Watching the Brie Train: Douglas Family Gold

It's an established fact that I like gymnastics, and I love reality TV. So you can bet when there is overlap I'll be watching. Enter Douglas Family Gold. douglas-family-goldOxygen aired the six episode (30 minutes each) series beginning in May 2016, though the action all takes place in 2015 as Gabrielle Douglas (aka Gabby/Brie), reigning Olympic All-Around Gold Medalist, begins her comeback to make the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

There isn't a lot of gymnastics in the show, but there is a lot of [manufactured] drama. Save for one instance, the real drama remained behind the scenes.

When the show starts there is nary a mention/discussion of why Gabby is in Ohio and her family is in Los Angeles. Anyone who casually followed the London Games knows that Gabby, a Virginia native, moved to Iowa to train-- a move away from her natal family into the home of another family, but which ultimately helped her secure Olympic gold. So why Ohio and not Iowa? Why a coach in Ohio then and not California? The silence is deafening. (In fact in 2013 and 2014 she did return to Iowa, but lawyers/agents/family got involved, which is what led her to Ohio...)

Another drama that didn't make the show was injury (though some might question if it is even a "real" drama). According to Douglas' momager, Natalie Hawkins, in a statement this month after the Olympic team was named, Gabby actually competed with a knee injury in the World Championships shown in the penultimate episode of Douglas Family Gold. It is an odd omission and in an article right after the revelation was made, Gabby's reaction is telling: "'Mom, really?' Douglas burst out when asked about a previously undisclosed right knee injury the gymnast suffered just before the 2015 World Championships....Hawkins, wearing her daughter's diamond-studded Team USA necklace, added that Karolyi also knew the issues surrounding the coaching changes since a comeback 21/2 years ago."

These lines reveal the real underlying drama in the Douglas family: that the family of six (four children and Hawkins, plus Hawkins' mother) appear to be fully supported by Gabrielle's gymnastics career and the promotional opportunities surrounding it. Again, telling lines from a recent article, this one from The New York Times: "But the turmoil in the gym was soon matched by new distractions outside it. Finally training in one spot at Buckeye, Douglas chipped at her focus anew last year when she was featured on a reality program called 'Douglas Family Gold,' taping the six episodes at a time when most of her United States Olympic rivals were focused solely on training. Douglas’s mother and business manager, Natalie Hawkins, who is in charge of what can loosely be described as Gabby Inc., said that the show fit seamlessly into Douglas’s days, and that it actually helped Douglas relax. Hawkins said last week that she was hoping the show would be awarded a second season."

On the one hand it's not surprising that "Gabby Inc" exists, or that her sisters in particular are on what I would call the "Brie Train." This is common enough in the sports and entertainment industries (think Entourage). This is also quite common with child performers of all stripes (think Britney Spears and Alana Thompson, aka Honey Boo Boo). And at least her sisters appear to be working, helping design leotards in the hopes of parlaying that into other design opportunities, even if that work is based on their sister's individual success.

What is different in Douglas Family Gold is the age of the athlete; though she is now of age, when all this began Douglas was a minor. It is also important to note that this sort of scenario impacts young females much more than young males, partly because of differences in onset of puberty. Of course, this is an old story in gymnastics (read Little Girls in Pretty Boxes for more on commercialism and cashing in on young athletes), but worth noting. This reality show reveals that this scenario crosses racial boundaries as well.

Another difference is that with young performers there are multiple opportunities to "make it"/excel. For Olympic cycle athletes there is basically one big shot to make it. A lot of pressure on small shoulders, however muscled they may be. Minor performers' earnings are partially protected by Coogan laws (check out some of my previous writings on this here), but no such protection is in effect for young athletes.

To get a better handle on the family dynamics I turned to two different books Douglas "wrote" in 2013, both published by a Christian house. The first, more complete version is Grace, Gold & Glory, and the second, Raising the Bar, contains most the same material, but it is abridged with a lot of photos, primarily for kids. Both books notably focus on the positive relationship with the Parton family in Iowa, and Douglas' then gymnastics coaches. Again, a notable disconnect from the reality series.

