Television: The Golden Calf of Home

By Marjorie Ingall

Published April 18, 2003, issue of April 18, 2003.
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Elmo can kiss my tukhes. So can Baby Bear (the TV character with the most grating speech impediment since Cindy Brady), Telly (such a chaleria, he makes me anxious), Zoe (the semi-new female puppet who is so insipid, she’s furry tokenism in action) and Count von Count (whose voice, after the death of his original master, Jim Henson, is more Swedish than Transylvanian).

My life is Muppets. Like many mothers of toddlers, I spend way too much time with the felt annoyances. How did this happen? Josie still loves to read, but not as much as she loves to toddle around the house bellowing, “Street! Street! ’Mote!” (Translation: “Dearest Mother, won’t you turn on ‘Sesame Street’? I am well aware that you have hidden the remote control on that shelf.”) And then there’s “Teletubbies,” a show in the grand H.R. Pufnstuf tradition of children’s television as acid trip. On a candy-bright pastoral set very much like that of the 1960s cult TV show “The Prisoner,” goggle-eyed, blank-faced, giant-bellied fur creatures with antennae prance hither and yon, sometimes trailed by a vacuum cleaner that vomits. Josie is entranced. I am trapped, just like Prisoner No. 6.

I never intended to be one of those self-righteous parents who says, “Oh, we don’t even own a television!” and shake their heads with exaggerated bafflement when people talk about “The Sopranos.” These people spend as much time proudly announcing that they don’t have a television as they would spend watching television if they had one. Only slightly less annoying are the people who do watch “The Sopranos” but who make a fetish out of never letting their children watch any TV. Such parents, who generally home-school, name their children “Phoenix” and use terms like “personhood” a lot, invariably end up raising serial killers. But first, they cite the studies about television’s link to violent behavior, obesity, lower scores on standardized tests, shorter attention spans, poor school performance and viewers’ likelihood of kidnapping Christian children to drain their blood for matzo. To the anti-TV parenting brigade, television is bottomless evil.

I am a bit more sanguine. (In the optimistic sense, not the blood-libel sense.) I subscribe to the parenting philosophy laid out by Wendy Mogel in “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.” She says that the three cornerstones of Judaism are moderation, celebration and sanctification. (Admittedly, these are the cornerstones of most spiritual practice, from Buddhism to Wicca. But, hey, I just go with it.) We try to indulge in the “Street” in moderation: Just a half-hour or so in the morning so Mommy can nap a little on the couch. And maybe another 45 minutes to smooth the transition after the baby sitter leaves. And a nip of “Teletubbies” during dinner, when the baby’s interest is waning and I want to shovel a few more peas into her. I’m not proud of this. But sometimes you do what you gotta do to make it through the day. That said, we try to celebrate Josie’s obvious enjoyment of her two shows and the fact that they do have educational value. (For instance, they’ve helped her absorb the concepts of “here” and “gone” and “back.” They’ve enhanced her ability to name colors and count. And they’ve explained and acted out various emotions, have stressed the importance of watering a houseplant and have taught her how to shimmy with special guest stars Destiny’s Child).

I suppose we even make an effort toward sanctification. Okay, this one’s a reach. But we do look for teachable moments in every episode; we urge her to talk about what she’s seeing, and we attempt to be “in the moment” as we watch with her, appreciating her joy and total concentration. We do this unless it is the 6:45 a.m. viewing and we are asleep on the couch. (Welcome to the special “we suck” edition of “The East Village Mamele.”)

I’m aware that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television for kids under 2. I also know that if I do not get to doze on the couch at 6:45 a.m., I will be more likely to accidentally flay myself with the vegetable peeler when making Josie’s lunch. You do the math.

In my doggedly self-justifying way, I tell myself that we are not condemning Josie to reform school and a starring role in a “Girls Gone Wild” video, circa 2021, because we have a TiVo. This brilliant digital device, a sort of tapeless VCR, lets you instantly skip all commercials (even PBS shows start and end with ads), without waiting for a whirring tape. It automatically records the shows we don’t mind Josie seeing. It also means that Josie is not a passive consumer of media. If she finds a skit boring, she says, “Shkip it!” If she finds a song or story to be particularly compelling, she says, “Again!” Digital video recorders like TiVo and Replay really do change your relationship to TV. We’ll still need to teach Josie media literacy, since she won’t always be watching with us, but right now I feel moderately in control of the box.

I also have to admit I enjoy much of “Sesame Street.” I hate some of the characters, especially that moronic pronoun-averse Elmo. But I still think “Rubber Ducky” is a great song; I love the show’s use of Spanish; I find a lot of the jokes pretty funny, and at least Bert is still the wonderful nebbish I remember. The monobrowed guy is still obsessed with pigeons, collecting paper clips, the color gray and argyle socks. I love watching Josie talk to Cookie Monster and dance along with the Alvin Ailey dancers. I can’t think of much good to say about the Tubbies, other than the fact that they let me sleep on the couch and stuff my glazed-eyed child like a capon. But it could be worse. Josie still hasn’t seen Barney.

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