Part 2: What is your Story? Why Maury Matters

I had never appreciated The Maury Povich Show (Maury for short) until recently in these past few years. For me, Maury was a show of poor taste where people are paid to get on a talk show to air their dirty laundry to the public. Infidelity, sex secrets, out of control children…Maury purposely creates controversy to entice viewers and feed on their gossipy nature. Watching Maury is like watching a train wreck that you can’t take your eyes away from even though you know that most of the show is staged. I was disgusted and avoided the show as much as possible.

However, things took a turn, and I must credit professor for my new found appreciation for the show. I was sitting in class one day, and my professor came into class and opened lecture with how he’s been watching Maury lately. Our class became rather puzzled and even chuckled at his latest fascination with “trash TV.” But then he said, “I want everyone to take some time this week and watch an episode of this show and really consider how this relates Bahktin’s concept of heteroglossia. I want you to watch episodes that are specifically related to Maury giving paternity tests to the guests, because these episodes exemplify how the show isn’t just about who’s the baby’s daddy.”

Then what is it about? I sat through a couple of episodes. The only thing I’d gleaned from the website is the misrepresentation of certain demographics who are guests of the show. It seems like that the dominant narrative of the show is, “Look at these people! If only they were more educated of if the environment they live in weren’t so dysfunctional, they might actually be a normal family.”

Is that it? Is the narrative a criticism of certain groups of people that concurrently exploits them for profits?

Close, but no cigar. During the following lecture, my professor thoroughly explained that Maury is not only about the misrepresentation of certain groups of people; it is about the application of middle class values on a group of people where the traditional nuclear family structure rarely exists. Did the show make me feel disgusted? Yes. Why? Because I am buying into the dominant narrative of the show: families should consist of two parents and their children. The show isn’t just about who’s the baby’s daddy. It is about how the traditional nuclear family is the the “right” type of family. Anything that deviates from it is a broken family that needs to be fixed.

When you stop focusing on the story and start asking who is telling the story, how is the story told, and why are they telling the story in a particular method, then you start to see the story in a different light. The show is about finding the baby’s father. Yet, it is also about perpetuating the ideal American family structure and framing anything that doesn’t fit as deviant.

According to the 2010 Census data, there are more African American families that consist of single mothers than there areĀ  of two parents. Many of the guests on Maury are single African American mothers. When we look at the statistics and consider the ideal family narrative in the show, we see Maury framing a social norm as a outlier. Thus, when viewers watch the show, they ask, “What is wrong with these people?” The more appropriate question is why is Maury applying an inappropriate family model on a group of people who are known to have different family structures?

Power, racism, class discrimination? Perhaps. And if so, Maury becomes more than just trash TV. The show becomes a place where we contest and negotiate our values and understandings of the family. When we stop focusing on just the content (what the show is) and we start deconstructing the show in various narratives and who these voices belong to, even trash TV becomes a valuable artifact that reveals a deeper message.

So, take a look at the product you’re building. Even if it’s a simple food diary application to help people manage their weight, what values or narratives are you building into your product? Perhaps you’re playing on this whole idea that counting calories is the best way to get people to be more healthy, or maybe you’re building a program to track how active people are throughout the day. Whatever it is, know that the design is more than its form and function. And if you are designing a product that requires the board’s approval, then you have to include these executives’ narratives into your design. Lastly, the users have the agency to use and/or change the product according to their needs, so their narratives are also embedded into the product.

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