"Who Do You Think You Are?" -- When Genealogy Meets Reality TV
After hearing various archivists, historians, and librarians rave or moan about the genealogy TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?” I finally got a chance to see it for myself. This show is run by the genealogy database Ancestory.com and takes various celebrities on journeys to discover their roots in an odd blend of reality TV confessionalism and historical inquiry. This is the show that recently helped “Sex and the City’s” Sarah Jessica Parker discover a distant ancestor involved in the Salem Witch Trials.
The episode I watched focused on Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe in Friends), who wanted to follow up on a family story about her great-grandmother’s death during the Holocaust. The journey took her from LA to Belarus, back to LA, and then to Poland. The journey was an emotional one, in which Kudrow got to meet people who had known her great-grandmother, and-- a family historian’s dream—got to meet the long-lost cousin who had brought the tragic news to Kudrow’s family in the 1940’s.
As someone who’s interested in family history, I enjoyed “Who Do You Think You Are?” But there were some things about this episode that bothered me. The contrast was stark between the expensively dressed and beautifully groomed American actress and the villagers of the former Soviet Union who had known her great-grandmother. For me, it emphasized the idea of genealogy as an activity that’s hard to seriously undertake without a decent amount of money. Unless you’re fortunate enough to be someone “Who Do You Think You Are?” takes an interest in, paying for transatlantic flights and hiring genealogists and translators to help search for your roots is a pricey business!
I was also troubled by the show’s sensationalism. Like the best (or worst) of reality TV, “Who Do You Think You Are?” glories in tearful revelations and scandalous secrets to be disclosed to a national audience. But the show is really a tutorial on how to use Ancestroy.com, giving the show a feeling of an elaborately staged ad. Researching your family history can be fascinating and empowering (and a great way to learn about how your own heritage fits into history), and I’m not sure a sensational TV program shows this to best advantage. On the other hand, “Who Do You Think You Are?” has created a renewed interest in genealogy and started many people on the paths to their roots, so maybe it’s good that this show has made a once-obscure hobby that has become a popular pursuit. What do you think?