The Learning Channel, originally the Appalachian Community Service Network, was founded in 1972 and has since aired documentary-style educational programs that breach the often formidable barrier between informational broadcasting and pop culture. TLC’s shows take little-known subjects, like glitz pageants, and lure viewers by promising to mock the absurd while also educating people about obscure subcultures and fostering empathy by reminding us all that no matter how strange the circumstances, we are all human and have similar hopes, dreams, desires, needs, etc. Or something like that.
Although I feel TLC shows are mostly educational, I occasionally have reservations about exploiting people’s ludicrousness for entertainment.
A prime example of a TLC show that is informative and thought-provoking but still a bit mean spirited is “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.” The show uses weddings to explore Romani Gypsy and Irish Traveller culture in Great Britain. (There is also an American equivalent.) The couples are usually in their teens, and the wedding is portrayed as the biggest and best day of the bride’s life. The weddings feature horse-drawn carriages and wedding dresses with five thousand “diamonds” that weigh over half the girl’s body weight. And then there are the chartreuse-colored tulle bridesmaids’ dresses …
I started watching the show because of the fantastical weddings, but I got a lot more than a punch line. I learned about the systematic legislative changes that are destroying the Gypsy way of life, which has survived in Great Britain for over five hundred years. I learned about their exhaustive code of honor and respect and their deep love of tradition. I felt enriched, just like an educational television show is meant to make you feel. But I also felt guilty for laughing at their weddings.
Still, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is one of the less exploitative shows on TLC. In the most recent season finale of “19 Kids and Counting,” Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar go to the obstetrician to find out the sex of their 20th child, only to find out that the four-month-old fetus no longer had a heartbeat. What followed was the worst kind of emotional exploitation. I watched it, but I hated myself for it. I felt similarly when watching the season premiere, when the Duggars attended a wedding in which the groom was flamboyantly gay.
Although I find many aspects of TLC’s programming problematic, there is something to be said about the need to educate people about subcultures in American society. The new TLC show, “Breaking Amish,” which documents five young Amish and Mennonite Americans who move to New York, leaving their lifestyle behind forever, could not come at a more opportune time. The Amish, although typically reclusive, were recently in the national spotlight when an Amish bishop in Ohio was charged with a hate crime for forcibly cutting the bears of Amish men who disagreed with him. “Breaking Amish” can provide much-needed context for the court case, teaching viewers how symbolic and important beards are to Amish masculinity.
The Learning Channel may retain some of the truth of its title, but to catch people’s attention, many of their shows have resorted to modeling themselves after 19th-century freak shows. I can not speak for the people in the programs, and I am sure they have their reasons for participating in reality television, but I feel like many of these shows appeal too much to my truly sick and twisted sense of humor. Maybe I should stick to “Say Yes to the Dress.”