Somehow Form a Family
In his introduction to Screen Time, Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s TV, Dan Kois quoted from Tony Earley’s classic memoir “Somehow Form a Family.” Now to close out Screen Time, we are pleased to reprint, with permission, the full piece, which first appeared in Harper’s in 1998 and then in a collection of Earley’s essays in 2001.
In July 1969, I looked a lot like Opie in the second or third season of The Andy Griffith Show. I was a small boy with a big head. I wore blue jeans with the cuffs turned up and horizontally striped pullover shirts. I was the brother in a father-mother-brother-sister family. We lived in a four-room house at the edge of the country, at the foot of the mountains, outside a small town in North Carolina, but it could have been anywhere.
On one side of us lived Mr. and Mrs. White. They were old and rich. Their driveway was paved. Mrs. White was the president of the town garden club. When she came to visit Mama she brought her own ashtray. Mr. White was almost deaf. When he watched the news on television, it sounded like thunder in the distance. The Whites had an aluminum travel trailer in which you could see your reflection. One summer they hitched it to their Chrysler and pulled it all the way to Alaska.
On the other side of us lived Mack and Joan. They had just graduated from college. I thought Joan was beautiful, and still do. Mack had a bass boat and a three-tray tackle box in which lurked a bristling school of lures. On the other side of Mack and Joan lived Mrs. Taylor, who was old, and on the other side of Mrs. Taylor lived Mr. and Mrs. Frady, who had a fierce dog. My sister, Shelly, and I called it the Frady dog. The Frady dog lived a long and bitter life. It did not die until well after I had a driver’s license.
On the far side of the Whites lived Mr. and Mrs. John Harris; Mr. and Mrs. Burlon Harris lived beyond them. John and Burlon were first cousins. John was a teacher who in the summers fixed lawn mowers, including ours, in a building behind his house. Burlon reminded me of Mr. Greenjeans on Captain Kangaroo. He kept horses and let us play in his barn. Shelly once commandeered one of his cats and brought it home to live with us. Burlon did not mind; he asked her if she wanted another one. We rode our bicycles toward Mr. Harris’s house as if pulled there by gravity. We did not ride in the other direction; the Frady dog sat in its yard and watched for us.
In July 1969, we did not have much money, but in the hierarchy of southern poor, we were the good kind, the kind you would not mind living on your road. We were clean. Our clothes were clean. My parents worked. We went to church. Easter mornings, Mama stood us in front of the yellowbell bush and took our picture. We had meat at every meal—chicken and cube steak and pork chops and ham—and plenty of milk to drink. We were not trashy. Mrs. White would not sit with her ashtray in the kitchen of trashy people. Trashy people lived in the two houses around the curve past Mr. Harris’s. When Daddy drove by those houses we could see that the kids in the yard had dirty faces. They were usually jabbing at something with a stick. Shelly and I were not allowed to ride our bicycles around the curve.
I knew we were poor only because our television was black and white. It was an old Admiral, built in the 1950s, with brass knobs the size of baseballs. Its cabinet was perfectly square, a cube of steel with a painted-on mahogany grain. Hoss on Bonanza could not have picked it up by himself. It was a formidable object, but its vertical hold was shot. We gathered around it the night Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, but we could not tell what was happening. The picture flipped up and down. We turned off the lights in the living room so we could see better. We listened to Walter Cronkite. In the distance we could hear Mr. White’s color TV rumbling. We changed the channel and listened to Huntley and Brinkley. We could hear the scratchy radio transmissions coming down out of space, but we could not see anything. Daddy got behind the TV with a flashlight. He said, “Is that better? Is that better?” but it never was. Mama said, “Just be thankful you’ve got a television.”
After the Eagle had landed but before the astronauts opened the door and came out, Mack knocked on the door and asked us if we wanted to look at the moon. He was an engineer for a power company and had set up his surveyor’s transit in the backyard. Daddy and Shelly and I went with him. We left Mama sitting in the living room in the blue light of the TV. She said she did not want to miss anything. The moon, as I remember it, was full, although I have since learned that it wasn’t. I remember that a galaxy of lightning bugs blinked against the black pine trees that grew between our yard and that of the Whites. Mack pointed the transit at the sky. Daddy held me up so I could see. The moon inside the instrument was startlingly bright; the man in the moon was clearly visible, although the men on the moon weren’t. “You can’t see them or anything,” Mack said, which I already knew. I said, “I know that.” I wasn’t stupid and did not like to be talked to as if I were. Daddy put me down. He and Mack stood for a while and talked. Daddy smoked a cigarette. In the bright yard Shelly chased lightning bugs. She did not run, but instead jumped slowly, her feet together. I realized that she was pretending to walk on the moon, pretending that she was weightless. The moon was so bright, it cast a shadow at her feet. I remember these things for sure. I am tempted to say that she was beautiful in the moonlight, and I’m sure she was, but that isn’t something I remember noticing that night, only a thing I need to say now.
* * *
Eight, maybe nine months later, Shelly and I rode the bus home from school. It was a Thursday, Mama’s day off, Easter time. The cherry tree in the garden separating our driveway from that of the Whites was in brilliant, full bloom. We could hear it buzzing from the road. One of us checked the mailbox. We looked up the driveway at our house. Something was wrong with it, but we couldn’t tell what. Daddy was adding four rooms on to the house, and we were used to it appearing large and unfinished. We stood in the driveway and stared. Black tar paper was tacked to the outside walls of the new part, but the old part was still covered with white asbestos shingles. In the coming summer, Daddy and a crew of brick masons would finish transforming the house into a split-level ranch style, remarkably similar to the one in which the Bradys would live. I loved the words split-level ranch-style. To me they meant “rich.”
Shelly and I spotted what was wrong at the same time. A giant television antenna had attached itself to the roof of our house. It was shiny and tall as a young tree. It looked dangerous, as if it would bite, like a praying mantis. The antenna slowly began to turn, as if it had noticed us. Shelly and I looked quickly at each other, our mouths wide open, and then back at the antenna. We sprinted up the driveway.
In the living room, on the spot occupied by the Admiral that morning, sat a magnificent new color TV, a Zenith, with a twenty-one-inch screen. Its cabinet was made of real wood. Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was on. I will never forget that. Gomer Pyle and Sergeant Carter were the first two people I ever saw on a color television. The olive green and khaki of their uniforms was dazzling. Above them was the blue sky of California. The sky in California seemed bluer than the sky in North Carolina.
We said, “Is that ours?”
Mama said, “I’m going to kill your daddy.” He had charged the TV without telling her. Two men from Sterchi’s Furniture had showed up at the house that morning with the TV on a truck. They climbed onto the roof and planted the antenna.
We said, “Can we keep it?”
Mama said, “I don’t know,” but I noticed she had written the numbers of the stations we could get on the dial of the Channel Master, the small box which controlled the direction the antenna pointed. Mama would never have written on anything she planned on taking back to the store.
The dial of the Channel Master was marked like a compass. Channel 3 in Charlotte lay to the east; Channel 13 in Asheville lay to the west. Channel 7 in Spartanburg and Channel 4 in Greenville rested side by side below them in the south. For years these cities would mark the outside edges of the world as I knew it. Shelly reached out and turned the dial. Mama smacked her on the hand. Gomer grew fuzzy and disappeared. I said, “Mama, she broke it.” When the dial stopped turning, Mama carefully turned it back to the south. Gomer reappeared, resurrected. Jim Nabors probably never looked better to anyone, in his whole life, than he did to us right then.
Mama sat us down on the couch and laid down the law. Mama always laid down the law when she was upset. We were not to touch the TV. We could not turn it on, nor could we change the channel. Under no circumstances were we to touch the Channel Master. The Channel Master was very expensive. And if we so much as looked at the knobs that controlled the color, she would whip us. It had taken her all afternoon to get the color just right.
