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Nadya Suleman, the Duggars, and the Glorification of Family Freakshows

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A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece for this site that took the form of an open letter complaining to the American media about their continued glorification of the Duggar clan.

For those lucky enough to have no idea who I'm talking about, the Duggars -- Jim Bob, Michelle, her clown car vagina, and their 18 kids whose names all inexplicably begin with the letter "J" -- are a family of religious nutjobs from Arkansas who reproduce at a rate of about one new kid a year. For whatever reason, the media treat this joy-to-the-Lord freakshow like celebrities -- consistently allowing the Duggars to make the rounds on the television talk and news show circuit whenever they've got a new birth to celebrate or, inevitably soon after, a new pregnancy announcement to make.

At the time, I wrote this:

"I honestly couldn't care less that there's an insane family living in Arkansas cranking out children because God says so. The problem is that you, the media -- NBC, ABC, TLC, etc. -- keep giving these people face time, thereby convincing them that everyone in this country not crazier than they are actually loves hearing the latest news about Michelle Duggar's overworked reproductive system. I'm not suggesting that you're encouraging them -- since you couldn't, as they take their cues from a supposedly higher authority -- but you are giving them the chance to hawk their books, TV show and the assorted other crap that allows them to afford to continue spitting out kids like chocolates coming down a conveyor belt. These people shouldn't be cast in a positive light. They shouldn't be cast in any light at all. If they want to keep trying to single-handedly overpopulate the Earth for Jesus, they should have to pay for it without the help of your unwarranted free publicity, media.

Let's see how long they'd last once the gravy train you guys happily play conductor of dries up."

Although I claimed that the Duggars were and are essentially a non-story and were doing no real harm other than annoying the hell out of me and a lot of other Americans, I received quite a bit of feedback from readers who believe that Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar's perpetual procreation does in fact border on criminal. There's certainly an argument to be made that given the world's limited resources and the recent focus on consuming as few of them as possible, single-handedly adding 18 people -- and counting -- to the planet can be considered outright offensive (though it should be noted that the Duggars don't give a crap what happens to the Earth because they're convinced Jesus is going to come back soon to yank them off of it anyway). But maybe the real problem with what the Duggars are doing in their bedroom and the media's complicity in allowing them to parlay that into a kind of TV and publishing empire is the one thing I never would've seen coming -- the one result I feel naive for not having been able to imagine.

Imitation.

Despite the fact that reality TV on the whole has created an entirely new subculture of shameless idiots willing to do anything, no matter how personally debasing, to turn themselves into insta-celebs, I somehow didn't put two and two together on this one and couldn't fathom the idea that somebody out there might hear and see the Duggars' story, then go and do likewise.

And make no mistake -- that's exactly what Nadya Suleman did.

Unless you've been living under a heat lamp in a neonatal ICU somewhere, you know that Suleman is the mother of only the second living set of octuplets ever born. At first, the absurdly baby-addicted media -- the same people who willingly document every blip and gurgle in the Duggars' reproductive cycle -- fell all over themselves to cover the octuplets story. Admittedly, the birth, being a staggeringly rare occurrence, was in fact news. But it was interesting to see how quickly the media's other addiction -- conflict -- reared its ugly head to trounce their supposed good nature once it was revealed that the Octo-Mom may not be all she seemed. It took about a day-and-a-half for most of the TV networks that had originally hailed the miracle birth to turn around and, almost literally, eat their young.

By the time Nadya Suleman made it on the Today show for her one-on-one with Ann Curry, she'd long since lost the benefit of the doubt; Curry went into the interview not as some fawning girlfriend ready to softball her but instead with her "Serious Journalist" face on.

And the interview was indeed revealing -- in more ways than one.

Suleman claims that she's not collecting welfare and that she's perfectly capable of taking care not only of her eight new underdeveloped infants but of the six kids she already has. This is contradicted by both her own mother, who calls her daughter's decision to be implanted with new embryos "unconscionable," and by Suleman's publicist (yes, she has a publicist), who confirms that his client is receiving $490 in monthly food stamps as well as federal assistance for her children, three of which are disabled. To hear Suleman talk, it's almost shocking her level of disconnect with reality. She seems to believe that simply by having these babies, both she and they would automatically be taken care of. That tens of thousands of dollars would somehow magically fall from the sky and that all she'd have to provide in the end was a bundle of motherly love.

The woman's completely off her fucking rocker.

Or is she?

The most surprising aspect of the Today interview is what it inadvertently reveals about how much TV Nadya Suleman watches and how victimized she's been by it. Like the rest of us, Suleman's been inundated for years with images of families like the Duggars and Jon and Kate Gosselin of Jon & Kate Plus Eight -- families that have been canonized by a slavish media and elevated to the status of pop culture icons, complete with their own reality shows, self-help books, and donations from every direction. Suleman, who's obviously emotionally needy to begin with, had good reason to believe that all she'd have to do is crank out 14 kids to be set for life; she'd seen it happen before, over and over again. Hell, the show the woman sitting across from her was a host of -- Today -- acts essentially as the official press secretariat of the Duggars. Why shouldn't she expect the same sort of open arms and warm encomia?

The fact is that there was no reason for her not to.

Nadya Suleman may have been the one to selfishly create an entire litter of children she could barely take care of, but a lot of people within the media told her there was no harm in what she was doing.