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My young daughter is a dedicated fan of the TLC program Jon and Kate Plus Eight, a reality show
of a wholesome family with a set of twins and a set of sextuplets.  Over the weekend, TLC ran a marathon of
four seasons of the show leading up to the beginning of its fifth season on
Monday night.  I confess–I spent a
good number of hours watching the reruns with her. 

Rather unbelievably, the fourth season ended with parents
Jon and Kate Gosselin renewing their wedding vows and–within just a few weeks–a
tabloid explosion of scandalous rumors of the couple’s marriage failing apart
amid allegations of affairs.  In
the world of reality TV, news doesn’t get much bigger than this.  For months, fans, bloggers, and the
tabloid press have been speculating: 
How would season five open? 
Would Jon and Kate stay together? 
Would they get divorced? 

The scandal is exacerbated by the fact that Jon and Kate are
evangelical Christians.  The
Gosselins are folk heroes in the evangelical community–their sextuplets were
the result of infertility treatments during which they refused selective
abortion and carried all six babies to term.  TLC downplays the religious aspects of the show, but legions
of conservative church-going fans delighted in Kate’s stern discipline, cheered
Jon wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Bible verses, and devoured the couple’s
Christian parenting books.  The
show is something strangely compelling–the cute little kids and the endlessly
cranky parents trying hard to make a good Christian family. 

The new season’s opening episode recorded a familial train
wreck.  Indeed, Jon barely
participated in his sextuplet’s fifth birthday while an emotionally drained
Kate struggled alone to pull of the party.   In individual interviews, the couple talked about how
hard their relationship is–how they’ve become “different” people–and how
divorce was a distinct possibility.

As I watched, I recalled another show–An American Family–the original family reality show that PBS aired
in 1973.  Conceived as a video
diary of a liberal middle-class American family, the Louds of Santa Barbara,
the program quickly devolved into the chronicle of crisis–complete with
boundary-pushing teens and the wife confronting her philandering husband and
demanding a divorce.  The Louds
made big news–including the cover of Newsweek
on the breakdown of the American family.

Which, of course, brings us back to Jon and Kate.  If the Loud saga depicted the crisis of
the liberal 1970s family, what does Jon and Kate’s tale reveal about the state
of the evangelical family?  Is this where their politics of “family values” have taken conservative evangelicals?  Are the Gosselins the Louds of the Christian right?  

In Jon and Kate’s case, evangelical gender expectations seem
to be the root of their troubles: they reversed the parental roles.  After a couple of seasons, Jon decided
to stay at home and Kate went on the road to promote the show and their
books.  The choice made Jon increasingly
sullen and Kate happier and began to wear at their relationship.   For evangelicals, this is an
unusual arrangement that leaves the husband open to charges of “feminization”
and the wife of being difficult. 
The Gosselin’s tensions demonstrate how unsuccessfully conservative religious groups have been dealing with
gender–and how when a woman like Kate Gosselin breaks with tradition in order
to pursue what she loves–even when her business is family and motherhood–she
gets both blamed and punished for problems in her relationships. 

Kate kept saying, “it is so complex; it is so difficult,”
unable to stop her tears.  In a way,
she embodies many evangelical women who struggle between the role of homemaker
that their churches assign them and of finding interesting and creative work in
the world.   Kate, despite all
her pretentions to tradition, is actually a very contemporary woman with
feminist inclinations–one who is figuring out that her theology is at odds with
the way life works out.  She often
violates the mores of a nice evangelical mom (which I think is part of the
appeal; she is, in many ways, an evangelical fantasy mother).  She clearly likes travel, Oprah
interviews, and book signings. 
Staying at home with eight kids can be a drag, so she left her husband
with them only to find out that there may have been a girlfriend, too.  Success, good children, happy marriage–are
they all possible within her theological framework?  “I have a lot of anger,” she said on Monday’s program.  I bet. 

How dreary it is to watch a relationship implode on national
television.  In some measure, the
failure is theirs.  But the
conservative evangelical community shares some of that failure, too.  The religious world to which Jon and
Kate belong never successfully navigated the gender changes of the last three
decades, insisting that happiness can still be found in hierarchical roles of
male superiority and female submission.  Having rejected feminist theology, evangelicals can’t really navigate contemporary marriage issues like those facing Jon and Kate.  They made celebrities of the Gosselins for being traditionalists, yet
that success eroded the very basis of the traditionalism on which their family
was based.  Now, the woman is
criticized for that same success by an increasingly cruel media and tabloid
press.   I just wonder if all
those church people will turn on you next.   

You are right, Kate. 
It is complex and difficult.  It makes me
angry for you.

 

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