My parents came to the conclusion before I was born that I wasn’t to watch a lot of television, and certainly not a lot of commercial television. In fact, the one commercial television program we watched consistently was Sunday Morning. My parents believed strongly that commercials and consumerist culture infused people with negative opinions of themselves. They believed that if a person is indoctrinated with images about how your life could improve if only you had that game, that car, that hair color, or that jewelry, then that person would be less apt to see themselves as whole and worthwhile without it. Because of that, I mostly watched PBS. I watched Sesame Street, and Reading Rainbow, and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and This Old House. When other girls had crushes on the New Kids on the Block, I was in love with Bob Villa (and thought The New Kids on the Block were really kids who were new to my particular block). While other girls were watching commercials about barbies or playhouses or easy bake ovens, I was watching Maria and Luis fix toasters and Linda and Bob and Susan and Gordon deal with Big Bird. I was watching the Land of Make Believe. I was learning about the Underground Railroad (something I thought, for a time, was an actual railroad built underground). I was watching specials like Eyes on the Prize. And also, Pooh Bear. But only for a couple of hours a day. The rest of my time was spent with books, reading and being read to, or playing outside and with my toys.
I was so divorced from commercials and their marketing techniques that the first one I remember was from when I was five. It was a Chips Ahoy commercial, for Sprinkle Chips Ahoy. Its tagline was "A Party In Every Bite":
And I believed it. So I went home and asked my father to buy me a pack; he did, and sat there with me as I took my first bite, expecting streamers and for generic rock music to start playing. When nothing happened, I was incredibly disappointed and very, very mad. My father then took this opportunity to explain false and misleading advertising and why it was important to look at the commercials and recognize that they were attempting to sell me products I generally wouldn’t need or even want without the commercials themselves alerting me to the fact that I needed and wanted them. The whole experience was so surreal and so jarring that I remember it to this day.
The other thing that was strange about my family and television were the rules surrounding its very existence. Television sets belonged in the living room. No tvs in the kitchen, none in the dining room, and certainly none in the bedrooms. Dining rooms were for family dinners; people should be able to exist without television long enough to cook dinner; bedrooms were for sleeping and for playing. Television watching was sort of an old fashioned event; instead of everyone going off to their separate spaces and watching what they wanted to, we sat in a central location and watched, well, generally what my parents wanted to. We would watch, and discuss what we saw. We discussed how the Japanese were depicted during World War II in Loony Tunes cartoons and that morphed into a talk about Japanese internment camps. Later, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was used to discuss things like sexuality, feminism, and pop culture references. Ken Burns’ documentaries were watched together. History was weaved into the very fabric of my experience, as my parents –both tremendous history buffs- would sit and talk for hours about Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. We would watch shows about them, and then visit museums and historical sites dedicated to them and others.
My parents did other things, obviously. They made sure I was told I was smart; that I was capable; that I was loved. They treated me with respect, and were wholly interested in my opinions and my views about the books we read or the shows we watched or the places we visited, and that certainly has given me the ability to be a confidently opinionated person. They made sure I knew that authority figures were not worthy of blind adherence simply because they were authority figures; but they were worthy of respect because they were people. And they sent me to preschool and to daycare where I had to deal with children and parents and supervisors who had different opinions and different ideas –though that was mostly to preserve my mother’s sanity.
However, I strongly believe that all of this rests upon my limited interaction with a world that wants to make me feel like I am less than I am in order to prey on my feelings of weakness, and my intense exposure to people who believed that I was wonderful and whole the way I was. By substituting educational television for commercial television; by substituting an interactive response for a passive response to those programs; and by encouraging other areas of interest and interaction independent of the talking box, my parents helped me to develop the skills necessary to feel whole. I am still affected by media images; but since I grew up with the television more off than on, and since I was taught to think critically about those images from a young age, I think my parents were able to imbue me with an incredible skill set. I'm still sucked in sometimes; but more often than not, I recognize the problem is something outside of me. And that is a rather powerful thing to recognize.