But I was shocked by how Douglas portrayed her childhood and family. The former book, Grace, God & Glory describes what was likely parental neglect when Douglas was an infant, living in the back of a van at 2.5 months with an untreated medical condition (Branched Chain Ketoaciduria, or maple syrup urine disease). A particularly revelatory line Douglas "writes" on page 11 of the same book hints at the reason her sisters might expect to be on the Brie train: “I thought of my two sisters: Arielle, who gave up ballroom dancing, and Joyelle, who stopped ice skating so that our single mom could afford to keep me in gymnastics.”

I am sure it is uncomfortable to feel indebted. And the moment of cringeworthy drama in Douglas Family Gold is when eldest sister Arie tells Brie that her own life isn't where it should be because she has spent so much time supporting her sister. This is again mentioned in the Elle article linked to above. And most news stories from the last cycle identified this sister as the one who got her sister started with gymnastics. So, yeah, some interesting dynamics there.

The latter book, Raising the Bar, hints at the Douglas family's interest in a TV show, way back in 2012-3. On page 17 in social media image grabs two family members comment that the family is a comedy show and that they need their own show.

They have that show now, but I'm not sure how funny it actually is. You'll likely just be uncomfortable,and wondering what is actually going on in this family behind the doors of their now 7000+ square foot California compound.

Bravo Academia: What I Should Have Asked Andy Cohen

I am, what sociologists of culture call, a cultural omnivore. I consume high and low art whether it be books, TV, movies, music, etc. Sometimes my DVR looks like a teenage girl (Pretty Little Liars, Teen Mom) and other times a middle-aged woman (Real Housewives, The Sisterhood). I love reading serious non-fiction as much as I love a good mystery series. And, let's face it, I love analyzing pop culture phenomenons. So for so many different reasons, Andy Cohen and all associated with him is right up my alley. His talk show, Watch What Happens Live (WWHL), obviously has a series pass. So last week when I went to a book event for him (The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year) I wondered what I would say to him.

Here's what went down, "I am probably going to teach a class on reality TV at Brown University and I will likely assign parts of your books [including his Most Talkative: Stories from the Frontlines of Pop Culture here]."

Andy: Really?!

Me: I am way cooler than Camille Paglia.

Andy: But I love Camille Paglia! But you might be cooler.

Wait, did I say "way cooler?!" I'm pretty sure that automatically nullifies the statement.

You were supposed to stand across the table from Andy while getting your book signed and to get a photo, but I said to him, "I'm postpartum and need to hide my body." He kindly let me stand like this. Andy Cohen clearly understands the importance of a good angle.


The JCC photo backdrop is poifect here. Evelyn Cohen would approve, I think.

While I won't be doing the reality TV course next academic year (instead doing classes on beauty pageants and sports), I do think it will happen soon. So, who knows people, I might be a guest on WWHL yet. If Camille Paglia can do it...

In any case, the event itself was only meh. It was the fastest event to ever sell out at the Newton JCC. The 300+ audience was full of fans who wanted to see and hear Andy for a bit, and then be sure they got their Instagram images and book swag. Instead, we sat through an awkward interview for 40 minutes that Andy had to cut off himself. Given that most people in the audience had at least one advanced degree, I expected better questions than, "Will you ever do a Real Housewives of Boston?!" [If you really know your Bravo stuff you know they won't be adding any other cities, which is why we got shows like "Ladies of London"] I cringed when a girl asked how she could "be" Andy Cohen, given she is a Communications major at Boston University, same as Andy. Boston, we could have done better!

Here are some of the more serious questions I would have asked Andy, especially based on The Andy Cohen Diaries:

1) You are very good friends with Anderson Cooper (aka "Coops"). As someone who is outspoken (pun intended) about being out, how do you feel about the fact he waited so long to publicly come out? Did you have conversations about this with him?

2) What does it mean that you encourage people to watch TV, but have also written two books. Do you think the two are mutually exclusive (like doing one activity takes away from the other)? Which do you actually prioritize? [I was pleasantly surprised in the Diaries that he writes about what he reads and has a sophisticated reading shelf.]

3) Do you see the written word, like Twitter and Instagram posts, as substitutable for reading books? I noticed you walked out with two phones, but no book? Do you care if people read the print or electronic versions of your books?

4) You write about, and spoke about, your ex-boyfriend in a very laudatory way. Care to spill the tea on why the relationship didn't work out?

