Mommie Dearest: Bravo Is Serving Up Some “Extreme Parenting”

There’s a new reality show coming to Bravo this Thursday: “Extreme Guide to Parenting” will be an hour-long show that follows the lives of a variety of families, all living on the “extreme” edge of parenting. Several stereotypical parenting philosophies will be represented, from the helicoptering couple to the overly attached attachment parents, authoritative parents who push their kids to excel at everything, and even a mom who hypnotizes her husband and children.

This isn’t the first time reality television has tackled parenting: The Gosselins (of TLC’s “Jon & Kate Plus Eight”) have been gracing our TV sets since 2005 while the Duggars and their ever growing family (currently at 19 kids and counting), have been with us since 2008. In between we’ve seen parenting- and family-related reality shows like “Wife Swap,” “Trading Spouses,” “Nanny 911,” “Supernanny,” “16 & Pregnant,” “Teen Mom,” and more.

So, while Bravo isn’t the first to tackle parenting, they are the first to use parenting philosophies as a hook. And, I totally get it, because controversy sells. Bravo is just take a page from what the blog-o-sphere already has a tight handle on. The hyper-disciplining of Tiger Mom was all over the web as folks weighed in on Amy Chua’s extreme parenting. And a random blogger can’t even write one sentence about not-vaccinating before simultaneously being paraded like a natural saint or demonized like a societal pariah. This show is basically taking all of those viral blog posts about extreme parenting and putting them in video form. Those posts we love to hate-read will now play out in live action form for us to… hate-watch.

I have a complicated relationship with reality TV. I’m mildly obsessed with many reality TV shows (oh hey “Housewives,” I’m looking at you) because they’re easy escapes from everyday life, you don’t need to be too invested in the shows to follow them, and I maybe feel a wee bit better about my own life after watching the inflated, over-the-top drama other folks are dealing with (er, are being paid to deal with). At the same time, I understand the serious negative issues that accompany most reality television, especially when it comes to depictions of race, class, and gender.

Thankfully I was able to turn to Jennifer Pozner, reality TV expert and author of Reality Bites Back for some advice. Pozner reminded me about the way these types of show have fanned the flames of the so-called “mommy wars”:

“If moms were stay-at-home-moms they were seen as lazy and not pulling their own weight bringing money into the household. If they worked outside the home, they were portrayed as selfish and greedy and weren’t spending enough time with their kids. The idea was – women can’t win no matter what. The frame for shows like Wife Swap or Nanny 911 showed women as failures or incompetent, no matter what – whether you worked out of the home or stayed at home.”

I’ll be curious to see how “Extreme Guide to Parenting” frames folks like the Valencia family, who according to Bravo’s site: “…want their children to be warriors: people who show aggressiveness and courage, know how to defend themselves. Warrior children do not complain about their punishments which often include physical activities like planks, pushups and wall sits.” And their direct opposites, the Axeness family, who are a “couple [that] practices “conscious attachment” parenting which is an emotional and physical bond between parent and child in which parents do not let the child out of their sight. Common actions include co-sleeping, breastfeeding and baby-wearing.” While there are natural dichotomies in many of the forms of parenting portrayed on the show, I wonder how much they’ll be pitted against each other via editing, and whether any will emerge as “better” than all the rest.

I asked Pozner about my penchant for hate-watching and whether it was too guilty of a pleasure to indulge in. “I think hate-watching is really fun in a lot of ways, but I think that hate-watching is often as light on analysis as regular watching,” she said, continuing:

“What we need to be doing — especially with reality TV — is watching with our critical filters on. We need to be thinking about text versus subtext. We need to be thinking about frame and format and manipulation. When we hate-watch, we often fool ourselves into thinking that we are being extremely critical, but what we’re often doing is being critical of the people themselves and not the structure in which the people are being manipulated. What we need is to understand that people in reality shows are never really who they appear to be. Sometimes they might be 10 percent of that person or 50 percent or 70 percent of what producers make them appear to be. So when we hate-watch, we redirect what could be a powerful instinct toward thinking more deeply about the fucked up structures of reality TV in the guise of having fun.”

I’m certain “Extreme Guide To Parenting” will be sharing a somewhat skewed version of these families’ realities. But I’ll still be tuning in this Thursday with a with a cup of watered down haterade in one hand and my media literacy glasses in the other. Who will be joining me?

P.S. Based on the production company involved, I’m almost 99 percent sure this was the TV show I was emailed about last year. Bullet dodged or missed opportunity? Hmm …

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto. Her book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, is out now. Follow her on Twitter.