Reality TV tends to focus on and highlight extreme behaviors and choices—sometimes with the intention of normalizing them. For me, nothing has been such an obvious statement about our culture’s obsession with parenting and procreation as the “we have a million kids” shows that have sprung up over the last few years—and there are quite a few, particularly for U.S. audiences. I’m referring specifically to 19 Kids and Counting, Kate Plus 8 (sorry Jon), Raising Sextuplets, and Table for 12, all of which celebrate the chaos of having 8-plus people in the house. (You can also lump in TLC’s Sister Wives, since though they have 3 mothers and no sets of multiples, they also have more than 10 kids.) Nadya Suleman, the single mother unfortunately dubbed “Octomom” in the press, was also once in talks about creating a reality series after a made-for-television documentary about her family of 15 aired.
Admittedly, when it comes to these types of shows, I haven’t been devoted to any particular season or series because I don’t think they’re very interesting. I watched most of Sister Wives and was pretty bored, if only because it seemed like every other show of this type. They all generally seem to involve a lot of explanations about daily routines, some sort of field trip (or even some domestic simple-turned-complicated task like preparing dinner or raking the yard), neither of which really holds my attention. The very focus of the shows seems to be that nothing extraordinary happens but that in the midst of such disorder lies some sort of narrative about the wonder of huge families or the joys of parenting. And yet, so far, several of these couples have also publicly split. Not exactly my idea of entertaining TV.
What I find most telling is the language about choice in these shows. Rarely is having several sets of multiples depicted as an active choice but instead the result of fertility treatments, a happy accident-turned-challenge, and/or God’s plan.
For example, on their regularly-renamed show 19 Kids and Counting (it was 17 when filming began), Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar seem to skirt around the actual issue that they’re against birth control for religious reasons. They even treat their procreation like a joke. “Be fruitful and multiply is Jim Bob’s favorite verse!” Michelle says with a laugh, as if their enormous family is just what happens when you give up on trying to control nature or opt out of personal choice.
Yet, at the exact same time, all of this is intrinsically linked with the idea of personal choice as the ultimate moral high ground. Interviewed by Newsweek, Raising Sextuplets mom Jenny Masche does a great job of (somewhat unintentionally) summing up why I feel all of this has taken a strange rhetorical turn.
[The doctor] was so positive. He was like, “This is your choice. We’re gonna do it, and we’re gonna do it well.” He’s like, “If you believe you can do this, we’re gonna do it.”
While I don’t doubt that the doctors discussed all of the risks with Masche, interviews with these families and the accompanying media spin make carrying multiples sound like a big, fun adventure, or at the very least minimize the serious medical risks, though in her case, Masche experienced what sounds like frightening fertility drug and multiple-child pregnancy-related complications such as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) and contractions at 26 weeks. During delivery, she ended up with preeclampsia and went into heart failure.
Indeed, many of the multiples featured on these shows were born early, and complications have been the norm for the mothers. Michelle Duggar has only delivered several sets of multiples, but after giving birth to 19 children in almost as many years, it’s clear that her health has been a concern, even as she and Jim Bob forge on in their quest to have babies until it’s no longer possible.
What I find troubling about this type of rhetoric, about glorifying these families as examples to emulate, is the assumption that personal choice trumps all else. In many ways, it mirrors some of the very worst ways feminism is co-opted as an excuse for any type of oppressive self-serving behavior. It’s all about serving one’s self, our own needs above what’s best for the rest of the world, seemingly blissfully ignorant of how it might affect others. It validates any choice made for personal reasons without any further analysis. Want to have 15 kids? It’s your choice. Anyone who says anything differently may immediately be chastised for butting into other people’s personal lives (even if they’re aired on TV), for not honoring the types of choices these families make (even if they seem to just fall into them anyway).
Why are all of these shows so popular? What do they tap into that makes them worth watching? Do people secretly long for the chaos advertised in this programming line-up, or is it simple one more way to make an easy buck by exploiting a family who can likely use the cash?