I have spent the past five months that I haven’t been blogging developing theories on the popularity of this show.
1) People have realized that Kate Gosselin, TV’s other mother-of-many, is really mean and potentially insane. And she was on Dancing with the Stars. She was very quickly transformed from relatable-middle-class-overworked-mother to there’s-no-way-I-can-feel-bad-for-you-now-TV star. Now she’s no longer “one of us,” she’s “one of them” and she has people after her over child labour laws and she was at the Emmys and she gets her teeth whitened all the time. (This is obviously an example of celebrity culture’s love of building someone up so they can tear them down but that’s another post.) Michelle Duggar will never be at the Emmys. She doesn’t let her children watch TV or attend school with people other than their own siblings and the only way she would ever dance on television would be behind a modesty curtain or something. She will always be the slightly harried, somewhat pitiable mother-of-many.
2) People are obsessed with Michelle Duggar’s vagina. I’m not kidding about this. I truly believe that people cannot fathom a vagina that has birthed 20 children. In their mind it is something one could walk into and explore, potentially discovering petroglyphs or other remnants of a lost civilization. And maybe there is some part of them, some very small and secret part, that believes that eventually TLC, perhaps as a season finale following a very special episode of Kate Plus 8 in which Kate cannibalizes all eight of her offspring, will actually show us Michelle Duggar’s vagina. Maybe she could go on Oprah and get vajazzled or something. And then Oprah could vajazzle Jonathan Franzen and we could all die knowing that everything was right with the world.
3) Rubbernecking. “Look at all those children! How can they possibly do it! Oh that’s right, keeping all the daughters home to raise the younger children, that’s how!”
But beyond the mildy demented reasons that people seem to find the Duggar brood wildly fascinating (myself included, naturally), there’s something else going on here. And that something else is how much of their narrative is consistently effaced from the public persona. I guess there’s no reason to be surprised by this – reality television stars are constructed characters – this is a truth universally acknowledged, just like the healing power of Bacon or Helen Mirren’s ageless beauty. What is notable to me, however, is the nature of these omissions and how there are similar omissions to be discovered if you look at other reality shows about mothering/birthing/billions of babies.
You see, what we never hear about in 19 Kids and Counting, not in Michelle’s voiceover at the top of the show explaining their lifestyle, not in the numerous times they address their baby-making philosophy on the show, not in the press for the show, is that once upon a time Michelle Duggar was on birth control pills. According to their Wikipedia page, the Duggars used birth control before and after the birth of their first child. Then they got pregnant again, but Michelle miscarried. Blaming the miscarriage on the birth control, they vowed to forevermore let God decide how many children they should have. Thus the 19 kids. So here we are. Now, disclaimer: I am not maintaining that just because the Duggars lead public lives that they owe us this intensely personal piece of information. What I am maintaining is that there is a continual effacement of the reality of reproductive health on these shows. The Duggars’ decision to end their use of birth control is ostensibly a religious one, but it is also one motivated by misinformation about birth control and reproductive health. There is conflicting information about the roll of birth control in miscarriages, but it doesn’t actually matter, because it’s never been discussed on the show. What has been discussed endlessly on the internet and the covers of weeklies is whether the Duggars could/should/would have more babies after the health scare surrounding the most recent birth. The answer is: of course they will have more babies! They will have babies until her uterus falls out because they believe that if Michelle/baby dies or is born with horrible disabilities it is god’s will. But instead of using this as an opportunity for a productive discussion around reproductive health and the realities for women giving birth later in life it becomes fodder for tabloids and moral judgement of them as people/parents.
The same could be said of the Gosselins, or any of the parents of multiples whose lives have been chronicled by TLC. Chances are, they used fertility treatment, but it’s never (or rarely) mentioned. Why? Because lady-bits are gross! People don’t want to know what’s going on down there (unless it’s to ponder the state of Michelle Duggar’s transformer vagina). They want to see cute kids being cute and they want to feel sorry for moms with too many cute kids.
As usual, anything to do with women’s health, reproduction, birth control is kept in shadows, alluded to, implied, or glossed over in favour of more convenient narratives about religious devotion or the desire for a perfect family. The problem with all this is that is denies reality and isolates people who would benefit from a more generous and open exchange of information about what might be happening in their own body. People have miscarriages! People need fertility treatment! Let’s just talk about it, okay?