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For Real

Reality TV may often be silly, shallow, and trashy. But Top Chef, Project Runway, and other hits can help us teach our children about morality and values.

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Carla Hall on Top Chef. (Barbara Nitke/Bravo)

In the bestselling self-help book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, psychologist Wendy Mogel talks about using Jewish texts and folktales to raise self-reliant, unspoiled, non-materialistic kids. Mogel makes a convincing argument: The Book of Esther, the laws of kashrut, the story of Ruth and Naomi, they’re all rich sources of parenting wisdom. But you know what else is? Reality television.

You heard me. Rest assured I do have standards in boobtube-itude. I will not, for example, let my kids watch live-action Disney TV. But I enthusiastically encourage them to watch Top Chef and Project Runway, shows that contain a host of moral lessons.

This season, for example, we’re watching Top Chef All-Stars, in which promising but eliminated contestants from past seasons get another shot. The chefs’ very first elimination challenge involved having to once again cook the dish that got them booted during their first appearances. One woman made the exact same dish and defiantly insisted there was nothing wrong with it. But other chefs tweaked and recalibrated, learning from their mistakes. They weren’t combative with the judges but rather accepted what they’d done wrong the first time and showed that they could do better. Isn’t that how we want our kids to learn from criticism?

My favorite character so far this season is Carla Hall. The kids love her, too. She’s a great role model—she’s funny (she calls “hootie-hoo,” like an owl when she loses her husband in a grocery store), self-aware (she ruefully called her undercooked quinoa “un-duntay” instead of “al dente”), and sane in times of crisis. In the last episode, she accidentally cut off half her fingernail in a chopping-knife mishap, but unlike a certain other drama-queeny contestant who ran to the hospital with a lesser injury, she told the medic to bandage her up, then put on a rubber glove and kept cooking. In her first appearance on the show, she kept professing the importance of cooking “with love,” blending classic French technique and culinary education with soulful, joyful unpretentiousness. At first I was suspicious—irksome hippie!—but it turned out she had all the good aspects of hippie-dom without the annoying self-righteousness. When other chefs derided her desire to make an African ground-nut soup for a challenge at the U.S. Open (saying it wasn’t “elevated” enough for a fine-dining experience), Hall politely stuck to her guns, and went on to win. Again: a great lesson for kids.

The last season of the show, as Tablet Magazine’s Marc Tracy noted, was not good for the Jews. But it was very good for Jewish parenting: As we watched Jewish contestants steal, lie, and use cooking sherry in a lunch meant for children, we had many lessons to offer our children on how not to behave.

Then there’s Top Chef Just Desserts, in which a humble, heroic baker held his own, challenge after challenge, against schmancy pastry chefs. Not only did The Baker approach cooking challenges he’d never faced before, surrounded by people with far more pastry experience, he kept making simple, homey, comforting desserts—some the judges loved, some they didn’t. The Baker’s epic journey really resonated with Josie, my 8-year-old, who tends to be afraid to attempt anything she can’t be great at right away; he taught her it’s OK not to win. And there was Morgan, the guy with tons of technique but a sour, domineering attitude. He spewed homophobic insults at another contestant and treated a far more established pastry chef, Claudia Fleming, with sexist condescension. Sadly, he taught my daughters the disparaging use of the word “fairy.” (When you’re 5, fairies tend to be viewed as awesome.) Moral lessons galore!

I’d hoped that Top Chef would help turn my kids into less picky eaters. It didn’t. Still, viewing these shows as a family has been a great way for me to convey my values, and the values of our people. Family therapists often say that talking shoulder-to-shoulder, as opposed to face-to-face, allows conversation to flower in a low-pressure way. What we talk about when we talk about cooking isn’t really about cooking. It’s about treating others well, being able to recover after a setback, holding yourself to a high but not paralyzingly impossible standard.

Do I think every reality series offers such lessons? Of course not. Many are exploitative, stupid, venal. My kids will not soon be watching any Kate Plus 8, Bachelorette, or Real Housewives (sorry, Alana). But Project Runway? Bring it on. We’ve watched every season, ordered in crazed binges from Netflix. We love the show’s most creative, out-there challenges: Design an ensemble for $50 using only things you can buy in a grocery store! Make an outfit using parts of a car! Whip up a functional costume for a female wrestler! Create a garment inspired by a work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art!

There’s opportunity for art education there, of course, as well as the chance to admire creativity and resourcefulness in action. But the interpersonal dramas create teachable moments, too. One contestant was kicked off for having pattern books in his room, which sparked an animated conversation: Was it right for another contestant to tell the producers about the books hidden under the bed? Is that being a tattletale? Should the contestant have been kicked off if, as he claimed, he didn’t actually know the rules?

