My Kids Aren’t Ready for Buffy. So I Found the Perfect Gateway Show.
One of the greatest pleasures of parenting is introducing things you love to your kids. Since the birth of my two girls, I’ve been anticipating the day I would gift them with the best show of all time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then my girls stopped watching TV.
Once upon a time, we monitored TV time like hawks. We granted the girls two hours on Friday evening, enough for a family movie, and one hour Saturday morning while I made waffles—a throwback to my own childhood when Saturday morning was the only time children’s cartoons aired. Then one Christmas, a grandmother gifted both girls with Kindle Fires, and while their screen time didn’t change in permissible hours, it changed in nature. Rather than gathering around the TV for a movie or cartoon, each girl slipped away to her room, device in hand. They would not be seen or heard from again until I hollered upstairs, “Screen time is over! Get down here so we can have some quality family time in front of the TV!”
At least that’s what it felt like. As soon as the girls graduated to hand-held devices, the TV shifted from something to be guarded against to a wonderful gathering place for the entire family that must be protected from the siren call of Minecraft, Scratch, and YouTube. To woo the girls back, I sought out the kinds of rich, complicated stories you can’t find in a slime video, family shows like Once Upon a Time and Doctor Who. They walked out of the living room 10 minutes in, preferring to play outside, a choice I couldn’t argue with—and they knew it.
While technically their screen time had not increased, I missed our time together. I had enjoyed introducing them to my favorite children’s shows and singing theme songs together in the car. But mainly, I despaired what this meant for the future. If I couldn’t get my kids to commit to I Love Lucy now, how would I ever get them to watch seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with me?
Then we happened upon Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. I never watched Sabrina when it originally aired in the mid-1990s. I was over a decade past the target audience, for although the show is set in high school, it has the aesthetic of the Disney Channel: bright, easy to follow, determinedly inoffensive. But Sabrina is funnier and campier than most programming aimed at tweens, and is also a clear precursor to Buffy. Like Buffy, Sabrina is a blond, average teenager navigating the treacherous hallways of high school, who (as the parallel titles make clear) learns she has supernatural gifts. Both girls have absent fathers and spend an inordinate amount of their magical energies on crushes. But while Buffy is operatic in theme, tone, and metaphor, Sabrina is simply goofy. When Buffy has sex for the first time, her boyfriend transforms into a serial killer. When Sabrina experiences her first kiss, her boyfriend turns into a frog.
My favorite episode occurs in the first season. Sabrina’s crush accepts another girl’s invitation to the high school dance, so her aunts Hilda and Zelda—delightfully played by Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick—magically fashion a date for her out of “man dough.” My kids and I cackled as the aunts wrestled the magical dough into a life-size human shape. After they cover the dough with a beach towel, Brian Austin Green rises from the counter like Frankenstein’s creature to take Sabrina to the dance.
Sabrina, the Teenage Witch clearly predates the golden age of TV. The laugh track and production values harken to bad sitcoms from the ’80s, but Melissa Joan Hart’s laid-back nonacting keeps my daughters engaged, and nuggets of comic absurdity keep us all laughing. Pleased with how Brian Austin Green turned out, the aunts mix up their own dream dates, only to discover they’ve used expired ingredients. One loses an arm in the kitchen, and Aunt Hilda pounds a particularly bad batch to its floury death with a rolling pin; meanwhile, Brian Austin Green melts into dough on the steps of the high school, like Cinderella’s shoe.
My kids love that they can follow the story without effort. I appreciate the Debbie Harry cameos and the nostalgic ’90s fashion. But of course what’s most important is that Sabrina keeps us together on the couch, preparing half-hour by half-hour for what shall be the peak experience of my life mothering girls: binging on Buffy the Vampire Slayer the year the younger turns 13.
There will be no playing outside.
Are the Aliens Wearing Life Jackets? and Other Questions From Kids’ TV Standards and Practices
Why is it that Daniel Tiger never tells kids that fire is cool? Why can’t Maya the Bee’s sting trigger a severe allergic reaction? Because of standards and practices, or S&P, the department that protects the audience from getting hurt (and the network from getting sued) by reining in writers like me who are eager to take advantage of the fact that kids will imitate anything. We aren’t even allowed to communicate directly with S&P most of the time. Their instructions are delivered to us from on high by their faithful messengers, the network executives, not carved onto two stone tablets but rather in an email that nevertheless commands, “Thou shalt not depict skateboarding characters without proper safety attire.” It is truly a thankless job, yet they consistently exhibit the infinite patience and maturity it takes to safeguard the minds of future generations against ... well, see for yourself:
Actual Notes I Have Received From Standards and Practices in My Career
- We’ll need to review the design of the metal claw vacuum. Please ensure it appears fantastical and, when it attaches to his body, please avoid showing any point of injection.
- Please revise the movie title Weiner-babes of Snowdog City.
- Please substitute for “dork” as it is slang for penis.
- Please substitute for “Fanny Pack” as Fanny can be problematic internationally.
- To have a child named “Tacky Snotbucket” is inappropriate as it can be seen as name-calling since it clearly describes her lack of good taste and sinus conditions. Please revise.
- Equating a raccoon’s family’s misfortune to a real-life human scenario that begins with unemployment and escalates to homelessness, lack of funds for medicine, and a child having to drop out of school to help support the family seems inappropriate, despite their admission that they love living in a garbage can. We don’t want to give the misperception that we are making light of or trying to derive humor from a tragic, human situation.
- When we first see the aliens waking up on the beach, we should see that they are clearly wearing life jackets.
- Please ensure all daredevil tight-ropers are only a few feet off the ground and wearing appropriate safety gear.
- Please revise “Maybe you have brain damage” to something less specific like “Are you OK?”
- Caution that the chimpanzee is not driving dangerously erratically. Please also revise his partner’s line to read something like “What are you doing? Slow down!” Additionally we should hear an apology for his unsafe driving when they’re reunited in Monkeymax Prison.
