What Women are Learning from The Learning Channel

Image via iStock Photo/Anthony Rosenberg

I made the mistake of spending Sunday evening with my TV tuned to The Learning Channel.  My mother called me once after seeing an episode of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” to tell me that it was a fascinating glimpse into a culture she had no idea existed.  So, this weekend, while puttering around the house, and working on other things my TV stayed on for several hours watching as the show followed British and Irish women who live in the “Traveler’s culture.”

The show isn’t just another “Say Yes to the Dress” where women are convinced that spending thousands on a big fancy gown is the most important thing in their lives.  It’s a show that glamorizes the submissive role that women take in a culture that views them only as wives and mothers.  For example, most women who are Travelers quit school when they’re very young to help mothers raise the often large numbers of children their mothers had.  One such woman left school when she was 11-years-old just to help clean the house and care for her nine brothers and sisters.  At 17 she was marrying her soon-to-be husband after only a three month engagement.  Another 16-year-old girl, eager to find a husband, was engaged in a “grabbing ritual,”  a custom popular in the culture, where young men corner women, and despite repeatedly saying “no” the boys roughly attempt to force the girls to kiss them.  The girl was asked if she felt in danger at all, and she said “no of course not” it’s just how things are done.

Women aren’t allowed to be with men alone unsupervised in the culture, nor are they ever allowed to have sex before marriage. These girls don’t leave their families until they are married, and when the women DO walk down the isle, the biggest and most expensive wedding possible sends them off into their next requirement — to get pregnant ASAP.

Behind the expensive weddings are dresses that are often times so heavy that women’s hips bleed just from holding them up.  The blood, sweat, and tears as they leave their brothers and sisters are only the beginning of living a lifestyle where they aren’t allowed to work outside the home, and serve only as a vessel of procreation.

As I watched this horrific ritual unfold, I was tormented with ads for other TLC shows that were just as atrocious.  “Sister Wives” tries to make polygamy in Mormon faiths look mainstream.  With millions being spent on recruitment in advertising from the Mormon Church, one would think they wouldn’t want to highlight the more controversial side of a faith.  I suppose the family is attempting to make polygamy appear acceptable as the husbands bounce around among their harems of wives.  It certainly serves as a stark contrast from news reports of young girls removed by authorities after they were forced into polygamous marriages and molested by older men.

During a screening of the documentary “Miss Representation,” I saw footage of “Toddlers and Tiaras,” where children, often under five-years-old, are made up, spray tanned, and sequined from top to bottom in attempts to prove that they are the fairest of them all.  The cameras follow stage moms and their little girls who are often times sobbing as they refuse to spend hours having their hair and makeup put on.  Fake eyelashes glued to them, hair pulled up and ratted to be the biggest, and little girls taught to do sexy dances to entice the judges into thinking they’re adorable and grown-up.  The focus isn’t on playing with your friends, taking ballet classes, learning how to ride a bike, or read and write; it’s about who is the cutest and sexiest four-year-old.  Not disturbed by the idea of a “sexy” four-year-old?  Watch “Toddlers and Tiaras” on The Learning Channel.

One of the more successful shows on TLC is the long running series “What Not to Wear.”  A simple show where family and friends of women call in and request their schleppy gal pal get a make-over.  The only episode I ever had the misfortune of watching featured a stylist who was at work when the host and camera crew came into her shop.  Never mind the inappropriateness of humiliating a woman in her workplace, where women have to work hard enough to garner respect, this woman was so upset she fled to a back room where she was overheard sobbing by the cameras.  It took hours for the host and the woman’s sister to convince her that thousands of dollars in free clothing was the reason to sign over her dignity.  What an outstanding thing for women to learn!  It isn’t how smart you are, how hard you work, or how good a job you do personally or professionally, it’s all about what you wear.  Why don’t we see SpikeTV making over some plumber with jeans falling off his ass?  When can I expect “What Not to Wear” to have an episode where “Pawn Star’s” Chumlee is made to look like 007?

Whatever happened to having educational television on The Learning Channel?  Instead, viewers are learning about the many traditions and faiths that demoralize women, while highlighting the way American culture shows women young and old that sexiness and the way you dress is really all that matters in life.

Guest contributor Sarah Burris has worked as a fundraiser with numerous campaigns from presidential to city council races. In 2007, she worked for Skyline Public Works where she helped state based youth organizations connect with major funders across the country and develop better networking opportunities. In 2008 Sarah was named one of the five Rock the Vote Rock the Trail Reporters and traveled the country during the 2008 elections covering the campaign from the youth perspective. She’s reported from both conventions and debates and followed candidates on youth tours through their states.  Sarah was also a recipient of the Democracy for America Netroots Nation scholarship and was named by the New Leader’s Council as one of the 40 Emerging Leaders Under 40. She was a founding blogger at Everyday Citizen, was a long time writer and researcher for Wiretap Magazine, and a previous partner at Mixed Media.  She now serves as the managing editor for FutureMajority.com where her writing focus has been faith based politics, rural youth, young women, young progressive democracy, and youth specific legislation. Sarah currently lives in Washington, D.C. and works in online media and marketing.

