Mom & Pop Culture: The Reality of Reality TV Parenting

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.

Previously: Drowning in the Fountain of Youth, Gender Is NOT A Genre

by Avital Norman Nathman
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Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer and fulltime feminist killjoy. Find her tweeting @TheMamafesto

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8 Comments Have Been Posted

My (very unscientific) theory

My (very unscientific) theory about why reality TV is so popular is because it's just as exciting as regular TV, but it's REAL. (You know...sorta.) So we have a show like "Teen Mom" and now everyone knows about the "typical" experience of a teen mother. Hell, that's what "All American Muslim" is doing - the "typical" American Muslim family. Remember when Survivor was such a huge deal because it was so unique?

I work with teen moms...

and I have to say that what MTV shows in their series is hardly the reality of teen moms. It's *some* teen mom's reality, but certainly not all. at all. I'm sure much of it is b/c these young girls are getting paid by MTV, which alleviates their situations. I don't think I have yet seen any of these moms step foot in a welfare office.


I definitely agree with you. The truth is, there is no "typical" teen mother experience because the situation is going to be different based on that person's race, gender, class, geographic location and education level, as well as the x factors of her family and community. But I think that showing the diversity of experiences for teen parents would not be nearly as entertaining for viewers.

I watch Reality TV

But I prefer the shows where people are in it consciously. Top Chef, The Heidi Klum Runway show, or even ANTM. I feel like the shows that plop down into people's lives and homes are kind of gross. And if also makes me think about what if I held up a mirror like that to my own life - I'd like to think I would NEVER put my child and her itsy-bitsy costume in the middle of a shriek-fest like that, but I'm sure I've had my own less than pretty episodes (driving potty mouth, for instance) that could be edited to make me seem even more freakish than I already am.

The other side-effect is that lots of great writers are not getting a chance to shine. But producers are making a ton more money not having to pay "actors" as much for their time or "writers" as much for their work. Smart business, I suppose.


I'm the same way. Top Chef is one of my favorites, and I also love the new show on Bravo that follows Chris March (from Project Runway). It's not a competition based show, but it's still awesome and manufactured-drama free!


I'm certainly not the first person to make the point that Schadenfreaude is a likely draw to these 'reality' programs. We're living in a really uncertain time right now. We can no longer take for granted that the tomorrow we've been planning for is going to be waiting for us. Indeed, for so many people, including myself and my parents, this is not at all the case. Those things that once gave us a sense of certainty that we're doing well and on sure ground don't have the same effect anymore. What does?

It's like we've regressed to the insecurity-riddled halls of junior high where the only measure that counts of whether or not we're doing okay is if we're at least more intelligent / articulate / fashionable/ in-shape / composed / sane or in some other way simply just better-off than these people on TV, even if and perhaps especially if they have wallpaper that costs more than our cars.

And then to make ourselves a wee less petty and a bit more participatory in a democratic process, we make dam sure we vote for the latest suffering, but proud (i.e. deserving) reality TV underdog performing on whichever elimination talent contest happens to be on that night of the week.

And speaking of the democratic process, has anyone else found themselves watching the political debates with the same amusement and disdain as any other reality program out there? I mean, isn't this what even politics has become?


"And speaking of the democratic process, has anyone else found themselves watching the political debates with the same amusement and disdain as any other reality program out there? I mean, isn't this what even politics has become? "<--i just recently had a conversation with somebody about how the Republican nominees are like a Reality show producers wet dream. That instead of legitimate candidates we have characters. Herman Cain, before dropping out, was like the ultimate in reality TV - a little non-sensical, intriguing in that WTF?! kind of way, and engaging on a totally absurd level. Michelle Bachmann? Totally more a character than a candidate in my opinion. Even these 8 million debates read like "scripts" from reality tv shows. I have this whole Wag The Dog idea floating around in my head...

This Is THEIR Reality

There is a reality show for every type of person with any type of interest on TV today. Some people rave and some people rant about these shows [insert love it or hate it speech here]. I have to admit that I am a self-proclaimed reality TV addict. I wave my flag proudly. Now, my grandmother would serve me with a side of potatoes for this. Why? Because I find these shows entertaining.

Reality TV is only "real" in the sense that it is someone's real life. Those that sign up to invite cameras into the most intimate details of their lives want their stories to be told for one reason or another. There are two "facts of the matter." Only the things that will shoot ratings through the roof get aired. Naturally, the juicy, nitty-gritty sleaze that is reality TV catches wind of the main-stream media. We (the consuming audience) gobble up everything we're fed, an in turn that is our perception of the group that is represented on the aired program of choice.

My grandmother and I can go round and round about my reality fixes of choice: Love & Hip Hop (the original and the Atlanta cast), Basketball Wives, The Real Housewives of Atlanta. It just really grind her gears that the cast members of these shows are prominently ethnic women. In her opinion, fitting into this group myself, I shouldn't "support" their exploitation. Well, who is being exploited. Last I checked, I didn't have a big-name music industry significant other running around publicly cheating on me while I cry in his bed trying to "keep my family together." As far as I can recall, I'm not a socialite who's life is filled with back-biting BFFs who like to trash my name in interviews and return the the reunion show like nothing happened.

The reality of the matter is that these cast members are not the norm. The Love and Hip Hop empire cast members are in no way representative of the average Black woman. The Real Housewives of Atlanta aren't the average women either. They are people who have invited the tinted and ever-turning lens that is mainstream media into their private lives to tell their story.

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