- Please revise the hallway nuclear bomb scene. Nuclear bombs are an issue for international.
- Please ensure that the DoubleChocaMochaFrappaEspresso-nator 9000 Coffee Blaster is fictitious and cleared by production legal.
- Caution that the ancient statue of our main character is clearly NOT their God and they are clearly NOT worshipping it. We avoid religious elements in children’s programming.
- Caution that oven mittens are worn when taking the soufflé out of the oven. Also, please substitute for the word “die” in “Don’t you die on me,” when the chef attempts CPR on the soufflé. CPR should be performed in accordance with AHA guidelines.
- Caution that Legal clears MNASA (Monkey NASA) for use as fictitious.
- In the car race scene, please revise “Then let’s put the pedal to the metal, ‘cause I feel the need for speed.” We don’t want to give the impression that we are encouraging driving at excessive speeds. As long as they never start the car, this segment should be fine.
- A caution that Neil Apestrong’s violent puking occurs off-screen and stays within reasonable bounds of good taste.
- Please lose all instances of “hubba hubba.”
- Please revise stabbing the loud students with climbing spikes as this could be very dangerous if replicated. Using something more fantastical to make him yell would be preferred.
- A caution on the intensity of the bus crashing into the volcano. It should be clear that the students are unharmed. At no point can we see “Lava raining down on their heads.”
- It would be preferable if the ketchup didn’t spray directly into the teacher’s eyes. Having the ketchup spray his face would be a better option as long as he quickly wipes it off and we see he is unharmed.
- A reminder that both characters should be wearing helmets while riding the T-Rex.
The Gloriously Incompetent Politicians of Children’s Television
The monocled little man who falls apart when his assistant goes on vacation, hiding in his underwear in his ruined mayoral office, clutching his jar of pickles. The self-centered, cigar-smoking womanizer flanked by models, who makes only the barest attempt to hide his corruption, holding his constituents in open contempt. The insecure man-children wearing sashes that declare them “MAYOR”; the tentacled aliens wearing human skin, barely passing as real people; the charming phony who uses a bill to protect his town from killer robots as a coaster. Who runs the world in children’s TV? Buffoons!
From Townsville to Hillwood to Springfield to D.C., one doesn't have to travel far across the kids’ TV landscape to find someone terrible in charge of government. Adorably small or gluttonously large, tiny hands or tiny hats, it is the scale of their incompetence and greed that stands out most of all. How did our cartoon offices come to be filled with such ignorant and self-interested politicos?
Take Mayor, the tiny man who “runs” the city of Townsville by calling on the Powerpuff Girls, a group of kindergartners, whenever something goes wrong—be that a monster destroying the city or a particularly tight lid on his pickle jar. He’s childish, clueless, needy, and easily distracted by balls of colored wool. He’s well-meaning, but utterly incompetent, causing far more problems than he solves, and at a loss without the women in his life. But he can talk the political talk, and isn’t that all that really counts? “I'm a fierce political creature, and I never give up the fight!” he cries. “Besides, I love to kiss all of those adorable babies!”
Over in (Hey Arnold!’s) Hillwood, Mayor Dixie is less well-meaning. One of the elites, she seems mainly interested in schmoozing with the rich and powerful. When Arnold approaches local hero Monkeyman outside the opera, reminding him of his forsaken mission to protect the weak and powerless, the fur-coated mayor is among his opera-going entourage, laughing at Arnold’s naïveté. It’s Mayor Dixie who approves plans to turn Arnold's neighborhood into a luxury mall, cozying up to the evil developer Scheck, already on the side of the corporate giant. A politician’s politician, she is almost always wearing her “Re-elect Dixie” badge.
Perhaps the most subversive aspect of children’s TV is the way it teaches kids that politicians are inherently unreliable, careless, and cavalier. Their dreadfulness makes them easier to laugh at, up until the point they approve plans to destroy your neighborhood or take away your health care. Don’t take them too seriously—they take themselves seriously enough as it is!
Oh, there goes “Diamond Joe” Quimby, that “illiterate, tax-cheating, wife-swapping, pot-smoking spendocrat!” Quimby, whose social circle encompasses Fat Tony and Miss Springfield, has given up any pretense of professionalism. "Corruptus in Extremis," says the seal on the mayor’s office wall. “Who are you to demand anything?” says the mayor himself. “I run this town—you’re just a bunch of low-income nobodies!” The self-serving mayor cares little for Springfield (or. as he once called it in a meeting, “Sprungfield”), or the people in it (morons), or the town’s distinguished guests, or anything that isn’t himself. He takes bribes and embezzles money, blames high taxes on illegal immigrants, and bends the law and the truth for electoral gain. Vote Quimby.
And that’s not to mention gubernatorial candidate Burns, with his claims that three-eyed fish are a natural result of evolution, or kongressional kandidate Krusty, katapulted into office by Fox News bias. Those seeking office are just as bad as those who hold it, and those who have left it—three former presidents (Carter, H.W. Bush, and Clinton) are played out as the Three Stooges, though only one stoops to the level of feuding with Homer.
Distrust the politician, kids are taught. It's up to the kids to save the world, the neighborhood, the environment, as they repeatedly do. For real leadership they have to look a little closer to home, to a Tommy Pickles (compassionate, courageous) or a Bob the Builder (Yes we can!). Children recognize the inherently corruptive nature of political office, and they see this political world of arbitrary rules and undemocratic systems and out-of-touch leaders for what it is: silly. Once one accepts the system is fundamentally silly, one is free of it.
Never has the cartoonishness of TV leaders felt more apropos than our current era, with the American president a real-life cartoon: crude, attention-seeking, flailing, lying. American adults have been surprised to see a buffoon in charge of our great nation. American kids expect it. May they soon save the world.