  • Opal

    Jesus Christ just because something is put on TV doesn’t mean that people are trying to make it seem “mainstream” or “acceptable”. Didn’t you watch the shows?! All that happens on the Gypsy show is that the women talk about how terrible their lives are because they can’t even leave the house without the husband’s permission and the discrimination they experience from the rest of Britain. On Sister Wives the family had to move to a new state because of how non-mainstream and unaccepted their lifestyle is to everyone else.

    What is the point of this article, Sarah?!?

    • Rose

      As well, it’s filled with examples of things perpetuated by WOMEN.

      Expensive dress? How many grooms insist on that? Toddlers and Tiaras? See any dads doing that crap?

      Oh, and the opening slam: “glamorizes the submissive role that women take in a culture that views them only as wives and mothers.”

      Lol, sweetie, from one woman to another, feminism was all about OPTIONS. if a woman chooses these things, or chooses to be a childfree CEO, either way, it’s a legitimate choice. Thanks for slamming that.

      Have to agree, what’s the point of this article again? I think I speak for us all when I say ‘please post back and tell us the grade your Gender Studies professor gave you on this assignment.’

      • Amber

        An A, thank you very much. And Rose, you totally missed her point. Good job.

    • Rodney

      I think the point of this article is quite difficult to acquire with broadness. Most of the point, I think, is that the TLC network is no longer “Learning” …their false advertisement with their name, their name meaning “learning” like it was years ago, is now filled with demoralizing shows. 4 year old girls wearing crotch-high shorts and tummy shirts to pander for beauty contests. TLC is now filled with reality garbage like many other stations. They should be sued for false advertisement at least…and be made to change their name.

      • Amber

        ^^ Exactly! It is total pandering and it is not just “educating” people, but imposing beliefs on its viewers which make it into a norm. The sexism constantly allowed in these shows pisses me off!

  • Jules

    I hate to defend What Not Wear, but that episode you saw was unusual. One of the ‘premises’ behind the show is that these women are being held back because they think they can get away with not caring about how they look.

  • Elizabeth

    You need to stop making comments on things you haven’t even watched. For example, if you watched Sister Wives you’d know that the Mormon church – now known as the Church of Latter Day Saints – wants nothing at all to do with polygamy. They have denounced it.

    I feel like what you’re saying is very much like what conservative Christians do. They shelter themselves from how the rest of the world lived, as if simply informing yourself somehow threatens your beliefs.

  • Sarah Burris

    Thanks for your comment Elizabeth and Jules. For Elizabeth – The Brown family considers themselves fundamentalist Mormon according to the biography about the family. I know the Mormon church denounces polygamy but my commentary was its more bad PR for them to deal with.

    Jules: my point with What Not to Wear is that women aren’t held back by what they wear or don’t wear. And to say that they are is unacceptable to me. Maybe they’re held back by society, by the glass ceiling, by a lack of training or education, shyness, lack of assertiveness, or too much assertiveness. These things can’t be fixed by cloths. To say that they can be is reckless and buys into a commercialized America where buying “stuff” can fix all your problems.

    • What do you mean people are not held back by what how they present themselves through appearances?

      Many people receiving make-overs on What Not to Wear illustrate the truth that yes, what we wear and how we present does make a difference in how we are perceived, paid, promoted and who wants to hang out with us. (tall people are paid more than short people; a dress won’t fix this, but attractive people are also paid more than unattractive people and this is more pronounced with good looking men than with good looking women). Many times managers will come on this show and say “hey I love her skills and like her as an employee – but I can’t send her out to represent my company looking like she has given up.” Or a lawyer will have a bad time finding a job b/c they have an attitude “I’m not changing for you.”

      Also, there is a huge emotional and self esteem component to this show. Many times the person is carrying some sort of pain from being formerly fat and discriminated against, or from putting themselves aside to raise kids, or from a traumatic divorce, injury, etc. The show does help them reinvent themselves and put them in a better self esteem place.

      This show has practical and very helpful information about how to take the body and looks you have and make them work to your best advantage. You don’t have to fit the beauty ideal to express yourself and present yourself well is the message. Which is pretty empowering if you ask me.

      You just have to look past the catty criticism of Clinton and Stacy.

      I love TLC shows – b/c who doesn’t love a paradox?

      Sister Wives – we have absolute moral values and we never have sex before marriage: but we are allowed to have several wives. And what wife doesn’t occasionally think, “I need a wife to get everything done?” I sure do. These people aren’t asking anyone to convert, they are just being themselves whether you approve or not.

