Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Travel Down Memory Lane … Because I Said So.


My name is Deesha. And I'm a recovering TV-holic.

To say I watched a lot of TV as a kid is an understatement. Off the top of my head, I can tell you the real names of the two actors who played the building super on Three's Company. I know who Jaime Sommers is. I used to have a crush on the Fonz, complete with fantasies of my own leather jacket and poodle skirt. I remember who shot J.R.

Sure I spent too many of my formative years wanting to be white and blonde like Farrah Fawcett's character on Charlie's Angels, and yeah, I wore my mother's sparkly panty girdle and high heels in an ill-fated attempt to out-Daisy Duke actress Catherine Bach. TV did not afford me the most empowered girlhood, but I do have fond memories of pouring over TV Guide in anticipation of each new fall season; planning my evenings around favorite shows (baths were taken during Barney Miller, M*A*S*H, and Maude); and sending a love letter (with a picture of me riding my bike) to child actor Todd Bridges when I was ten.

But these days, aside from occasional episodes of an-I'm-ashamed-to-name-it VH1 reality TV show, I don't really watch TV. As a recovering TV-holic, I get my news online and spend more time reading about TV shows than actually viewing them. And based on what I've read, I'm not missing much.

When "Nick at Nite" offered to "Take me to TV Land!" I was tempted -- who wouldn't be tempted by a 24-hour marathon of The Jeffersons? -- but I knew how that story would end. Me losing a lot valuable writing time with nothing to show for it but a few laughs. TV Land eventually became its own cable network, and I stayed away.

But last weekend, when I discovered that my cable service offers classic TV shows "on demand", I fell off the wagon. So far, it's only been a momentary lapse. I started by treating myself to just one episode of The Facts of Life called "Adoption." I passed it off as research for this column, and got comfortable on the couch.

I remembered watching this episode as a kid. I did not remember wanting to throw the remote at the TV every time -- and there were a lot of times -- somebody emoted about Natalie finding her real mother. Not that we had a remote back then.

So what else did we learn from this classic show about life at Eastland, an all-girls boarding school? We learned that in 1980, girls of all different sizes and with varying degrees of acne could star in a hit TV series. We learned that, unlike the stars of today's kid sitcoms, that era's child actors weren't made up to look like runway models. Beneath the stage makeup and lights, they still looked like kids. Production values might have improved over the years, but something more important has been lost.

With TV in general, something seems to have gone missing since the height of my addiction. Not that Dynasty was high art or anything (though I must admit to jumping on the wide shoulder pads bandwagon), but decades after the fact, folks remember Alexis and Crystal cat-fighting and falling into the pool. A year from now, how many kids will remember the episode of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody when the titular twin characters swapped personalities -- much less remember it when those same viewers are raising kids of their own?

Maybe because we now have about a million ways to stimulate and entertain ourselves at any given moment, racing home to tune in to a half-hour TV show on a Thursday night just isn't that big a deal. Especially when you can TiVo it and watch it next Friday. Maybe it's the increasing age-segregation in popular media. Growing up in the '70s and '80s, I'm sure I was the target of somebody's marketing plan, but that seemed to be mostly about Happy Meals, Barbie, and Cookie Crisp cereal. In my neighborhood, kids and adults generally watched the same TV shows and movies, and listened to the same music on our city's one black radio station. All of it provided a soundtrack to our happy, messy, uncertain lives.

I find myself wanting to give my daughters, Taylor and Peyton, that same experience: TV, music, movies, people, places...whole chunks of my childhood. And the truth is, network television was a big chunk of my childhood.

Yet I try to limit my children's TV-watching at every turn. When I do give them the privilege, I prefer they watch DVDs and videos -- movies, VeggieTales, Mr. Rogers, Raffi -- and while they enjoy those, left to their own devices my girls would watch Nickelodeon and Disney Channel around the clock. So I don't leave them to their own devices.

I look at the few non-DiscoveryKids kid TV shows I've allowed the girls to watch, and these are so obviously not being marketed to cynical, nostalgic 35-year-olds like me. Take High School Musical: The Franchise. Despite the positive don't-let-anyone-limit-you-with-a-label message, it's just cloying. There are worse things in the world than cloying. I guess. Perhaps the standard has sunk to "Well, at least it's not glorifying violence and denigrating women."

Eight-year-old Taylor doesn't just want me to let her and her little sister watch High School Music and That's So Raven!. She wants me to sit and laugh with them at the on-screen antics. She wants me to not mock the earnest-but-cheesy music featured on these programs.

"What does that mean, cheesy?" she asks me, when I explain why I can't watch for more than six minutes without rolling my eyes.

"Corny. Silly. These shows aren't made for mommy, sweetie."

"But whyyyyy? It's sooooo funny!"

