Kate Gosselin: A popular brand self-destructs

As Jon and Kate Gosselin's marriage has slowly self-destructed, Kate is finding that the brand she has so carefully built is under attack. A children's clothing line that she produced with Healthtex is on hold, and her latest book, Love in the Mix: Making Meals into Memories, has been sidelined while she and her husband work out their divorce.

Reading through articles about these speedbumps, it's hard to miss the barely-concealed glee that underlies the reporting. Over the past few months, bashing Kate Gosselin has become a popular sport in America. By now, even people who haven't seen the show know that Kate can be disturbingly stern with her kids, that she is mean to her husband, and that she is greedy when it comes to snatching up the freebies of quick cable fame. Pundits have endlessly attacked her weight, her behavior, her child-rearing, and her hairstyle, until it seems that Kate isn't so much a person as the heart of a cottage industry in verbal brutality.

In a broader context, however, criticizing Kate is a joyless experience, largely because her downfall seems so completely, iconically American. A brief look at Kate's transformation from dowdy, dark-haired housewife to toned, hard-charging übermom functions as a visual primer on American ideals. Kate's current look, from her distinctive hairdo to her bronzed skin, reflects the emergence of a brand. In the past few years, Mrs. Gosselin has lived the American dream, morphing from devoted parent to media icon, from the woman who lived in a shoe to Kate Gosselin Omnipedia.

By comparison, her husband just seems to have gotten dowdy. Jon Gosselin suffers from that most un-American of failings: he's unambitious. Seemingly content to chug along at a dead-end job, playing backseat to a far more vivacious wife, he is a natural second-banana, a neighbor who can be counted on to provide for his family and show up at barbecues, but not the kind of guy who will end up running his own corporation.

In many ways, Jon has become a stone around Kate's neck. Even after he quit his job and became a full-time employee of Kate Gosselin, Inc., Jon seemed to sleepwalk through his life, happy to let his wife call the shots while he softened the edges of her occasionally too-tough love. In context, it's not hard to understand why Kate feels like she has to provide for the needs of her children.

The tough part about villainizing Kate is the fact that she doesn't seem to think she has a choice. Listening to her explain the activities that she gives her kids, one can hear a heavy helping of self-justification in her tone. On the show, even the most carefree of pastimes has a definite purpose, be it improving eye-hand coordination, increasing personal time, or working on fine motor skills. Over time, it begins to seem that Kate isn't running a family, so much as some sort of B.F. Skinner-inspired child-rearing experiment.

Beneath the "Mom as CEO" tropes, however, there is a piercing insecurity that is all too familiar. As parents increasingly obsess about their children's futures, free play and unstructured activities have become luxuries that few families think they can afford. Listening to Kate's voice, it isn't hard to hear, underlying the brittle self-confidence, a large dollop of fear. Like so many parents, Kate is so terrified of failing her children that she seems to have a hard time balancing in the need for fun.

Similarly, Kate's treatment of Jon, while painful to watch, is only a slight exaggeration of the dominant social perception of men. She seems to see her husband as an incomplete, emotionally-stunted, lump, the final child in her program: Kate Plus Nine. While Kate's condescension toward Jon is often hard to stomach, it becomes much easier to understand if one mentally replaces him with Homer Simpson, Kevin James, Peter Griffin, or almost any other father figure on television today. The cultural touchstones for confident, intelligent, hard-working fathers are few and far between, and Kate's misandry is all too familiar.

It isn't hard to see why this house of cards has come crashing down. In a culture that downplays masculine worthiness and demands perfection from children, most moms probably feel a pressure to become Kate. The problem is, however, that many of these assertions are fundamentally wrong. Parents don't have to be perfect. Men aren't completely useless. Children and their caregivers are allowed to just have fun. Until these simple truths regain cultural relevance, however, Kate Gosselin will be a realistic -- if perhaps slightly outsized -- depiction of the genuine problems facing every mom.
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