      My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding – our daughters are never allowed to kiss anyone or be alone with a boy: but they are allowed to dress like they have sex with everyone all the time and it’s common for them to marry at 16. And we are all about showing off our money with extravagant weddings and parties to prove we have more than others; but we live in a trailer. ?What?

      How is this not amusing? How is it not fascinating? I enjoy a lot of their shows simply because they illustrate the breadth and depth of how Americans really live. Not always the same way I live. Which is interesting, if crazy.

      I think TLC is asking relevant questions; How do Americans live? Why do people do what they do? How important is this or that value to us? How much does tradition or difference or extreme circumstances impact who we really are?

  • Mallory

    Sarah- the thing about What Not to Wear is that it’s showing people how to present themselves. I don’t know how often you watch the show, but it does not exclusively feature women. And the people it does feature really are being held back by appearances. A stranger’s first impression of you is 50% based on appearance. If you don’t look put together, then it appears as if you don’t care, about how you look or any aspect of your life. This is not just telling women that they mist look pretty. It goes for everyone that you should put some effort in to how you look.

  • MM

    Sarah- To tag onto what Elizabeth was saying about Sister Wives, had you watched the shows, you would have seen multiple scenes where the family discussed how they are separate from the Mormon church. They are not any cause of bad PR because they do not associate themselves with that faith.

    Overall, I feel like your piece here has a lot of empty opinion’s since you make it clear that you didn’t watch half the shows you discuss. The shows are showing cultures and traditions that many Americans are ignorant of, and generally in a non-biased light so that people can form their own opinions. Perhaps if you did more research, your negative and baseless commentary would change.

  • I appreciated What not to Wear, but I also agreed with its basic premise – that what you wear sends a bilboard-like message to the people around you (like it or not) and that no matter what your age or shape, it is possible to dress in a way that projects confidence and competence.

    That said, Little People, Big World was the last show that TLC did that had any socially-redeeming value. They are, by the station’s standards, a comparatively small family, and I am not referring here to their height.

    I’m not exactly sure what it is about TLC’s agenda that leads them to continually showcase mega-families, but it seems more than a little irresponsible to pay for their giant juggernaut trips to DisneyWorld, New York, and Hawaii, as well as other goodies, to further a storyline, when there are families with far fewer children who are struggling to get by.

    I would love to see some kind of editorial guidelines from TLC, because while it’s hard to say if TLC’s intention is to celebrate subservient women while using others (Toddlers and Tiaras) as a cautionary tale; when Sarah Palin and Michelle Duggar are in the same lineup as My Strange Addiction, Half-Ton Teen, and Tree Man, you have to wonder if the real lesson here is not for TLC’s viewers, but its subjects.

  • P.S. Chumlee totally needs a makeover.

  • Richele

    I appreciate what you’re saying in this article, and I agree with you to a certain degree. A lot of the things depicted in these shows go against my beliefs.
    That said, it is very challenging to critique shows such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding because the fact is that, in my case (and probably yours, judging from your mother’s comment), this is a culture I know very little about. I’ve never seen an episode of this show – I don’t have anything beyond basic cable, and besides, I have no interest – but even if I had, my entire perception of this culture would be based on a TV show. This, in my opinion, is a major problem. After all, I wouldn’t be too thrilled at the thought of people in other countries viewing American culture entirely through the lens of, say, America’s Next Top Model. It’s not a complete picture.
    Another issue: What right do we have do judge a different culture? As I said, I dislike many elements of the scenes you describe. Polygamy, for example, or the idea of the forced mob kissing thing, which makes me want to vomit. Still, if this is their culture, who are we to impose our Western ideals of feminism and equality? What I’m saying is that I feel very ambivalent about this, because I DO wish these things would change, but what if the people within these societies don’t want change? It’s maddening, actually.
    Lastly, as others have said, I think you are being a bit hard on What Not to Wear. I see how it’s problematic, but I confess to enjoying that show when I’ve seen it. At least they focus on dressing in a way that makes the participants (who are usually women, but not always) feel confident about themselves, which is a good thing in my opinion.
    Thank you for pointing out how messed up it is that these shows are supposed to qualify as a “learning opportunity” for people who probably aren’t wearing their feminist contacts. On that we agree. I simply think some of your points could use a bit more depth of consideration.

  • Amber

    I completely agree with you. There is no more learning on the Learning Channel. I have another one for your list: Submissive Wives. It’s disgusting. If Richele is so right, then why don’t they make a show called Submissive Husbands? Or Polyandry/Brother Husbands? If men were featured in submissive roles as well, I would not care as much because it is “well rounded”. But it isn’t. It is only about women being submissive. I hate all of their shows. I wish they would get a new producer.

  • Tzione

    Well Sarah.I hate to break it to you but Hillary is advertising on here…trying to reach her educated MASSES!

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