I recently received an email from a talent agent who is working with a production company specializing in reality television. This particular company, which has produced a number of popular (and apparently award-winning) reality shows, is looking to turn their lens on families. They reached out to me as a potential subject.
The talent agent started his email by complimenting my writing and said he enjoys following my work. Flattery will get you
nowhere everywhere. He suggested that this opportunity might be a way to share my “expertise and insight” with a larger audience. He provided a few more details, then invited my to set up a time to have an on camera interview with them to see if it was a good fit.
And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t the slightest bit tempted.
But here’s the thing — while being courted to be on television sounds all sorts of glamorous, I’m also not a total idiot. In fact, what I am is somebody who indulges in the watching of reality television more than occasionally, and I’d be a fool if I didn’t know how those things usually end up. The reason many of us are drawn to these types of shows is because of the drama (whether “real” or not), the interpersonal relationships, and the ability to focus on other people’s (usually absurd) problems for a bit.
There’s also the other fact that most reality television isn’t, well, real. It’s not like I’m ripping back the magic curtain when I say that a lot of reality television is scripted in some sense, and that methodical editing plays a huge part in presenting certain storylines. Once in awhile a production company might hit reality television gold, unearthing a family or workplace that genuinely has that “it” factor without needing a bit of prodding or heavy-handed editing to create interest (though, that’s not to say that these folks aren’t exploited in some way).
But for the most part, we end up with stuff like the Kardashians and the “Real” Housewives franchise, which are anything but authentic.
It’s understandable. Would anybody truly be interested in most people’s real lives versus “reality” lives? Take the proposed show I was invited to interview for. This production company is hoping to follow families who have a “unique perspective” when it comes to parenting, which is really code for “how extreme can we make you look?” Because otherwise? It would be pretty boring. To be honest, I’m not sure anyone would watch a true reality show involving my family. What would pull them in? The 10-minute discussion I have with my son each morning debating the virtues of waffles versus oatmeal? Perhaps they’d like to watch me tug my hair in frustration while I tackle our taxes? Then, there’s always the time after my son goes to bed when my husband and I are engaged in a heated battle of Rummikub while we debate whether to watch “Elementary” or “Suits.”
However, I can also see how crafty television producers could spin things. They could focus on our “free-range” style of parenting and zoom in on my son sitting by himself at a casual dining restaurant while I’m clear across the place (without an eye on him!) chatting with a friend I bumped into while a crescendo of music swells in the background as strangers walk by my son. I could only imagine the wagging of the tongues that would occur from couches across the country as folks watch images of my son playing solo outside while I sit peacefully reading a book indoors, just as I certainly allow some judgmental thoughts to pass through my mind while hate-watching the latest episode of “Dance Moms.”
While the 10-yea-old girl in me who dreamed of being a big Hollywood star would love to say yes to this request, I just can’t knowingly drag my family into a situation where the outcome would fall somewhere between massive exploitation and extreme shitshow. Because we all know that even with the best intentions, folks usually end up looking completely looney tunes when it comes to reality television.
Besides the potential exploitation of my family, the other main reason I couldn’t see myself participating in something like this (sorry 10-year old Avital, you’ll just have to wait for another big break), is that I don’t want to have a hand in contributing to a culture that takes the worst qualities of people, shines a spotlight on them, and promotes it as quality television. Reality TV hardly represents reality in this country. Most shows focus on white, middle-class, heteronomative people, neglecting huge portions of our country while promoting false ideals. They’re also showing manufactured and sensationalized versions of reality — probably because actual reality is for the most part freaking boring.
The bottom line is that parenting itself already comes with a heaping helping of judgment attached to it. I’m not so keen to willingly allow a production company carte blanche to put their premeditated spin on my family. I also don’t want to have a hand in an industry that knowingly trades on these judgements and exploits others for profit in the name of “reality.”
Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto.