Monday, December 1, 2008

Reality TV - Jon and Kate plus 8

I, too, watched the reality show Jon and Kate plus 8 for this assignment. I had never heard of, much less seen, this TLC show about a couple, their twins and their sextuplets. I watched the episode “Mr. Mom,” whose premise was that Kate went away for the weekend due to her work, and Jon was left alone with all eight children. This episode enforced gender roles within marriage to an extreme, specifically the ideas of the wife as the emotional and ridiculous homemaker and the husband as the fun, active parent who is too busy to be bothered with women’s stuff.
This show does not try to hide the fact that it is about family – a specific type of family. During the intro Kate says the line “we are a family, and we’re in this together.” Based on clues I could find throughout the show, this family is upper-middle class (they have a nice house and large yard), Christian (Jon mentions the Bible), and patriotic (they put out flags for September 11th). As RFLD posted, the family is racially mixed and subscribes wholeheartedly to gender roles, which form the center of this episode.
First of all, there is a distinct sense that Kate going away for work is an unusual occurrence. We also find out that Kate’s weekend job is focused on spreading the idea of packing lunches to save money, which she connects to her family and children. Early on in the show, during one of the scenes where Jon and Kate sit on a loveseat together, chatting about what’s going on in the show, Jon says, “she’s good with the cooking, the ‘house stuff’ and I do the entertaining, firing them up.” They both nod and agree pleasantly with this statement, and joke about how Jon had to take pictures of the lunches Kate packed to understand what to feed the kids in her absence. Kate comments, “I guess that’s a man’s way of doing it – take pictures,” and Jon responds,“then I don’t have to listen.” Every one of these comments plays on a stereotype of women as focused on “domestic” matters such as food to the point of being silly about it, while men are laid back and unconcerned with such trivial matters.
As we soon find out, however, Jon isn’t actually doing the cooking while Kate is gone – she made food before she left and all he has to do is heat it. Jon’s inability to cook points to another common stereotype that goes hand in hand with the one I previously mentioned – that men are like children themselves when it comes to household manners, and must be catered to and cared for. I have found this concept repeatedly in my life, from my own home where my mother jokes about her three kids – me, my brother and my Dad - to my host family in Chile, where my host Mom fixed both her husbands and her son’s plates, down to the condiments.
Another area where gender roles get played out in a ridiculous manner, is in the discussion about Kate calling Jon in the morning. He complains that it was stupid for her to call at 7:20, when she knows he was getting the kids on the bus. She replies in a whiny voice “I was sad.” He reprimands her in a friendly, but assertive tone, and she apologizes meekly. A few scenes later, Kate cries with joy as she sees that Jon videotaped the kids doing an art project for her, with adorable spoken messages from the kids to Kate. Jon’s comment is “You’re getting emotional.” Both these scenes play on the prevalent idea that women are irrationally emotional, and men know better.
Finally, at the end of the show Kate announces that she has learned that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Then she prompts Jon to explain what he has learned, trying to get him to credit her for all the work she does around the house. Jon jokes about the matter, first understating the situation, and then exaggerating his praise for Kate, to which she replies “You don’t need to praise me.” Kate is appreciative and straightforward with Jon about his role in the household, but Jon refuses to offer her direct sincere thanks.
This show summed up perfectly the way that gender roles are conceived within a heterosexual parenting couple. I felt annoyed by Jon’s arrogance, and found Kate’s passivity and gushing plain obnoxious. Yet, these people embody the American ideal for so many people, and indeed, they echo my own parents. While Jon and Kate plus 8 offers a contrived and exaggerated idea of the perfect American nuclear family, the stereotypes they play up and disseminate to viewers, who are most likely women, can easily encourage women to buy into sexism that relegates them to the role of the appreciative, apologetic, acquiescing housewife that Kate appears to be in the episode “Mr. Mom.”

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