While we were on vacation recently my son came in to the bathroom where I was taking a shower. “Mommy, you know those shows on Disney with the teenagers and everyone is laughing all the time, is Madeline allowed to be watching those?”
When I dried off and came out of the bathroom my daughter met me with the news that at ten she was “an official tween” and plenty of her friends watched these shows and they were fine and appropriate. So, I sat down and the three of us watched two hours of preternaturally attractive teenagers cavorting and hijinxing and laugh tracking it up. This was how Austen, Ally, Jesse, and a talking dog with a blog and his siblings joined our lives.
When my kids were still in preschool plenty of their friends watched and memorized High School Musical and Hannah Montana. People would assure me that the shows were fine, there was no sex, no violence, they were Disney. I knew this. I myself have seen all three High School Musical movies and the Broadway show. (I know, but I love musicals and I love teen culture). It was not sex or violence that bothered me it was the sassy attitude, the lack of trustworthy adults, and the casual acceptance of cruelty and bullying.
What’s more, these shows, the movies were about teen life there was no need to expose small children to even a sanitized fantasy version of high school drama. A five-year old girl may be interested in boyfriends, I was at that age, but she doesn’t need that interest reinforced and encouraged by the TV shows that she watches.
Luckily, my kids have never been the type of children who were eager to grow up and I’ve never been the type of mom who was eager to have them grow up. So we were fine. The shows were never banned, but one would come on and my kids would say “Oh, teenager TV” and turn it off.
But now, as she says, my daughter is “an official tween.” The other day I wandered in to the room as she was watching Jesse. Jesse is sort of a cross between Different Strokes, Mr. Belvedere, and Charles in Charge. A pretty, but goofy twenty something (Jesse) wants to be an actress but instead works as a live-in nanny for an incredibly wealthy family of multicultural adopted children with parents who are almost always MIA. The only other adult around is the crusty (but loveable) butler.
Jesse dates the doorman of the building and is close friends with the local police officer. In this episode the doorman became jealous of the time Jesse and the cop were spending together. He followed them to an improv class where he became upset at a scene that had the two dating. He promptly threw a pie in the face of the cop.
Later, he apologizes to Jesse. She responds by telling him that it’s ok because no one has ever cared enough about her before to do something like that. Then the long camera shot reveals that the cop has arrested the boyfriend. He uncuffs him and the laugh track enjoys itself while I sit stunned.
There was no sex, no violence but still my daughter, my ten year old who has decided she will not have a crush on anyone until at least 5th grade has been given a very clear and dangerous message about both. She has been told that it’s romantic to not trust your partner. She’s been told that if a guy really cares about you, he’ll follow you and assault your friends. She’s been told that even if the police get involved, you should laugh it off because really, true love.
It’s too late to ban this sort of show now even if I wanted to do so, and I don’t want to do so. I want my child to have the same social language as her friends. I know that banning something only makes it more attractive and more important. I know that I grew up watching Happy Days and it’s weird messages about women and dating and still I grew up to be a strong, independent, feminist. Maybe Pinkie Tuscadero wasn’t the best role model, but you know, she worked for me.
More importantly, I know that I can not ban outside influences and thoughts. I know these messages will be sent to my daughter and that instead of trying to ban them, I have to address them. So, I think I’ll be spending more time with these strangely attractive teenagers. Because I hope that next time she watches this episode (and she will, because she loves reruns) instead of sitting silently I’ll have the presence of mind to say, “Wow, I don’t think that’s nice, I’d be mad if Daddy did that to one of my friends.” Because in the end, I have to trust that no matter what TV shows her or tells her, our example is stronger.