by DR KAREN BROOKS
Since when does bad parenting make good television?
The answer is ever since programs such as The World’s Strictest Parents, Supernanny, John and Kate Plus 8, Dance Moms, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Toddlers and Tiaras and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo have rated through the roof.
By “good” I don’t mean to imply quality – on the contrary, quite the opposite.
The market for “trash” and/or “extreme parenting” appears to be growing.
Whether it is stage mums teaching toddlers inappropriate sexual moves matched only by their tacky costumes, fake tans and false teeth; parents giving kids stimulants such as “go-go juice” so they perform; or stories about “problem” teenagers who lack discipline but still have access to drugs, alcohol and/or sex, there’s no shortage of people volunteering their families so their lives can be streamed for consumption.
Alyssa Rosenberg, in Slate magazine, describes these shows as “human disaster porn” and claims “demand is, sadly, matched by an endless supply of parents willing to expose themselves and their children in the hopes that their genius will be recognised, or in the savvier calculation that toughing out ridicule may be worth the financial payout”.
But bad parents have long been the staple of psychobabble afternoon shows, such as Dr Phil.
Often described as “documentaries”, reality shows are nothing but plain exploitation – mostly of children who aren’t old enough to understand the long-term consequences of the highly problematic exposure they’re receiving.
Parents are expected to protect children from public approbation, not use it for their gain.
Audiences aren’t off the hook either.
If demand were not there, as Rosenberg suggests, supply would quickly dry up.
But with more bad-parenting shows in production, and being cheap to make, that’s unlikely to happen.
Producers understand the vicarious pleasure that arises when a viewer compares their “good” parenting style to the “awful” one depicted in the show.
As Lindsay Cross asks on Mommyish.com: “Are we really so insecure as parents that we need to watch this depravity to feel superior? Are parents so desperate to see that someone out there is worse than us?”
The answer is yes.
Look at the debates between bottle versus breast-feeding, and working mums versus stay-at-home mums. When Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was published, a parenting-style war erupted. What about the fuss that occurs any time a celebrity appears in public with her/his offspring?
Parenting has become one of the most morally and ethically divisive things we do in our culture. It’s shared regardless of other differences such as culture, religion, sex and sexuality. It’s also potentially lucrative.
We constantly monitor and evaluate one another’s methods and practices, and there are those who have worked out there are dollars to be made from this.
“Mummy” blogs are popular (there are some excellent ones out there), and “momoirs” (warts-and-all books about being a mother) are all the rage.
Once, we put those who broke social rules in pillories and threw rotten fruit at them as punishment.
These days, parents (and their children) volunteer to become public punching bags.
The sad thing is, in watching these trashy shows, we’re partaking in a pathetic social ritual of humiliation and false pride.
Dreadful parenting might be the new black, but I think we should all be in mourning.
This article originally appeared here and has been republished with full permission.
Dr Karen Brooks is an associate professor at the University of Queensland Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies. She currently lectures in the areas of media, youth, sexuality and popular culture. You can visit her blog here. Or follow her on Twitter here.