* * *
We lived in a split-level ranch-style house, with two maple trees and a rose bush in the front yard, outside a town that could have been named Springfield. We had a color TV. We had a Channel Master antenna that turned slowly on top of our house until it found and pulled from the sky electromagnetic waves for our nuclear family.
We watched Hee-Haw, starring Buck Owens and Roy Clark; we watched All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and Mannix, starring Mike Connors with Gail Fisher as Peggy; we watched Gunsmoke and Bonanza, even after Adam left and Hoss died and Little Joe’s hair turned gray; we watched Adam-12 and Kojak, McCloud, Colombo, and Hawaii Five-O; we watched Cannon, a Quinn Martin production, and Barnaby Jones, a Quinn Martin production, which co-starred Miss America and Uncle Jed from The Beverly Hillbillies. Daddy finished the new part of the house and moved out soon thereafter. He rented a trailer in town and took the old Admiral out of the basement with him. We watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney. After school we watched Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, and The Andy Griffith Show. Upstairs, we had rooms of our own. Mama stopped taking us to church.
On Friday nights we watched The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, Room 222, The Odd Couple, and Love American Style. Daddy came to visit on Saturdays. We watched The Little Rascals on Channel 3 with Fred Kirby, the singing cowboy, and his sidekick, Uncle Jim. We watched The Little Rascals on Channel 1 with Monty Dupuy, the weatherman, and his sidekick, Doohickey. Mornings, before school, we watched The Three Stooges with Mr. Bill on Channel 13. Mr. Bill worked alone. The school year Daddy moved out, Mr. Bill showed Bible story cartoons instead of The Three Stooges. That year, we went to school angry.
After each of Daddy’s visits, Mama said he was getting better. Shelly and I tried to imagine living with the Bradys but realized we would not fit in. They were richer and more popular at school. They did not have Southern accents. One Saturday Daddy brought me a set of golf clubs, which I had asked for but I did not expect to get. It was raining that day. I took the clubs out in the yard and very quickly realized that golf was harder than it looked on television. I went back inside and wiped the mud and water off the clubs with Bounty paper towels, the quicker picker upper. Upstairs I heard Mama say, “Do you think he’s stupid?” I spread the golf clubs on the floor around me. I tuned in Shock Theater on Channel 13 and turned it up loud.
Shelly had a crush on Bobby Brady; I had a crush on Jan. Jan had braces, I had braces. Jan had glasses, I had glasses. Their daddy was an architect. Our daddy lived in a trailer in town with a poster of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner on the living room wall. The Coyote held the Road Runner firmly by the neck. The caption on the poster said, “Beep, Beep your ass.” I lay in bed at night and imagined being married to Jan Brady but having an affair with Marsha. I wondered how we would tell Jan, what Marsha and I would do then, where we would go. Greg Brady beat me up. I shook his hand and told him I deserved it. Alice refused to speak to me. During this time Mrs. White died. I heard the ambulance in the middle of the night. It sounded like the one on Emergency. I opened the door to Mama’s room to see if she was OK. She was embarrassed because our dog barked and barked.
Rhoda left The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Maude and George Jefferson left All in the Family; Florida, Maude’s maid, left Maude. Daddy moved back in. He watched the news during supper, the TV as loud as Mr. White’s. We were not allowed to talk during the news. This was the law. After the news we watched Rhoda or Maude or Good Times. Daddy decided that cutting the grass should be my job. We had a big yard. I decided that I didn’t want to do anything he said. Mr. White remarried. The new Mrs. White’s daughter died of cancer. The new Mrs. White dug up every flower the old Mrs. White had planted; she cut down every tree and shrub, including the cherry tree in the garden between our driveways. Mama said the new Mrs. White broke her heart. Mr. White mowed and mowed and mowed their grass until it was as smooth as a golf course. Mack and Joan paved their driveway.
What I’m trying to say is this: we lived in a split-level ranch-style house; we had a Zenith in the living room and a Channel Master attached to the roof. But Shelly and I fought like Thelma and J.J. on Good Times. I wanted to live in Hawaii and work for Steve McGarrett. No bad guy ever got away from McGarrett, except the Chinese master spy Wo Fat. Shelly said McGarrett would never give me a job. In all things Shelly was on Daddy’s side; I lined up on Mama’s. Friday evenings, when Daddy got home from work, I sneaked outside to snoop around in the glove compartment of his car. I pretended I had a search warrant, that I was Danno on a big case. Shelly reported my snooping to Daddy. I was trying to be a good son.
Every Saturday, before he went to work, Daddy left word that I was to cut the grass before he got home. I stayed in bed until lunch. Shelly came into my room and said, “You better get up.” I flipped her the bird. She said, “I’m telling.” I got up in time to watch professional wrestling on Channel 3. I hated the bad guys. They did not fight fair. They hid brass knuckles in their trunks and beat the good guys until they bled. They won too often. Mama brought me tomato and onion sandwiches. I could hear Mack on one side and Mr. White on the other mowing their grass. I could hear John Harris and Mr. Frady and Mrs. Taylor’s daughter, Lucille, mowing grass. Lucille lived in Charlotte, but came home on weekends just to mow Mrs. Taylor’s grass. We had the shaggiest lawn on the road. After wrestling, I watched the Game of the Week on Channel 4. Carl Yaztremski of the Boston Red Sox was my favorite baseball player. He had forearms like fenceposts. Nobody messed with him. I listened over the lawn mowers for the sound of Daddy’s Volkswagen. Mama came in the living room and said, “Son, maybe you should mow some of the grass before your daddy gets home. You know what’s going to happen.” I knew what was going to happen. I knew that eventually he would make me mow the grass. I knew that when I was through, Mack would come through the pine trees laughing. He would say, “Charles, I swear that is the laziest boy I have ever seen.” Mack had a Snapper Comet riding mower, on which he sat like a king. I never saw him on it that I did not want to bean him with a rock. Daddy would shake his head and say, “Mack, dead lice wouldn’t fall off that boy.” Every Saturday night we ate out at Scoggin’s Seafood and Steak House. Hee-Haw came on at seven; All in the Family came on at eight.
* * *
And then Shelly and I were in high school. We watched M*A*S*H* and Lou Grant, Love Boat and Fantasy Island. We watched Dynasty and Dallas. Opie was Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. Ben Cartwright showed up in a black bathrobe on Battlestar Galactica. The Channel Master stopped working, but no one bothered to have it fixed. The antenna was left immobile on the roof in a compromised position: we could almost get most of the channels. One summer Mack built a pool in his backyard. Joan lay in a bikini beside the pool in the sun. The next summer Mack built a fence. This was during the late seventies. Shelly lay in her room with the lights turned off and listened to Dark Side of the Moon. On Friday nights she asked me to go out with her and her friends. I always said NO. I did not want to miss The Rockford Files.
In those days Shelly and I watched Guiding Light when we got home from school. It was our soap. I remember that Ed Bauer’s beautiful wife Rita left him because he was boring. Shelly said I reminded her of Ed Bauer. She wore her hair like Farrah Fawcett Majors on Charlie’s Angels. After Guiding Light I changed the channel and watched Star Trek. I could not stay awake in school. I went to sleep during homeroom. During the day I woke up only long enough to change classes and eat lunch. I watched Star Trek when I got home as if it were beamed to our house by God. I did not want to be Captain Kirk, or any of the main characters. I just wanted to go with them. I wanted to wear a red jersey and walk the long, anonymous halls of the Starship Enterprise as it disappeared into space. One day Star Trek was preempted by an ABC After School Special. I tried to kick the screen out of the TV. I was wearing sneakers, so the glass would not break. Shelly hid in Mama and Daddy’s room. I said, “Five-O. Open up.” Then I kicked the door off the hinges.
