A new generation of television characters presents poor examples for children
At the risk of seeming compulsive, I come to you again this Monday with commentary on the
entertainment world. About two weeks ago, the cast of Full House got together to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the show’s premiere episode. As the cast tweeted about their mutual love of New Kids on the Block, anecdotes of the olden days and group shots of all of them arm-in-arm, I was overcome with a wistful nostalgia. Being a first year often makes me feel immature and inexperienced, like a toddler in this “college” game. But as I realized that it had been a quarter century since one of my favorite after-school specials had premiered and at least ten years since I had started watching it, I suddenly felt very old and longed to revisit my childhood.
Of course, after the aching in my heart and my endless sighs subsided, I started thinking about what my illogical and yet indelible connection to this television show and its characters could mean in a larger context. The way that television programs and the mass media can influence and shape their viewers has always fascinated me, and I do not think this influence is something that can be underestimated or overstated. I am the way that I am for a multitude of reasons, as are all people. Our families, social circles, religious educations, teachers and mentors were the primary sculptors of our personalities and views. That said, the fictitious characters that I grew up watching — and subsequently idolizing — as a child and pre-teen should undeniably be listed among the factors that made me, me.
Even if at the time I hated them for it, I am beginning to understand why my parents banned certain shows in our household. For example, for a while I was barred from watching That’s So Raven and All That. My parents did not want me imitating Raven’s sass-infused backtalk or the obnoxious behavior of Amanda Bynes’ alter ego. My parents understood something that I could not: These people, these characters, would seem just as real to me as all of my tangible, real-life mentors. Not only that, the characters were being deified in my childish eyes because they were on television, and their behavior was bound to have some effect on my own. So although my parents posed no objection to television in general, they did prefer that I admire a specific breed of celebrity.
I would argue that this “breed” of idol was much more abundant in nineties’ television than it is today. I do not want to be one of those annoying people who glorifies their own generation and becomes excessively sentimental over a particular decade, but I will go to certain lengths to defend past times. I have to believe that children and family networks in the nineties supplied me with better heroes than current programming is providing for children today, and I would challenge anyone who suggested that this view is simply a by-product of my nostalgia, or that I view current television more harshly because of my increased maturity. Television characters and their narratives have fundamentally changed.
I grew up wanting to be just like Full House’s DJ Tanner. She followed the rules, overcame bodily insecurities, studied furiously, eventually got a part-time job and she hoped to attend Stanford. I wanted to be Boy Meets World’s Topanga, who was unapologetically strange, true to herself, cognizant of the world’s problems and determined to solve them, independent and smart. In my early teens, I wanted to be Rory Gilmore of the Gilmore Girls. She was the sexy bookworm, filled with wanderlust, and she managed to balance both an insatiable desire to succeed with a kind and soft-spoken personality. These women and their many pop cultural contemporaries had strong and brilliant characteristics that I was right to attempt to mimic, but they were by no means extraordinary. They all lived in typical suburbia with relatively normal families, and they led lives to which their audiences could relate. They were accessible, perhaps particularly for me, since I valued academia and originality, but for everyone else as well.
Who do the children of 2000’s have to emulate? I have a ten-year old sister, and every time I happen to observe the shows of Disney Channel or Nickelodeon, their plot lines seem to have grown exponentially more outlandish. They feature characters who desire fame, fortune or prestige of some variety. Their leads are pop singers, kid geniuses, hip-hop dancers, musicians or just kids who are incredibly wealthy or privileged. Unlike the characters of the nineties, who, although widely varied, shared a strong sense of self and commendable goals, these current television stars seem shallow and self-absorbed. I am not saying that all current programming is bad or will shape the next generation in a disastrous way. I am also not arguing that all classic television sent a positive message. But on the whole, I would contend that we should be wary about what we are setting as the ideal in our society. Through the media we allow young children to watch, we are teaching those children that fame, attractiveness or visibility is a priority. In truth, you don’t need to be unbelievably talented or gifted in order to matter or to have your story told. You just need to be your best self.
Ashley Spinks is a Viewpoint writer for The Cavalier Daily.