I wonder if my kids just naturally gravitate towards the cheese and are destined for tickets in the front row of a Gallagher show, or if this is a function of the specific window of time I typically allow them to watch TV? In any case, there's no shortage of cheese to be had. How is it that there's always a Hannah Montana marathon on, but I can't remember the last time we caught an episode of the more palatable, girl-powered Kim Possible, or the angsty Life with Derrick?

The question has been rendered moot since my children's father recently nixed the few Disney Channel shows he allows the girls to watch at his house, and I've decided to follow suit. "Maybe every now and then they can watch one. Maybe," he told me. "Because these shows are just so -- "

"Cheesy? Corny?" I said.

" -- stupid."

If popular media is to going to dominate our culture, I want my girls to have the good stuff. And sometimes, fluff can be good stuff, like the one show that gets yuks from my kids and me: SpongeBob SquarePants. But sometimes fluff is just...stupid. What's the difference between good fluff and stupid fluff? Like Chief Justice Potter said of porn, I know it when I see it. But when I look around, I wonder, albeit dramatically: Where is the pimple-faced, roller-skating, misfit character for my TV-watching girls? Where's their cautionary episode of Diff'rent Strokes where Arnold and Dudley come face to face with a child molester? Whence their Thelma Evans, the original ghetto-fab icon from Good Times? Who will show them how not to waste away their adolescence, if not rebellious Julie Cooper from One Day at a Time?

I'm entitled to my nostalgia. I'm entitled to laugh out loud at old episodes of Soap while my children stare blankly at the TV and sideways at me. I'm entitled; I'm a mother after all. Though I can give my kids a taste of my electronic childhood, I have to accept that they are entitled too -- to their own cultural touchpoints, guilty pleasures, and memories. Cheese and all.

But I'm still going to share The Facts of Life with them, on demand.

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2020.

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I actually find it impossible to read your criticism of modern children's television with a straight face. If you are holding up "The Facts of Life" as somehow better than anything on tv now, your taste is questionable. And I don't remember any of those girls having any kind of acne. I think if you were to watch almost any of those shows for the first time as an adult, without nostalgia, you would not have the same opinion. Stop being so pretentious and let the girls have their own shows. No, they're not written for our age group, but if you can appreciate something as low brow and obnoxious as Spongebob, I would think Hannah Montana would be refreshing.
Deesha, I laughed all the way through this! I totally relate! My favorites included "action" shows like Emergency and CHIPS, then of course the 6 Million Dollar Man and later Battlestar Gallactica. Maybe I had a crush on all those guys, who knows. But think of what kids today could learn from those classics! Never wrap yourself in plastic wrap on a hot day to try to lose weight, for instance. Hannah Montana just can't compare. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane! K.
My kids had custody of the remote in their formative years, and they spent lots of time watching favorite shows. (Like you, we shared an appreciation for Spongebob.) But I noticed, when a financial shift caused a priority shift, and I canceled our cable subscription, none of my three children felt deprived. They simply didn't care enough about specific shows or characters to feel a real lack. There was no angst or obsessive curiosity like when my sister and I had to miss an episode of Gilligan's Island or Get Smart. (We're a bit older than you.) But I'm laughing now because I realize there were no children at all on our favorites, either the pimply or perfect varieties, just a childlike world in general.
Genie: I loved Get Smart! I think I caught it when it was re-aired in the '80s. Gilligan's Island used to frustrate me...they were always thisclose to getting rescued!
I can hardly comment right now because I am laughing (really gut-busting howling) at my computer screen. I just had a similar conversation with my daughter about the various Disney-channel shows and why Mommy doesn't laugh like she does. We usually get a daily dose of Cory in the House and Suite Life. I am more acquainted with those child-stars than the news anchors on any of the major networks. Sometimes I wish they would run a ticker on Disney so I wouldn't miss being informed about things like hurricanes or Saddam's execution......In any event, it is a tough call with the whole TV thing. I was a TV kid and when I catch re-runs of Alice, What's Happening Now, 227, Three's Company, Fame, One Day at a Time, Growing Pains, (I could keep going) I realize that most shows (of any era) just aren't that great. I try to keep things even with my daughter, who currently wants to be an undercover pop star like Hannah Montana, by balancing her TV time with equal time spent reading and doing outdoor activities. I also don't think that the shows are harmful as long as children are taught the difference between fantasy and reality and they are given the confidence to become their very best selves (not just aspiring to become what main-stream media deems as valuable or popular). Thanks again for a relevant, albeit hilarious, piece of work.
Hey, Danielle... A news ticker on Disney Channel...from your mouth to the Big Mouse's ears! Yes, of course you make a great point that balance with other activities is key. Thanks for reading! :-)
@Danielle Oh, and "Cory in the House" is just painful to watch. Just painful.
Sharon, I think that Deesha meant this piece to be tongue-in-cheek, not a serious analysis of TV, but a light, playful column....
Don't even get me started on this television business. I never thought I was getting old until I mentioned some of my favorite shows to my former high school students. All they could say was "Who? What?" The shame.
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