Yep, the Purple Teletubby Was Gay
Jerry Falwell made his living finding gay people where they didn’t belong. “Remember … homosexuals do not reproduce,” the televangelist and activist warned his followers in 1981. “They recruit!” He claimed to have confronted President Carter about why he employed “practicing homosexuals” in the White House in 1980. When Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom character came out of the closet in 1997, he called her “Ellen Degenerate.”
So when Falwell claimed in 1999 to have discovered that one of the Teletubbies was gay, it seemed like yet another example of his proprietary blend of viciousness and absurdity. Teletubbies, a British import for preschoolers that aired on PBS between 1998 and 2008, was so harmless it was almost a parody of children’s television. It featured four rotund creatures who lived in a stylized English countryside where they spent their time eating toast and custard, rolling around in meadows, and babbling in high-pitched baby talk. To modern sensibilities, the most offensive thing about them is that they all had television screens embedded in their bellies.
But Falwell saw something off about Tinky Winky, the largest pal in Teletubbyland. “He is purple—the gay pride color, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle—the gay pride symbol,” Falwell wrote in an issue of his own magazine. The character had a boy’s voice, he continued, but he often carried a red purse—ahem. The article was titled “Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet.” Falwell doubled down in an appearance on the Today show. To have “little boys running around with purses and acting effeminate and leaving the idea that the masculine male, the feminine female is out, and gay is OK” is something “Christians do not agree with,” he told Katie Couric.
The accusation blew up immediately, a perfect artifact of neo-Puritan insanity landing just as President Clinton was being acquitted of impeachment charges by the Senate. “If you thought the sex police were at their most vindictive in the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, you haven’t heard about the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s attack on Tinky Winky,” one typical editorial began. The show’s American distributor, Itsy Bitsy Entertainment, held an emergency press conference in New York to declare that the Teletubbies’ rolling hills were an G-rated safe space. “It is the sweetest, most innocent place a child can go,” a spokesman told the assembled reporters. “There is simply nothing sexual in our show.” The Teletubbies didn’t even have genitals. How could they be gay?
Falwell’s many critics took turns being appalled and amused. One newspaper columnist joked that Elmer Fudd would be next: “Aging queen’s second life exposed!” On Saturday Night Live, “Falwell” (Darrell Hammond) held up a Tinky Winky doll that said things like “Do you like watching figure skating on TV?” and “I want to be Donna Summer!” When Falwell died in 2007, Tinky Winky was mentioned in almost all of his obituaries.
The incident is now remembered as a kind of dumb climax to the ’90s culture wars: the reductio ad absurdum of religious-right paranoia and the epitome of pre-9/11 unseriousness. But here’s the awkward thing about Falwell’s take on Tinky Winky: He wasn’t totally wrong. In the years preceding his supposed exposé, many publications had written about the gay community’s adoption of Tinky Winky as one of their own. When the show debuted in England in 1997, its hypnotic, winking weirdness had almost immediately become popular with club kids and the gay community. “Tinky Winky is the first queer role model for toddlers,” a British media studies lecturer wrote that summer. The Independent referred to his “camp, handbag-carrying antics,” and the Guardian called him a “gay icon” who “prances around.”
When the show was exported to the United States, Tinky Winky’s reputation came with it. Prominent gay gossip columnist Michael Musto told Entertainment Weekly (“only half tongue-in-cheek”) that the character offered a great message: “not only that it’s okay to be gay, but the importance of being well-accessorized.” The Advocate, which referred to him approvingly as a “big, fabulous fag,” read a similar lesson in his gender-bending: “that it’s OK to take an interest in the accoutrements of the opposite gender.” All of this was before Falwell published his supposedly absurd “alert.”
At the time, many enlightened mainstream critics took the attitude that Falwell and the gay press were equally perverse for foisting sexual preferences on bunch of preverbal stuffed animals. “To think we would be putting sexual innuendo in a children’s show is kind of outlandish,” a spokesman for the show’s American licenser told the BBC back then. Eighteen years later, I don’t think it’s outlandish at all. For one thing, to call Tinky Winky “gay” does not mean that Tinky Winky has sex, and the mere presence of queer characters is not in itself “sexual innuendo.” It is now much more widely understood than it was in the ’90s that sexuality and gender expression emerge long before sexual maturity. And we now live in a time in which the idea that the “masculine male is out,” as Falwell put it, seems more appealing than ever (if not yet true).
Falwell was wrong about Tinky Winky’s supposed harm to children. But he wasn’t wrong that children’s television—and culture in general—was becoming much more comfortable with queerness. As Jacob Weisberg pointed out in Slate in response to the Falwell kerfuffle, many children’s characters look subtly queer now in ways straight audiences would not have picked up on: Batman and Robin, Peppermint Patty and Marcie, Bert and Ernie, Timon and Pumbaa, Frog and Toad. “It isn't absurd for anyone, including Falwell, to notice these hints, inferences, and references,” Weisberg wrote. In the years since then, subtext has become text, and children’s television producers have gone from winking at their characters’ private lives to creating openly gay adult and kid characters. Today, the backlash that is taken seriously by most culture producers comes not from dinosaurs like Falwell but from the LGBTQ community demanding richer representation. Tinky Winky would be right at home.
YouTube Subway Videos and the Search for the Sublime
The train is late again. One after another, waiting passengers wander up to the yellow line and lean out a bit to peer into the tunnel. The tunnel doesn’t answer back. Finally, the distant sound of clunking metal crescendos into a deafening rail squeal. The Q has arrived. The doors open (“bing bong!”), and a crowd pours out of the overstuffed car while other passengers push their way in.
Is this my mindless morning routine, every single weekday? Yes! But it’s also my kids’ favorite thing to watch on a screen.
