When Reality TV Calls …

Take it Back

Lori VolkmanLast weekend I escaped from the pelting rain and drury skies of the Northwest and enjoyed some sun in 29 Palms. I was there to talk to a group of military spouses about a tough topic: Reintegration. The theme of the SpouseBUZZ event was “Take Back Your Story.” As organizer Jacey Eckhart pointed out, dramatic television coverage of military life showcases the ups and downs, the romance, and the tragedy. We, the spouses, are revered and admired like toughened modern pioneer women on the one hand, and yet portrayed as fragile drama stripper-queens on the other. Okay, so that might be my own paraphrasing. But if you’re a milspouse you know you snicker and secretly wish you had the guts to wear that t-shirt you’ve seen: “Military Wife: Sexually Deprived for your Freedom.”

But it’s time, she said, that we take responsibility. It’s time, she said, to let our real stories be heard. It’s time, she said, to take back our story!  We cheered and puffed like the underdog team at half time listening to the rally cry of their inspirational coach. She even used a colorful personal vignette to drive the point home. She spurned us on with her story about the time she had a chance to tell her story on national TV, for hours and hours. And she described her shock and disappointment when the program aired and it was about the other young mother they interviewed. It was about the wife who cried on camera. The one who was falling apart. They didn’t want Jacey – the strong independent woman slinging a baby on her hip tending the garden and fryin’ up the bacon. They wanted the waif who tugged at everyone’s heartstrings when she bawled her ever-lovin’ eyes out.

“But that’s not us! No! We’re takin’ back our story!” I says to myself. “We’re changin’ the game,” I declare. And so we told our stories in 29 Palms. We took it back. We had fun. But at the end of the day, we only took it back from ourselves. Don’t get me wrong – I felt empowered. But as I sat in the airport waiting for my flight home, I was left wondering how that would translate for me, personally, down the road.

“Down the Road” Arrives

As luck would have it, “down the road” arrived the very next morning. That happens to me a lot. Gah. I opened my email and found this:

Dear Lori,

I came upon Witty Little Secret while I was researching military families and wanted to reach out to you with a request. I work for a prominent production company that creates original programming for a national TV network and we’re creating a new series featuring relationship expert Iyanla Vanzant.  For a new program in the series we’re featuring three couples who are on the brink of divorce.  We’d like to include a military family because there are so many unique challenges presented in these marriages. I’m wondering if you’re amenable to soliciting marriage stories from couples who are interested in starting the healing process and being featured in our program?

I knew I wasn’t the only one getting this email, but it intrigued me. I thought immediately about what kind of story, what kind of real-life couple could pull it off. It seemed so many of us had felt “on the brink” of something terrible at some point during reintegration.

I had.

It seemed that sharing it might actually help someone else. But it was a big BIG scary monster. So I asked a group of bloggers I trust for some thick-skinned criticism, and I was surprised that most of the responses were negative:

“I have a feeling it will show the world that military marriages are doomed … I don’t like it when the media makes military families look bad … Why don’t they ever want the marriages going 20+ years strong despite the military? … Why do they want to show the worst in us? … I worry about how the inner workings and unique struggles of military marriages will be portrayed … We have a unique lifestyle and it plays a big roll in why the divorce rate is so high … Civilians tend to not understand.”

Exactly. We have to be the ones to tell them, I thought. Show them. Take back the story. And then I stepped aside and pushed my girlfriends out in front of me and said, “so yeah – you go first! Go for it, girl! Right behind ya.”

They all keyed on the same thing that triggered me when I first read the email: It all sounded so risky. Really, really risky.

Reality TV is Scarier Than War

So what does this mean? We can send our husbands off to war, give birth to and raise children on our own, build things and pay things and fix things and decide things on our own, even sit with a friend who is waiting for a phone call after we’ve all heard a chopper went down … but we can’t handle a little reality television? We are the bravest people we know (aside from our servicemembers) but we can’t discuss how we deal with the realities of rekindling a long-distance marriage? We can detail our health and even our mental health struggles (and usually even our kids’ weird pooping habits) on the very public internet, but we can’t even look an interviewer in the eye and explain what it feels like when our husbands come home and we realize that homecoming isn’t the magic pill that cures deployment?

So far the answer is “nuh-uh.”

But we can still talk about reintegration. It’s time we were respectful and brave and real about it. And funny about it. Because it’s really funny at times, too. We take ourselves way too seriously. All of us do.

If you’d like to see the official media query, or even if you’d like to answer it, go here.

Or you can always stay here a while. If you’ve ever been lonely, ever banged your head against a wall trying to figure out where to go next, ever tried molding something that was out of your control, well, hang out here.  And we’ll get through it together, like we always do.

Now. Ummm. Like I said. Go ahead. You first.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. DogBoy
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 18:41:41

    I’m right behind you!


  2. Rebecca Matticks
    Apr 06, 2012 @ 08:34:35

    My husband and I are exactly at the point they probably want to film. I can’t imagine a camera crew there filming it all. It is so personal and deep. There are things you want and need to say to your spouse, can you image saying it to the world as well? I am with you, anyone want to go first?


  3. Marsha
    Apr 06, 2012 @ 08:26:34

    I agree with proceeding with caution on the whole ‘reality TV’ programming aspect. If this is the OWN network, I do think they take a slightly different approach to their stories and have higher standards. If there’s a way you can maintain ‘control’ over the message they want to air, it could be an aspect to marriage that most of us haven’t had to experience. I mean, the non-military of us have only experienced the ‘garden variety’ of crumbling marriages and divorces.


  4. Allie
    Apr 06, 2012 @ 08:00:17

    I loved meeting you last weekend!!! You are such a wonderful speaker, blogger and person (:

    Reality TV is scary, because most of what you see doesn’t even end up being real. It is real for “ratings”. Pots are stirred and people are poked with sharp sticks (literally and figuratively) so you can get a good story. The truth is usually not prevelant at all. I think that is why I would hesitate, even if I wanted to share my story with the world I think reality tv would just twist it and make it their story.


  5. jenschwab
    Apr 06, 2012 @ 05:21:23

    It IS risky to say the least. You have to examine motivating factors. All TV producers want to get as many people as they can to watch their show – and that is the ONE thing that really motivates them in the end. They will tell you all sorts of things to inspire you – but ratings is the thing that determines their paycheck in the end.

    We, on the other hand, want to tell our story. We want people to identify with us, and join us in our story – to build community and understanding. With that in mind, the only people I can think of who have done reality TV successfully is the Duggars. And that comes from a whole lot of consistency on Mama Duggar’s part, that the only material they have to work with is who she really is – all the time.

    Having worked in public affairs in the military world, and marketing on the civilian side – proceed with extreme caution when there are mixed motives and end games…or perhaps not at all.


    • Lori Volkman @ Witty Little Secret
      Apr 06, 2012 @ 06:38:06

      How about something less than reality TV like, I dunno, reality blogs? 😉


      • jenschwab
        Apr 06, 2012 @ 07:59:07

        haha…obviously I’m in favor of blogging. But in a blog you have complete control of your message, for better or worse.

        If someone wanted to do “reality” TV, my advice is to decide what your message is, and stick to it. Decide what story, what message, what insight it is that you want to communicate through the experience. And whatever happens during filming – always bring it back to your message. Because if you don’t decide what your story is, the producers will – and it won’t be pretty, and it won’t be what you thought it would be. They can’t make a show about your dirt if you never give it to them. Be in such control of what you put out there, that no one is able to tell a story other than the true one you wish to tell.


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