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Turned Off

The period between Passover and Shavuot is traditionally a time for reflection; parents would do well to reflect on just how awful most live-action TV programming for kids is

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Miranda Cosgrove, the star of iCarly, in last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Nickelodeon)

As I write this, public school is on break, the Seders are over, and parents want nothing more than to plop their children in front of the TV. But we’re also beginning the period of reflection known as the counting of the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. It’s supposed to be a time of personal betterment. It’s a time to be somber. And that is why I encourage all Jews (and all bipeds) to turn off the iCarlys, the Jonases, the Sonnys, the Ravens, the Zack & Codys, the Hannah Montanas and all other live-action television aimed at children and tweens. Because these shows are insidious and dastardly and they suck.

Look, I am not one of those parents who sniff and say, “Oh, we don’t have a television.” We love our television. Our television is the size of a barn. My girls watch Project Runway and Top Chef with us. We TiVo the cartoons Phineas & Ferb and WordGirl. They watch Pee-wee’s Playhouse on DVD and Beakman’s World as streaming content on Netflix. Josie and I watch Glee together, though I am ambivalent about the show. I’ll frequently hit pause to explain sexual references, explicate what I find offensive, and excavate the show’s hidden judgments and values I may or may not agree with.

Yes, I have issues with Glee, but I’m OK with my kid watching it. I applaud the normative portrayal of gay kids, the musical numbers, and the hilariousness of Jane Lynch. For me, those things outweigh the inconsistent characterization, incoherent plots, and sexual shenanigans. Plenty of parents disagree with me about Glee, which is why I have no intention of being the Hat Police about television. (The Hat Police being those people who criticize strangers’ parenting by barking things like “That baby needs a hat!”)

That said, I’ll tell you why live-action tween TV shows are banned in my house, and not just during the Omer. What these shows have in common is a snotty attitude. Kids address each other and adults with a sassy, casually hurtful tone peppered by laugh-track laughs. Many of these shows posit celebrity as the ultimate value. The protagonists are pop stars (Hannah Montana), TV comedy stars (Sonny With a Chance), dancers (Shake It Up), hottie boy bands (Big Time Rush), or students at a top Hollywood performing arts school (Victorious). The message: The greatest thing you can be is famous. Shows that aren’t about becoming a music or TV star are about the perks of wealth and power: The Suite Life of Zack & Cody is about kids living on a luxury cruise ship, and True Jackson, VP is about a teen whose stylishness nabs her a senior-level job at a multimillion-dollar fashion company.

A huge number of the shows’ plots focus on being attractive to the opposite sex. Kids who are bookish, have unusual passions like ventriloquism (Victorious), have asthma (Good Luck Charlie), are chubby (Suite Life), or wear glasses (Victorious) are subject to ridicule by the heroes. (It can’t be bullying if the heroes are doing it!) Parents, if they exist, are generally portrayed as dimwitted. When kids mock them to their faces, the parents react with helpless frustration or goofy, rueful acceptance.

Girls on these shows, whatever their ethnicity, have long, straight, glossy hair. Frizzy hair, on both boys and girls, is a sign of stupidity or grossness. Boys’ hair is frequently swept forward and to the side, Bieberishly. The leads are almost all white, but even the nonwhite kids have no signifiers of ethnic or cultural identity, except, perhaps, for a fondness for hip-hop, which white kids happen to like, too. Clothing has a certain mall-safe sameness. Dressing “Goth” means you’re a bad girl; not dressing fashionably means you’re a joke.

And these shows are dumb. The writing isn’t witty. The plots are predictable. The characters are pancake-flat. Why put up with stupid TV writing when good TV writing is out there? A single musical number on Phineas & Ferb, for example, recently featured the words infernal, invective, abhor, ambivalence, subjective, atrocious, and apathy. Do not tell me all cartoons rot children’s brains.

Parents often say to me, “Well, iCarly isn’t that bad.” iCarly is almost always held out as the embodiment of not-bad. Well, I disagree. iCarly is that bad.

I used to think iCarly wasn’t that bad. I’d seen a couple of episodes and thought it was unfunny but innocuous. Then we watched “iMake Sam Girly” while unpacking in a hotel room. In this episode, Carly’s best friend Sam, a tomboy, decides she has to be “girlier” to attract the boy she has a crush on. Carly is thrilled and gives her a makeover, amping up her makeup and putting her in a pink blouse and miniskirt instead of her customary jeans. (Carly also orders her to wear panties instead of boxers.) Sam is ill at ease, but the boy notices her, so she puts up with her discomfort. She desperately wants a burger, but that wouldn’t be feminine, so she orders salad. A bully shows up—a very tall, muscular black girl, the only person of color in the episode—and shoves French fries down Sam’s blouse. Carly urges Sam not to retaliate because that would be unfeminine. When the bully throws Sam’s schoolbooks on the ground, Sam struggles for a moment, then responds, “I like your shoes!” The bully then pushes a little kid and a nerdy man. Sam wants to intervene, but Carly gives her warning looks. When the bully shoves Carly, though, Carly barks to Sam, “Rip her head off!” (Big laugh from the laugh track.) Only then does Sam dispense with the bully. Oh no! Her crush has been watching the entire time! She’s sure she’s lost him, but he tells her he likes her just the way she is. The studio audience says, “Awww.” No one mentions that the boy didn’t notice her at all until she changed the way she looked.

This is the show that’s not so bad.