My children are obsessed with watching amateur documentary footage of New York subway trains arriving at and leaving various stations. The lighting is mediocre, the announcements garbled, the people waiting on the platforms sullen. You can practically smell the vaguely farty atmosphere of underground NYC emanating from the screen. They watch the videos on YouTube, where there are close to a million to choose from. My kids spend entire lazy weekend mornings watching crowds of people joylessly waiting for the delayed and overcrowded subway on their way to and from shitty late stage–capitalism jobs.
What drives their fascination with visually repetitive and boring footage of one of the most frustrating, mundane aspects of city life? They are still too young for the trainspotter’s obsession with engine make and number. They just want to watch subways barrel into and out of stations. What to me, and maybe you, is merely a means to an end, is to them a wonder. There are tons of metal hurtling at high speeds underneath us at all times! Who could believe such a thing? And, if you just wait patiently, maybe you, too, will be allowed to partake of this miracle of human life and ingenuity, maybe a wondrous vehicle will come and take you someplace you can barely even imagine. Hoyt-Schermerhorn, perhaps.
The thrill they get from these vehicles is not cheap or shallow or even always benevolent. One time at an old-fashioned train depot museum, the bell started clanging and we all rushed out onto the platform, excited to see a real-life freight train pass by. It was huge, loud, and moving so incredibly fast that my then-2-year-old son went into full-body adrenaline shivers as I held him in my arms. He was experiencing the true sublime, the Burkean kind. My sense is that my kids watch the train videos because they find the real trains so confusingly both attractive and terrifying. Kind of like Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility,” watching subway train videos at home helps them process the intensity of their experiences out in the world in a structured and safe way. Well, semisafe, because there are dark terrors waiting for them inside their screens as well: Because my kids watch their train videos on YouTube, that land of the psychotic algorithm, for every 20 straightforward “A Train / 168th Street / C Transfer” videos, the algorithm threatens to deliver a “Bum Fight on the 7.”
But so goes our everyday life, in which we never know if we’ll be moved by human kindness and genius, frustrated by the never-arriving bus, worried over the uncountable varieties of human pain in the world, or amused by the rats down there on the track. My city kids have the opportunity to see and participate in a relatively gritty world, and, to be honest, having a set of well-worn grooves and tracks helps. Inside our house, we watch the same thing over and over again to learn about our world and ourselves. The train will come. The doors will open. The train will leave. When bad things happen, look for the helpers. Life is hard, we’re all here together, waiting on this damnable train, let’s be kind.
My children’s favorite videos offer a frank, mostly unartful view of life as so much of it is really lived: vaguely looking around at other people while you all wait together for something spectacular to happen. They are somewhat anonymously produced—some seem made by true trainspotters or others looking for a substantial audience, but many are shot by tourists or other people just looking to record their daily experience. These unnamed folks have launched this material into the virtual realm of pure information and my kids sort of just fish-gulp it in.
The true wonder of it to me—one of the joyless platform shufflers who is always late to work—is how much kids can make of so little. Distilled to their essence, these videos are about childhood itself: its strange mix of boredom and wonder. The banality of these videos, and the other transportation videos occupying the same mental space—buses caught in traffic, planes landing with a roar, bridges opening politely for boats to calmly float by—is the point. Which is not at all to say that what they see is dull. Rather, watching subway train videos through their eyes is an exercise in learning how to be transported.
Remembering All That, the Nick Show That Helped Connect Me to My Blackness
I grew up in a mostly white suburb, and my musical taste as a child reflected that: I enjoyed Disney singalongs and Ace of Base and obsessed over the Baby-Sitters Club movie soundtrack with my friends. But my musical taste also reflected my parents’ strictness. MTV was definitely not allowed, and neither was hip-hop. (That doesn’t mean that when I got a little older, I didn’t find ways to sneak them in.) A few contemporary R&B artists were played in my home, but by and large it was lots of oldies: Motown, Aretha, and—for reasons I still don’t quite understand—Rod Stewart.
So the 1994 premiere of Nickelodeon’s sketch comedy show All That changed my life. A hybrid of Saturday Night Live and In Living Color, but starring fresh-faced tweens and teens (including future SNL star Kenan Thompson), the show instantly set itself apart from other kids’ fare not named Sesame Street for its urban set décor and genuinely inclusive casting. There was no token member, no Lisa Turtle or Susie Carmichael—four out of seven of the performers were people of color, and the girls outnumbered the boys. And—even more strikingly—it embraced the growing influence that R&B and hip-hop had on the charts and the radio. It was the hippest kids’ show on television fresh out the box: Its infectious theme song was performed by TLC, who were just months away from releasing their blockbuster second album, CrazySexyCool. Each episode ended with a performance by a musical guest; For the first three seasons, those performers were overwhelmingly black.
I was 6 years old when All That premiered, and almost immediately it became appointment viewing every Saturday night, staying that way until I hit middle school. I didn’t recognize it then, but I’ve realized the show was the beginning of my education in the black music of the ’90s. To this day, I still associate “Candy Rain,” the classic jam from boy group Soul 4 Real, with their performance on Season 1. I first heard Monica and LL Cool J on All That. Ditto Aaliyah. These songs and artists were taking over the world, and they were what contemporary black cool was all about. For much of my early adolescence, I struggled with embracing my blackness as I lived and learned in overwhelmingly white environments, but All That planted the seeds for me to inhabit full-on pride later in life.
Looking back on the performances now, I’m surprised my parents didn’t call a moratorium on the show—perhaps they figured that it was a show on a children’s network clearly made for kids, so it couldn’t be too inappropriate. Honestly, a lot of it definitely went over my head. During Da Brat’s performance in the second episode, she sings her single “Fa All Y’all,” which includes the chorus “It’s the Brat-tat-tat-tat bustin’ out on tha-t’ass …” and a line about being “quick to pull the trigger.” (She did clean up the third verse’s lyrics significantly for the kids’ audience, though—no “fine-ass dank” or “bitches.”)