I loved the moments in the book when he did go deeper, like talking about the rise of "docu-series," etc. I know Andy is smart and quick and I challenge him to say more beyond just creating 15 minutes of fame for a bunch of women with (his words) too much filler.

Hopefully at some point we can continue the conversation. In the meantime, I need to catch up on Bravo's new scripted show, Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce.


More Talking, and Writing, about Competition (while being a mom)!

It's been a busy week; and I suspect it will continue to get busier as I prepare for the release of Playing to Win-- or at least I hope so! Before detailing those though, some thoughts on making all this work as a mom: On the day I did the two TV appearances described below, which bookend-ed my work day, I thought I had *finally* figured out how to be a mom, work, be a friend, etc. I did NECN early, dropped off breakfast for a close friend with a new baby where we talked about the "usual" postpartum issues, ran to exercise, and raced home to put Carston down for his nap since I didn't get to do our usual morning routine earlier. During the day I managed to get our garage door repaired and give Carston some extra Mommy kisses while preparing for Greater Boston. After the WGBH appearance I again raced home, and Carston and I headed off to dinner with a friend at the local mall. As I drove there I remember thinking to myself, "What a day! After 15 months this is really clicking!" My  husband was out of town for work and I felt like this was proof I could make all this work. Famous last words, right?! Well, Carston and his friend (who is almost 3) had a great time at P.F.Chang's. They were so cute together mimicking one another-- one would laugh, and vice versa, one would babble something and so would the other. The "problem" with this is that Carston is very into screeching. Can't figure out why this is, or whether or not this means he will be an opera singer, but no matter what we have tried to do, he still screeches like a little screech owl. Of course then, his friend screeched back. While most of the people around us were very understanding, one man in particular, sitting behind me, kept telling me how wrong I was to bring my son out and that this wasn't Chuck E. Cheese. I chose not to engage with him, but I did feel his comments were way out of line given that P.F. Chang's has a children's menu and the Natick Mall is one of the most baby/family-friendly places I have ever seen. I could have let this man put a damper on my day, and he did a bit (so much so that I am writing this), but other people around us were so nice, and as my friend pointed out there are SO many more good people in the world than bad. I ended the day by eating my carryout P.F. Chang's Lo Mein (couldn't eat while dealing with this man and my little screech owl), watching my WGBH appearance, and waking up around 1 am when John got home. All in all though, I still hope we are *finally* figuring all this out, despite people telling me where I should or shouldn't take my Little Man...

Two pieces I wrote related to competition appeared this week. The first is "Competitions Within Competitions: America's insatiable hunger," which is part of my ongoing blog at Psychology Today about children, competition, and popular culture. The piece specifically talks about the rise of even more competition in reality TV shows, where celebrities have teams that compete for the glory of the win on behalf of the team leader as well.

The other piece is about a young man who took competition too far, punching youth soccer coach Ricardo Portillo in the head during a game in Utah. Portillo died from his injuries a week later-- a sad incident that should prompt legal changes to protect sports officials and reflection about what increasing competition is doing to youth. This article, "Youth Soccer Shouldn't Be A Blood Sport" is on WBUR's Cognoscenti blog, a site where I have long desired to see my words appear (and that I got the YES on my birthday was a nice treat).

I've also done both TV and radio recently, talking about competition. In a radio appearance on The Larry Fedoruk Show on NewsTalk 610 out of Canada, I spoke about links between bullying and competition. You can hear that by clicking HERE.

Speaking again and bullying, and links to violence and social media, I appeared on WGBH's Greater Boston with Emily Rooney for a very interesting discussion about boys, terrorism, and violence. It was triggered by the arrest of an 18-year-old high school student, Cameron D'Ambrosio, in the Boston area for making terrorist threats on Facebook, but the discussion went much deeper into youth culture today.

Finally, another discussion about youth culture and competition took place at NECN's The Morning Show about how college graduates can navigate the increasingly competitive labor market after graduation.

This time of year is filed with competitive experiences- both victories and fall-out from losses- and I look forward to thinking, writing, and discussing more about these topics. Thanks for reading and listening/watching!

