TLC as a Sideshow: Final Reflections

by Tori Warenik, Abigail Gautreau, and Katie Stringer

Tori: Over the last couple of months I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the type of TV we as a society are being shown. Specifically, it’s been interesting to think about TLC and their offerings. Before I began this investigation I had so many preconceived notions about American Gypsies and the Duggers that I just thought I would be presenting my initial biased, admittedly close-minded, view. Instead, after doing some research on both shows, it became simple to separate my personal thoughts about the people involved on the shows with the company who airs them.

I have come to find that TLC, much like other channels, panders to their viewers and is just as biased as the rest of us. During a time when TV networks pride themselves on their partisanship (ala Fox News, CSNBC, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) we shouldn’t be surprised this would be the case for TLC. And yet, given TLC’s brand is based on “The Learning Channel,” what are they actually teaching us? That it is utterly ridiculous to get married so young in the Gypsy culture (but they do it anyway) and completely acceptable to get married and have 19 kids if you’re able to sustain your family? In the end, people watch TLC for the entertainment, not an education which leaves me with one final, unanswerable, question: is this what TLC wants from their programming?

Abigail: First of all, I’d like to thank Katie and Tori for taking the time to have this slightly more formal conversation about this particular moment in popular culture. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts, and I had a lot of fun writing mine.

Sister Wives

This is probably the time when I should make some great announcement as to whether TLC is the modern sideshow, but since I’m still safely ensconced in the ivory tower, I’ll use my academic prerogative to challenge the question rather than simply answering it. If we consider the sideshow a place where people could safely view the “other,” than yes, TLC is certainly such a place. From the comfort of our own couches, we can sit back and wonder at the titillating questions raised by Abby and Brittany and Sister Wives or gawk at the lifestyle choices of the Duggers and Honey Boo Boo’s family. At the same time, TLC is hardly the only place where such programming exists. A&E, Nat Geo, and even The History Channel offer similar programs (after all, there are shows on hoarding on TLC and A&E, and Nat Geo’s Taboo often includes the same people featured on TLC’s My Strange Addiction or My Weird Obsession). If it’s a sideshow network, then it’s hardly alone.

Calling any program a sideshow has connotations of exploitation. Katie is far better suited to answering the question of whether sideshows are inherently exploitative in nature, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t think the TLC programs are. One of the themes that came up again and again as I watched these shows and read about them was the extent to which the subjects control their own narratives. It’s also clear that these people are being compensated by TLC for appearing on the program, though it’s unclear how much money is involved in the agreements. Whatever we may think of these stars of “reality” television, I, for one, hope they are using their fame to their advantage.

She is full of wisdom.

It’s also probably worth a reminder that when we talk about popular culture, and especially about the stars of “sideshow” programming, we are really talking about ourselves. So whether you love Honey Boo Boo or just love to hate her, do yourself a favor and take a minute to think about why.

Katie: I’m so happy that after months of watching all of the TLC shows unfold before our very eyes the three of us were finally able to sit down an put together a blog series on our thoughts, questions, and ideas.  Thanks so much to Tori and Abby for participating!

As I’ve said before, this is a topic that I feel I could write about for each of the shows, probably multiple times.  Last night during the Sister Wives premiere (which Abby and I g-chatted through “Kody is such a fool!”) I saw promos for a show about the wives of Sin City and another about the Amish Mafia.  While is is really more fodder for the freakshow fire, I still do wonder how educational it is?

Since Abby and Tori summed up a lot of thoughts from this series, I can’t help but go back to the History Channel (as I always seem to do), which in the not too distant past did show documentaries about castles, Vikings, The “Dark” Ages (they weren’t that dark!!!), and of course, Hitler.  With the reality TV of Swamp People,  Mountain Men, and Hairy Bikers  it seems like they are focusing on the out-liers (and MEN) of society to draw visitors to see something weird or strange rather than actual history (ya know, from the past).  Yes, History is made every day, but aren’t there other channels for that?  What is the education value here?

The flip side to that is, what happens when educational programming actually occurs?  I will admit that How the States Got Their Shapes is educational and pretty fun, which proves that this is a possibility.   I also got a text from Abby that there is a new show called I Love the 1880s;  while this is an obvious play on the I love the... series on VH1, Abby pointed out that it isn’t about the 1880s.  I haven’t watched enough to know if this is something worth watching, educational, or just silly, but I’m not sure how well relating to teenagers is working out for the network with this theme.

Watch, as four white males survey the beautiful country that they built (seemingly) without the help of immigrants, non-whites, slaves, women, or anyone else that isn’t rich and gloriously ivory.

My last example from the History Channel of “actual educational programs” is the warning vibes that I got, just from the titles really, of Mankind: The Story of All of Us and The Men Who Built America.  The former may cover all genders and races, but the title seems to appeal to the male demographics the history channel reaches, and from the short clip that I watched (which enraged me), no women were shown. On principle I pretty much refuse to watch The Men Who Built America because I think traditional history classes and the “great books” and everything else in the world has covered the stories of the rich, white men more than enough.  Is this seriously a show?