And rewatching then–15-year-old Aaliyah’s early performance of the R. Kelly–produced “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” now makes me feel more than a bit uncomfortable. But it’s also a really cool blast from the past to see her a few years later and a much more polished performer, singing her enduring “One in a Million.” In 1997, she hadn’t yet reached the mainstream success of “Try Again,” but to many people in the black community at the time, she was everything. Once I saw her on All That, I knew what everyone was talking about.
Who else did I meet in those early years? Nas, rapping a cleaned-up version of the “Street Dreams” remix; the OG Destiny’s Child lineup, singing “No, No, No.” All That even managed to get Outkast, in their prime, to perform “Rosa Parks.”
I was still a devoted watcher in Season 4, when a perceptible shift began. Sprinkled in with Dru Hill, Missy Elliott, and Busta Rhymes were Robyn (in her teen-pop years), the Spice Girls, and the Backstreet Boys. And just as the show had cannily understood a few years earlier that hip-hop and R&B were what the kids were craving, All That seemed to anticipate the late-’90s girl group/boy group era. Over time, the lineup slowly swung more heavily in this direction—“Oops”-era Britney, NSYNC, and even Celine Dion(!). I was not immune to the trend, and I listened to all of these artists at one point or another. But I would have encountered NSYNC anyway in the sixth grade, considering everyone at my elementary school was obsessed with them. I wouldn’t have met Busta or Missy, though, without All That. And though I doubt this was the intent of the two white guys who created the show, the chance to sit my booty on the ground or in a chair every week soaking up a landmark era in black music laid the foundation for the deep connection and affinity I now feel every time I’m amongst a crowd of black people, and we’re all singing and dancing along to the same beloved songs.
Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Sesame Street
If I were famous and dead, an ingenious, semi-psychic biographer could convincingly argue that Sesame Street was the cipher to my entire life. It’s the reason I live in New York City and do the work that I do. It has influenced what I read and eat and wear; it’s responsible for what I think is funny and interesting and worth attending to and also to blame, possibly, for my most nontrivial foibles: my short attention span, my inability to organize thoughts into narrative, my financially crippling aversion to postwar architecture. No cultural product has had a bigger impact on who I am.
Sesame Street often gets conflated in the adult imagination with the burlesque Muppets whose primary-color images have been printed in picture books for decades. But the bits I most remember are the baroque animations and micro-documentaries about real children, often from immigrant families or remote corners of the country, that appeared in between the episodes’ so-called plot. The amount that I’ve retained from these interstitial elements of the show is staggering, especially considering how otherwise terrible my memory is. How do I know how coconuts get harvested? How mail is delivered in rural Appalachia? That zydeco is accordion- and washboard-based? I know from visiting Sesame Street.
It’s in these parts of the show that Sesame Street reveals the way it understands, better than anything that’s ever been on television, a child’s obsession with invisible and procedural labor, whether it’s the construction of an urban playground, the machinations of a crayon factory, the process by which bricks are made by hand in Nicaragua, or how a whole jar of peanut butter comes from one tiny legume.
The spirit is retained, somewhat, in contemporary episodes of Sesame Street, though the commercial break–like shorts are now, like the titular block itself, gentrified: new, bright, thematically linked. I never watch them. Instead, almost every week, I play clips of vintage Sesame Street on YouTube when I should be working. It’s an odd, developmentally inappropriate method of procrastination and self-soothing, but it’s cheaper than therapy. And the promises are the same: the thrill of insight and the satisfaction of having my inner life reverse-engineered.
One of my favorite clips features two little girls playing with a dollhouse. The putative purpose of the video is to teach binary counting. Each child has her own doll and they spend the length of the video performing matching activities: setting the table (“One, two, two little plates...”), getting them ready for bed (“One, two, two sleepyheads”), and so on. There’s giggling, a delightful third-act domestic disturbance, and one of the prettiest melodies ever recorded.
The video is 90 seconds long, and—like so many others from Sesame Street that I remember fondly—holds within it the germs of many small but privately important-to-me opinions: that the lives and minds of children are more interesting than those of teenagers; that much of the best art takes diversity as a matter of course rather than a point of polemic; that working within an institution can be a noble route to self-actualization; that watching an ordinary person go about her day is a valid and ethical way to spend one’s time.
In 1972, about three years after Sesame Street premiered on PBS, Renata Adler, then working at the New Yorker, wrote nearly 4,000 hilariously imperious words about it. She made astute observations— like the fact that the show is “extremely patient with error and frustration”—and praised its devotion to “odd, useful intelligence.” Her chief insight, though, was that the actual substance of Sesame Street aspires to be, and often is, art. That this was apparent to a television critic in the earliest years of the show’s production is a testament to its quality. Now it seems obvious—especially to someone who, like me, watched hundreds of hours of Sesame Street as a child and now traces almost all of her personal taste and aesthetic sensitivities to it.
The show is credited, rightly, for its innovative pedagogy and progressive ethics, but children who are raised on it are taught more than the alphabet. They’re taught—or at least I was taught—to have high expectations: from education, from entertainment, from the adults who provided both. Sesame Street is animated by a kind of secular Pascal’s Wager. Who knows what goes through small children’s minds, especially while they’re zoned out in front of the TV. Maybe very little. But why not assume a lot? Why not take them seriously, treat them as sophisticated consumers, and operate as though they’re worthy of genuinely beautiful and thoughtful things?
El Chavo del Otro, el Paw Patrol, y Yo
“Oh, no!” my 2-year-old nephew cries, unprovoked. I jump out of the comfy couch at my sister’s house and rush across the living room.
“¿Que pasó?” I ask, concerned. “What happened?”
“Oh, no!” he says again. I look around for any signs of a broken toy, a spilled cup, a bleeding kid.
Again: “Oh, no!” And he runs off, laughing.
I look at my mom, perplexed. “Siempre dicen eso en el Paw Patrol”—they say that all the time on Paw Patrol, a Nickelodeon cartoon depicting the adventures of an all-dog rescue team headed by a 10-year-old boy. “Oh, no!” is something nearly all the characters say again and again because, well, everyone’s always in danger, about to be in danger, or warning someone about danger.
