We all say that when our child is born s/he won’t watch TV. Nope. Our lil one is going to learn the treasures of play and literature early, and while the TV won’t be off-limits, it will definitely be regulated more than when we were kids. I said that back in 1997 and early-1998 when my first daughter, Courtney, was in gestation and shortly after her birth in April 1998. By the following April, she loved Teletubbies, Elmo, and Blue’s Clues. By two, she was an avid fan of Bear in the Big Blue House, the Muppets, Rolie Polie Olie, and Little Bear. Throw in Franklin as well. I hated Sesame Street back then, and Barney, too. She got those when she was with her cousin or when I wasn’t home, which was rare.
Fast forward nearly 15 years. In March 2012, Pamela found out she was pregnant. She declared not long afterward that our child wouldn’t be raised on the glass teat. I agreed, but without the force that I had 15 years prior. I knew better. After you’d gone from reading to playing puppets to playing dolls to playing blocks to reading to more blocks to running around to…you need a break. And that giant rectangle in the corner will help with that.
G is 2-and-a-half. She loves to read. She loves to draw. She loves blocks, playing, jumping, exploring, dancing, puppets, make-believe, and so much more. She also loves TV. I’m not passing judgment on myself or my wife, we do our best to limit her TV-watching, but there’s shows she likes and, damnit, we kinda like them, too. So if you’re feeling guilty about your toddler watching TV, here are some shows that we watch and I think they’re good entertainment, as well as a little (sometimes a lot) educational.
All right, I know this goes without saying, but you have to understand something: I grew up hating Sesame Street. I loved The Muppet Show, which would air on Saturday nights at 7 PM, but Sesame Street was never my thing. Even when Courtney was a little one, I didn’t like it. And by then they’d gotten Elmo. Ugh. The sound of his voice sent shivers down my spine and goosebumps over my flesh. I was in my early-to-mid-twenties. Now I’m in my mid-to-late-thirties and I’ve finally discovered Sesame Street. And that high-pitched, bright red monster? Yeah…he’s kinda cute. He’s still not a favorite of mine, and I’m no fan of Abby Cadabby, but I’ve finally discovered why Sesame Street has been around for 46 years. From parodies on Game of Thrones, Star Wars, the failed Spider-Man Broadway musical, to the simple stories and whimsical moments, I’ve become a fan.
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood
I’ve written about how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Fred Rogers have been there at important moments in my life. Thanks to Amazon Prime (or the PBS Kids website), the classic show is easily available for binge-watching. It’s by no means complete, but it’s still great. However, if you don’t have time for fussing with that, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is a great modern take. Produced by the Fred Rogers Company and Out of the Blue, the show is created by Angela Santomero, who co-created Blue’s Clues and Super Why! The titular Daniel Tiger is not the Daniel Striped Tiger that you and I grew up with, but rather his son. DT, as my wife and I call it in code, is a kinda-sorta sequel. It takes place in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, which has the giant clock, the castle, the treehouse and tree, and the Museum-Go-Round, and familiar characters like Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, and King Friday XIII and Queen Sarah Saturday with their son Prince Tuesday are all there. However, the new characters are the real stars of the show. Daniel Tiger, O the Owl (X’s nephew), Katarina Kittycat (Henrietta’s daughter), Miss Elaina (Lady Elaine’s daughter), and Prince Wednesday are the focus of the show. There are other new characters like Mom Tiger (the original Daniel, who is now an adult, is known as Dad Tiger) Music Man Stan (Lady Elaine’s husband and Miss Elaina’s father), Dr. Anna, and Baker Aker are all new additions. And of course, the neighborhood wouldn’t be complete without Mr. McFeely.
The show is broken into two segments with neighbors from our world (usually from Pittsburgh) in between and its focus is emotional development, just like Mister Rogers. Santomero’s work on Blue’s Clues and Super Why! comes into play as Daniel will greet us each day with, “Hi, neighbor!” and include us in the story, asking us to participate throughout. Small jingles help teach the lesson of the show. Pamela and I have found these jingles useful as we try to navigate G through the world. “Use your wor-or-ords. Use your words!” has come in handy when she’s been frustrated. “When you have to go potty, stop! and go right away! Flush and wash and be on your way” is another good one. And this past winter, with all the sickness we all seemed to get, singing “When you’re sick, rest is best, rest is best,” has come in quite handy. She’ll sing these lessons to us as well. When I made a mistake recently, G chimed in with, “Keep trying, you’ll get beh-etter!”
