For a while, it seemed like shows about “wives” were all the rage. “Real Housewives”, “Wife Swap”, “Sister Wives”, “Mob Wives” and coming soon to TLC, “Preacher Wives!” Those shows aren’t going anywhere, but now there’s also an ever-growing “bump” of mommy and baby reality shows, all of which goes to show that women are still largely defined by the titles of “wife” and “mom”. (How many shows are exclusively about husbands or dads?)
Also, like it or not, women are still seen as the primary caregivers and the primary parents, and for whatever reason, people feel fully justified — if not righteous — in criticizing the way mothers parent, in a way that they wouldn’t for a dad. Dads just aren’t held as accountable, no matter how progressive we may have become with regard to gender roles and parenting. It’s a shame, really, how many of these shows are made purely to ridicule moms and set them up to be ripped apart by viewers and especially by other moms.
Having said all this, of course I watch reality shows about moms. I’m not particularly proud of it. Reality TV in general is not exactly high art, but it obviously scratches some kind of itch in our culture, and there’s room for both “quality” shows and low-brow series. (I’m okay with my regular Sunday night routine of watching “Mad Men” and “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” in immediate succession, for example.) So, in honor of Mother’s Day this weekend, here are a few mom-themed reality shows that I can’t help but watch, despite the mild chagrin it causes me.
“Dance Moms” (Lifetime)
I watch this show not so much for the moms as the dance school matriarch, Abby Lee Miller, a larger-than-life dance instructor at the Abby Lee Dance Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The show follows her reign over a group of young dancers and their moms.
The girls are more or less pawns in the power struggles that go on between the mothers and Abby. This is voyeuristic television, to be sure. Unlike “16 and Pregnant” or “Teen Mom”, I’m not looking for any journeys of the human heart, I’m mostly watching to find out how much the mothers will be able to tolerate from Abby. Will little Nia really end up wearing that ’70s Afro wig? (Yup.) Will the moms give disapproving looks but still allow the girls to shimmy and gyrate, Xtina-style, all over the stage? (You bet.) Will the chilling “artsy” dance number about child abduction win over the judges but creep out the moms/everyone else in the world? (Yes and oh, yes.)
I also watch because I enjoy shows in which creative people do interesting things and, love her or hate her, Abby certainly does interesting things. I am endlessly curious about what routine she’ll come up with next and what costumes the girls will have to endure while doing some genuinely impressive dance moves. That’s the other thing: the girls are talented, and in the simplest terms it can be joyful to watch kids dance.
It can also be horrifying and sad and hilarious and weird. So I watch for those reasons, too. Duh.
“16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” (MTV)
Unlike the other shows listed here, I don’t take much pleasure, per se, in watching these MTV shows which are, as you may have guessed, about teenagers who have babies. “16 and Pregnant” follows teens through the pregnancy and delivery, ending each episode with a follow-up peek at the new moms (and sometimes dads) and how they’re dealing with motherhood. “Teen Mom” follows some of the girls who were on “16 and Pregnant” as they figure out their lives as mothers: struggling with feeling like they’re still kids with little independence who also happen to be saddled with the greatest responsibility anyone (young or old) could take on.
I have great sympathy for these girls who thought the biggest problems they’d face junior year would be picking out prom dresses and landing a part-time job at the Alamo Freeze (clear eyes, full hearts, y’all). I wonder if I watch to see how these young people cope with this gigantic life change because I have no idea how I would have coped with something like that when I was their age. As an angsty teen, one comment from an exasperated teacher would send me lying face-down on my floor with Garbage, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Tori Amos and the Cure on rotation in my five-disc CD changer. A baby? That would’ve sent me reeling right out to sea.
But many of these girls handle the stress of their new lives with remarkable maturity, given the circumstances. It’s easy to see why the show works: there’s virtually endless material to be mined here, between the girls’ experiences and those of their parents, girlfriends and, not least of all, the baby daddies. It’s fascinating to see these boy-men, awkward in their new bodies and spotty facial hair, struck with the realization that just as they were starting to plan out their lives, they created new life. Out of the blue. It’s terrifying to them and they often react by pretending that they don’t care at all when they clearly care immensely. This aspect can be the most heart-wrenching to watch because the boys so often seem to be just entirely dismayed by the situation (while the girls, at least at some points, might have a little bit of joy or excitement about their babies).
It’s still MTV and there’s still something about watching these shows that makes me feel icky, like I’m personally exploiting these girls. But in truth, I watch for the poignancy of the stories, and the traces of hopefulness that can glimmer around the edges.
“Pregnant in Heels” (Bravo)
I fully recognize that Bravo has some trashy reality TV going on. And yet, it’s my favorite channel for reality TV. “Real Housewives”, “Top Chef”, “Bethenny Ever After”, “Millionaire Matchmaker”, “Flipping Out”, “The Rachel Zoe Project” (and now “It’s a Brad, Brad World”) . . . um, I never listed them out like this before but yes, I regularly watch or have watched every one of these series. Like a sick patient with a morphine drip, I click on these shows to up my dosage of reality ridiculousness. I could leave Bravo on all day every day and just check out of life entirely.
Anyway, a recent addition to this list is “Pregnant in Heels” featuring British “maternity concierge” Rosie Pope and her adorable lisp. Pope runs a maternity boutique and also can be hired to assist expecting parents with baby preparedness. Like most of Bravo’s programming, this show is mostly about the obscenely wealthy and how clueless they can be. They’re so clueless! They couldn’t possibly deserve all that money! This is probably at the heart of why people watch these kinds of shows. As long as there is socioeconomic strife in this country, there will be reality shows skewering and embarrassing the rich so that those of the lesser classes can feel better about their stations in life. We may not have gotten a lifeboat off the Titanic back in the day but we can sure as hell point and laugh at the pregnant lady who gets naked and climbs on top of a horse to have her portrait painted.
Rosie Pope is a perfect choice to be at the center of this kind of thing. She herself is polished and beautiful enough to effortlessly fit right in with the upper crust, but she responds honestly to these people and their requests. Most of all, she’s completely no-nonsense when it comes to baby safety and making sure parents-to-be are prepared for, you know, keeping their newest accessory alive. She comes across as stylish, warm and businesslike all at once. She’s a voice of reason (sometimes it’s a gentle voice, sometimes not so much) in a world of such privilege that it seems far removed from the actual world, and even further removed from the messy and unpredictable experience of motherhood.
Happy Mother’s Day! What mom-centric shows do you watch?