'Jon & Kate Plus Eight': How it became a media and Internet punching bag
On Monday night, the big “announcement” promised by Jon & Kate Plus Eight will be revealed. The prevailing guess is: divorce. When TLC began promoting this hour-long special earlier this week, I started hearing from some people that they thought announcing one’s divorce via a TV show was crass and reprehensible. My first thought was, well, sure, most of us were taught that grave private matters like this should remain just that: private. But… really? In an age of stuff like Rock of Love, Celebrity Rehab, Big Brother, and other reality-TV that doesn’t exactly have much in the way of dignified reserve or moral uplift, I have a hard time mustering outrage that Jon and Kate are doing something contemptuous.
Whether you view it as a business decision or a matter of honesty, when you’ve become public figures the way Jon and Kate Gosselin have, information about changes to the fundamental nature of their show need to be addressed. (Let’s face it, even if they don’t announce a separation or divorce, this is not the same happy-happy-joy-joy family-show it was when it premiered in 2007.) So there’s a level on which announcing their news on their own TV show — the only forum left for them to release information the way they want it disseminated, rather than letting it leak to entertainment-news shows or have its context spun by an interviewer in a print or TV outlet — is just plain common sense, if you look at it from their point of view.
But these instant complaints about the Gosselins only make it more obvious than ever how quickly Jon & Kate Plus Eight went from being a heartwarming little cable TV show to a litmus test for how you feel about child-bearing and -rearing, and about the role and responsibilities that an “ordinary” person takes on when he or she becomes a celebrity. It’s undeniable that the more successful the show became, even before the couple’s marital problems, the more ramped-up and heated the criticism of its subjects.
For most of its history, Jon & Kate operated under the pop culture radar. That’s because the demo it attracted wasn’t the one most mass-media outlets are chasing these days: It was enjoyed primarily, I’d guess, by non-twentysomethings with kids of their own. Just as people in their teens and 20s watch The Bachelor and A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila for the romance and the risque campiness, so did Jon & Kate viewers enjoy comparing parenting styles and saying a silent, “Thank goodness I don’t have that many kids, as cute as they are.”
And right from the start, there was an undercurrent of anti-Jon & Kate sentiment. It sprouted on blogs like gosselinswithoutpity and kateisashrew. These sites were among the first places that started taking the Gosselins to task for Kate’s bossiness, the couple’s willingness to accept free household items and trips in return for having their lives taped. After a while, these sentiments seeped into more mainstream places, including Entertainment Weekly. I reviewed the first couple of seasons of the show postively — so positively, TLC quoted from one of my reviews in their TV ads. Like a lot of viewers, however, I also began to think that Kate’s bossiness toward Jon sometimes seemed more like bullying or humiliation, and occasionally wrote about that element as well.
But when the pair started having marital problems, everything exploded. The backlash now seems to have gone way too far and cruelly against the Gosselins. It’s one thing for a viewer to worry — and this is the hallowed phrase you read, over and over — “about the children.” It’s another thing, however, to call Kate a “fame whore” and worse.
Meanwhile, the tabloids discovered Jon & Kate with a real vengeance, building the narrative that has now taken over the show… and, perhaps, the Gosselins’ lives. Late-night talk shows make jokes about the show, even as the hosts act as though they have no idea who the Gosselins are. (“What is the deal with the Jon & Kate?” asked David Letterman just last night.) The implied message: these people aren’t worth knowing.
Well, you could probably say that about 98% of the people on reality-TV shows. I still maintain that, once upon a time, Jon and Kate and those eight kids were lots of fun to watch, and not in a jeering, let’s-make-fun-of-them way, but as a portrait of a complex marriage, and as a light-hearted chronicle of the growth of those kids. But now, who knows where it will end? Maybe Monday night, we’ll get some clues to the answer to that question.
What do you think?