My one complaint is some of the creative choices that were made. Harriet Cow is no longer a resident or teacher in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, instead it’s a human woman named Teacher Harriet. And poor Anna Platypus is nothing more than…a puppet at the pre-school. Her entire family is wiped out. There doesn’t seem to be a Westwood, no mention of Lady Aberlin, and nearly no outside conflict. Lady Elaine, the biggest grump in Fred Rogers’s day, has had work done, married, and never plots, schemes, or even complains. Other than those few small things, it’s an excellent show.
Neither Pamela nor I were impressed when we first watched the PBS/Imagine Television adaptation of the classic book series by Margaret and H.A. Rey, but Curious George has grown on us and G loves it. Yeah, the plots are far-fetched and silly. I enjoy making fun of the fact that all these humans can’t seem to figure out what a monkey can, but it’s fun and, more or less, educational. Fluff, but good fluff.
A show starring an African American girl as a play doctor, whose mother is a real doctor, Dad seems to be a stay-at-home dad, and a fun little brother may seem foreign, even to Gen Xers like me, and it’s wonderfully so. I can happily turn this show on and know that, if nothing else, my daughter will see a positive female role model as well as an intelligent, beautiful, and fun person of color as the lead. Creator Chris Nee and her staff also write some great stories for this wonderful little girl with a huge imagination. The lessons aren’t just medical-based, though they often are, but they also cover the landscape of the human heart. A wonderful show if you haven’t checked it out. And if you have a boy and are afraid it’s a “girl’s show” (which I’ll get to in a little while) it’s a great show for him, too. He should also be inspired.
It’s British. It’s funny. We love it.
Sofia the First
When I first heard of this show I though, Nope. No need for Disney Princesses in this household. Now I’m a fan. So is my wife. And, more importantly, so is my daughter. The show has a feminist ideology that is proud to be “girly,” but isn’t hampered by it. What I mean is…well…let me tell you about the show and I think my commentary will make sense.
Sofia and her mother, Miranda, are commoners. Miranda is a cobbler who is hired to make shoes for King Roland II. The King and Miranda fall in love at first sight (this is Disney, after all) and they marry. Now Sofia is a princess with two step-siblings, twins James and Amber. There’s no mention of their mother that I know of. Anyway, Sofia is the average girl who’s been thrust into this new world of magic, royalty, and etiquette. She handles it well. James is a typical boy who is sometimes real nice, and other times a fool. But it’s Princess Amber, Sofia’s new sister, that I really want to focus on. Amber is the typical “princess.” I put the word in quotes because she behaves in the way a woman (or girl) who fancies herself a princess and makes demands of those around her in a fashion that is unbecoming, rude, and can never be fulfilled would behave. For instance…
I know of a couple a few years younger than my wife and I who married around the same time we did, and had their first child around the same time G was born (Pamela’s first child). The guy is a public servant. Let’s say a firefighter. Good guy. Stand-up guy. Nice guy. His wife is a “princess.” Her engagement ring not only had to have this, but this and that, as well, and it better not be under…ooohhh…$XX,000. She must have this, and have that, and she simply cannot work with two children (they’ve had another) though she’s constantly dropping them off with grandma and grandpa so she can go to yoga, or for coffee, or…. She is a “princess” and has called herself one. You know these kinds of “princesses.” Unfortunately, I’ve known a few myself. Get it?
Amber is that kind of princess. She is the kind of princess that girls growing up on a steady diet of Disney Princesses believe they should be. Of course, none of the Disney Princesses are actually like that. These Real World Princesses base their princessism on “And they lived happily ever after…” assuming that these women would become those kinds of princesses. She is full of herself, wishes to do as little work as possible, is rude, is narrow-minded, and is obsessed with appearance both in terms of clothes and what others think. This is not the complete picture of Amber. The show’s writers are very good at adding dimensions to the characters and Amber can be quite kind, giving, and selfless. She’s also quite intelligent. But the overwhelming portrayal is of the typical mythical “princess.”
Sofia, on the other hand, is Disney’s reinvention of the Disney Princess. She is kind, intelligent, imaginative, quick-to-laugh, inclusive, open-minded, strong, resilient, and human. She has faults. Sometimes she gets a little full of herself. Sometimes she’s jealous. Sometimes she does wrong. She is given an amulet that, unknown to anyone, gives her the ability to speak to all the princesses that ever were. This means that she sometimes gets to speak to Cinderella, or Belle (from Beauty and the Beast), or Ariel (The Little Mermaid), or any of the other Disney Princesses. The classic princesses aren’t in every episode, not even close, but are in enough to help move product–I meant…er…to rewrite some of the less feministic aspects of their original stories.