Our family doctor thought I had narcolepsy. He sent me to a neurologist in Charlotte. Mama and Daddy went with me. In Charlotte, an EEG technician attached wires to my head. A small, round amber light glowed high up in the corner of the examination room. I watched the light until I went to sleep. The neurologist said that the EEG looked normal, but that he would talk to us more about the results in a few minutes. He led us to a private waiting room. It was small and bare and paneled with wood. In it were four chairs. Most of one wall was taken up by a darkened glass. I could not see what was on the other side of It. I studied our reflection. Mama and Daddy were trying to pretend that the glass wasn’t there. I said, “Pa, when we get back to the Ponderosa, do you want me to round up those steers on the lower forty?”
Daddy said, “What?”
I said, “Damnit, Jim. I’m a doctor.”
Daddy said, “What are you talking about?”
Mama said, “Be quiet. They’re watching us.”
* * *
Shelly died on Christmas Eve morning when I was a freshman in college. She had wrecked Mama’s car. That night I stayed up late and watched the Pope deliver the Christmas mass from the Vatican. There was nothing else on. Daddy moved out again. My college almost shut down during the week The Thorn Birds was broadcast. Professors rescheduled papers and exams. In the basement of my dorm twenty-five nineteen-year-old guys shouted at the TV when the Richard Chamberlain character told the Rachel Ward character he loved God more than he loved her. At age nineteen, it was impossible to love God more than Rachel Ward. My best friend, a guy from Kenya, talked me into switching from Guiding Light to General Hospital. This was during the glory days of General Hospital when Luke and Scorpio roomed together on the Haunted Star. Laura was supposedly dead, but Luke knew in his heart she was still alive; every time he was by himself he heard a Christopher Cross song.
Going home was strange, as if the Mayberry I expected had become Mayberry, R.F.D. Shelly was gone. Daddy was gone. The second Mrs. White died, then Mr. White went away to a nursing home. The Fradys had moved away. John Harris had a heart attack and stopped fixing lawn mowers. Mama mowed our grass by herself with a rider. I stopped going to see Burlon Harris because he teared up every time he tried to talk about Shelly. Mack and Joan had a son named Timmy. Mack and Joan got a divorce. Mack moved to a farm out in the country; Joan moved to town.
Daddy fell in love with Mama my senior year and moved back in. The Zenith began slowly dying. Its picture narrowed into a greenly tinted slit. It stared like a diseased eye into the living room where Mama and Daddy sat. They turned off the lights so they could see better. I became a newspaper reporter. With my first Christmas bonus, I bought myself a television, a nineteen-inch GE. With my second Christmas bonus I bought Mama and Daddy one. They hooked it up to cable. When I visited them on Thursdays we watched The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court, and Hill Street Blues. Daddy gave up on broadcast TV when NBC cancelled Hill Street Blues and replaced it with L.A. Law. Now he mostly watches the Discovery Channel. Mama calls it the “airplanes and animals channel.” They are in the eighteenth year of their new life together. I bear them no grudges. They were very young when I knew them best.
In grad school I switched back to Guiding Light. I had known Ed Bauer longer than I had known all but a few of my friends. It pleased me to see him in Springfield every afternoon, trying to do good. I watched The Andy Griffith Show twice a day. I could glance at Opie and tell you what year the episode was filmed. I watched the Gulf War from a stool in a bar.
Eventually I married a woman who grew up in a family that watched television only on special occasions—when Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs, when Diana married Prince Charles. My wife was a student in a seminary. She did not want to meet Ed Bauer, nor could I explain, without sounding pathetic, why Ed Bauer was important to me. The first winter we were married I watched the winter Olympics huddled beneath a blanket in the frigid basement of the house we had rented. This was in a closed-down steel town near Pittsburgh, during the time I contemplated jumping from a bridge into the Ohio River. My wife asked the seminary community to pray for me. Ann B. Davis, who played Alice on The Brady Bunch was a member of that community. One day I saw her in the cafeteria at school. She looked much the same as when she played Alice, except that her hair was white, and she wore small, gold glasses. I didn’t talk to her. I had heard that she didn’t like talking about The Brady Bunch, and I could not think of anything to say to her about the world in which we actually lived. I sat in the cafeteria and stared at her as much as I could without anyone noticing. I don’t know if she prayed for me or not, but I like to think that she did. I wanted to tell her that I grew up in a split-level ranch-style house outside a small town that could have been named Springfield, but that something had gone wrong inside it. I wanted to tell her that years ago Alice had been important to me, that my sister and I had looked to Alice for something we could not name, and had at least seen a picture of what love looked like. I wanted to tell her that no one in my family ever raised their voice while the television was on, that late at night even a bad television show could keep me from hearing the silence inside my own heart. I wanted to tell her that Ed Bauer and I were still alive, that both of us had always wanted to do what was right. Ann B. Davis stood, walked over to the trash can, and emptied her tray. She walked out of the cafeteria and into a small, gray town near Pittsburgh. I wanted her to be Alice. I wanted her to smile as if she loved me. I wanted her to say, “Buck up, kiddo, everything’s going to be all right.” And what I’m trying to tell you now is this: I grew up in a split-level ranch-style house outside a town that could have been anywhere. I grew up in front of a television. I would have believed her.
If Your Kids Are Glued to Their iPads, It’s Probably a Good Idea to Unglue Them
Remember when your parents warned that sitting too close to the TV would hurt your eyes? I didn’t really believe it either, but now that I’m a parent to a 6-year-old who yearns to stare at an iPad all day, I can’t help but revisit the issue. Is it possible that our children’s ubiquitous use of tablets, computers, and televisions harms their vision? Is Minecraft giving our kids myopia?
Why Can’t I Stream Muppet Babies?!
Where did Optimus Prime’s trailer go when he transformed? Would Rio ever learn that Jem was really Jerrica Benton in disguise? Animation in the ’80s produced countless unsolved mysteries, but for those of us who grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons, one of the biggest is: Why can’t I watch Muppet Babies anywhere?
Despite the continued popularity of Jim Henson’s Muppets (now owned by Disney), this witty animated series, which ran on CBS for eight seasons, is nowhere to be found on streaming networks. It’s never had a comprehensive release on VHS or DVD. If you want to watch baby Piggy, tiny Kermit, or mini-piano-playing Rowlf, you’re stuck seeking out grainy, unrestored video transfers that are sporadically available on YouTube (and are often quickly discovered and quietly removed by Disney).
Muppet Babies was born in 1984, when Henson, preparing for the summer release of The Muppets Take Manhattan, saw potential in a scene in the movie in which Miss Piggy imagined how the Muppets’ lives would have been different if they’d known each other as babies. That musical sequence, featuring Jeff Moss’ catchy original song “I’m Gonna Always Love You,” led Henson to meet with nearly every major studio in California while exploring the potential for a Muppet Babies animated series. He ultimately chose to work with Marvel Productions, a Hollywood offshoot of the comic book publisher, after a fruitful meeting with Hank Saroyan, their vice president of network development. Marvel was fresh from its success with the CBS animated series Dungeons & Dragons, and Henson was impressed by the company’s ability to adapt challenging source material. Production commenced with Jeffrey Scott as head writer and Saroyan and Bob Richardson as showrunners.
To emphasize the power of the Muppet Babies’ imaginations, which Henson felt was key to the series, Scott proposed incorporating live-action film footage into the show. “Putting live clips into the series, whether old public domain footage or clips from current movies, was something I had wanted to do in a series for some time,” Scott told me in an interview. “I was delighted when Jim got behind my idea.”