Cheering on Cheer

Today I woke up excited it was Friday-- but then I realized I wouldn't be getting a new episode of Cheer and I had to hit the snooze button to recover. Cheer, which has aired on CMT for the past six weeks, quickly became one of my favorite reality series, warming my normally analytical sociological heart.  It focuses on a group of senior all-star cheerleaders from Jersey, coached by the tough but loving Patty Ann Romero, who runs Central Jersey Allstars.  I'm usually critical of reality shows that feature young kids (for example, see my article in USA Today about how the law should better protect kids on reality television shows)-- though I watch them all, of course, especially those that feature performance elements like dance and singing.  I've gone on record saying that I think Toddlers & Tiaras should be off the air and that much of Dance Moms is contrived, and contrived in a way that hurts the young dancers.

But I studied both child beauty pageants and competitive dance, so I'm more of an insider when it comes to those activities.  While I've read a lot about "cheer," or cheerleading, I've never seen a competition or practice in person.  Obviously there are similarities to competitive dance, beauty pageants, and even Irish dancing, but all-star cheering comes with its own lingo, style, and cast of characters.  It was fun to learn that "Senior 5" did not refer to the number of seniors in a group, that most of the girls don't use wiglets but their real hair to get those bouncy girls, and that Happy Hooper is a real person (and I assume the inspiration for Sparky Polastri in Bring It On?).

Happy Hooper is just one of the "characters" I enjoyed while watching Cheer, and one of many adults who I thought was portrayed as positive role models in the series.  Hooper comes in as a pyramid expert to help the team increase their difficulty.  The girls from Jersey definitely enjoy his Southern accent while benefiting from his expertise.  Note that cheerleading is one of the best childhood activities when it comes to properly credentialing people to coach kids; of course, this is likely related to its high injury rate.  While anyone can open a cheer gym in the same way anyone can open a dance studio or gymnastics facility, only certified coaches can participate in particular organizations' competitions (the warring cheer organizations would likely make an interesting documentary subject as well, based on what I've read!).

The most positive role model is clearly the head coach of CJA, Patty Ann Romero (I noticed on their website that she is co-founder of the gym, so hopefully in a Season 2 we'd learn more about others in the gym as well). Patty Ann is tough, but loving. She sheds tears when her team wins, she sheds tears when she is proud of them even if that doesn't mean coming in first, and she sheds tears when she thinks she herself has made a mistake-- powerfully shown in episode 3 when a bullying situation comes up in the gym.  This is clearly a woman who loves both coaching young kids and winning.  Unlike others (like, oh, Abby Lee Miller), her ego doesn't seem to get in the way of her focus on raising young kids into adulthood.  Let's face it, most kids who start any competitive activity will not end up being professionals, but they can learn how to be more successful adults through participation with the aid of tough but constructive coaching.  Based on what was shown on Cheer that's the case at CJA with Patty Ann in charge.

That doesn't mean there aren't any tears on the part of the kids in the show. Indeed just as many tears were shown in practice as at competitions. I'm sure the private office coach sit downs were sometimes a bit staged (though at least most of the time these dressing downs were "in private," and not in front of the team, though my most serious critique is that preserving these sessions on camera isn't ideal for young girls), but there wasn't any pyramid foolishness.  Mama drama was kept to a minimum too, as Patty Ann blocks off the viewing room windows from inside the gym.  When the moms were shown it was almost always for positive reasons, like organizing a team fundraiser.  That doesn't mean there isn't drama between parents on the team, of course, but it does mean they behaved like reasonable adults and didn't screen obscenities at one another in front of kids or on camera.

Instead of focusing on extraneous drama Cheer allowed the natural drama of kids and competition to unfold.  It showed the winning and the losing, the hard work, and the injuries.  It also showed the development of leadership skills in these young women.

On a fun note,Cheeralso showed some amazing hair. Patty Ann's 'do is a true wonder (Jersey obviously produces women who invest a lot of time in their signature hair styles); I imagine she has a great teasing brush, set of curlers, and hairspray.  So do her girls, who know how to work a curling iron like no one's business. I personally like the curled ponies, which keeps the hair out of their faces while they tumble, though I prefer them without the huge Snooki-like pouf in front, as pictured below.

Here you see some CJA hair, and the genuine affectation the head coach and one of her charges seem to have for one another.  CJA admits they are tough and they aren't for everyone-- but there is a lot of love there.  I'm guessing CJA likely doesn't hold grudges if a family decides someplace else is more their style, as they recognize they aren't for everyone, but I could be wrong.  I'm guessing just like in other activities there are issues around student poaching, choreography theft, and age group tampering, but I'd like to think CJA doesn't engage in any of these typical behaviors.