Sofia makes Amber a better person. Amber isn’t one- or two-dimensional. She is well-written and changes a over time.
This is a show that teaches about emotions, tolerance, how to treat people, and kindness. Like the aforementioned Doc McStuffins, it tells girls that they can do anything. I am a fan and highly recommend it.
I have to mention Arthur. The PBS series based on the Marc Brown books is great. I used to watch it with Courtney, and now G loves it. Yeah, it’s a little old for her, but she still digs it, and so do I. Their stories have skewered standardized testing, the loss of original intent with the American Girl doll line, and other topics that one wouldn’t expect in a children’s show. It’s really not a pre-school show but it’s on when I get home from work and G watches it and enjoys it.
I could go on and on, I’m sure. Sid the Science Kid (G loves it, Pamela and I don’t, though it preaches science and we’re for that, so we stomach it), Peg + Cat (also from the Fred Rogers Company; Pamela and I love it, G isn’t as fond), Dinosaur Train (fun show), Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and Caillou (which I used to hate, have now grown more fond of, but Pamela hates; G loves it) are a few of the others. If it sounds like G consumes too much TV, it’s because that is a lengthy list, but it’s not watched all in one day, and she rarely goes above the 2 hr limit that researchers have found is bad for kids. On the rare days she does go over the 2 hr, she’s sick, I’m sick, or Pamela is sick, and it’s a good way to keep her calm while someone rests.
And if you’re thinking that a lot of these shows are girl shows, I suggest you chill out. I think Sofia the First, the “girliest” of these shows, can be great for boys to watch if they sat down and actually watched them. The stories are often filled with adventure and Prince James is a great role model for them. Basically, if they’re not interested, fine, but I think we should be beyond worrying about such things.
Now I’ll climb off my soapbox and go watch some TV. Maybe Doc McStuffins has an interesting new case, or Sofia has a new adventure.
A month or so ago, someone on Facebook bitched about Jodi Foster’s speech at the Golden Globes. You know the one, it went viral and lots of people said how brave she was for it.¹ Well, the part that got me most was about her privacy, asking–downright demanding–that her privacy, as well as the privacy of other stars, be respected. Someone on my Facebook wall wrote that Foster asked for the lack of privacy by becoming famous and if she didn’t want her privacy stepped on, then she shouldn’t have become famous. I’ve heard this before. Celebrities shouldn’t be angry when their privacy is stepped on because they asked for it by becoming famous.
Yes, there are fame whores out there. Almost everyone who appears on reality tv for no other reason than that they’re freaks (I’m looking at you, almost everyone on TLC) falls into that category. Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, Real Housewives, etc. Sometimes it’s a strategic business move (I’m thinking Bethenny Frankel) but most of the time it’s “look at me” grown-up. Some actors and actresses also fall into this category. For those people, yeah, they give up their privacy in order to be noticed more and more.
I’m talking about the actors, actresses, writers, musicians, directors, artists, and everyone else who can fall into the category of loving a certain craft and wanting to work on the craft as much as possible with as few limitations as possible. I’m talking about the Robert Downey, Jrs, Jodie Fosters, Stephen Kings, Bruce Springsteens, George Lucases, and everyone else in their ilk. They are the people who love their work and want to do the best job possible. Sometimes, that means becoming famous, usually by accident. The fame allows them freedom. Without it, they couldn’t make some of the movies they want to make, to write the books they want to write and not worry whether or not it might lose readers.
I ran into this once in Bangor, Maine. I was vacationing with my then-girlfriend and her godfather in Maine and we went up to Bangor solely to visit a bookstore that specialized in their most famous local writer’s work, my hero Stephen King. So we went and I bought something. Then my girlfriend’s godfather asked if I wanted to go by the King house and I said sure.
“We can stop and take pictures,” he said.
“No thanks,” I said.
When he asked why, I explained that I wasn’t cool impeding on my favorite writer’s privacy. Driving by the house would be bad enough but at least that’s not annoying the residents of the place.
So we drove there. And he stopped.
“If he didn’t want people to take pictures of his house,” the godfather said. “He wouldn’t have become famous to begin with.”
I’ve never felt right about that. Yeah, we took pictures. Yeah, someone was entering the house (it wasn’t Unca Steve). But I’ve never felt right about it.