“We all wanted the backgrounds to completely change from the normal nursery backgrounds whenever the characters went into fantasy,” Saroyan recalled. The series would include footage from classic black-and-white films, as well as then-recent blockbusters including Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. “It was easy to do that because it was Jim Henson,” added Scott. “He was best friends with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and many other Hollywood heavyweights.”
In one instance, Saroyan and Henson made a 3:30 a.m. phone call to Lucas in his Hong Kong hotel room to request the use of Star Wars footage. “We had a film print within 48 hours,” laughed Saroyan.
Similarly popular 1980s animated series, like Transformers, The Smurfs, and DuckTales have been widely available for years. Why not the Babies? The prevailing theory among fans is that the series’ extensive use of film footage makes a proper video release a logistical nightmare due to licensing fees. Head writer Jeffrey Scott disagreed with that notion. “If the legal was handled properly, there really shouldn’t be any issues regarding the use of clips,” he said. “They are typically bought in perpetuity for the very reason of being able to exploit the series in the future.”
Showrunner Saroyan has no idea, either. “I neither accept nor have evidence to support” either of Scott’s theories, he said. “There is much being deliberately withheld and or obfuscated.”
The Walt Disney Company has made no official statement on the status of the Muppet Babies home video prospects, and did not comment for this post. The Muppet Babies animators, voice actors, and executives I interviewed for my book Totally Awesome: The Greatest Cartoons of the Eighties didn’t reach any sort of consensus on this issue, either. One suggested that a slew of legal documents were lost when the Muppets were sold to Disney. Another speculated that the live-action film elements were discarded so that the studio could avoid paying for archival storage.
Scott hinted that he’d heard from a Disney executive that the company was waiting to re-establish the live-action Muppets before reintroducing the Babies. Now that Disney has released two Muppets film and a television series, and the Muppet Babies are set to return to television early next year on a CGI-animated series on Disney Junior, perhaps the original Babies will soon reappear as well. If there are outstanding legal entanglements in the live-action footage, perhaps Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox will help to eliminate them.
Muppet Babies was a critical and commercial success, racking up more than a dozen Emmy nominations and finishing at or near the top of the Saturday morning Nielsen ratings for most of its network run. But as the series’ 35th anniversary approaches, it seems no closer to emerging from the Disney vault than it did in 2004 when Disney acquired the Muppets.
And that’s a shame. Muppet Babies was one of the most consistently funny, entertaining cartoons of its era. It’s sad enough that my preschooler is growing up in a world without Saturday morning cartoons. He and I will be watching the new series from day one, but I hope that we’ll also be able to sit down and watch the original Muppet Babies on our TV together while he’s still (roughly) the age of the Muppets onscreen.
More Than 500 Slate Readers Tell Us How They Handle Screen Time at Home
For many parents, questions about children’s television begin and end with “Why do I have to argue about screen time so much with my kids?” On one hand, parents get worried by frightening headlines such as “Digital Heroin” (no, video games are nothing like heroin) and “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” (no, they have not). On the other hand, parents must contend with kids eager to consume limitless hours of screen time. To see how parents are balancing this, we surveyed Slate readers to see how they are managing screens in their households with kids between the ages of 4 and 13.
First, all surveys are only representative of the people who take them and Slate’s is no exception. We received a total of 502 usable responses to our survey. Our sample was mainly female, 87.8 percent. (In addition to all the other parenting work they do, apparently moms are the ones who are also willing to spend time on parenting surveys.) They also were mainly white (92.8 percent), highly educated (nearly 97 percent reported college degrees, with 41.4 percent reporting master’s degrees and 24.9 percent doctorates) and affluent (78.1 percent reported family incomes of more than $100,000).
Parents’ attitudes toward screens varied quite a bit, and parents reported seeing both value and concern in screen usage. It seems that the violent video game debate is waning as only 11.4 percent of parents were very concerned about video game violence causing societal violence. (Our sample were definitely not gamers, by and large. A full 91.4 percent reported playing exactly 0 hours of video games on a typical day.) This lack of concern corresponds to recent surveys of scholars and clinicians who also seem skeptical of video game violence effects. And with good reason, as evidence never materialized to link games with violence. (Even the 2012 Sandy Hook shooter turned out to mainly play the nonviolent game Dance, Dance Revolution.)
By contrast, parents do worry a lot about kids getting addicted to screens. Just about 90 percent of parents worried about this at least somewhat, which may be due to the recent spate of scary headlines on the topic. Although the American Psychiatric Association has been considering including a diagnostic category for internet gaming addiction, the topic remains controversial among scholars in the field.
Attitudes toward screens aren’t random. Women in our sample held slightly more negative attitudes toward screens than men, although the difference was quite small. By contrast, and one of the findings we find most interesting (and consistent with the surveys of scholars and clinicians mentioned above), is that parents who hold more hostile attitudes toward youth also tend to hold more negative attitudes toward screens. Curiously, dislike of kids and dislike of screens are highly predictive of each other. Kids today with their music and their hair and their iPhones!
Punishing kids for misbehavior by taking screens away is a common practice, with 79.9 percent of parents reporting doing this at least sometimes. Parents also aren’t terribly collaborative with their kids, with only 25.9 percent reporting that they work with their kids to develop screen use limits. Then again, some parents eschew limits altogether; 15.9 percent of parents report instituting no screen limits on their children on weekdays, and 22.1 percent on weekends. Perhaps that makes sense, as it seems those screen limits don’t exactly work; on average, parents admit that their children use their screens for 65 more minutes per weekday than they are actually supposed to.
With all these concerns about screens, parents are leading by example, right? Nope. Parents were wedded to their smartphones, spending an average of 3.29 hours on them a day; on average, parents only allowed their kids an average of 15 minutes of phone usage on weekdays, or 30 minutes on weekends. Parents report using screens of all kinds for an average of 6.12 hours on a typical day. That compares to 2.27 hours for their kids on weekdays and 4.94 hours for their kids on weekends (these differences are statistically significant). In fairness to parents, this is probably because kids in the sample were between the ages of 4 and 13, and screen time correlates highly with age. Youth over the age of 13 typically consume screens about as much as adults do, according to other studies. Some of the comments made by parent respondents suggest parents often gradually give up enforcing screen limits over time.
The best news for parents is that screen time, in and of itself, isn’t the best predictor of child behavioral outcomes. So, no, all that smartphone use probably isn’t turning your kid’s brain to jam. How kids (and adults) use screens, though, can be important. For instance, using social media to compare oneself negatively with others is associated with depression, even if social media use overall is not. Becoming involved and informed about our children’s screen use is probably one of the best things we can do to guide them through their development in the use of technology. The good news here is that fully 95 parents of parents report using screens alongside their children.
We thank the parents who participated in this survey. Full graphic results can be found here.
The Children’s TV Canon
What makes for great children’s television? We asked Slate’s critics to weigh in on one episode of TV that they would place in the kids’ kanon: the best examples of the art and craft of entertainment for human beings as old as 17 and as young as—[checks American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines]—precisely 15 months. Here’s what they had to say.
