Reality TV Families: an Obsession as Huge as Their Households

They come in batches too big for most cars, in groups great enough to attract gawkers. The Gosselins, the Duggars, the Hayes, and more: one set of scampering feet after another, these two-digit clans of cute kids and harried parents have trampled over the television landscape.

Why? What's behind pop culture's current fascination with large families?

While the full house has been a force in pop culture for decades, from "The Sound of Music" to "The Brady Bunch," there's something different about the current phenomenon. Among today's crop of clans, there's no Utopian ideal. Instead, there's a sense of disbelief that draws viewers into shows like "19 Kids and Counting," about the ever-expanding Duggar crew, "Table for 12," about the Hayes' three sets of multiples, "9 by Design," about a hip husband-and-wife design team towing seven kids, and the now-defunct "Jon & Kate Plus 8," about the gone-from-grace Gosselin gang:

"How do they do it? Can they really keep it together?"

According to the Census Bureau, the average size of the American family reached an all-time low of 3.13 persons in 2003. That figure hasn't fallen further, but it still puts households crammed with siblings on the extreme end. Such families seem even more outrageous when multiples -- like the Gosselin sextuplets or "Octomom" Nadya Suleman's octuplets -- play a part.

"There is a fascination with 'multiples' that we've always had in American culture," said Kathy Newman, associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. "Nineteenth-century authors like Poe and Twain used twins in their fiction; in the 1950s we were entertained by stories of the Bobsey twins, and later, Patty Duke playing the genetically-impossible 'identical twin cousins' on 'The Patty Duke Show.' There is almost a circus-like element to this fascination; multiples are mysterious, freaks of nature."

"Octomom" Nadya Suleman has said she regrets having octuplets. Prior to their bith, she already had six children.

Moreover, the idea that a modern woman would want to have multiples seems outlandish at a time when child-rearing costs more than ever and takes her away from making money.

"As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the pill, 70 percent of women with young children work outside the home. In 1960 only 30 percent of women with young children worked outside the home," Newman said. "In other words, now that we have an easy way to prevent these large families, the day-to-day struggles of child rearing make for appealing drama."

Sure, along with entertainment, viewers can glean tips for getting dinner on the table and tucking children in bed. But according to psychologists, women struggling to raise average-sized families may get a dark pleasure from watching the food fights, temper tantrums, and marital mishaps of households twice the size of theirs.

"It's a kind of schadenfreude," said Madeline Levine, clinical psychologist and author of the child-rearing book "The Price of Privilege." "Parenting is really hard, a lot of the time if you have even one or two children, you're feeling overwhelmed and not quite sure of what you're doing. In the same way that we watch car accidents and all kinds of other provocative things that really we should look away from, there is something reassuring about our own lives when you see other people trying to deal with these issues."

No wonder a record 10.6 million viewers turned on TLC last June when Jon and Kate Gosselin announced they were separating. As adorable as their tykes are, the real appeal of "Jon & Kate Plus 8," which will carry over into the ex-Mrs. Gosselin's just-green lit new venture, "Kate Plus 8," was watching the parents teeter, and eventually topple, over their troubles.

The Duggar family stars in TLC's "19 Kids and Counting."

"With Kate, it's kind of like, 'Is she really going to pull this off?'" Levine said. "How will these kids actually grow up? It's a little bit of, 'Let's see this fall apart.'"

The "Jon & Kate Plus 8" genre also offers fodder for moms eager to compare techniques but loathe to critique a fellow parent, especially in an age when such finger-pointing could elicit cries of "OMG, how un-PC!"

"We jump at opportunities to judge other parenting styles," said Cynthia Dermody, senior editor of TheStir blog at CafeMom.com and a mother of two. "These shows give us a forum to do that."

TLC's "Table for 12" features the Hayes children: two sets of twins and one set of sextuplets.

And the more drama there is to dissect, the better.

"The most famous of these families are highly dysfunctional," said Bob Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. "It makes us suspicious that even the ones that are seemingly happy, it's only a matter of seasons before they break down."

But while waiting with bated breath for that breakdown, viewers may be hit with something else: envy. While these 10-plus headed tribes boarder on the freak show-esque, they also embody the family ideal of a bygone age -- an always bustling house, a complete and utter lack of loneliness.

"We are mocking them, but at the same time, some of that real ire might have something to do with a certain longing for that Norman Rockwell-like family," Thompson said.

For an hour, anyway. The same moms enthralled by the "Jon & Kate Plus 8" genre can turn off the eight-or-more chaos with the click of a button.

"It's the 'I'm glad it's not me' syndrome," Dermody said. "It's not the norm, it's not what I have, it's a life totally unbeknown to me."

Bob and Cortney Novogratz and their seven kids star in Bravo's "9 by Design."
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