Thursday, August 7, 2008

Feminist Parenting: Troubles with TV

Knowing that the media can play a strong role in shaping how children see themselves, many parents come to view television as a mixed blessing. On the one hand, lots of television programs are educational, and can provide over-worked parents with a way to entertain the kids for a few minutes while meals are prepared or little sister's diapers are changed. On the other, even 'family friendly' programs might include messages dangerous to a kid's self-esteem - and the commercials are sure to play-up all the gender stereotypes that could help build better little consumers. So, what are feminist moms and dads (and feminist aunts, uncles, and babysitters) to do? We clearly want kids to benefit from the good, but not be exposed to the bad.

Petpluto of Art at the Auction believes her parents handled the TV dilemma just right
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...

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.
The rest of the post (inspired by our series!) is an entertaining and informative read, so go visit Petpluto at her home. Of course, her post prompts the obvious questions - what was your exposure to television and other types of media when you were growing up, and how did it effect you? How can we help the smallest members of the next generation cope with troublesome messages in the media all around them?

(image via Wikipedia)


Anonymous said...

I watched mostly PBS until I was about 6. The only non-PBS show I ever remember watching before then was "Alf." I usually watched "Sesame Stree," "Mr. Rogers," and "Captain Kangaroo," with my mom, or alone but with my mom in the next room making dinner. I watched "Alf" with my father. It wasn't until I was about 7 that I started watching TV alone on a regular basis, but even then only on Saturday morning. Most prime-time shows I watched with my parents until probably high school . . . and even in high school we all watched the Fox Sunday night cartoon block together.

My parents were pretty protective and conservative, too. I remember they would make me turn off "The Simpsons" for reasons I didn't even understand - and not necessarily for stuff like sex, either. I remember they wouldn't let me watch the one where the Simpson family makes friends with a gay man. I definitely didn't understand homosexuality at age 7! That one has bothered me more than any other restriction my parents gave. I understand if they wanted to protect me from bad language or offensive sexual display, but gay people? Come on!

Mächtige Maus said...

This intrigues me. I was a scientist before I knew what that truly meant, courtesy of guidance from my mom. I did several science fair projects during my elementary and junior high school years. One of the studies was based on TV habits of children and its correlation to scholastic achievement. I can't recall how I set it all up aside from the use of questionnaires distributed to multiple school systems nor can I remember how I phrased the questions. However, I do recall what the data said, at least for a smallish town in Oklahoma. Basically, students who were excelling in school watched a drastically higher amount of TV that did "average" students.

I watched *a lot* of TV growing up. It was either PBS, sports, some sort of medical show like St. Elsewhere, game shows, Tom & Jerry, or Laverne & Shirley. I have no recollection of negative stereotypes or subtle marketing ploys. Of course, I wouldn't have considered myself as a feminist as a child.

I guess what I am saying is that TV is tricky. If it is all a kid knows, I think it is extremely detrimental. If it is more of a treat in combination with a well-rounded scholastic, artistic, and athletic environment I think it can be both education and eye-opening. A window into the soul of the world if you will. A structured viewing environment allows children to generate their own opinions. TV as a babysitter, however, is a pity.

Renee said...

I pretty much had a free access to whatever I chose to watch growing up. In fact I am actually thankful that my parents did not censor my television alot because their beliefs were so restrictive that I would never have thought that anyone else thought differently than them. Of course I viewed images that were problematic but they were far less so than compared to parents..I learned from Murphy Brown for instance that abotion is a legitimate option for women..whereas in my household women only were to have sex in marriage and then not enjoy it.
With my children I have the same open policy the only difference is that I actively tell them when they are watching something that might be problematic. We also engage in political conversations nightly at the dinner table where my oldest is encouraged to think about issues and state his opinion. I believe that images are only problematic if we internalize them the viewing of them is not necessarily horrible.

frau sally benz said...

When I was really young, my mother did not let us watch any TV at all during the week. Under no circumstances.

So we had to soak up what we could on the weekends- mostly PBS, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, and TLC. I was an avid reader, though, so the TV just supplemented all of my reading. For my sisters, who hated reading, they spent the rest of their time playing with dolls.

I'm not sure exactly how this affected my development, though I'm sure it helped that all we were watching were things like Mr. Rogers, Reading Rainbow and such. It wasn't until later on that we started watching more popular shows like Power Rangers & the lineup on TGIF. I might be the wrong person to ask, though, because even then, I'd be reading during commercial breaks.

Habladora said...

Hey, this post is being discussed (here) over at Wired for Noise. Go check it out!