Look, if your kids watch these shows, I am in no position to judge you. And believe me, I understand taking the path of least resistance, especially during school vacations. Nevertheless, I encourage you to watch TV with your kid and talk about the unspoken messages the tween shows convey.

And seriously, look into Phineas & Ferb. After the Omer.

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Steph F. says:

Thankfully, my 8-year-old’s must-watch shows are Arthur and Fetch. Hooray for PBS!

Daniel Allen says:

Marjorie,

I’m wondering if your kids tune in to the plenary of options offered by PBS Kids? It’s the safest bet!

Best,

Daniel T. Allen
WNET

kag1989 says:

I’m thrilled that my son, now 12, prefers to read a good book rather than watch TV. I told my husband, “We raised a reader!”

I agree that children’s programming isn’t always “stupid.” We used to love Jimmy Neutron, and Bear’s Big Blue House and many shows on PBS.

We also like to watch tv together as a family. This provides wonderful opportunities to discuss what we’re watching and also allows us parents to better control what our son is watching.

Finally, remember to read in front of your children. Children like to do what their parents are doing. If you are reading a good book, they might be more inclined to read a good book too.

THANK you! It’s a constant struggle in our house to get our kids not to watch the crap on Disney and Nick. Thankfully, our older child is much more into Star Trek and reading now, and we’re pushing Arthur, Phineas & Ferb, and great shows like Crashbox (HBO) like rabid DC lobbyists. I was pleased as punch to see Hannah Montana end, hear that Demi Lovato isn’t coming back to Sonny with a Chance, and that Selena Gomez is leaving Wizards of Waverly Place, but Disney & Nick are like hydras. Get one awful show off the air, and two more spring up (hello, Shake it Up and Supah Ninjas?). Thanks again!

MethanP says:

TV Programs have long pushed “agenda’s” while following the
path of least resistance in originality.
IE: CSI has spawned multiple spin offs & knock offs.
The worst to my thinking are the Law & Order’s.
On muliple channels often at premium kids times, they are
full of cynical joyless people and while the violence is
offscreen, the shows are DEPRESSING.
Do you LIKE anyone on House?

Paula Globerman says:

never mind the mindless crap on TV now-my kids are all grown up but raising kids in the 80′s and 90′s was no differrent, with one BIG exception-we didn’t have to contend with the internet. Tv offers few positive roll models and fashion is worse. Try and buy clothes for little girls that aren’t “babysexy”. I’m not a prude-but can’t kids look like kids-”tots and Tiaras”-seriously!

Matthew says:

Oh come on, just be happy your kids don’t watch porns! That’s the real problem and not shows that make you laugh and to dream!
I’m glad that I don’t have parents like you are!

Liebo says:

How can anyone who watches “Top Chef” and “Project Runway” criticize any other programming as predictable and inane? It’s interesting how you’ve been able to rationalize your acceptance of “Glee,” yet freely show your contempt for all of the shows you mention in your column. Your analysis on an “iCarly” episode, while possibly accurate, takes an adult view of a show meant to entertain kids. Entertain, not educate. I’m not so sure kids watch these shows at the same level you do.

Jacob Davies says:

Top Chef & Project Runway can drive me nuts with their manufactured drama and tension, but both shows are also about skilled professions, and all the things you have to learn to be a chef or a designer, and all the hard work and failure you’ll have to put up with along the way.

Anything that shows people actually working at something other than chart music or professional sports or the favorite TV profession “being rich for no reason” is at least one step up.

Diane says:

I met 10 year old twins last night while watching Glee shoot a scene in the West Village. They told me that they read the description of the show each week to see if that episode is right for them to watch it or not. They skip the episodes that focus on sex or other topics they don’t understand. I was incredibly impressed at the self-regulation of these girls.

So that’s what I’m striving for now, raising kids who know what is appropriate for them and what is not. They do this already at school with book choices, so shouldn’t tv and other media follow this path?

I personally think this live action tween TV trend is pretty awful. What happened to Nick? The network that created great shows like “Clarissa Explains it All” and “You Can’t Do That on Television” has gone downhill by mimicking Disney’s fame-is-everything mantra.

I am so relieved by this article. I constantly feel as though the tween shows model a sassiness that just over the edge of appropriate speech. My kids are already hooked on these shows, but know that watching such drivel will cause them to be subjected to “moral Mom chats” at any time ;)

And Phineas and Ferb is amazingly written. We are huge fans!

i said no to all those disney shows. i do love listening to ella and zoe sing the phineas and ferb theme song. i don’t know why but it cracks me up.

Thanks for another article that articulates, far better than I could, a random parent-child subject that has lurked in the periphery of my head awaiting critical assessment. Now I can just do what you tell me to do. And this includes checking out the cartoon you and Homeshuling and Frume Sarah seem to like….

renee says:

My kids (8 and 5) are still stuck on Arthur, Curious George, and Dino Dan, which is fine with me. We tried Phineas and Ferb once, but they found it too frenetic. But when we have encountered those other shows, I have recoiled in horror as well; we saw a bit of Victorious in a hotel last week and I ended up asking my 5-year-old if she could please stay little forever.

Saul Lipschitz says:

So Jew shows are okay, but shows that aren’t about jews are insidious?
Wonder why anyone would want to round you people up?

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Turned Off

The period between Passover and Shavuot is traditionally a time for reflection; parents would do well to reflect on just how awful most live-action TV programming for kids is

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