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Repost: Jon & Kate Plus… eight or ten cameras, dozens of video editors, thousands of dollars…

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April 17th, 2008

Editor’s Note: for some very odd reason which I cannot understand (any WordPress experts out there want to weigh in?), a recent WIMN’s Voices post by guest blogger Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser about the reality TV show “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” has disappeared from the front page of the blog, as well as the archives. That link should bring you to the previous version of the post, which generated an interesting discussion among readers in the comments.

The following is the full text of the post:

Jon & Kate Plus… eight or ten cameras, dozens of video editors, thousands of dollars…
By Guest Blogger Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Maybe it’s not surprising, given our culture’s longstanding fascination with multiples, that the Discovery channel would dream up a reality television show—“Jon and Kate Plus Eight”—about the Gosselin family. After all, barely thirtysomethings Jon and Kate Gosselin are parents to not just one set of multiples but two sets. And while seven year-old Cara and Mady are garden variety multiples (twins), their siblings vault the family into the not-your-typical-family category: the couple’s “higher order multiples” are sextuplets, now three years old, and it’s these three boys and three girls who comprise the rest of the Gosselin tribe.

Just to set the scene… this is a seemingly financially comfortable suburban family with house, super-sized van and a second mini-van, and new, matching clothing (the little girls’ clothes match, the big girls’ clothes match, the boys’ clothes match) for the eight kids. Each episode has a theme, such as re-carpeting the house, the annual family photo shoot, or simply a day in the life. Although some might go stir crazy on “typical” days (since mom plus six do not leave the house), either Kate really runs a super tight ship or, more likely, producers selectively create a sanitized picture of how life with eight children actually goes. The overarching spin is that while life with all these children is chaotic, the chaos is pleasant and appealing, even enviable (such aspirational domestic scene-setting is all the better for sponsors such as Johnson and Johnson or Life cereal).

I find the media about the Gosselins rather amazing. Although the health risks associated with higher order multiples are well documented and often staggering, little has been written on this topic in relation to the Gosselin family (whose children, admittedly, are healthy). The PR for the program—including a recent feature on Oprah—unquestioningly relays Kate’s assertion they had these six children because it was God’s plan. Even when Kate Gosselin is queried about this decision and is open about that answer, no follow-up questions ensue.

Yet in an interview with Parent Dish, Kate explains that both pregnancies were conceived through intrauterine insemination (IUI). On the website for the original film about the Gosselins, entitled “Surviving Sextuplets and Twins,” the moment that the Gosselins discovered there were seven embryos (one subsequently melted away), they professed to feeling “devastated,” worried about how they’d care for and finance a family of nine children but adamant about going forth with all seven (turned six). Their fears didn’t especially seem to include health concerns. On the official family website, Kate Gosselin recalls her doctor’s urging reduction (for the second time, despite having gone ahead and done the insemination with over-stimulated ovaries for a couple who had already stated their opposition to reduction) and her response: “I pulled myself together and stared right at him and said ‘We’re not doing reduction!’” Religious beliefs prevented the couple from any consideration of electing to carry fewer embryos.

Only local (to the Gosselin family) news stories such as this one in the Reading Eagle covered things like the Gosselins’ seeking extended Medicaid benefits to keep a nurse employed at home after the one year mark (the family was given this help due to the family’s unusual circumstance of having such a high number of premature babies to care for at once). The judge ruled the family no longer required a nurse at the state’s expense (a decision the Gosselins appealed). Other than on blog posts, the media did not use this story about six kids plus two in order to raise questions about issues like medical responsibility, how Medicaid covers all premature babies regardless of the family’s economic situation or electing to produce such an extremely large family (one could argue that on welfare, for example, a woman’s subsequent children after her benefits begin are not covered: no similar cap has ever been proposed for babies above and beyond a certain number when conceived by fertility treatments), or even a story examining more critically why the public gets so gosh darned fascinated with multiples. Notable, too, is how tightly controlled the marketing and public relations blitz about this family is in order to highlight their so-called normalcy and picture-perfect appeal. Overall, the presentation of the Gosselin family as they want it to go is extraordinarily successful. Kate Gosselin has a book deal with a Christian publisher to pen a tome that includes her family’s story and her parenting advice.

While they seem to be grasping the ring of the American Dream, the Gosselins aren’t lily white; Jon is half-Korean (neither set of grandparents is apparently part of daily life with the family, so we don’t see his Korean mother). Korean culture isn’t part of the family’s daily life, although Kate talks about being glad that the kids have prominent Asian features, saying she’d wanted “little China dolls” (of course, no deconstruction of this sentiment is available on the show). Yet while this family gets so much ongoing attention, no reality show filming has begun about the Harris sextuplets, the first African American sextuplets. It goes almost without saying how rare it would be for a middle class (or more affluent) African American family to become really high profile for being high functioning or cute or inspiring (as the Obamas can attest, you’d have to run for President or something… or perhaps just fictional and living in the 1980s next door to the Cosby Show’s Huxtibles). And obviously, stories with heartbreak, such as that belonging to a Minnesota couple, the Morrisons, who lost three of their six preemies don’t make for great television series. But those stories—higher order multiples with ongoing health problems, for example—are much more common than the Gosselins’ incredible good fortune to have six healthy children as the outcome of this mother’s extremely high-risk pregnancy (check out a fascinating blog, Neonatal Doc).

My personal impression—which formed as I watched Kate place red felt “Valentine pouches” on the back of each child’s chair at the breakfast table to fill with Valentine’s surprises, just “little things” because this holiday’s “all about love”—is that the show essentially portrays a Martha Stewart brand of parent springing off the parenting magazine page and into ready-for-television action. Valentine’s Day, for example, included heart-shaped pancakes and sandwiches and cookies, a treasure hunt, and more little gifts (you can almost leaf through the hypothetical parenting magazine’s pages to read more specifics about heart-shaped cookie cutters and perfect holiday-inspired gifts that can be purchased for less than ten dollars. In a sense, the program promotes a suburban dream or nightmare (take your pick) as it documents a very large suburban family. After thinking about Jon and Kate rather obsessively for a couple of days (now, let me stop… please), I realize that the show’s appeal is less about her color-coded methods for keeping things organized (or her gazillion loads of laundry or excessive use of paper plates) but really that the Gosselins get to be super special (and treated quite often like royalty, with producer-funded private tours at the train museum or professional photo shoots most families couldn’t justify as a line item on the annual budget) for being “normal.” Save for the leap from a million loads of laundry to a gazillion, they are just like (some fantastical, consumer-driven) form of “us.” It’s not that many people aspire to raising ten children ages seven and three; it’s that people may aspire to make normalcy—whatever exactly that means to each viewer—extraordinary and noteworthy and mainly, special.

And with that aspirational theme, you can bet that Jon and Kate’s advertisers are banking on viewers shifting their purchasing patterns in attempt to pursue the kind of “special” normalcy packaged and promoted by the series and, by proxy, promised by the products that sponsor it.

Guest Blogger Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a regular contributor to Mothers Movement Online and has a monthly column at NPR’s Justice Talking blog as well as writing for many other publications. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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