Gumby: “Moon Trip” (1955)
The pilot episode for Art Clokey’s clay animation series captures everything great about the show. The low production values only make Gumby seem like something your dad would make for you in his basement workshop, if you were lucky enough to have that kind of dad. The episode is nearly wordless, and Clokey manages to evoke an impressive range of emotion from the clay slabs that are his characters. The idiot satisfaction on Gumby’s face as he succeeds in launching a spaceship into the stratosphere was recognizable even to my child self as the prelude to both thrills and disaster. The moon, when Gumby arrives, looks like a badly frosted cake and is populated by salmon-colored pyramids whose eyes pop out on stalks when Gumby’s back is turned. Also, the low temperature there causes Gumby to stiffen and his eyes to turn to yellow X’s. This gets a bit scary, but fortunately Gumby’s father looks into a telescope and announces to his wife, “Yep, he’s on the moon. I better go get him,” as if his son had merely wandered into a neighbor’s backyard. Then he extends the ladder of his fire truck all the way up into outer space, rescuing the wayward youth and completing the ambient impression of benevolent dadness that pervades the whole Gumby universe. —Laura Miller
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of television’s most audacious masterpieces, a half-hour animated special about depression and the spiritual blight of consumerism that climaxes in a blanket-toting Linus reciting the Gospel of Luke from memory. Miraculously, every single second of this works perfectly, with nary a whiff of preachy moralism or ironic winking toward parents. Vince Guaraldi’s post-bop soundtrack, featuring classics like “Linus and Lucy” and the magnificent “Christmas Time Is Here,” sold more than 3 million copies and remained the hippest musical happening in the history of children’s television right up until Stevie Wonder arrived on Sesame Street. —Jack Hamilton
Muppet Babies: “I Want My Muppet TV” (1985)
The TV in the nursery breaks down, and our beloved Muppets in baby form at first freak out. Soon, though, they have a bright idea: They can entertain themselves by performing their own shows from inside of a cardboard box! Cue the cute Star Trek and Tonight Show parodies, which play even better now to my adult pop culture proficiency. It’s a great example of what Muppet Babies did best: render the loose, wild realm of a child’s imagination in the most referential way possible. It even inspired this writer, then just a kid, to dream up her own TV shows using a cardboard box. An MTV-like musical number about “TV maniacs” lightheartedly warns about watching too much TV. But in this case, the show actually enhanced and encouraged my playtime away from the screen. —Aisha Harris
Saved by the Bell: “Snow White and the Seven Dorks” (1992)
The pioneer tween sitcom Saved by the Bell first aired on Saturday mornings on NBC from 1989 to 1993 but lived for decades longer thanks to near-constant reruns, starring smart aleck Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), his giant cellphone, his habit of speaking directly to the camera, and his five closest friends. It’s easy to pick the most famous episode of Saved by the Bell—yup, the one where Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) has a caffeine-pill fueled breakdown, by far the edgiest episode in SBTB history—but hard to pick the best. It could be the amazing stretch of episodes set over summer vacation at Malibu Shore, the rockumentary episode about a possible future in which the Zack Attack becomes the biggest band in the world, one of the episodes where Zack and Kelly (Tiffani Amber Thiessen) break up or get back together, anything with Screech’s girlfriend Violet (Tori Spelling!), or even the PSA-ish episode in which a destructive oil leak threatens the football field. But if you want one that has it all, try “Snow White and the Seven Dorks,” a later vintage—the cast is mostly through puberty—featuring romantic conundrums, Mr. Belding, and a rapping theatrical production of Snow White. —Willa Paskin
Clarissa Explains It All: “Ferguson Explains It All” (1994)
Any number of episodes of Clarissa Explains It All would be great for the Children’s Canon: The show combines a sassy teenager who is thoroughly herself (and has a fabulously quirky/clashy wardrobe to match) with postmodern, fourth wall–busting effects. Clarissa is a young auteur who designs her own graphics and fantasy sequences to tell stories about the world. Her kid brother, Ferguson, is a wonderfully nerdy pest, and this episode—which gives him control over the show’s meta-narrative—tackles the theme of sibling rivalry in a particularly deft, funny, zany, ultimately insightful way. —Katy Waldman
The Simpsons: “Lisa the Vegetarian” (1995)
I first saw this episode when I was 8, and if you told me at that age that kids were too young for The Simpsons, I would have cried like a baby. The episode, a landmark in how vegetarians were represented on TV, opens with a perfect illustration of what us big kids call cognitive dissonance. After the Simpsons find themselves cooing over an adorable lamb at a petting zoo, they return home to scarf down a dinner of lamb chops. Lisa is the only one that seems to notice the disconnect (“This is lamb, not a lamb,” Homer explains), and she soon finds herself giving up meat. If the rest of the episode were simply animal-rights propaganda, I’m not sure I’d be recommending it so publicly. After all, I am keenly aware that, as Homer, Bart, and Marge put it, “You don’t win friends with salad.” But the episode’s true message isn’t vegetarianism; it’s tolerance. After just about everyone in Springfield reacts to Lisa’s personal dietary choice with a defensiveness that quickly turns into bullying (a phenomenon with which I am also acutely familiar), Lisa turns militant, flinging the centerpiece of Homer’s barbecue into the river. In the fallout, everyone learns that they must respect one another, regardless of how they eat. What Homer says of the waterlogged roast pig is also true of this episode, more than 20 years later: “It’s still good.” —Forrest Wickman
The Backyardigans: “Swamp Creature” (2006)
Like many programs for small children, this episode of a briefly popular Nickelodeon series is 24 minutes long, the exact amount of time it takes to play Words With Friends sitting on the toilet, then take a shower. So that’s not why it’s the best. It’s the best because it features the catchiest song in the Backyardigans catalog, the one minute and 17 second surf-rock masterpiece “The Customer Is Always Right.” It’s the best because it conveys the message that even a terrible day can be redeemed by something fun happening at the end, a lesson that all parents need their children to absorb. It’s the best because it’s one of the Backyardigans episodes that contains all five primary characters, so no one in your family will complain that Pablo isn’t in it, even though Pablo is inarguably the worst Backyardigan. It’s the best because watching it now, years later, will remind you with a sharp and complex pang of nostalgia that you, a professional person, once had strong opinions about this jankily animated children’s show because it made your life as the parent of a preschooler just a tiny bit more tolerable, even, dare you say it, joyful. At the end—oh! I remember—all the Backyardigans go to Uniqua’s house, because it’s time to have a snack. —Dan Kois
Phineas and Ferb: “Tri-Stone Area” (2012)
This is kind of a cruel episode to recommend, because it doesn’t stand alone—you have to have some basic familiarity with Phineas and Ferb’s many recurring tropes to get it. But this Season 3 episode in which the show’s characters are all reimagined as cave-people communicating in their own primitive cave-language, is something my daughter and I quote to each other in some form nearly every day, usually by breaking down our own utterances into Stone Age–style nonsense syllables. “Tri-Stone Area” encapsulates the best qualities of this classic cartoon: It takes creative risks, trusts in its audience’s intelligence, and is sweet and funny as hell. —Dana Stevens
(Very) Young TV Critics on Their Favorite Shows and the Weird Stuff Their Parents Used to Watch
This month at Slate, we’re delving deep into children’s television. In addition to hearing from writers, academics, and parents on all aspects of the genre, we wanted to hear from the real experts. For that, we convened a panel of six 4- and 5-year-olds to talk about their TV habits today—what, where, and how they watch—and also what they think of what kids used to watch.
They had some opinions. Watch Nina, Carter, Chloe, Adam, Benjamin, and Clara fill you in on how things really are in the delightful video above.
The Rise and Fall of Baby Einstein
In 1996, Julie Aigner-Clark was a stay-at-home mom in Colorado frustrated by a lack of sufficiently educational entertainment for her 18-month-old daughter. She shot the first Baby Einstein video in her own basement with a borrowed camcorder, a few puppets, and an $18,000 budget. Five years later, she sold the company to Disney for a reported $25 million. Aigner-Clark appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and President Bush praised her as representing “the great enterprising spirit of America” in a State of the Union address. In 2009, however, the jig was up: Disney was forced to admit that the videos had no educational value and offered full refunds to parents who had bought them. What a dramatic rise and fall! It was like something out of Baby Shakespeare.
