Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Television and Me

I’ve been thinking how to write this for a couple of days, because there are just so many aspects of what my parents did that helped me positively become who I am today and helped me be strong, to be confident in myself, my appearance, and my intelligence throughout my youth and through today. But I think what it comes down to –more than the gender neutral clothing choices, more than the instruction to hit back- was this: television; or rather, the lack of it.

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.


MediaMaven said...

Excellent essay, Pet. I agree with you wholeheartedly about limiting television exposure, and noticed that a lot of my personality was formed because I didn't have cable as a child and wasn't spoiled. I too, did not know who the New Kids on the Block were (when I was five, I saw sheets with them on it and thought it was the most preposterous thing ever), and wasn't allowed to get a backpack featuring a cartoon.

In fact, when my parents bought me a television for my bedroom for my 16th birthday, I had a whole crisis about how they were rejecting their values (for a long time we weren't allowed to have TVs in our rooms, and video games weren't allowed either) for something I didn't want and really didn't need.

In fact, in all those years of reading Television Without Pity I realized that many of the users were people like us who had limited exposure to television as children and so were way more discriminating and critical than the average viewer. They also read a lot--and this is true of Tara Ariano and Sarah Bunting.

It bothers me so much that children are often raised on DVDs, that the TV is put on to shut them up. One of the most influential books I read was Marie Winn's "The Plug-In Drug" (revised edition) in high school, still dealing with my television crisis. In it she outlines a lot of the harmful effects television does to young minds, but also debunks the myth that watching violent television makes you violent.

I remember that commercial, too. Ben Stein's done everything! Those cookies don't look so delicious now, though.

petpluto said...

Thanks! I'm putting that book you mentioned on my "To Read" list.

As for the cookie, I'm not sure if it was just the bitter taste of disappointment, but it wasn't so great back then either!

petpluto said...

Oh, one other thing, you mentioned video games? My parents were huge on no game systems in the house aside from Gameboys (I think it was part of the whole "no more television than necessary thing). So, last Christmas my parents bought my sisters (and by proxy all of us) the Wii. And my sisters opened it and were horrified. I think the first thing one of them said was, "We're not supposed to have this!"

And then they got over it. It was also probably the best present because neither one of them ever in a million years considered getting it even a remote possibility.

jjfs85 said...

It seems that your parents and my parents were on the same page when it comes to television and game systems rules. We had two TVs in the house when I was growing up: one in my parents' bedroom and on in the family room. The only game systems allowed in the house were hand-held ones. Though my parents weren't so strict when it came to computers, we only had one in the living room growing up. Also, my parents didn't spend tons on brand new toys or the latest and greatest stuff for my sister and I. This way, we'd have to be more creative with our toys and we used our imaginations more when we were young.

Jess said...

Any time my parents let me watch tv it was really exciting. I had a few core shows, especially Mr. Rogers, but that was it. When I told my father I wanted a Nintendo, he agreed...but he gave me a huge jar of pennies and then made me wrap them all, and then we paid with that. It took me 3 months, and I REALLY appreciated that Nintendo.

Of course, my babysitter tried to undo all of my parents' hard work, to no avail. She sat us down in front of the tv all day long. If there weren't any other kids there, I would turn off the tv and read or ask to go outside. My babysitter would ask if I was feeling ok. She thought I was a really odd duck for not wanting to watch nickolodeon for 8 hours straight.

Having been exposed to both extremes as a child, I definitely don't watch all that much tv now.