Imagine a Blond Sugar-Free World With No Black People In It
If I were a white person suffering from Black Lives Matter fatigue, there probably would be no better streaming comfort food right now than Welcome to Plathville. I just finished watching the entire series over two nights, and it might be the whitest thing I’ve seen on TV in my life — or at least since I caught a few bits and pieces of Tiger King on Netflix earlier this year. #WhiteAF would be an equally fitting title.
The seven-episode TLC series celebrates the specific brand of whiteness I’ve come to associate with phony, holier-than-thou conservatives — but viewed through the prism of recent national events, I wonder if it’s actually meant to be making fun of it. The Plaths are blindingly white and blond without an ounce of soul. As I made my way through the first season (belatedly, since it premiered in 2019), I gasped, I laughed, and I cringed. And guess what: I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
I’m not sure whether it was the trainwreck factor or all of that impossible blondeness — the Plath sons, in particular, sport a white hair hue I never dreamed was achievable without the help of a bottle — but I found the show strangely fascinating. In fact, I even related to some of it. As someone who grew up in an ultra-religious family and didn’t see my first film in a movie theater until I was 13 (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan in 1982 — E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was next), I could relate somewhat to the sheltered upbringing of the Plath kids.
But strict as my parents were, they never came close to crossing the line into the ascetic territory of Mom and Pop Plath. They’ve banned sugar, soft drinks, TV, video games, any music except classical and gospel, and pop culture from the family household in Cairo, Georgia (which is in south Georgia, about a 45-minute drive from Tallahassee, Florida). Perhaps not surprisingly, Internet access is limited and closely monitored: Only the mother Kim and her pious 15-year-old mini-me daughter Lydia have the password.
Kim and Barry Plath epitomize the type of hypocritical modern conservatism that holds the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms sacrosanct while disregarding the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. If pop culture corrupts and television is the devil, then how did the family end up on reality TV?
As far as Kim and her husband Barry are concerned, the real world is too full of temptation. Clearly Kim is the one who set the child-rearing agenda, and Barry is just along for the ride. Whatever makes her happy — though making her happy appears to be a gargantuan task. She’s the kind of person who frowns upon kissing before marriage and whose biggest worry when her teenage daughter goes to San Francisco with an adult chaperone is that she might get kidnapped for human trafficking. (Though said daughter is certain its all about “the gays” in the Castro District.)
The psychological context offered by the show feels a bit too easy: Kim’s mother was an alcoholic single mom, and Tina went a bit wild in college. She doesn’t want the same thing to happen to anyone in her brood. But how did she go from being passed out drunk at college parties to being headmistress of what looks a lot like a family cult?
Reality bites, but at least it’s reality
Of course, the drama is in the unavoidable fact that you can only protect your kids from reality for so long. Even if you cut them off from their peers by homeschooling them and from fashion by shopping exclusively at consignment shops, they will eventually break free and discover real life.
And that’s exactly what they do. Eldest son Ethan, 21, married Olivia, a real-world woman who introduced him to beer and friendships outside his family (with their fellow churchgoers). Second eldest daughter Moriah is the wild one who dared to hang out with the sinners of San Francisco. (Kim and Barry are apparently religious, but there’s very little talk of charity or God in their home.) She’s 16 going on 17, wears makeup and dresses in sexy, skimpy outfits. She’s the family rebel who wants to break free, but one wonders where she learned to look like such a modern girl — or acquire a fondness for Carrie Underwood — when she’s been so cut off from anything remotely resembling popular culture.
Micah, 18, is the second-oldest brother. He’s tall and handsome, and he wants to be a model. One gets the impression he doesn’t really know what a model does, but people keep telling him he’s hot, so he figures he’d probably be good at it. The series spends a lot of time admiring Micah, his pecs, and his abs, but I couldn’t get a consistent read on him. When he’s not talking, he seems cocky and pose-y, but the moment he opens his mouth, he’s all aw-shucks awkward.
It’s the sort of contradictory quality that runs through the entire series. Kim and Barry Plath epitomize the type of hypocritical modern conservatism that holds the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms sacrosanct while disregarding the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. If pop culture corrupts and television is the devil, then why would Kim groom the kids for music stardom (see the video below, from 2017) and how did the entire family (minus eldest daughter Hosanna) end up on reality TV?
No doubt it was Kim’s idea. She’s the Kris Jenner of these proceedings. While keeping up with the Plaths, one gets the impression she’s king and queen of their castle and apparently the main enforcer of their extreme conservative values since we rarely see Barry interacting with any of the kids solo. But she clearly learned a thing or two from her years in the real world. She never forgets to put on her face for an interview. Not once does she let the camera catch her getting angry or raising her voice, and at one point, she even expresses a live and let live attitude towards gay people. Yeah, right.
Watching her, I was reminded of Mrs. America, another series I recently caught on Hulu. ERA enemy No. 1 Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett with an opaqueness I assumed was deliberate) was a similarly overly composed champion of all things conservative. But was it just a mask to save her from having to accomplish anything in life other than being a wife and mother, just in case she couldn’t? She fought so hard to preserve the ideals of 1950s America, but she never seemed as committed to them as she wanted people to think. I have a feeling if she had been offered a crown — or her own reality show — she would have compromised all of her supposed convictions for the big brass ring.
At the end of Mrs. America, I felt like I knew what Schlafly did to become infamous but I still hardly knew her. How did she become the Phyllis Schlafly she presented to the world? Did she ever have a truly vulnerable moment? Was she ever human?
Mother stands for discomfort
I wonder a lot of the same things about Kim Plath. Even when she talks about accidentally running over and killing her 17-month-old son in 2008, it sounds like she’s telling someone else’s story. The crux of the show is a family that has been shaped almost entirely by her rejection of things she distrusts, but what does she really value? Except for a brief getaway with Barry to celebrate their 22nd anniversary, we never get a glimpse of her life outside of her children.
Her uniquely American brand of hypocritical white conservatism feels so familiar, but it seems to have developed completely separately from the culture wars and identity politics that dominate American life outside the country confines of Plathville. I kept wondering what she thinks of Donald Trump and his brand of conservatism. I wouldn’t be surprised if she considers the former reality TV star who has been married three times and used to hang out with a sex trafficker to be a role model.
The first season was filmed before COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter changed American life, probably permanently. The Plaths have already been social distancing and quarantining for years, but I wonder how long Kim Plath can shield her younger kids from America’s new normal and pretend the world isn’t turning.
In anticipation of a possible second season, a few burning questions: Will we get a better idea of what turned Kim into such a control freak? What made her go from Florida State University party girl to a homemaker Joan Crawford, only without the violent aversion to wire hangers? Will the mask fall with a thud as she drops all pretense of being a rational adult and revels in her Mommie Dearest-ness?
What will she have to say about Black Lives Matter? Has she even told the younger kids that black people exist? While watching season one, I kept wondering what Kim and Barry would do if one of their children came out as gay (the odds are that at least one of them won’t be straight) or if Moriah decided she wanted to march for Black Lives Matter.
Kim probably would remind the younger kids that only thugs protest and all lives matter. Of course, she would. She’s totally that Karen.