Paw Patrol is fine, I guess. It teaches my toddler nephew to always be careful and to trust packs of talking dogs. It’s so nice, so sweet, so … American. (Yes, I know Canadians produce the show, but my nephew doesn’t know this.) Judging from all the Rubble Pup costumes in my Mexican-majority neighborhood this Halloween, Paw Patrol is teaching a lot of Latino preschoolers how to approach life—that is to say, as Americans, and in English.
And the way my nephew’s American TV experience differs from those of the generations before him—his abuelita, his mother, my little brother, and me—is emblematic of how the process of Mexican-American assimilation has changed over 50 years. Don’t believe the right: Our niños are becoming more American than ever—gracias to TV.
My mom came to this country as a 12-year-old girl in the early 1960s. She immediately went to work harvesting crops in California’s Central Valley six days a week alongside my teenage aunts and uncles. Sundays were the only days of leisure, and the only screen time came thanks to a Filipino man who projected film reels of Bozo the Clown and Terrytoons (mostly Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle) at the farmer’s camp where everyone lived. Once a month, my grandparents took their kids to the house of a nice white couple who allowed them watch to The Lawrence Welk Show. My family loved it; Welk’s waltzes and polkas reminded them of the quinceañeras and weddings back home in the Mexican state of Zacatecas.
When my grandparents moved to Southern California and finally got a television of their own, they only tuned in to the couple of hours a day of Spanish-language shows that aired on the then-embryonic KMEX-TV Channel 34, now the largest Spanish-speaking television station in los Estados Unidos. Working 40-plus hours a week in a tomato cannery with little time to assimilate, my mom surrounded herself with the comfortable in a strange land. And she’s never been really interested in going beyond Spanish-language television, especially since her DirecTV package includes multiple Mexican channels. To this day, Mami watches almost no television in English unless it’s Dancing With the Stars, Benny Hill, or The Three Stooges—all shows where language is an afterthought to action.
I was different. While Mom was off packing tomato cans into crates, I was home after school watching classic cartoon troublemakers—Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, and especially Tom and Jerry. The independent local channels in Southern California served as a backyard dumping ground for old Hollywood reruns, so that beyond those cartoons many Mexican Americans also fell in love with I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, and even That’s Incredible! My mom credits these reruns (and Sesame Street) with teaching English to me and my sister, who’s two years younger than me.
But my parents also wanted us to learn about Mexican culture, so Sunday mornings were devoted to two iconic Mexican children's TV shows on KMEX. Chespirito was a sketch show with two iconic bits: “El Chavo del Ocho” (“The Kid From Block 8”), featuring an orphan who hangs out in a barrel in a Mexican City barrio, and “El Chapulín Colorado” (“The Red Grasshopper”), a parody of superhero shows that featured a guy in red tights and yellow shorts wielding a rubber mallet. (Matt Groening credits this character as the inspiration for The Simpsons’ Bumblebee Man.) I liked Chapulín Colorado so much that I dressed as him for Halloween as a 3-year-old.
Even better was Carrusel, a kiddie telenovela about life at a Mexico City elementary school that told surprisingly complex stories about race and class. The story that Mexican Americans of my generation remember is the unrequited love that Cirilo (a poor Afro-Mexican) had toward the rich, light-skinned Maria Joaquina. Many of us had never met an Afro-Mexican in our lives (the comic-book character Memín Pingüin notwithstanding), but we could relate to Cirilo, especially as Maria Joaquina repeatedly spurned him. (The image of her ripping up Cirilo’s love letter and raining it on him still makes me misty-eyed.)
Those two shows immersed us in Mexican idioms and customs that we simply couldn’t learn in the United States—a sense of solidarity with los pelados (a Mexican Spanish term describing the rabble) from Chespirito, and a hatred of class and racial divisions from Carrusel. They ensured that my sister and I would grow up not only bilingual but bicultural.
Things changed for my youngest brother, born in 1991. By then I was a surly English-dominant teenager, sunk into the couch watching Pokémon, Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men, and In Living Color. And he sat right next to me, soaking in that Americanized TV. My parents also wanted my brother to learn about his Mexican roots—but now the education was Spanish-dubbed American programming. His Sesame Street was the Spanish-language Plaza Sésamo. And my parents bought pirated, Spanish-language versions of Disney animated films in Tijuana—to this day, I've never seen The Lion King in English, even though I’ve seen the movie more than a dozen times. You don’t know Scar’s true vainglorious nature until you hear him en Español voiced by the legendary Spanish dub actor Carlos Petrel (who also did Grandpa Simpson and Shere Khan). His gravelly-yet-syrupy inflection makes Jeremy Irons’ English-language take (which I literally just YouTubed right now) sound foppish, almost campy. Just watch how Petrel voices the final fight between Scar and Simba, especially on the line “Tu majestad” (“Your majesty”):
My brother loved the above scene so much that we’d act it out in Spanish. He can still speak the language. But all these years later, he’s far more Americanized than me, because that's the culture he grew up on, regardless of idioma.
In both my brother’s and my case, at least we had parents who exposed us to Mexican culture. For my 2-year-old nephew, things are different: My parents and I talk to him in Spanish, and we even show him bilingual videos of songs like “The Wheels on the Bus.” But it’s a losing battle. His parents—my sister and her husband—are fully assimilated Mexican Americans who are proud of their roots but immerse their son in Little Einsteins. Their day-to-day culture revolves around ESPN, Dodgers, and Dapper Days at Disneyland, which is how my nephew experiences the adult world. And what was the theme for his second birthday party this summer? Paw Patrol.
