Bad-parent voyeurism

By the time you read this, the world will have peered inside the undoubtedly depressing and quite possibly child-endangering world of the nation’s reigning social pariah. I’m referring to Wednesday night’s two-hour special on Fox, “Octomom: The Incredible Unseen Footage.” At press time, I’d only seen clips, but I think I can guarantee that we’re in for another wave of Octo-villification, not to mention some major sanctimony.

Nadya Suleman, in case anyone’s lucky enough to need a briefing, is the woman who gave birth to eight premature babies in January, the result of the implantation of six embryos, two of which split. She was later revealed to be not only single and unemployed but also mother to an additional six children, all of whom were also conceived through in vitro fertilization. The TV special, made up of footage collected by the online magazine Radar-, included scenes of Suleman attempting to soothe several crying babies and, in a moment of self-reflection, saying, “I screwed up my life. I screwed up my kids’ lives. ... What was I thinking?”

Why do I get the feeling that many of the people who have been indignantly harrumphing online about this special -- “boycott the program and boycott the sponsors,” a Huffington Post reader intoned -- were the very ones curled up on the couch drooling into their popcorn in schadenfreude delirium last night? Maybe because bad parenting has emerged as its own entertainment genre.

From the round-the-clock gawk-fest provided by the Gosselin family (whose reality show is now less about the challenges of rearing eight children than their dissolving marriage) to the curiosity surrounding Michael Jackson’s children, it seems that there’s nothing more satisfying than cluck-clucking at poor decisions made by other parents.


No matter that Suleman, the Gosselins and Jackson have been less-than-stellar parents each in his or her own way, the public response is generally quite uniform. We read about these folks in such magazines as People and US Weekly and watch them on TV (entire forests have probably been decimated for the tabloid coverage of the Gosselins alone), then we express disgust for them and for the media outlets that enable them, and then we read and watch some more.

Indeed, bad-parent voyeurism is addictive and sort of like pornography -- albeit a markedly sexless form -- in the same “I was only channel surfing” guilty-pleasure mode.

Maybe it’s because a critical mass of American viewers are still angry at their own folks, or because parents of still-at-home kids are seeking absolution themselves (“at least I’m not screwing up my kids on TV”), or because non-parents want to feel like they’ve dodged a bullet, but bad-parent porn seems deeper and more universal than a lot of other offerings on train-wreck TV (think bad-relationship porn, a la “Dr. Phil,” and bad-friend porn, a la the “Real Housewives” franchise). Somehow there’s nothing better than watching moms and dads (though let’s be honest: moms in particular) subject themselves to public smack downs for their missteps.

In fact, as long as the children don’t appear to be in imminent danger, the more egregious the adult behavior, the more they’re subject to public censure and, therefore, the more satisfying the viewing experience. After all, we watch “Nanny 911" not because we’re hoping to garner a lesson from a child-care professional but because we want to see the parents called on to their own juice-stained carpet. We follow the Gosselins (these days, anyway) not because there’s something fascinating about the logistics of raising eight small kids but because the adults are walking catastrophes.

And the genre is hardly limited to tabloids and reality television. In recent months, a literary arm of bad-parent porn has emerged. Between hardcovers, there’s Michael Lewis’ “Home Game” and Ayelet Waldman’s “Bad Mother,” in which the authors confess to parenting that falls short of the “Leave It to Beaver” ideal. And online, there’s the “mom channel” of the website True Confessions, where women anonymously admit to everything from screaming profanities at their kids to plotting to leave their husbands.

Suleman, of course, is the reigning queen of bad-parent porn. My guess is that today a lot of people are sitting at their breakfast tables secretly (or not so secretly) hoping that child protective services showed up at her door the moment the credits rolled last night. Beware such self-righteousness though. In the end, bad-parent porn appeals to that ugliest and most innate of human emotions: smugness.

No doubt Suleman and the rest of her ignominious ilk need a time out. As for the media enterprises and their fans? Those should be grounded for life.