“What happens when your one true love is also a member of your family?” asks the voice-over announcer in the trailer for MTV’s upcoming True Life episode. The topic is exactly what you would expect: cousins who have fallen in love with each other and are raising a baby — their baby — together. But just because MTV can sensationalize incest, doesn’t necessarily mean that it should.
As soon as the trailer for True Life: I Had My Cousin’s Baby premiered yesterday, the Internet heaved a collective sigh of “WTF.”
Yet the enthusiasm of some other responses made it perfectly clear why MTV chose consensual incest as their latest topic to exploit.
My reaction — though negative — is a bit different from the ones above. My objection to the episode has nothing to do with the content or the people documented. In fact, if I believed that True Life: I Had My Cousin’s Baby would offer a smart and sensitive portrait of the lives of the two couples profiled, I would be inclined to watch it. Genetic sexual attraction is a real phenomenon, and though it’s most common among blood relatives who are reunited as adults, it’s possible to happen to people who have known each other their whole lives. When incest is the product of an abusive, coercive or nonconsensual dynamic, it is wrong to act on. But when two consenting adults fall in love and decide to embark on a committed relationship? It’s unusual, certainly, and it’s highly stigmatized in our culture, but neither of those make it wrong, per se.
Even the “facts” that we believe we know about consensual incest aren’t entirely true. While many friends and family members in the trailer express concerns about birth defects, studies have proven that the offspring of first cousins rarely develop serious birth defects. That is frequently cited as the most common reason to oppose sexual relations between cousins, and if that’s not as serious a concern as we once believed, what, exactly, is the problem?
So, no, my skepticism about True Life: I Had My Cousin’s Baby is not because I object to how these couples are consensually choosing to live their lives, or because there isn’t any value in discussions about incest, family planning or alternative relationships. My concerns are because of True Life‘s reputation.
Since the late 1990s, True Life has documented topics from the mundane (I’m a Cheerleader, I’m Going to Prom, I’m an Identical Twin) to the unusual (I’m a Professional Gamer, I Have Autism, I Live in a Brothel). And while the concept of profiling individuals with exceptional or intriguing life stories and identities is a noble one, the show has never been without controversy. It has been accused of stereotyping, diluting authenticity with scripted scenes and relying on pseudoscience to support dubious claims. Even though MTV purports to be amplifying the voices of ordinary people living extraordinary lives, many are critical of the show for sensationalizing those lives rather than portraying them factually and believably.
While reading reactions to the trailer for True Life: I Had My Cousin’s Baby online, I didn’t come across any that said, “Oh, this sounds like an informative or enlightening documentary,” or “I can’t imagine how difficult life must be for them.” The reactions fell into three distinct categories: disbelief, disgust and amusement. Perhaps a documentary about consensual incest would fare better on PBS, but MTV knows the demographic that it’s courting. And its not an audience seeking well-researched or sensitive takes on the material — it’s an audience looking to gawk at perceived “weirdos.”
Perhaps I’m selling the episode short and perhaps I should revisit this article once I’ve watched it. (I won’t lie — watching the trailer did pique my curiosity.) But I’ve watched enough MTV to have my suspicions and I won’t be shocked if they turn out to be true.
True Life: I Had My Cousin’s Baby will premiere on MTV this Thursday, Dec. 31. If you’re interested in adding a dose of vicarious cousin-love to your New Year’s Eve plans, check out the trailer below.