The big idea, before it (mostly) fell apart, was to expose children as young as 6 months to high culture and foreign languages, though many parents, desperate for a shower, seemed to start the curriculum even earlier. When “Baby Einstein” became a hit, Aigner-Clark produced other videos: “Baby Mozart,” “Baby Galileo,” “Baby Van Gogh,” and yes, “Baby Shakespeare.” The videos featured montages of toys, puppets, and simple shapes set to snippets of music and poetry. “We always think of these things as being for adults,” Aigner-Clark told a reporter, “but my theory is you certainly see the beauty in these things if you are exposed to them in the right way, no matter what age you are.”
For millions of parents, that theory made intuitive sense—or at least, they were eager for it to make sense, since the videos were also dynamite babysitters. Baby Einstein’s website featured testimonials from parents who gushed about their children’s obsession with the series; one mother proudly reported that her 20-month-old son watched the videos up to 10 times a day. It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly Baby Einstein dominated the screens of family homes with small children in its first few years. By 2002, Baby Einstein videos were “mesmerizing babies across the country,” one newspaper profile reported, “and turning that cranky hour at the end of the day into a more peaceful time.” According to one study cited by the New York Times, a third of all American babies between 6 months old and 2 years old had at least one of the company’s videos.
In retrospect, this was a golden era of screen time for the very young. Producers were offering increasingly sophisticated products targeted specifically at very young children. Teletubbies, a show intended for children as young as 1, premiered in the United States in 1998. Other productions made explicit claims that they would make babies smarter. “It’s true!” the Baby Genius series reassured parents, “Classical music and powerful images stimulate your child’s brain.” Your Baby Can Read!, a $200 program of DVDs and books, promised that children as young as 9 months old could be on their way to literacy. There wasn’t much pushback on this from experts. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ first recommendations on children’s TV consumption, published in 1999, sounded a cautious note about kids under 2 but didn’t forbid it. It was the Wild West of babies staring at screens.
The Baby Einstein glow began to dissipate by the mid-aughts as studies doubting their efficacy started to roll in. For every hour a day that babies watched Baby Einstein videos, they knew 6–8 fewer words than their peers. Watching “Baby Wordsworth” did not improve 1- and 2-year-olds’ language development. The earlier a child started watching Baby Einstein videos, in fact, the smaller his vocabulary.
The writing was on the wall, and even a baby could read it. An advocacy group complained to the Federal Trade Commission in 2006, prompting Baby Einstein to drop the word educational from their advertising. A few years later, the group threatened a class-action lawsuit, citing estimates that Baby Einstein products represented 90 percent of the “baby media” market.
Under pressure, Disney announced it would offer refunds of up to $16 for up to four DVDs per household, which many interpreted as a tacit admission that the videos were not producing Einsteins after all. The refunds were estimated to cost the company $100 million. (The FTC also successfully filed suit against Your Baby Can Read! in 2012. Your baby could not, in fact, read.) Disney sold Baby Einstein in 2013 for a presumably much less astronomical cost, and the brand still exists as a purveyor of toys, walkers, bouncers, baby mats, and other analog baby products. Aigner-Clark and her husband sued the researchers who published the most explosive debunking of their claims, saying they wanted to acquire the raw data in at attempt to clear her legacy.
The idea that a vaguely highbrow video can make a child smarter now sounds like a kind of old-timey tech utopianism, like the idea that social media would democratize the flow of information and unite people around the globe. The question now is not whether screen time might make your babies brilliant but whether it actively harms them.
Twenty years after Aigner-Clark sold her first Baby Einstein video, there’s remarkably little real-life consensus. The AAP has tweaked its recommendations several times, with the latest guidelines allowing that FaceTime is OK for babies less than 18 months old and that toddlers can benefit from educational media if parents are next to them while they watch. We’re still figuring this stuff out. With gruesome imitations of popular kids’ shows looping on YouTube and toy companies trying to push “tabletop digital nannies” for kids’ rooms, the worst-case scenarios for kids and screens have gone way past These cute videos might not boost my infant’s IQ. While Baby Einstein may have overpromised, in retrospect, anodyne puppetry set to synth-y Mozart doesn’t look so bad.
Kids Are Stuck Getting Their News From SNL and Snapchat. Save Us, Linda Ellerbee!
Back when I could convince my parents to let me stay up late, I’d spend my extra waking hours watching Nick at Nite. There, in 2006, a 10-year-old could find reruns of old school hits like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Home Improvement. But once a week, sandwiched between the feel-good family values, was a half-hour anomaly: Nick News With Linda Ellerbee.
Nick News, which ran from 1992–2015, was styled like a nightly news program but made for elementary and middle schoolers. It was serious, and it took kids seriously. It was one of the first places I heard about climate change, when Al Gore spoke with Ellerbee about An Inconvenient Truth. It appears to be the first place future British royal Meghan Markle appeared on camera, at age 11, lambasting sexism in advertising. It covered debates over terrorism, children living with terminal illness, and the toll of physical abuse within families. “It wasn’t always necessarily the biggest ratings driver,” said Bronwen O’Keefe, who helped to produce Nick News and is now a senior VP at the network. “We weren’t going to dumb anything down for the audience and we weren’t going to avoid things that were controversial.”
The show was, at least to me, the Platonic ideal of a news program for kids. Now that it’s off the air, who’s filling the gap? Could they possibly respect their young audience the way Ellerbee respected hers?
In the case of Snapchat, not really.
Snapchat, and basically every publication on Discover, needs to stop condescending to young audiences and do better. This morning’s “news”: pic.twitter.com/cGjsx3RWMi— Amanda Hess (@amandahess) October 30, 2017
According to marketing data, a remarkable 59 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds in the United States use the app every month. While they mostly send photos, Snapchat’s Discover portal allows them a lens on events in the outside world—at least in theory. Unfortunately, as Snapchat sees it, the world is mostly gossip, celebrities in various states of undress, and kittens. Some outlets, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, seem to worry over this questionable quality; the national papers have been notably tinkering with their Snapchat presence in search of a balance between visual stimulation, interactivity, and substance. But the last time I looked, the British tabloid the Daily Mail sat atop Discover.
Despite Snapchat’s low expectations for its users, kids still want to be taken seriously, said Jenny Coogan, the chief operating officer of Newsela, an online news platform used in classrooms around the country. Newsela uses software and human moderators to take the news of the day, tailor it for different grade levels, and distribute it to schools. While teachers pick the articles they use (acting as a filter Snapchat doesn’t have), the site’s user data proves kids want to grapple with serious stuff. Terrorism, gun violence, hate crimes—they all rise to the top. “Kids frequently already know about something,” Coogan said, “and this gives us a way to talk about it.”
Outside of school, kids with a nose for news often end up consuming content made with adults in mind. For precocious teens and preteens interested in current events but unlikely to sit down with a newspaper, Saturday Night Live often serves as a glimpse at our current political moment. Kids don’t even have to stay up late anymore to do it, thanks to Hulu. SNL’s often-low level of sophistication can be frustrating for adults, but for kids it still feels aspirational—slightly naughty jokes accompanying sketches that distill the complexity of politics into something more manageable. No kid will walk away from SNL with a detailed understanding of the new tax bill, but they’ll at least know it’s happening (and, most likely, have the general and correct impression that’s it’s awful).
For those older or nerdier kids with an appetite for the details SNL glosses over, satisfaction comes from the late-night politics explainer, a blossoming cable subgenre. An episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, for example, feels like a highly produced AP class, just with swear words. Contentious topics, historical analogs, and primary source documents ripple across the screen. A curious teenager would have walked away from this year’s programming with a decent understanding of the Equifax security breach and the shortcomings of the National Flood Insurance Program. Unfortunately, the show is only really accessible to a select group of kids who have developed the broad knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary to engage with the show, which is expressly made for well-educated, politically savvy adults. Talk to an average high school sophomore who’s been mainlining John Oliver and you’ll hear a lot of borrowed jokes—and a child still struggling to fit her issue-based outrage into a broader political and cultural context.
