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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

Marjorie Ingall
April 27, 2011
Miranda Cosgrove, the star of iCarly, in last year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Nickelodeon)
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.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.