My nephew just started day care, and will, as others have before him, gravitate to what’s “cool”—English. And being “American” is cooler than ever. Last week, my sister, a fourth-grade teacher, invited me to speak to her class—all students of Mexican heritage, of varying levels of assimilation. When I told them I interview celebrities for a living, they peppered me with whether I had ever met their favorites: Jake Paul. The Martinez Twins. Tessa Brooks. 8booth. All of them YouTube stars, none of them Spanish speakers.
“I once interviewed Salma Hayek,” I volunteered.
The room stayed silent. Finally, a young girl responded: “Who?”
Can I Be a Screen-Free Parent Without Being Horrible About It?
I grew up without a TV at a time when it was still possible for parents to raise kids screen-free without acting like insufferable prigs about it. Although Jerry Mander published his sweeping anti-TV polemic Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television the same year I was born, my parents don’t remember their decision to raise us without TV as being much of a political one. “As anyone can see, time is a zero-sum game,” my mom wrote me when I asked her how she and my dad decided not to get a set. “When one is watching, one is not reading, listening to music, having meaningful conversations, etc.” They declined my aunt’s offer of a TV as a wedding present and asked her for a sewing machine instead. When they started having kids five years later, they saw no need to add TV to the household.
It worked. We read, spent time outside, and sat for hours at the dinner table (especially as we got older and more patient). My parents’ friends and family generally believed in sending kids outside to play, so the no-TV decision didn’t stand out much in their circle. We drove to Colorado and back twice in the family Oldsmobile with no DVD players or tablets. Some kids at school made fun of us (“Are you Amish?”), and I wished I knew popular shows like Unsolved Mysteries so I’d have an easier time making conversation with people in my class, but I was generally happy to binge The Babysitters’ Club instead. (Just because a kid reads doesn’t mean she’ll read quality!)
So I’m convinced, from personal experience, that a happy screen-free childhood is possible. Now, my husband and I want to keep our 10-month-old daughter screen-free. This is a task that’s going to be much harder for us than it was for my parents. Sure, there’s the question of practicality: Screens are in everyone’s pockets now. And the advent of the internet means there’s a whole universe of tempting content, far more alluring than Muppet Babies, that simply didn’t exist when I was a kid. But it’s also a personal challenge, because the potential for parental self-righteousness has ballooned in the 40 years between my birth and my daughter’s. I don’t want screen-free parenting to turn me into a monster.
The screen-free parenting Facebook groups I follow are full of advice, encouragement, and nightmarish levels of smug self-congratulation. Just let an unsuspecting newbie suggest that going screen-free might present difficulties! He’ll instantly be bombarded with stories of just how perfect other screen-free kids are. “Yesterday at the park,” one mom posted in response to a question about whether screen-free kids could feel socially isolated, “my son was asked what his favorite show was by a kid we didn’t know. He simply said ‘I don’t watch anything. Want to be a St. Bernard with me?’ ” Aww, so wholesome, unlike kids who watch TV and never imagine anything! The children of the people in these groups are calm, helpful, social, and polite: total paragons of virtue. Their moms seem happy to spend endless hours dreaming up leaf-collection projects and filling sensory tables with new kinds of sand. In another group, one person posted a picture of her two kids parked in front of a fish tank, watching the fish eat their food. “Before school ‘screen time,’ ” the caption read.
And while I find myself imagining the Jennifer Lawrence OK gif when I read these absurd posts from these absurd parents, I can absolutely see myself climbing aboard the same high horses they’re riding. My sanctimoniousness surfaces when I start to follow a system that I delight in that makes me feel as though I’ve cracked the code. It’s happened to me in the past with Anusara yoga and American studies. This whole-hearted love of a system can be dangerous, because when I’ve found the right way to do something, it’s easy to think everyone else should do it the same way as me.
And going screen-free feels so right for our vision for J’s life! We want her to go outside a lot. We want her to play independently. We want her to learn from watching us do things around the house (this is the Waldorf idea of daily life as the child’s “curriculum”). We want her to sleep well. We want her to be excited by life, and to feel flow, which is difficult when you’re overwhelmed by the kinds of choices and inputs screens offer. We want her to enjoy being around other people—watching their faces, hearing their voices. Eventually, we want her to like to read. All of these things seem like they’ll happen more often if screens aren’t even a possibility.
And, if I’m being honest, I don’t want to fight with her over the iPad. What is it about kids begging for screen time that is so grating to my ears? They sound out of control, driven by primeval desires. Adults are better at hiding or justifying their addictions to the internet; kids shamelessly panhandling for screen time remind me just how compulsive the human-screen interface can become. I know the way I feel when I get off the internet after a good run on Twitter or am pulled away from Netflix mid-Riverdale binge. If I were a kid I’d be crying for the iPad, too.
And when I hear other kids begging to watch a show, how will I be able to avoid giving their parents the side-eye? I remember how it feels to have sanctimony directed my way. I’m not an attachment parent; I give J formula, and did a modified form of sleep training. During early parenthood, when we were making decisions around those issues, I would sink into the internet for hours looking for advice, emerging in a panic because there was no way I could do what everyone on a random BabyCenter comment thread was insisting was the “only” way to raise a baby. The last thing I want is to be responsible for panicking someone else that way.
I must also remember that because of the circumstances of our lives, remaining screen-free when J is around is much easier for us than it might be for those other people whose choices I’ll be judging. When she was very small, and I was on maternity leave, she seemed to spend most of her waking hours feeding, and I had a lot of trouble not looking at my phone around her. (My god, the boredom of those sweet early days.) Now that she’s bright and curious, I don’t dare. But I also don’t find the loss of screens too difficult to bear.