Ultimately, kids’ best source for the news remains an adult who’s willing to talk with them about it. A decade or more ago, I remember watching the MSNBC news lineup with my parents after dinner, picking up whatever information I could. My fourth-grade class presidential vote for John Kerry was directly influenced by Keith Olbermann’s persuasive diatribes. But it was my parents—who gave me historical context for what I was hearing, talked me through thorny political dilemmas, and helped me see the value of understanding what was going on all over the world—who truly taught me how to be a thoughtful consumer of the news. Well, my parents, and Linda Ellerbee.
The Multimillion-Dollar Industry of Being a Happy Family on YouTube
In a rambling, 17-minute YouTube video called “Swing Fail,” the mom of young children Caleb, Annie, and Hayley Logan films and narrates as they make a casserole at home, then pile into their car to go to the park. Other than the ordinary family antics, nothing much happens—the titular “swing fail” involves Annie lightly skinning her knee—but the video has 9 million views. “Bratayley” is a top YouTube family.
YouTube families, or “family vloggers” as YouTube likes to call them, are huge business, with some 41 million subscribers together among the top channels, which earn millions of dollars. The families post cartoonish videos of everyday activities, from new purchases and sibling pranks to welcoming a new baby. Aside from some snappy editing and occasional soundtracking, the videos are numbingly mundane and unchanging from one family to the next. Two parents and their many kids take trips to Target, cuddle giant teddy bears, perform birthday pranks, build snow forts, bounce in bounce castles, and play around in in big, pastoral American homes. The families are overwhelmingly white but are willing to be “on fleek.”
All these families and their content are similar enough that it’s hard for the untrained eye to discern why any particular one has been anointed over others. Parents and children mug for their audience of millions with the same ageless, frenetic gaze. A video of the “Shaytards” (the personalized slur is what dad Shay Carl Butler calls his family) getting a new swimming pool somehow has over 24 million views. Another family, Sam and Nia, made a video of themselves shopping for a pool too—with the same all-caps video title, even—but only got 1 million views. Nice try, Sam and Nia.
Watch enough of these family vloggers and you may find yourself wondering whether there was ever any genuine playfulness in the family’s videos or if they’ve always followed the shrewd choreography of “influencer marketing.” Parents will note that the reality of a house full of kids is not the nonstop funhouse the YouTube families present. A friend who’s a dad of five told me he thinks his kids’ fixation on the Funnel Vision family and their pumpkin-carving, giant gummy adventures suggests dreams of a world where parents don’t have to be so adult. “They’re living this fantasy through the kids on the show,” he said, “the fantasy being the license to be completely silly and have the parents not just support that but be a part of it.”
But fantasies rarely hold up. The swimming pool–loving Shaytards have been on hiatus for some months since Butler, the family patriarch, was caught sending explicit messages and videos of himself to an adult performer online. It’s a little jarring to go from “SASSY FASHION SHOW!” (3.1 million views) to “Letting a Dream Die,” made by Butler’s tearful wife, Colette (2.7 million views). In 2015 Caleb Logan of Bratayley fame died of a heart condition at 13, and a garish media circus followed—audiences were not accustomed to giving the family privacy.
The Bratayley online store now sells Bratayley-branded water bottles, leotards, and fidget spinners emblazoned with “Celebrate Life.” With millions in revenue on the table, it’s hard to imagine all parties keeping kids’ best interests in front. In a recent piece on the “dark side” of family YouTube, Rachel Dunphy tells the upsetting story of Allie, an entrepreneurial 13-year-old toy reviewer whose mother’s hunger for success wrung the child out. Perhaps as a result of James Bridle’s widely-shared article on the bizarre, violent algorithmic content found in the dank annals of kids YouTube, the company has been attempting to crack down on video content it thinks is exploitive of children or harmful to them. BuzzFeed’s damning reportage recently showed how extensive and weird the gray area has been until now—kids tied up, pretending to wet themselves, or playing with diapers.
Can kids even truly consent to this use of their image? For that matter, what does it mean when a parent is, essentially, a child’s employer? In the case of “DaddyofFive,” two parents played tricks on their children and lied to them in order to film and monetize their distress as comedy—and ultimately lost custody of those children, facing charges of child neglect. But even in cases where children in happy homes seem to be willing participants, you wonder how kids like Chase, Mike, and Lexi of the Funnel Vision family might feel one day about this obsessive documentation of their childhoods or the inarguable fact that in the influencer economy, mom and dad are bosses and their kids are the stunt cast. In a video bemoaning the effect YouTube's kid-friendly content changes may have on the family’s livelihood, “Sky Dad” of the Funnel Vision family commands his son to laugh. The child does so instantly.
It feels worse, somehow, than reality TV, where the premises follow familiar rules and it’s mostly only eager adults being humiliated on cue. These families enact warmth and spontaneity while serving up their children in response to analytics and demand. Meanwhile, most of the kids (and probably many adults) that watch lack the circumspection to see these family performances for what they are—calculated grabs for advertising revenue, dipped in the crunchy candy shell of white suburban ideals.
Even as YouTube has become a major entertainment network in its own right, the organic fiction promised by the “you” in its name still lingers, helped along by the purposeful shaky-cams and staged “oops” moments families craft to make their videos feel raw and homemade. This kind of thing is, of course, happening all over the web—a malleable veracity around everything we access and consume. Fake YouTube families are the perfect entertainment fiction for an era in which young people think collectively edited Wikipedia is untrustworthy but tweets or Facebook posts are plausible because they’re individual accounts.
When anything can be “fake news,” it’s tempting to assume that the solution is “media literacy”—teaching young people to look into the provenance of the content they encounter online. But what if the content appears to come from a kid just like them or a loving parent just like theirs—but who seems to be having so much more fun? It’s hard enough to impress upon literate adults that the reality selected for us by internet algorithms is incomplete. The kids are going to have it rough, whether or not their parents make them jump in ball pits on the internet for money.
The Adult Bodies Playing Teens on TV
This season’s most-acclaimed film, Lady Bird, checks off all the standard entries on a high school movie to-do list. As the title character, Saoirse Ronan shops for prom dresses, applies to college, falls for an arrogant loner, and clashes with her mom—like any other teen movie heroine. But she has at least one thing nearly every other protagonist in the genre lacks: pimples.
Ronan told Vanity Fair that her skin “wasn’t great” during production. When the Lady Bird makeup artist asked Ronan, then 22, if she’d be OK letting her acne show, she agreed. “I thought it was a really good opportunity to let a teenager’s face in a movie actually look like a teenager’s face in real life,” Ronan said. Writer-director Greta Gerwig claims she was tired of seeing teenage girls in movies with “perfect skin and perfect hair, even if they're supposed to be awkward,” when the average teenage experience is beset by zits and French braids.
The impossible beauty of teen characters in film and TV is partially attributable to Hollywood’s aspirational human palette, which represents a limited range of acceptable physical characteristics. But it’s also an inevitable upshot of an industry that routinely casts actors in their mid-20s or even their 30s as bumbling pubescents. In a culture as shaped by media imagery as ours, the systemic misrepresentation of an entire age group has real consequences for how adults conceive of typical adolescence, and how teens measure themselves against it.
With a few exceptions like Saved by the Bell and Skins, which were deliberately cast with actors around the same ages as their characters, the best-known on-screen teenagers have been brought to life by far older bodies. Carrie starred 26-year-old Sissy Spacek as a high-schooler a decade younger. Ingrid Bergman was well into her 30s when she played the teenage lead in 1948’s Joan of Arc. In Grease, a timeless archetype of high school dramedy released in 1978, the lead roles were played by a 24-year-old John Travolta, a 29-year-old Olivia Newton-John, and a 34-year-old Stockard Channing. With the exception of then-17-year-old Mischa Barton, the chief clique of The O.C. was populated by actors in their early and mid-20s. Mean Girls featured a 25-year-old Rachel McAdams as a high school bully; Amy Poehler, who played her mother, is just seven years older.
