Sunday, June 28, 2009

Why the Kate Hate?

I discovered J&K+8 when I was pregnant. Stuck at home for summer vacation, hugely and uncomfortably pregnant and unable to fight the magnetic draw of the television, I devoured re-runs of the show. I first tuned in for the train wreck factor -- I got a kick out of watching regular parents facing a completely irregular parenting situation. My addiction to the show deepened when I realized that I, too, would be facing some of these same scenarios in the near future (although at 1/8 scale). While on maternity leave, I anxiously awaited Tuesday mornings when I could review what I had recorded the night before, reassuring myself that if these parents could handle my situation times six, I could certainly survive it. My mantra became, "It could be so much worse!"

I was awed and inspired by Kate, not because she was "SuperMom", but because she was not ashamed to admit when she was flustered or tired, proudly wore sweats all day and struggled with the family budget, and loved her kids fiercely. After being bombarded with June Cleaver-esque images of the perfect wife and mother, I was thrilled to find a role model in a real mother. I simultaneously relished in and found relief in Kate's failures, for they were not so different from my own.

Now I watch the show for another version of the train wreck factor. Clearly the relationship between Jon and Kate has been disintegrating for years. TLC did a good job of hiding this; while we noted moments of Jon's frustration and Kate's over-the-top demands and tirades, there were moments of tenderness. And above all, the love for their children was clearly their ultimate connection. However, in season five, TLC stopped trying to mask what had happened to the family; shows featured the parents interacting with the children in separate parts of the country, looking increasingly tired and frustrated by the demands of their kids. When together, their interactions were awkward and forced, and not at all pleasant. Episodes were increasingly contrived, falling upon guest stars and wacky premises to mask the fact that the underlying foundation of the show and their relationship -- love -- was starting to fade. Finally, on the June 22 show, the couple announced their separation.

Many bloggers and fans of the show celebrated the split that seemed inevitable. Many have blamed Kate's "bitchiness" and demands on Jon for their demise. It is uncomplicated and simple to lay the fault at Kate's door, recusing Jon of any responsibility. While I will not for a moment say that either party is blameless, I balk at the blanket of blame that has been placed upon Kate's shoulders.

Any parent will tell you that they have snapped inappropriately at their partners. While my son was just weeks old, I remember screaming at my husband until I cried because there was no toilet paper in our bathroom. Parenting is extremely stressful; we are placed in a tremendously difficult position and faced with situations that we have never experienced before. We are exhausted, we are overwhelmed. To add to the pressure, if we make a mistake, we risk damaging this tiny little person that is completely dependent upon us. Oh, and in case this was not enough stress, there is no break. There is no vacation, no quitting time at the end of the day. It is a relentless, unending, tireless, and thankless job. And ultimately, it is the responsibility of the mother to ensure that the family is running smoothly.

When people are put under pressure, they can snap, often at the person they feel closest to. I remember when I was an adolescent, and I would constantly explode at my parents and siblings, having tantrums over ridiculous things, attacking those that loved me the most. Meanwhile, I was a stellar student and all-around "perfect child" outside the house. My father once asked me why I acted like this at home when I was so sweet, quiet, and kind to everyone else. Quite simply, I had to let off some steam, and I knew that, even after all the yelling and screaming, my family would still love me at the end of the day.

Who can really fault Kate for letting off some steam? Yes, she chose some pretty petty things to attack Jon for, but who is to say that was not just one element of a larger fight, edited for better television? Perhaps she was looking to pick a fight, just to make herself feel better, just to let off some steam, knowing in her heart that Jon would still love her at the end of the day.

We, as viewers, are dependant on the editors at TLC to provide us with a realistic picture of what happens in the Gosselin household. While I'm shaky on the exact timeline of filming, but hours and hours of footage are filed down to a mere 22 minutes of programming. And this does not consider what happens behind closed doors. The show is a product, designed for mass-consuption, not a series of home-videos for the benefit of the Gosselin family. Ratings for the show are higher than ever now that the tabloids have latched their teeth into the familial crisis in the "perfect imperfect family". TLC is benefiting financially from their turmoil. It is in the best interest of the network to edit scenes that show Kate being domineering and emasculating, depicting Jon as the innocent victim of her relentless demands. Who are we to say that Kate is not apologizing moments after she explodes, but it is conveniently edited out of the final product? Yes, Kate clearly retains some control over what is included in the episodes, but she is no idiot -- episodes including their fights garner high ratings, and high ratings garner high pay checks. Perhaps she has decided that a little character defamation is worth a larger bank account.

I shed tears when I watched the announcement of their separation on their show. It wasn't the show of (possibly well-acted) emotions displayed by the couple that moved me, but the pain I knew had to be lurking under the TV-ready appearances. They both spit out the word "separate", as though saying it quickly could diminish its sting, the pain of its reality. Watching the episode, I felt as though I was intruding on something incredibly private. A family is imploding, and we are devouring it as though it is a sitcom, as though the actors can walk away from the set and resume their normal, happy lives, when it is reality for this couple and their eight children. If we knew this couple from church, or from our children's pre-school, would we react with the same venom?

My intention is not to defend Kate. The admiration I felt for Kate a year ago has dwindled and faded away. I do feel that she is exploiting her children by continuing to film this show, particularly now that the children are experiencing the trauma of watching their parents' marriage dissolve on prime-time TV. I am disgusted by the way I have seen her treat her children in recent episodes, although admittedly, I do not know how I would react to my child if I were watching a play-by-play of my relationship woes on the tabloid covers. If the peace and security of her children is truly her ultimate objective, she needs to pull the plug on the show, and with haste. I do not feel anger towards her, nor do I feel sympathy.

I just feel pity.

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