King did not choose to become famous. He chose to write books to the best of his ability and promote them to the best of his ability. That’s all. He wanted what I want: readers. Someone who would read his writing and be entertained. That was it. He did not ask for fans to go by his home and take pictures, or to bother him at Fenway Park, or stop him in the streets, or….
Back in 2000 or so I was at the local mall when I saw David Duchovny and Tea Leone with their new baby and a woman. I was with my baby, my sister, and her friend. Her friend ran up to me and said, “I just saw a guy that looks just like David Duchovny!”
I said, “That is David Duchovny.”
“Come on,” the friend said. “I’m gonna ask him for his autograph.”
“No, you’re not,” I said. “He and his wife are here with their family. They’re on vacation. Leave them alone.”
She did. It wasn’t until a clerk in one of the stores announced their presence that anyone actually bothered them. The stars left immediately. I was pissed off for them.
So when Jodie Foster articulates that her sexuality, her life, is none of your goddamn business, she’s right. Her job is to act in movies, to make movies, not to live her life in front of the camera. When a writer writes a book you love, that’s what they’re supposed to do, not sign it, not shake your hand, and certainly not accept you taking pictures of their houses.
Most of these people understand that with popularity, some of their privacy is going to go away, and many will gladly shake hands with you, sign autographs, or pose in pictures with you, if you ask nicely. And should they say no, don’t go kvetching about it. They did their job by making the films, writing the books, playing the music, creating the art that you enjoyed. The rest is icing on the cake.
And yes, I will sign my books for you. Because I’m not famous and, at this point in my career, it’s pretty fun to do. But there may come a time when, for whatever reason, I cannot and I will say no. Don’t hate me for that, I may just have to go to the bathroom or have dinner.
¹ I actually found the speech a confusing mess. She “came out” of a closet that everyone already knew she was out of, she never really addressed anything of importance, and appeared almost out of it.
This past weekend I got to meet up with two of my best friends, Toby and Jorj. They feel like they’re my oldest friends but that’s not the case. I met Jorj in 1997/98, just before my daughter was born. He introduced me to Toby in 2000, a week after my first wedding, and Toby and I became fast friends. I got to experience a lot of things I’d longed to do in childhood with Toby and Jorj. I helped create a comic book. I wrote while Jorj and Toby handled the art. It was submitted to one place (and rejected) but it was a great time. We made a movie together (which I’m still editing, even though it’s been 11 years since production) that is a cross between Star Wars and Looney Tunes. I spent an afternoon reading comics with Toby. Naturally, our conversation turned to those things and stuff from our childhoods. We didn’t know each other in childhood. Jorj and Toby met in college. I met them shortly after that. Yet, there was a certain amount of collective memory that was great. Comic books (Toby and I), movies (all three), favorite cartoons (all three) Transformers (Toby and Jorj), Masters of the Universe and Star Wars (all three)…it was great.
Now most of a week has passed and I still think about our conversations. It’s funny how much we–and now I include you in this–are pieced together with the media we grew up with. Who knew that 25 years later I’d look back at Moss Man with such happiness? It’s one of the reasons I started my other blog MediaBio (which I’ve neglected but plan on going back to sooner than later). I’ve seen it with my students, too, how quickly the older ones (mostly graduated now) look back on Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (I shiver just typing those words together in that string) and smile. These shows, cartoons, and toys become major strands in our cultural DNA.
It makes me smile, but I also worry a little. It seems with each generation, these things become more important than they were. And I have to wonder if they hinder more than help. As someone who was raised obsessed with media, I can see how my life is where it is because of it. What happens with 24/7 television, and entertainment on the ‘net, and the steady stream of media that is there for you all the time? When I can turn on TV and find several shows on pawn shops, several on hoarders hoarding everything from massive collections to trash to animals, several shows on ghost hunters, on children going through dance competitions and beauty pageants, families of rednecks, religious psychos, and crazy people, I have to wonder if the sums we’re putting out there aren’t going to hurt.
An argument can be made that there’s always been garbage to consume via media, but the amount of garbage is horrifying. On the flip side of that coin, there is more quality television than there ever has been. Television series that are like novels in their complexity of character and storytelling. I haven’t seen Breaking Bad but know that’s a favorite, as is Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy (neither I’ve seen, all I want to). Boardwalk Empire is a favorite of mine, as was Lost. Even sitcoms like Modern Family make their traditional counterparts seem like hack writing and acting.
I guess it’s because I love it so much that I worry. What will today’s children sit and remember fondly in 25 years? What will we think about then?