We loved to loathe Season 5’s villain, the petulant, uptalking Kenley Collins, who was later arrested for throwing a cat at her boyfriend’s face. She was disrespectful to the show’s beloved educator/mentor, Tim Gunn; she laughed openly at other contestants on the runway; she refused to take any criticism or advice from fashion designers or editors; she had a persecution complex as big as Bryant Park. For a while, the catchphrase in our house was “I wasn’t going for elegance, Heidi!,” Kenley’s snotty retort to judge Heidi Klum. From then on, whenever Josie or Maxie kvetched Kenleyishly, the rest of us would snap, “I wasn’t going for elegance, Heidi!” (Josie turned the saying into a welcome sign on our door. It meant take responsibility and don’t whine.)

Reality shows can depict the choices we all face: whether to be collaborative and generous or whether to hide ingredients under the table so no one else can use them. They can encourage us to stand up to bullying and show us the distastefulness of being a mean girl. Reality shows prove that talent comes in all ages, races, religions, body types, and economic backgrounds, and that loving your work is more important than being irresistible to the opposite sex. These are emphatically not lessons one learns from the Disney Channel.

Of course, reality TV isn’t all blessings. We recently passed a newspaper box containing our community paper, a picture of Bill Clinton on the front cover. Maxine ran to the box, yelling, “Tim! Tim Gunn!” Oops. So, I’ll teach morality first, politics later. Reality TV is often more moral than politics anyway.

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Dear Marjorie,
Kudos!
I’ve been using selected scenes from TV and films for years in triggering discussion of Jewish values with teenagers, first in VHS and a bit easier today with DVDs.
As more and more can be accessed with the internet, it is relatively simple and inexpensive to use wifi and a pc, connectors to speakers and screen or projector – bang! good color, sound and availability of learning opportunities.
Love your columns and perspective on raising Jewish families – and I’ve shared some columns with the students as well.
Let it be a year of health, prosperity and peace for all
Dov

I love these same shows. I just didn’t know why until I read this article!

Amanda C. says:

Great article, Marjorie!

JCarpenter says:

My favorite “reality” show to show collaboration is Amazing Race–my wife and I fantasize about how we could win it hands down (if not too distracted by enjoying the travel and the culture); for individual achievement in competition, Biggest Loser.
All the others seem so petty and mean in concept and in execution.

Wendy says:

Love your column Marjorie!

Most favorite moment on Project Runway? Mondo’s coming out about being HIV positive. What a great lesson in courage (not to mention acceptance, encouragement and self-esteem)! Mondo was our fave from day one.

Best wishes for a sweet year. Looking forwared to more great articles from you.

TOTALLY agree about Mondo!!

I just have to pipe in that tonight at dinner zoe told me to “pack up my knives and go.”

Miriam says:

A great piece! Full of your usual wisdom and wit. I feel a book coming on…..Marjorie Ingall’s Guide to Watching TV With Kids.

We love Carla, too. Our whole family chants for her from the sofa (“Car-LA! Car-LA!”) and agree_ no matter who wins, she’s the one we want to have dinner or cook with :)

Daniel says:

So this article is about how Reality TV teaches about the qualitites needed to be successful – or at least successful on Reality TV. But I must ask: what does any of this have to do with Jewish morality and values as the headline promises? I am not saying any of the success behaviors here is inconsistent with Judaism, but I don’t see (nor is there any case made) as to what it has to do with it.

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

Top chef became one of our most liked shows again this year. It showed more interaction between the contestants and less commercials so we could enjoy it.

Last year was not the good program that we were used to and so glad a producer caught on they were losing viewers.

No complaints this year.

I’ve been watching marathons of Top Chef with my son, and we’ve similarly been talking about the values we’re seeing. And cheering for Carla.
But the other night I told my son to “pack his knives and go to bed.” We may have been watching too much.

Bravo Marjorie! You’ve pinpointed what makes the best reality shows very much worth watching.

To Daniel who fails to understand what all this has to do with Jewish values: the qualities that the most likeable and winning contestants share, and that they inevitably demonstrate with gusto, are the ability to give, share, and encourage, all the while maintaining humility and a sense of humor and tact and forthrightness, even while still striving to win the contest. These are fundamentally Jewish values; one need not put others down or trod upon them to get ahead. Making life better for everyone else is what the world needs.

I’ve said that least 2045764 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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For Real

Reality TV may often be silly, shallow, and trashy. But Top Chef, Project Runway, and other hits can help us teach our children about morality and values.

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