What Are We Learning From The Virgin Diaries?

The Learning Channel has traded knowledge for awkward voyeurism

When I’m flipping through the channels and see something on TLC like Toddlers and Tiaras or I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, it makes me think of those long ago days when TLC stood for The Learning Channel and watching it was, in its way, almost virtuous: Yes, you were sitting on your couch in your sweats with a bucket of chicken or whatever, but you were learning about, say, what the earth was like when dinosaurs roamed our planet, or finding out how to make a headboard from a canvas stretcher. It might not have been the heady stuff of PBS, but it was rocket science compared to, say, Extreme Couponing.

I’m no TV saint—I wish I could say that I only own a TV to watch the History Channel and Rachael Maddow and The Good Wife, but alas, I’ve admitted on this very blog my (depraved, shameful) fondness for at least three of the six versions of the Real Housewives franchise, and I’ve watched my own fair share of TLC’s own Say Yes to the Dress (about wedding dress shopping) and What Not to Wear (about regular shopping). But it wasn’t until the debut of TLC’s latest dip into the docu-reality pool—a cringe-worthy show called The Virgin Diaries about 30-something virgins—that the pieces of this bad-TV puzzle came together in a stark moment of clarity:

TLC has really jumped the shark.

I think there are lots of modern moments where we can look and say, “Oh, what reality TV hath wrought.” But the slide into grossness is nowhere more obvious than on this network that has, over the course of a decade or so, morphed from a place to go and sort of learn something into the modern-day equivalent of that most exploitative sideshow at the circus—the freak show.

I’m not asserting that adults who choose not to have sex are freaks (far from: I respect that people live their own lives, and I care not to discuss or judge in respect to sex), I just mean that they’re being framed as such. Isn’t that what people tune in for? To gawk at something like the 30-something couple’s first-ever beyond-awkward kiss, as captured by the harsh, unblinking lens of a camera? (I saw it. And frankly, where scripted awkward—a la 30 Rock or The Office—comes off so hilariously, real life awkward of this variety is so squirmingly uncomfortable I had to cover my face with a couch pillow.)

In any case, learning clearly isn’t the point here: This particular show never even touched on the backgrounds or experiences that contributed to these peoples’ decisions to remain chaste; no scientist or historian got so much as a second of air time discussing any sort of broader cultural context. In other words: There’s no takeaway but the (TMI) glimpse of people who are clearly on TV only to be defined as “other.”

It’s true that some TLC shows (like the ones about clothes or cupcakes) seem pretty harmless, and it’s also true that on some of the “reality” programs the network airs, the subjects are presented in a much more sympathetic light. (The Duggers, the Arkansas parents with 19 biological kids, come off even somewhat endearing—and just look at the number of totally sane viewers that religiously followed Jon and Kate and the eight until that train ran off the track!) But for every ostensibly benign What Not to Wear or almost-documentary-like 19 Kids and Counting, there’s something like a Freaky Eaters or a Strange Sex or a My Strange Addiction.

Clearly, voyeurism (and boredom?) has reached a weird, disturbing new level when we tune into shows where people compulsively eat dryer sheets or refuse to ever cut their fingernails. Last time I flipped past Hoarders, I wondered: If someone who had never seen American TV and never been to America began watching the network formerly known as The Learning Channel, would they learn more about our modern culture from the folks on these shows or from the people who are watching them?