My husband and I both work full-time, and get plenty of contact with the internet during the day. J is an only child, and will remain one, so there is no older sibling to muddy the issue of what’s allowed, or younger one who needs a lot of parent-diverting care. We live in a small town where commuting is minimal, so there are no long car or subway rides that would be so much easier with a DVD player. We have J in a preschool run by a caregiver who is even more of a screen-free partisan than we are. And in truth, there are only a few hours per weekday in which we must eliminate screens from our own lives to keep J away from them. She goes to bed at 7 every night (something else I believe in strongly … sanctimoniously, you might say); after she’s down, we can watch all the Cavs games we want. On the weekends, it feels good to bend our lives away from the virtual world and toward the real one. I sneak a few hours of internet during her naps, and come back ready to take her to the farmer’s market or into the woods, where she can mess around with pinecones and get all that good pine sap on her hands. (Sensory table curation, here I come.)
But here’s the biggest caveat of all: She’s only 10 months old. When she no longer naps, how will we get downtime? What will I do when she’s begging to see a movie her friends at school are talking about? (I’ll probably take her because I don’t totally hate fun.) Will we buy her a Kindle, or install new bookcases to handle the influx of trashy kids’ series fiction, like my parents did? Will I picket her school when her first-grade class watches a movie instead of going out to recess on a rainy day? Parents plan; God laughs.
Stop Worrying About What Algorithms Do to Your Kids. Worry About What They’re Doing to You.
I was a young teen at the advent of the internet era, and as the internet and I came of age at the same time, I saw all kinds of messed-up stuff online. I looked at disturbing fan art, perused rare disease photos, and wandered among underground web rings stuffed with video clips so gruesome that I thought they were fake. My parents let me do all these things without much supervision, which I think now must have been, to some extent, intentional. They weren’t clueless—my dad was a tech writer much like I am now. One of their few ironclad rules was that I was never to give out my real name or contact information, and I obeyed this fairly strictly—I mean, other than the mortifying time my parents intercepted a couple of the “romantic” letters I hand-wrote to strange internet men. Otherwise, though, they didn’t intervene much, and here I am, right? I was never really traumatized by anything I found, and I never got involved in anything troubling.
The mainstream social media age, where parents commonly let their kids grab an iPad and wander among video and game content suggested for them by algorithms, brings its own fresh raft of horrors. When I wrote about “surprise egg” videos, I heard from dozens of validated parents who had been worried that they might be losing their grip in this new world, where little ones would much rather watch someone “unbox” Peppa Pig toys than the show starring Peppa herself. Which sounds super weird! The “learn colors with iPhone X” genre is weird. The “wrong heads” genre is weird. The sheer volume of YouTube videos in which Elsa from Frozen experiences the dentist? Extremely weird.
Writer and artist James Bridle recently wrote of his horror in unearthing the bizarre kinks of algorithm-driven content and recommendation in the kids’ YouTube pipeline, in a piece that reverberated across social media. Many parents, already exhausted by these content minefields, despaired at yet another kind of media to fear; swaths of child-free folk were shocked to learn that the navigational habits of small children on YouTube have created creepily specific popular categories, like head swapping, box opening, color-dipping, and tooth drilling. These recombine like mutating viruses in the hope of automating higher view counts—and climbing recommendation lists. Some of these videos, Bridle argues, are likely to be disturbing to children.
But the things kids like always seem exploitive and overwhelming to adults. Parents always try to steer their kids from noisome and overstimulating consumerist dross and toward things that seem “good for them.” That’s not new here, and neither is a certain juvenile interest in the grotesque. Kids behead, bury, deface, bind, and shear their toys regularly. They’re fascinated by toilet functions and forbidden words. They delight in the witches who eat children in fairy tales, or the maggoty cheese stuck in the beard of Roald Dahl’s Mr. Twit. They pretend to be kidnapped, imprisoned, dying, or in labor long before they truly understand what those concepts mean.
Bridle’s declaration that the platform is oriented to “systematically frighten, abuse and traumatize children, automatically and at scale” is alarming. For many readers, such an assertion easily becomes another note of certainty in what already seems like an inexorable march toward corporate tech dystopia. But it’s worth exploring how this particular panic about kids and media differs from the ones faced by previous generations. What can we learn from this bizarre new content landscape other than “supervise what your children are watching,” an adage that will probably be eternal?
What I wish readers were most frightened about in Bridle’s piece isn’t what children might see when left to their own devices. It’s what algorithms do when they’re left to theirs. Algorithms like these will disassemble and recombine culture into piecemeal nightmares, bodies stitched onto wrong heads. This affects not only our experience of media, but eventually of reality itself: When we search for something on a platform, we see less and less of what exists—and more of what the calculations of a rudderless but self-reinforcing machine has decided we should see.
This is the important takeaway from Bridle’s piece: Not necessarily that there’s scary stuff out there for kids to find, because that has always been the case. But the world of headless sobbing Disney bootlegs Bridle discovered warns of the endgame we all face when we automate to that extent. The same kinds of pernicious systems leading your children down these eerie digital lanes are able to decide what adults see online, too, from advertisements to Facebook hoaxes to search results. It’s icky to think of kids watching “Elsa baby drives to McDonalds for Happy Meal with Joker family,” but what’s scarier is the growth of similarly unexamined algorithms involved in the chillingly titled “predictive policing.” Unchecked algorithms and the presumption of “neutral” technology can severely exacerbate existing problems with data methodology, and ultimately increase socio-economic inequality, disorient the news media landscape, and make unjust hiring decisions.
The thing I treasured most about my unsupervised internet time as a child was the chance to see the real world—I met pen pals from cities I would never visit, saw photos that challenged my understanding of the human body, laughed at faraway folk dance accidents. Today’s internet is not a reflection of the real world, but a malleable distortion continually vomited back at us by simple-minded but harmful systems, artificial but not intelligent. This means that not only must we question our experience of technology today, but we will have to be skeptical enough to mitigate the view of society selected for us by these self-interested machines for a long time to come.
Yet the view of technology and automation as “neutral” pervades, as if these things might be somehow untouched by the millions of smudged and troubled and messy human inputs with which they are built. Yes, your kids are being exploited by “the violence of algorithms.” So are you.