Sex in the Genealogy

One of NBC’s newest primetime shows, “Who Do You Think You Are?” follows seven celebrities as they work with genealogy experts to uncover their families’ hidden pasts.  The show is produced by Wall to Wall Entertainment, best known for their PBS reality shows “Frontier House” and “Colonial House.”  According to online promotional video clips, viewers will have the opportunity to follow alongside well-known celebrities as they travel through time to uncover their ethnic roots.  The seven part series is done in partnership with, the online website database used by individuals and institutions for genealogical research.  Promotional clips show the seven celebrities at moments of shock and contemplation as they learn about the lives of their ancestors.  While a couple of future episodes appear to follow some of the celebrities’ to their ancestors’ foreign origins, others investigate the celebrities’ American roots.[1] 

Matthew Frye Jacobson delves deeply into American’s determination to discover their ethnic heritage in his book, Roots Too.  He stresses the influence of public media through television and film in prompting an increase in the white middle America’s search for connections to their past.  A rebellion against “video assimilation,” or diminished ethnic elements in television and film, the universal popularity of the mini-series Roots, and the patriotic centennial celebration in 1975 all contributed to a boom in genealogy and ancestry.[2]  Individuals were searching and hoping for their own unique identity.  “Indeed, in trying to explain the boom in genealogical research in 1977, one archivist in Fort Wayne, Indiana, called it “bicentennial fallout.” It was not just that Americans were hoping to discover a revolutionary soldier in their family’s past…but that the images conjured in this national celebration adopted ethnic diversity as a central motif.” [3]

With the new information generation, genealogical research appears to be entering yet another upswing, but instead of individuals seeking what Jacobson describes as their hyphen ethnicity, individuals, as demonstrated in NBC’s new show, are seeking their American roots.  In contrast to post-civil rights ethnicity investigation, this new movement does seem interested in connecting individuals with famous ancestors as a way of proving an individual’s connection to American history.  The first episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” followed actress Sarah Jessica Parker from New York to Cincinnati, Ohio to El Dorado, California to Salem, Massachusetts in search of two of her ancestors.  Throughout the program genealogists and historians were able to determine that one of her ancestors was involved in the California gold rush in 1849, and another was indicted in a Salem witch trial in 1692.    

The episode concludes with Sarah Jessica relaying her new found information to her excited mother in New Jersey.  “I went into this thinking that I wasn’t connected to anything historical. That was the feeling, like there was no link to the past. But there is. There are strong links to a historical time, and I was terribly wrong…thrillingly.”[4] 

Is this the beginning of a new generation that is no longer interested in their hyphen ethnicity but instead interested in their American ethnicity?  Instead of Hollywood portraying blurred or stereotyped ethnicity in fictional settings, celebrities are now using their own heritage to promote a new homogenized American identity. 

Sarah Jessica Parker’s episode ends with her candid declaration, “I believed in America. I believed in the things I love about being American. But I never felt that I was really American….What I’ve learned is that I have real stock in this country. And real roots. And I have belonging. I’m an American. I’m actually an American.”[5]

 [1]NBC,, (accessed March 5, 2010).

[2] Matthew Frye Jacobson, Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 75.

[3] Ibid, 55.

[4] “Who Do You Think You Are?” Sarah Jessica Parker. (accessed March 14, 2010).

[5] Ibid.

4 thoughts on “Sex in the Genealogy

  1. It is also interesting to note that along with the interest in finding an American past, that much of the new interest in genealogy focuses on finding someone interesting in your past. So for Sarah Jessica Parker, it was finding herself connected to the Salem Witch Trials. Also if you watch the commercials that has on television all the modern people are connected to either World War One pilots, circus performers, or other fascinating people. I wonder therefore, if the interest in genealogy is more about one-up-manship of the past and less about our ethnic or cultural background.

  2. Could the interest in an “American ethnicity” just be the next step after “hyphen ethnicity?” By that I mean, after everyone has discovered their pre-American ancestry, it’s no longer as special. People now want to prove that their ancestors had a hand in building America. There is also the popular Genome Project from National Geographic, that helps people trace their families back to the earliest members. So whether it’s moving towards the preset or moving further into the past, it’s clear that people are trying to find something new in their past.

  3. I’m sorry, but I can’t help but think that NBC is really reaching for the older demographics with this show. I can’t think of anything more boring than genealogy on TV. I wonder whose research will take more leaps of faith: the researchers trying to make for entertaining prime-time television or the run-of-the mill citizens hoping to find something remarkable in their family’s past.

    Not everyone’s ancestors can be omnipresent throughout important historical events.

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