“You know there are other channels besides TLC, right?” my boyfriend called from across the apartment. Oops. He had discovered my dirty little secret: My DVR filled with repeats of Say Yes to the Dress, Toddlers and Tiaras, and yes, even 19 Kids and Counting. I blamed it on my terrible cable package, that most of the time there was nothing else on, but the real truth is that I love “crap” TV.
I don’t care. I love it. (I totally just made you sing that song in your head.)
We all know the sordid history of TLC. Once upon a time, in the late ’90s, it was called “The Learning Channel” and it showed surgeries and water births and other things sure to make me want to throw up. But then reality television became popular for more than just documentaries of shark attacks, and there was mad money to be made by putting people into unrealistic situations. And then The Learning Channel was privatized, and do you know what makes fast cash? Reality TV. No scripting, small production value, big audiences, and the same (or more) ad money. The Learning Channel became TLC, and it became the home of such shows as I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, What Not to Wear, and Jon and Kate + 8.
The learning now happens to the “characters” rather than the viewers, and some would say that the viewers’ enjoyment in these shows is watching the characters get their comeuppance.
But it’s not true.
As a semi-anthropologist (I have a degree I don’t really use), I love TLC. TLC is the home of mainstream subcultures. Where else are you going to learn about child beauty pageants? Or question the wisdom of the Quiverfull movement? Or watch the American wedding industry go out of control? It’s not really mindless at all, if you dig a little deeper. If rather than just going, “Oooo, that’s pretty,” you’re asking, “Wait. Why is it ‘all about you’ or ‘your day’? When did weddings become a celebration of one person?” Or, “Why is it not okay to use contraception, because you have to follow God’s will and accept the children he gives to you, but it’s okay to go through fertility treatments, basically forcing God’s will? Where is the line?”
And, okay, fine, sometimes just, “Why would you dress your child as a baby hooker? On purpose?”
The argument against shows like this is, of course, they exploit people and their personal lives, and that by watching, I contribute to that exploitation and further the exploitation of others. But I don’t know how much I believe that. After all, nobody is really getting paid that much to have a camera crew following them around (unless the show becomes outrageously popular), they get to make the personal choice to be watched in that way, and I don’t have any right to “protect” someone else from their own choices. (Cough, soda ban, bad government, cough.) Finally, how are we going to get a glimpse into these pockets of American life without it? While I may never get to ask the Duggars my questions on the wisdom of homeschooling, developing those questions to ask myself and explore my own life with is still a worthwhile activity.
So TLC doesn’t show arthroscopic knee surgery anymore (except on throwback Saturdays). I intend to keep watching in order to get a view of worlds I will probably never experience in person. And if you don’t like it, don’t look at my DVR.