Now, can't we get Patty Ann her own Ultimate Cheer Show instead of rewarding teachers who focus more on negativity?

Custody Cases, Child Beauty Pageants, and Reality TV: New Slate Double X piece on Toddlers & Tiaras Justice with update from 11-12

Last Friday a feature story I wrote about the Maddy Verst custody trial appeared on Slate's Double X. You may recall that I also wrote about the now six-year-old Maddy last fall after she appeared on the cover ofPeople.  

Like many others, including hundreds of pageant moms, I think the TLC series Toddlers & Tiaras is pretty harmful to the child beauty pageant community and to many of the kids.  I've written about kids and reality TV before as well (like here and here), so know just being on camera in front of a national audience can be problematic for some children-- let alone shown in a prostitute outfit, in a costume with "enhancements," or smoking a cigarette.

Now there's legal evidence that the show is being used in family court, as my Slate piece details. Here's a short excerpt, but click HERE to read more:

Even if the Verst case shouldn’t be a referendum on whether or not child beauty pageants are a form of abuse for all children, family lawyer Mark Momjian acknowledges that most people will “impute” to all child-beauty-pageant families. In other words most people will assume this means that child beauty pageants are now legally recognized as a form of abuse and can be the basis for altered custody arrangements and other legal action.

What sets the Verst case apart, according to Momjian, is not just that Maddy participates in child beauty pageants, but that she has done so on a television show with her story broadcast to the world. Momjian knows a thing or two about children on reality TV, having represented Kate Gosselin, former star of another controversial TLC show, Jon & Kate Plus 8, in her divorce and custody case. He believes that regardless of the outcome, the fact that child beauty pageants have become such a public issue in this case does not bode well for future participants on this show, or others featuring girls in competitive activities like dance (see: Dance Moms) and cheerleading (see: Cheer Perfection).

Jackson has asserted that, within the context of pageants, costumes like Maddy’s police-officer getup and the dance moves that accompany them are not considered sexual. Having studied child beauty pageants for over a decade, I agree with her. Within that world, they are just seen as “cute,” not sexual, and are what you must do in order to win the biggest crown. They are just moves. But that shared understanding in the pageant ballroom isn't present in the wider world, and once these routines are broadcast to a wider audience, they are rightly seen as having sexual elements in them—batting eyelashes, blowing kisses, and thrusting hips. Which is why allowing young children to be on these television shows is problematic.

In my opinion the Verst case should worry many moms, not just pageant moms.  Especially divorced moms like Melissa Ziegler whose two daughters, Maddie and Mackenzie, star on Lifetime’s Dance Moms.  In Season 1 her ex-husband appears saying that he will no longer allow his daughters to compete with their dance studio—though nothing has yet come of that threat in Season 2.  It's the combination of being involved with a controversial activity (especially those that can sexualize young girls like pageants, dance, and cheerleading) and being on television that is the real issue.  Either on their own can cause problems though—just ask Amber Portwood of MTV’s Teen Mom who lost custody of her daughter and is now in jail after footage of her hitting her child’s father in front of her daughter aired.

According to a source close to Lindsay Jackson who was present at the Campbell County Courthouse this past Friday, the judge closed the court proceedings to outsiders (including media).  Given his previous gag order and the increasingly high profile nature of the case, this wasn't surprising.  Maddy and her parents are still awaiting a decision from the judge though, and it is unclear when that decision will now be announced.

I personally am not surprised that more time is being given to make a decision.  When I spoke with Mark Momijan for the piece he told me that in 25 years of practicing family law he had never heard of a parent releasing a custodial evaluation, especially one that was less complimentary than it could be toward the mom.  He thought that would worry the judge.  Seems Judge Woeste has a lot to process, and his decision will impact not only Maddy but lots of little girls like her, so it's good that he is taking time to consider all aspects of the custody case.

UPDATE: It was reported on November 30, 2012 that Jackson and Verst will share custody, with Jackson as the primary custodian.  Maddy will be allowed to compete in pageants, so long as both parents agree in writing-- but this is expected to continue to cause legal issues.