweet their opinions while the episode about someone’s life airs.It’s almost macabre to me to see the tweets scroll by on E! as the latest Kardashian episode airs, in which Kim tearfully tells her sister that she doesn’t want to be married anymore. Indeed, it reminds me of when I was in junior high and witnessed my friend breaking up with a boy I liked.

Now, I realize that almost all reality TV is staged in various ways and even scripted at times. I am not suggesting that what we see in reality TV is pure, unedited documentary. But there is only so much you can script and strategically frame. Some of what gets captured is just who those people are. Nobody is “on” all the time!

So when Kim cries to her sister, there’s a part of me that is thinking, “I didn’t know you were such a good actress.” But there’s another part of me that feels like even though the scene might be staged for full effect, that her remorse for being in that situation might just be coming from a very real place. And that part of me, the part that sees the humanity in these reality TV stars, feels bad. It feels a little like misery mining. Are any of these reality TV participants ever really paid the full value for how much of themselves they give away? Is being famous worth it? Because after the cameras are gone and they are alone with themselves, I wonder if there is ever a moment when they think that maybe, just maybe, the private spaces of their lives was not worth some (fleeting) money or some (fleeting) fame.

But in the meantime, I think reality TV says a lot about our values. The pandering, the staging, the egos, the fame-seeking manipulation, the lowest-common-denominator plotlines… it’s all just giving us what we want. And Americans are nothing if not narcissists!

I told you reality TV was my guilty pleasure. It makes me feel so guilty I won’t be able to watch anymore… until the next time I get sick.

Originally posted on Fem2.0 and The Tired Feminist.

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