These aren’t isolated examples. This spring, Broadly calculated the respective age differences between the characters and actors in 11 popular films and TV shows set during high school, including The Breakfast Club, Clueless, and this year’s Riverdale. Teens playing teens make up a tiny minority of those in the study, for whom the average age gap ranged from 3.7 years (Gossip Girl) to 8.25 years (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The cast members of Glee (average age gap: 8 years) were almost all past college age when they started as high school sophomores on the show, prompting creator Ryan Murphy to graduate the characters in real time, after the third season. “There’s nothing more depressing than a high schooler with a bald spot,” he said when he announced the plan.
Bald spots are not the issue for teenaged viewers, though. It’s the more conventionally sexualized parts of adult bodies—breasts, hips, upper body musculature—that can give teenagers unrealistic points of reference for their own development. Beth Daniels, a developmental psychology professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, remembers that some teen shows used to feature actors who, while still older than the characters they were playing, could actually pass for high schoolers—like baby-faced Alexis Bledel, who was 19 when Gilmore Girls premiered. “In contemporary teen shows today, they have actors who don’t even physically resemble teenagers,” Daniels said in a phone interview. Their faces are framed by high-relief Adam’s apples and square, stubbly jaws; their smooth-skinned, un-stretchmarked bodies have no trouble filling out adult-size lingerie. “So now the expectation, or the standard, is way out of line with actual teen bodies, and the possibility for body dissatisfaction jumps up.”
There are several reasons why casting directors tend to choose legal adults to play teenagers on screen. First on the list is labor law. Minors can only work limited hours and require additional accommodations for schooling and break time, while adult actors can spend longer, more efficient days on set. Adolescence itself, characterized by unpredictable changes, is itself an obstacle. “The lived reality of puberty does not play well on screen,” said Rebecca Feasey, who teaches gender, media, and film studies at Bath Spa University in the U.K. “This is not about aesthetics, but rather about continuity—continuity which would be challenged by developing bodies and deepening voices.”
Older actors can also perform the kinds of sexual situations that provide much of the drama of contemporary teen narratives without raising ethical concerns. Pacey Witter was only 15 when he started sleeping with his high school teacher on Dawson’s Creek, but Joshua Jackson, at 19, was above the age of consent. In other cases, age gaps buttress a show’s believability. On Gossip Girl, the very adult sex life of 16-year-old Chuck Bass seems more plausible when portrayed by Ed Westwick, who was a very self-possessed 20 when the show debuted.
Panic over child exploitation has often accompanied films that cast young actors as sexualized characters their own age. When a 12-year-old Brooke Shields played a sex-trafficked child in 1978’s Pretty Baby, child welfare organizations “threatened to take the child actress out of her mother’s custody,” writes Kristen Hatch, a University of California, Irvine, film and media studies professor, in her essay “Fille Fatale: Regulating Images of Adolescent Girls, 1962-1996.” It would make sense, then, for producers to cast adults in productions that depict young teens engaging in sexual activity, rather than navigate the complex moral and PR dilemmas that arise around child performers. But the upshot is a pop culture canon in which most teenagers—those youths with squeaky voices, underdeveloped prefrontal cortices, and still-growing bodies—are played by people who look and sound far older.
Early this year, BuzzFeed’s Erin Chack pointed out the ludicrousness wrought by this discrepancy, comically juxtaposing stills from TV shows and movies about teenagers with photos of her and her friends as actual teenagers. Chack’s exercise takes on new meaning when viewed through the lens of the recent #MeAt14 hashtag, under which people tweeted photos of themselves at the age of one of Roy Moore’s accusers when the GOP Senate candidate allegedly molested her. (Moore claims that the several women who’ve said he sexually assaulted or dated them when they were teenagers and he was an adult are all lying.) If you don’t spend a lot of time around young teenagers, you may not have an easily recallable image of what a 14-year-old looks like to remind you of how unadult ninth-graders are—and thus how unfathomable it would be for a man in his 30s to have anything approaching a consensual sexual relationship with one. The #MeAt14 hashtag also encouraged survivors of sexual violence to tweet photos of themselves at the age their abuse began, reminding observers that the defenses Moore’s supporters offered—that his alleged relationships with teen girls were consensual, innocent, and appropriate—were absurd. Romantic affairs between high school girls and assistant district attorneys old enough be their fathers are not, and should not, be the norm.
The immature realities of adolescence can be hard to remember, especially when the high school stories we watch on TV involve 25-year-olds acting out sex dramas foreign to the average teenager. Daniels says today’s teen shows, most of which include sexually active characters, misrepresent the reality that in the U.S., only 41.2 percent of high school students report having ever had sex, and just 11.5 percent have had sex with four or more partners. “It’s really different than even in the ‘90s,” Daniels told me. “If you think back to the first run of 90210, the majority of the characters, while they were in high school, were not having sex. … It was still a really big, long, drawn-out process as to whether Brenda was going to sleep with Dylan. And yet, today, we see shows where it seems like the characters are not only sexually active, but having multiple partners, and that’s incredibly uncommon for teenagers.” Shannen Doherty was 19 when she played Brenda, a 16-year-old, in the first season of Beverly Hills 90210 in 1990. As fellow high schooler Dylan, Luke Perry was 23.
While sex as a standard backdrop rather than a scandalous plot point is a relatively new feature of on-screen narratives, Hollywood has fetishized young girls as sexually ready adults, and made adult women into innocent girls, since nearly the birth of cinema. In 1919’s Broken Blossoms, Lillian Gish, then in her mid-20s, played a 12-year-old girl who must decide how she will escape her physically abusive father: either by engaging in sex work or by attracting another man to protect her. Later decades found films such as 1940’s It’s a Date, 1945’s Mildred Pierce, and 1964’s Where Has Love Gone—the last of which featured 19-year-old Joey Heatherton as a 14-year-old girl—trading on the trope of a daughter competing with her mother for the same adult man, in line with then-popular Freudian ideas of sexual development.
Casting adults as sexy, grown-up “teenagers” comes naturally in a culture with dual fixations on youth and the objectification of women. So does the reverse-but-related practice of using the looks of girls deemed unusually mature against them when they’re sexually abused. When Roman Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977, his probation officer submitted a report that said the survivor “was not only physically mature, but willing.” The judge in the case, Laurence J. Rittenband, qualified his admonishment of Polanski with the assertion that the girl “looks older than her years,” as if her body shape or proclivity for makeup made her a likelier target, as if poor Polanski simply could never have known she was way underage. Thirteen-year-olds that look 20 are still 13, and women shouldn’t need to tweet a photo of themselves in braces to prove that abuse they suffered as teenagers was wrong.
Notably, Kristen Hatch casts doubt on the idea that consuming portrayals of high-schoolers by adult actors could warp viewers’ understanding of teenage immaturity. “Puberty is a time when things are not stable, so everything’s amorphous and it’s kind of hard to say what, precisely, it looks like,” she told me. All on-screen fiction demands some suspension of disbelief—maybe there’s not such a big difference between making teenagers look old enough to run for Congress and making college quads look like nonstop ultimate Frisbee and flip-cup tournaments. Or, for that matter, casting young actresses as middle-aged moms. “There is routinely a very small age gap between on-screen parents and their children which is biologically unrealistic and potentially implausible,” Rebecca Feasey said. “The irony, of course, is that while we are happy to accept twentysomething performers playing teenagers, we are keen for thirtysomething actors to take on the role of fortysomething parents.” For women in Hollywood, once adolescence is over, menopause is just spitting distance away.