Opinion

Jon & Kate: lessons in reality TV pressure

I've seen firsthand how a camera can alter family life.

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When news broke that reality TV stars Jon and Kate Gosselin are separating, I thought about my own family's brief time as a media clan – and what it taught us about the stresses of living and loving in front of a camera.

I'm talking about a weekend last year, when a national magazine hired me to visit New Orleans with my family and file a first-person travel story about our experiences.

I was paid a handsome fee, and all of our expenses for a fun-filled weekend of dining and sightseeing were covered. There was just one catch: As part of the article, a professional photographer would tag along, getting candid shots of me, my wife, our 12-year-old daughter, and our 7-year-old son having a good time.

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The photographer was easygoing, professional, and very sensitive to our family's privacy, but her presence necessarily altered the chemistry of the weekend.

Dancing the two-step with our daughter at a Cajun eatery, I caught myself smiling more broadly than usual, intent on italicizing the moment as a fun-filled snapshot. As we strode around the French Quarter, I noticed that all of us were walking more briskly, standing straighter, and eating more daintily as our personal paparazzo clicked the shutter.

Aware that each gesture could be captured on film, we reflexively struggled to create more cheerful and charming versions of ourselves, as if our lives had become a running job interview. With a camera among us, we also found ourselves biting our tongues, avoiding the petty squabbles that, while quite normal in a family of four, might look much worse if frozen in a photograph.

Although we knew that our photographer wouldn't publish anything unflattering, I instinctively relaxed as we parted company at the end of the trip. Our family was free once more to be the one we'd always known, rather than the idealized household we'd subconsciously crafted for media consumption.

If one weekend before the camera created this mild yet perceptible pressure on my family, then how much greater are the strains imposed on families such as the Gosselins, whose daily life has been filmed for years, attracting an audience of millions?

Jon and Kate Gosselin are the adult stars of "Jon & Kate Plus Eight," a popular reality series documenting their lives as parents of eight young children – twins and sextuplets.

Only Jon and Kate know to what degree, if any, their roles as reality stars complicated their relationship. But my brief interlude as a media father tells me that the pressures of perennial parenting on camera must be enormous, especially in a household where greater personal conflict could generate greater TV ratings.

Parents of my mother and father's generation were often judged by the unrealistic standards of perfection embodied by the fictional TV families on "Leave It to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best."

When our daughter watches "Jon & Kate Plus 8," I find myself struggling with another form of illusion – the notion of family life as constantly interesting and dramatic. Quite often, the drama of reality TV comes from domestic conflicts that seem edited to magnify differences rather than resolve them. What we get, quite naturally, is an industry culture in which the prospect of divorce becomes destination television. It's a kind of so-called reality that makes my own household's prosaic routines of homework and supper, ballgames and bedtime stories seem dull by comparison.

The Gosselins' TV series is now on hiatus. Whatever course Jon's and Kate's marriage takes, I wish the Gosselins many boring days ahead – the kind of quiet interludes, private and unrehearsed, in which families such as my own often find their true measure.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."

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