Watching Trashy TV with the Kids: Look Back, Talk Back, Reinvent, Turn Off

When my children were toddlers, I kept tight control of their media diet. Oh, the simplicity of running a dictatorship! I could offer “choices” within a controlled set of options like, “Would you like to watch Dragon Tales or Sesame Street?”

Satisfied with the ad-free world of public television, my oldest son did not even know that the company responsible for so perniciously bringing advertising to childhood existed, until he came home from first grade one day and said, “Mom, it seems like there’s this thing called Disney World that everyone knows about but me.”


While the media might send messages about social stereotypes and consumerism that I don’t like, my son’s cultural illiteracy sent a message of its own — a good dictatorship can only take you so far, because let’s be real, there is innocence, and then there is ignorance.

After that, I traded my policy of prohibition for one of education.

Instead of banning the films, shows or toys I thought mis- or under-represented girls, for example, we engaged them. We called the Playskool farmer “she,” toured the girl aisle at the toy store asking, “Why is everything pink?” and imagined a gender-neutral hundred acre wood because, as my daughter said, making those stuffed creatures into girls and boys “just ruined it.”

Later, when my kids obsessed over The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, I recoiled at its representation of the quintessential dumb girl in the character of London Tipton. Still, I resisted another Disney blackout. Instead, we watched and asked, “Why do people find her funny? Is she realistic? Do we see a pattern of OMG-all-I-want-to-do-is-shop female dimwits on television? Do we see a similar pattern among male characters?”

I hoped that all of this question asking would help my kids see media images as changeable creations rather than as fixed realities. We don’t have to consume passively. We can look back, talk back, reinvent, turn off.

Yes. I was patting myself on the back for a job well-done.

Then it happened. While I was out weeding my garden, or perhaps writing a know-it-all post about raising feminist girls and boys, my previously TV-apathetic 11-year-old daughter became addicted to “reality” TV. Seemingly overnight, she compiled a must-see lineup that included Toddlers in Tiaras, Say Yes to the Dress, Dance Moms, and Bridezillas.

Where had I gone wrong? Where was her critical eye?

These shows often portray women as superficial monsters obsessed with beauty, fashion and status. Their words and actions suggest they value childhood accolades over childhood itself, bridal gowns over bridesmaids, and appearances over all else. Most of them come off as shallow-minded and mean-spirited personalities who appear to make terrible mothers and childish brides.

I could not understand the appeal of such poisonous representations of women.

Until I found myself standing behind the couch holding a laundry basket full of dirty things that could have been halfway through the rinse cycle if I hadn’t stopped to see what horrible thing Abby, the famed and abusive dance instructor from Dance Moms, would say next. Ashamed, I uprooted myself and scurried off to the laundry room. Upon my return, I found my husband similarly transfixed. Before long, even my 15-year-old son fell under the spell of these female spectacles.

It turns out that consuming trashy media is like eating ice cream. Just because you know it’s bad, doesn’t mean you don’t indulge.

Why do these shows, with their intense negative energy, draw us in so completely? Do they prey on our repressed aggressions? Speak to a cultural fear of assertive women? Satisfy our narrow expectations of women as beauty- and fashion-obsessed witches who, like the evil Queen in Snow White, will stop at nothing to achieve power and status?

Or perhaps they make us feel righteous, because no matter our mistakes in life, we do not qualify for a spot on seedy reality TV.

Whatever our reasons for watching, I wanted it to stop. In a knee-jerk reaction, I imposed an outright ban, to which you can imagine my daughter had a knee-jerk reaction of her own.

After a week of enduring her tween-aged wrath, I came to my senses. Sure, I could have stuck to my guns because, well, I’m the mom. But I also had these other strategies: look back, talk back, reinvent, turn off.

So when we watched, we also looked back, asking ourselves how editing and production might skew the final product. How real is a reality show? Do the characters behave outrageously because they know such antics will stop us in our tracks on our way to the laundry room?

We talked back. We noted the absence of shows featuring maniacal soccer and football dads. Surely they could find a few of those marching up and down the sidelines shouting obscenities at their elementary-aged sons with spittle dripping from their chins.

We reinvented. We imagined a beautiful wedding without a fancy dress, a happy marriage without a fancy wedding, and a fulfilling life without a marriage at all. We appreciated the fresh-faced toddlers and kind-hearted soccer moms we knew, letting the “reality” we saw on TV stand out as ridiculous when set against the context of our more ordinary lives.

And finally, we turned off. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but with the coldness of a turkey right out of the freezer, my daughter abruptly quit her habit.

Perhaps I just talked it to death?

While I’m so glad it’s over, I can’t say I’m sorry it happened. The experience reminded me to trust my kids, even as the media messages they encounter grow increasingly unsavory.

This matters now more than ever because, as the mother of two teens, I can see the day looming when, dictator or not, I won’t be there to look over their shoulders anymore.

If you’re interested in discussing women and girls in the media with your sons and daughters, here are a few conversation starters:

Dove Self-Esteem Fund video

See Jane video from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media.

Miss Representation. Check the website for an age-appropriate screening of the film, or rent the complete version through Netflix.

Guest contributor Deb Werrlein writes the blog small house, big picture.

Image via iStockphoto/Quan Long

  • Julie

    I think I understand why we (or okay just ME) watch those shows. If I am right, I can see the appeal to a tween and teen girl. It’s observing behavior we see every day in some way, but we get to be the invisible observer. It gives a chance, from the outside, to process social dynamics. Those can be especially confusing to teens and introverts (lol). As young children, our kids acted out life with dolls and toys. As older children/teens, this reality TV is a chance to act it out mentally and maybe figure it out. But, it’s a lot of bad behavior examples. And while that is a huge part of its appeal and why it works for us, it also requires careful talking, like you said, to ensure the kids (and us) don’t draw the wrong conclusions (girls are all catty, for example).

    I do the same thing as you and I am swiping your brilliant line of “there is innocence and then there is ignorance.” I know my kids will find this stuff. I’d rather have some boundaries but get to it at home where we can be critical thinkers about it.

    Great article.

    • deb

      Hi Julie,
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think you are right that part of the appeal is to observe how this kind of behavior plays out without having to engage. On that level, it is fascinating. I like your phrase “careful talking.” Most of parenting takes that, doesn’t it!

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