Maybe I’m just irked that the History Channel caters so much to men and leaves women and minorities out of the picture so much; maybe I’m irked that this shows a skewed history; maybe this should become another blog series…

As I digress, I do think that television in general has replaced the sideshow, the freakshow, the circus, the gladiatorial ring, and so forth. As technologies and interests grow and change, perhaps this is simply the next evolution in the presentation of “the other” for entertainment and, in some small way, education.  People are always curious about the strange and the different, so it makes sense that there would be television programs that address that.  Perhaps society is more comfortable watching, asking questions, and maybe even silently (or vocally) judging the different people/lifestyles/choices/disabilities/whatever than they would be in a public forum.  My only remaining question is, how long will this trend continue on educational television networks?

Sister Wives

Guest post by Abigail Gautreau
Buzzfeed recently published a history of TLC, and the unspoken punchline was that the channel has deviated from it original mission as a home of education programming. While this is certainly true in some respects, I would argue that although the programs (and especially their commercials) have become much more sensationalized, many of the programs are still educational inasmuch as they offer a window into how people who do not fit into the standard media paradigms live. People who have seen commercials for programs like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Sister Wives, but have not actually watched the shows, are often surprised by the programs themselves. Although TLC uses sensationalized clips to advertise their programming, the narratives presented on the programs appear to be heavily guided by the subjects themselves. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Sister Wives, which follows the lives of Kody Brown, his four wives, and their 17 children.

Meri, Jannelle, Kody, Christine, and Robyn Brown

Sister Wives is notable for its candid discussions about the challenges of a polygamist lifestyle, which go beyond its illegality* (and which required the family to leave Utah and move to Las Vegas in Season 2). Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn all discuss the personal challenges their lifestyle creates for them, and often do so with an eye to the questions that monogamists might have. Jealousy is probably the most commonly mentioned theme, and they all frequently make bashful comments about their more intimate relationships, constantly reiterating that they have four separate marriages. These conversations make the program more interesting and set it apart from shows that focus on the collapse of relationships; these five adults talk at length about the challenges they face in nurturing their relationships with each other. The overall picture they present is of an ordinary family working to cope with a unique situation, which is somewhat refreshing. At the same time, it’s also clear that one of the goals of the program is to legitimize this lifestyle choice to a broader national audience. This is not unusual in TLC’s programming lineup: 19 Kids and Counting and Jon & Kate Plus 8 follow similar guidelines. The superficiality of the narrative, however, became evident in the third season finale.

Interview after Season Finale

Breaking with its normal formatting, the final episode of Season Three featured Kody and his wives being interviewed by Natalie Morales. The show included several remarkably candid moments that broke with the image the five had crafted over three seasons. Kody openly revealed that he was initially repulsed by third wife Christine’s body (a moment made more dramatic by the fact that the three older wives had been struggling with their health and fitness in the third season). Meri talked about feeling devalued because of her fertility challenges (she only has one child). The tension between the wives was explored in much greater depth than usual, due in part to the recent publication of the Browns’ book, Becoming Sister Wives. While this episode was remarkable in many ways, its true significance lies in the fact that it revealed how performed the previous three seasons were, and the extent to which TLC allowed the subjects to control how they were represented to the audience and pursue their own agenda.

(Most of) The Brown Family

While this contributes to the intimate and non-voyeuristic feel of TLC’s reality programming, it raises important questions about TLC’s role as a platform for groups with political or social agendas. The Brown family’s goal is clearly to legitimize their lifestyle, particularly given that much of the publicity related to polygamy comes from the activities of the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), an organization usually labeled a cult that was/is headed by Warren Jeffs. The Browns are careful to separate themselves both from the Mormon Church (which no longer recognizes polygamy) and the FLDS, a delineation made clear by the fact that the Brown wives cut their hair and wear modern clothing. This middle ground, however, is clearly a hard place to find purchase, given the Browns’ struggles with their own relationships. Their choice to position themselves as representatives of a lifestyle makes their own foibles and passing comments fodder for critics as well as their considerable fan base. Interestingly, the Browns rarely discuss their religious beliefs in depth (they are members of the Apostolic United Brethren church, which encourages transparency along with plural marriage), choosing to allow their example to make their case for them. Despite the criticism the Browns have received, they have clearly done a great deal to normalize perceptions of polygamy (or plural marriage, as it is generally called). The program has also appeared at a somewhat interesting moment for the Mormon Church, which has gone to great lengths to distance itself from polygamy while the first Mormon presidential nominee takes the national stage.

Although the Browns have gone to great lengths to set the tone of the discussion about their lifestyle, they do not do so in a vacuum. Sister Wives appears alongside fictional programs like Big Love and news stories like the successful prosecution of Warren Jeffs. While these events may derail the discussion the Browns want to have about their lifestyle, they no doubt also help them attract a much wider audience. Whether they come to gawk or admire, these viewers are unwittingly participating in an advertising campaign for the decriminalization of plural marriage.
*Kody is only legally married to his first wife, Meri (the rest are “spiritual unions”), but the fact that they all shared a single residence divided into three apartments meant that they violated common law marriage statutes.

 

Abigail Gautreau is a Public History PhD student at Middle Tennessee State University. Her research focuses on how marginalized people use history and heritage to stake out political identity. Her website is http://thepastpresently.wordpress.com.