Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Who’s Your Daddy?

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A few months ago, I tuned in to a new Fox reality show, "Who's Your Daddy?" This show offered a hopeful adoptee up to $100,000 for correctly identifying her biological father from among a group of eight men, including seven impostors able to emote on cue.

Not surprisingly, the prize money and the fake dads upset some adoption advocacy groups. There is undoubtedly something cheap and uncomfortable about this premise: "Adopted as an infant? Searching for your biological father? Let's make it a contest!" Critics of the show's concept called it "repulsive" and complained that it denigrates the experiences of adoptive families. One of the show's executive producers conceded, "You might get the impression from the title that (the show) is somehow salacious or exploitive" -- ya think? -- but he went on to insist this was not the case.

I rarely watch reality TV shows. In fact, except for occasional bouts of insomnia, I don't watch much television, period. But curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to check out the premiere episode of "Who's Your Daddy?" With kids in bed and laptop in hand, I stretched out on the couch.

T.J., the contestant, came onto my screen. Cue breathless, little-girl voice: "He's either an Academy Award-winning actor or" -- dramatic pause -- "he's my dad." Why don't I believe Fox just randomly chose a gorgeous blonde to be on this show? The show might reek less of sensationalism if the contestant didn't look like she was fresh off the cover of Playboy. Or was male.

On the most basic level, "Who's Your Daddy?" was just bad TV (and this is from someone who sat up one sleepless night through the pre-dawn hours watching a marathon of that cheesy ESPN soap "Playmakers"). It was asking a bit much, but I stomached T.J.'s hard-hitting interviews of the potential dads ("Bob likes M&Ms, and my number-one candy growing up was M&Ms!"), and even the disco-dancing demonstration (don't ask). But call me old-fashioned . . . since when is a backless dress proper attire for meeting one's biological father for the first time? Was this a reunion or a date?

All of this, and yet, as an adoptive parent, I was not personally offended by this show. There were moments of redemption. At the beginning of the show, T.J.'s real father, his voice disguised, explained, "To find my daughter is my main objective. If she wins some money, that's just extra." Also, as the pretenders were eliminated in successive rounds of competition (T.J. guessed correctly at every stage of the game), more than one of them got choked up, sincerely, saying goodbye to T.J. and wishing her well. Cut that out! I'm trying to hate this show!

Then they really went for the jugular. After T.J. tearfully reunited with her birth father . . . surprise! You've got three half-sisters, T.J.! But wait, there's more! Here's your birth mom, whom you've never met, either!

Okay, so I didn't cry. But there was this lump in my throat . . .

More than anything, though, cynicism drove my lack of personal offense. I watched "Who's Your Daddy?" expecting the worst. Expecting a reality show to be a PSA for adoption is like expecting "The Bachelor" to promote healthy marriages. But "Who's Your Daddy?" doesn't detract from the adoption experience anymore than "Wife Swap" and "Trading Spouses" detract from motherhood. It's not as if society and popular culture had been going hoarse singing mothers' praises and making our lives easier until along came these two big, bad shows suggesting that mothers are interchangeable. Speaking for a lot of folks, "Daddy" detractors essentially asked, "Is nothing sacred?" And the TV networks' answer appears to be an unrepentant "No." Reality TV shows cheapen real life. It's their job.

In the end, the people have spoken -- the people with Nielsen hook-ups, that is. "Who's Your Daddy?" was a ratings loser, finishing last in its time-slot among the four networks. As of this writing, Fox has shelved the remaining episodes.

So, I had to ask myself: If Peyton, my adopted child, had the chance to be on a show like this to find her biological father, would I want her to do it? I would certainly support her efforts to find out as much as she could about him. Right now, however, we know very little in that regard. We know he has four other children, including Peyton's full biological brother. We know he cited a lack of available parking spaces as a reason for dropping off Peyton's birth mother and not coming inside the adoption agency for the placement ceremony. We have no pictures or video of him. We know his age (mid-30s) and have a brief medical history and physical description of him -- perhaps enough to pick him out of a group of eight strangers, but nothing much more substantive than that.

If and when Peyton expresses a desire to meet her birth father, I hope he's amenable to it, and I hope it's as easy as using our adoption agency as an intermediary. But "Who's Your Daddy?" wasn't about facilitating the search; clearly, father and daughter could have been reunited without the cameras rolling. So, the real question is: How would I feel if Peyton chose to do it for the money? No differently than I would feel if she did any other tacky thing: slightly embarrassed, wondering where I went wrong as a mother, but ultimately, respecting her right to do as she pleased.

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2020.

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