July 17, 2013

Reality shows about parenting that best portray the zeitgeist

As part of my semi-annual check-in with current TV shows, I've been sampling the various reality shows about housewives. You don't have to like any of them to treat them like National Geographic, though that assumes they aren't the freak show kind of reality show.

Like how the first several seasons of The Real World on MTV gave a strikingly -- and painfully -- accurate view of contemporary youth culture of the early-mid-1990s. Then it devolved into gimmick-driven plots and casting based on freak show / Jerry Springer principles. You could learn a lot about the state of the world in 1992 from watching the original seasons, and really get a feel for the massive change in direction that the entire culture was taking at the time.

I've only seen two episodes, but Pretty Wicked Moms has a great contrast between a mother who would have half-way fit in back in the '70s or '80s (Emily) and her quintessentially 21st-century foil (Miranda). Emily is, by today's standards, pretty laissez-faire around her 2 year-old, unless she acts up, which results in punishment. Her daughter is outgoing, polite, and generally cheerful.

Miranda is crippled by OCD, scheduling her nearly 2 year-old son's day down to the half-hour, and lets him throw tantrums and even slap his own mother without punishment (she's insistent on the no-spanking rule). Her son is withdrawn, bratty, and embarrassing in public. And while both mothers are blonde, Emily is a go-with-the-flow Celtic type, and Miranda an overly orderly and micro-managing Nordic type.

Now, hypothetically, the differences between the kids could be inborn, and the parenting styles of the two mothers turn out different because they're reacting to different initial conditions. But I don't buy that as a general explanation. There has been such a dramatic and rapid change in parenting styles over the '90s and 21st century. That seems much more likely due to plasticity in the adult's choice of preferred parenting styles, than to such a broad change in how newborns begin life.

The show feels a little grotesque, but it is hardly rare to find hyper-OCD mothers like Miranda these days. Apparently "critical response" is negative, but then the target audience probably wants either extreme caricature for freak-show value, or whitewashing portrayals for phony uplifting value. Pretty Wicked Moms might cut a little too close to the bone.

The Real Housewives of New Jersey is definitely a freak show -- When Guidos Attack. The Real Housewives of Orange County feels that way too -- No-Longer-Girls Gone Wild. Same old boring attention-whoring and parading that's the norm among young people, but with way more leathery skin.

However, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (at least the current season that I've seen) focuses more on how the parents are raising their kids, and how they relate to each other as fellow parents in the community. Perhaps because Beverly Hills is close to the entertainment industry that produces TV shows, they haven't taken the approach of finding the grossest caricatures of out-group members to cast for a freak show (e.g., quasi-Pakistani guidos from Noo Joyzee obsessed with family honor and vengeance, gated-community Republicans from the OC, sassy independent black women from Atlanta, etc.). You actually get more of a fly-on-the-wall look into mainstream American parenting trends of the 21st century.

Often a single event will showcase so many separate though related trends. Like when one of the housewives throws a birthday party for her four year-old daughter. Each pint-sized attendee is over-shadowed by one or both parents, so that there ends up being far many more grown-ups than children at a child's birthday party.

In the good old days, when these parents were themselves children, the parents of the guests only showed up long enough to drop them off and pick them up. A birthday party is supposed to be one of those protected events where little squirts outnumber the grown-ups and get to run wild, a carnivalesque turning of the tables for one day. Being surrounded by so many grown-ups makes the kids feel like they're being supervised even more than usual, or that it's actually a celebration for the grown-ups.

And the OCD mothers running around constantly managing the children's activities at what is supposed to be a more go-nuts kind of occasion, when before they just left us alone to play among ourselves.

It being Beverly Hills, the festivities are a lot more elaborate and expensive, but I saw the same thing -- minus the rented ponies and llama -- while driving through a middle-class suburban neighborhood not far from mine.

You also get a very good overall impression for how vapid and childish women tend to remain when they're cut off from broad social contact, and instead interact only with nuclear family members and superficially with other community members. It keeps their social maturity level stunted at around that of a 10th-grader.

So over the past 20 years of the "family values revolution," we've returned to the state that Betty Friedan was bemoaning in The Feminine Mystique, and that is shown well in the character of Betty Draper on Mad Men. The exodus from the domestic sphere that raised the maturity level of the average woman by the 1980s was not so much about working for a wage vs. working as a homemaker -- it was about having broad social contact vs. kin-only contact. Just getting out of the house more, and being more connected to all those people out there.

For instance, you don't see Betty Draper volunteering at a local church, in the way that many mothers, younger and older, had taken to by the '80s height of the religious revival. Or organizing a bake sale with the other neighborhood mothers (or women in general) to raise funds for the school, library, and so on. Or donating time, money, or effort to a local historical preservation society, of the kind that were really hitting their stride in the '70s and '80s.

Inequality is a lot worse, and growing, since the Fifties, so today's neo-mid-century housewives are definitely more competitive and crass than their most recent incarnations. Still, it's striking how Leave It to Beaver the world of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills feels like. No sense of a tightly knit community -- defined by actual affective ties, not by the mere lack of open animosity or violence toward one another.

