New Yorkers who stared, slightly befuddled, at last week’s covers of Us Weekly, People and Star would be forgiven if they thought they had entered a parallel universe in which their pop culture touchstones had suddenly been cast aside in favor of the living-room obsessions of Indiana housewives. But perhaps they had just missed the cultural moment in which the potential divorce of a Wyomissing, Pa., perky, blond, Type-A former nurse and her cheerful yet slightly bumbling half-Korean husband was on a par with the latest foibles of Lindsay and Brad and Angie and Jen and Britney, and for that, they can be forgiven.
Monday night’s premiere of the fifth season of Jon & Kate Plus 8, the TLC reality series that has followed the escapades of Jon and Kate Gosselin and their very adorable eight children (one set of twins and one of sextuplets) since April 2007, practically took place in real time; nearly the entire episode had been filmed on May 17, at the sextuplets’ fifth birthday party, and our protagonists were interviewed separately about the EXPLOSIVE NEWS that one or both of them were cheating on the other.
Jon, looking more disheveled and sunburned than usual, adopted a defensive, almost petulant, stance; Kate—her hair fashioned into a no-nonsense four-part ’do: blond-streaked, chin-length bangs swept to the right side, close-cropped on the left, something sticking up in back and buzz-cut (and brown) in back—sporting a fake tan and suspiciously white teeth, was the martyr, Joan of Arc in a minivan.
It seems to be the last kind of psychodrama that New Yorkers would become obsessed with. Indeed, for the past couple of years, most of us blissfully ignored it. We were content to limit ourselves to the reality television programming that Bravo had deemed worthy of our time and energy, with a dash of American Idol and The Hills thrown in. Kate’s literary efforts—Multiple Blessings, her 2008 memoir about the sextuplets’ early years, and Eight Little Faces, her book published this year featuring her commentary about “trust, perseverance, joy and encouragement”—were imbued with Christian themes, and there was nothing ironic or camp or urbane about Jon & Kate. They lived in a small town near Reading, the part of the state that is unkindly referred to as Pennsyltucky. And their days were consumed with things like doing laundry for eight kids! Going to Disney World! Birthdays! The children were adorably multiracial; high drama, in the context of the show, was when Jon took one of his sons into the back of their van and stuck his finger in his butt to de-constipate him. (Granted, there is some camp value to that.)
While there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Gosselin fan sites, there also exists a cottage industry of blogs and Web sites devoted to eviscerating the Gosselins, mostly Kate, for their decision to parade their children in front of the cameras, and for her cultivation of “freebies” (cf. the aforementioned trip to Disney World, a “second wedding” in Hawaii, their new house …), and for what lots of people seem to think is Kate’s emasculation of Jon, and for her firing her own sister-in-law, who had been the nanny. The list goes on and on.
“I think there was a lot of jealousy among suburban mothers, this sense of ‘Why does Kate Gosselin get to take her children on comped ski vacations and get free plastic surgery while me and my permanent stretch marks have to go to work every day?’” said Sasha Pasulka, who runs the Web site Evil Beet Gossip and has been blogging about Jon & Kate from the beginning.
And so, when Jon was “caught” by paparazzi leaving a club called Legends—Legends!—in Reading with a 23-year-old teacher, and when it turned out that, according to the teacher’s brother, Jon had been carrying on with her for the better part of three months, and not only that, but he had heard them fucking in their parents’ house, there was more than one viewer who proclaimed that Kate had it coming to her. And then it came out that Kate was, maybe, having an affair with her bodyguard. And then everyone realized that the fifth season of the show was starting soon and everyone was just going to have to tune in to see just how the Gosselins could possibly deal with all this marital strife. (And 9.8 million viewers did just that on Monday night.)
“I’m appalled by all the assholes out there applauding Jon for cheating because Kate is a shrill harpy or whatever,” said Kristin Miller, a 25-year-old who lives in Hell’s Kitchen. “Like that’s an excuse to cheat!”
Indeed, paradoxically, or perhaps predictably, the very characteristics of Kate’s personality that are so abhorrent to the suburban self-righteous have drawn New Yorkers to the show. The anti-Kate camp slams her for how she treats her husband, but behind much of the rhetoric lurks the retro idea that if only Jon Gosselin were a real man, he would be able to stand up to his harpy shrew wife and lay down the law.
“I never understood the draw until recently,” said a 30-year-old acupuncturist in Cobble Hill. “A friend of mine from San Francisco was a ‘fan’ of the show on Facebook, which subliminally suggested that I watch it the next time I ran into it. What made me stay was Kate’s bitchiness, and the fact that she could whip a man into a silent, scolded child with just a glance. I think people watch it not to follow the adventures of a red-state family raising eight kids, but to follow the adventures of a raging bitch beat down her husband into a diaper-wearing ninny.”
And it was thus that our domination fantasies became fulfilled by a God-fearing Pennsylvania housewife in flared jeans and a short-sleeve white hoodie.