Cohesive communities belong not to the Eisenhower years (the era of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit), but to the Reagan years. The communal bonds of church life and of town hall meetings that you see in Footloose, the Hill Valley preservation society raising funds to save the town square's clock tower in Back to the Future, the entire city of New York showing up to rally around the Ghostbusters, the Cheers bar where everybody knows your name -- you don't feel that in Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best. There, it's more isolated nuclear families with at most superficial "bonds" among the family units.

So, if you're looking for a more educational experience from those 1000 channels you're paying for, tune in to Lifetime or Bravo for these two exceptions to the freak show rule of reality TV.


  1. "you don't see Betty Draper volunteering at a local church, in the way that many mothers, younger and older"

    Cliques have taken over all those organizations, and are resentful and fearful of newcomers.


  2. Cohesive communities belong not to the Eisenhower years (the era of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit), but to the Reagan years.

    I was having a look at a blog post of Turchin's linked to by GNXP a week or so ago -

    The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America


    and it cites a graph by Robert Putnam which presents a peak of voluntary association membership in 1960, with a rise more or less all the way through the first half of the Twen Cen (but a hole in the Depression Era), with decline beginning as murder rates begin to increase.

    You've reviewed Putnam favorably in the past, so I was wondering if in your view this a case of these volunteer associations not really mapping very well to actual communities (perhaps being more totally unrelated), or what.

  3. I've been meaning to talk about that very topic. The short version is that I think most of those civic organizations fell into disuse not because of a fall in cooperation during the '60s (or '70s or whenever), but because of the growth of the welfare state.

    That's the most obvious explanation, and it's surprising that the social capital folks don't discuss it more. The welfare state props up so much these days on a material / subsistence / economic level that the average person sees little need to join a labor union or Elks club.

    Face-to-face civic / political groups have similarly fallen into disuse as the welfare state has grown to such a huge scale and become administered by a bureaucracy.

    Local politics in a technocratic age isn't so much a matter of "let's form a committee to build a bridge over the creek behind the school."

    Measuring civic-mindedness, cooperation potential, and so on, requires paying close attention to the existing state of the world that the citizens face. The world that citizens faced in the '80s was totally different from in the '40s, again the biggest thing being the extensive welfare state.

    So you can't measure the same groups across these radically different periods (labor unions, Elks, etc.), or even an aggregate of them. Cooperation is meant to overcome existing obstacles, not ones from decades ago.

    For example, in the '80s there were tons of local neighborhood watch programs, some of which built up to a national level. And related programs like safety houses for children who felt endangered while out-and-about, like the McGruff House program.

    And a whole host of local / regional / national preservation societies that only got going during the '60s, and peaking really from the later '70s and '80s. Save the Jazz Age picture palace, save this, save that.

    Local volunteer historical societies formed then as well. To take an example at random, the place where I grew up during elementary school, Upper Arlington, OH, only founded their historical society in 1976... even though the founding goes back to the 1910s, and there was plenty to celebrate and hold onto well before '76. People just weren't in that mindset during the mid-century.

  4. And if I recall correctly, didn't the Boy Scouts prove a major exception in Putnam's survey of organizations in Bowling Alone? The Scouting program was huge, perhaps even on the rise, from the '60s through the '80s, and only started to decline during the '90s, again IIRC.

    The Scouting program wasn't something that the welfare state had taken over, so I'd look more at that and orgs like it that did not get crowded out by the state.

  5. So you can't measure the same groups across these radically different periods (labor unions, Elks, etc.), or even an aggregate of them. Cooperation is meant to overcome existing obstacles, not ones from decades ago.

    Substitution by the welfare state sounds possible. So be interested to see what you find if you look into this. It perhaps kind of fits with negative correlations between voluntary org membership and inequality, to the extent inequality is reduced by welfare state redistribution.

    Re: Boy Scouts, that decline fits in with my memories, I'm not sure what the membership growth was like during the Midcentury and early 20th century.

  6. I strongly suspect you are all onto something, but not quite grasping it.
    My suspicion is that centralizing of power in the federal government has essentially caused the death of local civic mindedness. As long as we identify ourselves first as 'Americans' (and not 'Virginians' or 'Garfield Elementary Parents' or whatever) and care first about the president (rather than our neighbor, our neighborhood, our town, the city mayor, etc etc), well, the federal government becomes the source and solution to problems.

    This is similarly reflected in the centralization of identity that comes from the national media. I had hoped that the internet would lead to a weakening of that cultural centralization, but it doesn't seem to have happened.

    Thus, most Americans get their information from the mainstream media. Most information in the mainstream media concerns national issues-however they are defined (thus, Trayvon is a national issue because the MSM decided it is). Thus, people don't invest in local organizations and local problems-they invest in national problems. A problem with your school? The Department of Education is the solution-not the PTA or local school board. A problem with crime? The president will (or won't) address it. Local politics and local politicians don't matter.



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