The Magazine


Jan 8, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 16 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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This is not to say that children learn nothing from television. Indeed, they learn quite a lot of things not traditionally thought of as priority items in the catalogue of "educational and informational needs." But they should not be dismissed, because, like it or not, they are part of the cultural glue that binds America together. Television teaches a language -- and it is a language that, from the time of radio onward, every American child has learned to speak. What a universal entertainment medium can teach is a certain sophistication, a sense of irony, and an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture -- and no legislation is needed to generate it.

Right now, the best example of this is a cartoon show called Animaniacs, a Steven Spielberg production that is the second most popular children's series on television, next to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. It brings to life the supposed Warner brothers, Wakko and Yakko, and a Warner sister called Dot, who have supposedly been shut up in the Warner Bros. studio water tower for misbehav-/ ior. They sing and dance and perform little sketches-like singing the ingredients listed on a carton of ice cream or enacting the gravedigger scene from Hamlet in the original (Wakko and Yakko play Hamlet and the sexton). Dot provides a slang translation from the lower left-hand corner of the screen.

At the end of the show, the three of them trundle out "The Wheel of Morality" from which they obtain "Today's Lesson." This might go something like this: " The answer is blowing in the wind -- except in New Jersey, where what's blowing in the wind smells funny." It might seem troublesome that "morality" is being made fun of. But what's being parodied here is not true morality, but rather the "educational messages" that appear at the end of other shows for children -- messages that are tacked on to make broadcasters feel as though they are adding a little "education" to shows that are otherwise half-hour toy advertisements.

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which is intended for much smaller children than Animaniacs, features highly moralistic plot lines and clearly identified g ood and evil characters, topped off by some explicit preaching at the end, main ly about the environment. This kind of cant always causes a backlash; my own ch ildren take it as a mark of their maturity that they can make fun of it. That i s what Animaniacs plays upon -- the ways in which popu lar culture plays upon itself and helps children to develop a sense of irony that happily alerts them to crude attempts at indoctrination or to the hypocrisies of their elders. One of the cartoons on Animaniacs features a baby girl called Mindy who, like Sweetpea in the old "Popeye" cartoons, is always wandering off and innocently placing herself in situations of the utmost peril -- from which she always contrives to escape with a fool's luck. Back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl were all frantically in pursuit of poor Sweetpea, fearful in their quaint adult way of what might happen to him as he wandered on skyscraper girders or along canyon ledges. Mindy, by contrast, is shadowed only by her dog, Buttons, who tries to keep her out of various disasters in her path and inevitably succumbs to them himself. Her parents are not only absent; they are usually off at a "better parenting conference" or a lecture on the endangered rain forest.

Even more remarkable are the examples of self-irony. On yet another segment of Animaniacs, Katie Kaboom, a pretty cheerleader type of high-school age, is immensely pleased with herself for landing as her "steady" the very popular CB. Her parents, however, are faced with the melancholy duty of pointing out to her that the guy is unsuitable. In spite of a clearly strong academic and athletic record, and the consensus that he is a real campus leader, he is not the guy for Katie because he is, well, a chicken. Katie, whose claim to cartoonish distinction is, as her name suggests, her explosive (and essentially infantile) temper, becomes furious with her parents. "You never like my friends!" she screeches at them, as she swells up and turns red. Then, as everyone runs for cover, she literally explodes.

Later, she also lets CB have it: "Why didn't you tell me?" Though she has demolished the family home, she turns to her mother in tears, expecting and getting her sympathy, and says: "Morn? CB and I broke up!" This startling refusal to take teenage suffering seriously-this willingness to make fun of it, in fact -- represents something of a psychic and cultural advance by the children of baby boomers, for whom the narcissism and self-dramatization typical of the early days of the youth culture are still among the cultural shibboleths of their generation.

Idon't want to oversell the wit and wisdom and sophistication of commercial programming for kids, but its techniques do help one understand the post- modern style now so common in film, theater, fiction, and all the arts and sure to become still more common. Another example is provided by the Fox Saturday morning cartoon show, The Tick, which offers what might be called " second-generation irony." First there were the superheroes; then there were the ironic superheroes; now there are the really ironic superheroes. The children of those who enjoyed the campy, ironic style of Batman back in the 1960s are now watching send-ups of the send-ups that their parents enjoyed. The Tick is one of a group of crimefighters costumed as unlikely or imaginary animals (others are Duh Fledermaus and the Sewer Urchin) who take a road trip, looking for fun, and wind up at a hotel advertising "Superheroes Welcome."

Sidekicks, alas, are not quite so welcome. And so the Tick's assistant, Arthur the Moth, is told to go round the back to the Sidekicks" Lounge, a cramped sergeants" mess where he pals up with a lugubrious caped Wonderdog. "I been kickin" all over this country for a superhero with a brain the size of a walnut," says Wonderdog, who is himself in therapy trying to transform himself from a violent to "a more centered, whole person." Aggressive remarks from others he treats as primitive manifestations: "This is just what my therapist was talking about: Violence never solves anything. Put violence in the happy box," he says -- amusingly appealing, perhaps, to a considerable population of more or less cynical little boys whose littleboy pugnacity, deemed " inappropriate" in the 1990s, has landed them in counseling.

Meanwhile, in the club for superheroes, the Tick meets an extremely campy fellow in a toga with a model of a vaguely classical ruin on his head who describes himself as "Agrippa, the Roman God of Aqueducts" and a foxy little superheroine called Jett Valkyrie. When his companion makes a suggestive remark to American Maid (dressed in a red-white-and-blue apron), she replies with an almost feminist tartness: "You've got "arrested development" written all over you, Fledermaus." In another episode, where the club of superheroes is threatened by a giant clown, American Maid gets all atwitter when Fledermaus offers his protection. "You would stay just to help me?" she asks.

"Sure," says Duh Fledermaus. "Besides, what could you do anyway? Hit it with a shoe?"

"Don't start with me!" she cries, once more on her guard. But when the gang r eturns from yet another defeat by the giant clown, American Maid is baref oot, having thrown her shoes at it after all.

Other shows, most of them on the Fox network, are equally sophisticated -- among them Tiny Toon Adventures, Eek the Cat, and even a cartoon Batman$ N -- and, like the Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1940s, they require a comprehensive knowledge of grown-up popular culture to enjoy them fully. They also help supply that knowledge. Although many of their allusions pass over the heads of younger viewers, they are flattered by being treated as more sophisticated than they are -- and will tend to grow into that sophistication by the time they are teenagers.

Now compare this with the much-beloved Sesame Street, and what you discover is that what is good about it is precisely what is also good about the commercial cartoons: It is funny and clever and teaches a sort of sophistication that would have been remarkable a generation ago but is the birthright of kids born into the age of electronic media. On Sesame Street,$ N one musical number is done as a Whitney Houston-style torch song called "How I Miss My X" and involves movie-style flashbacks to romantic scenes between the singer and a Gumby-like figure in the shape of the letter X.

Contrast the imaginative sophistication it took to write that bit with two separate lessons in the same show on the difference between "up" and "down," and another about the various positions in which people sleep. Is there anyone who could even begin to understand "How I Miss My X" who would not already know what up is, what down is, and how people sleep -- not to mention numbers, letters, and maybe a year or two of a foreign language? In any case, what could they learn from all this that they could not learn as well from those Fox cartoons? Parody is the common currency both of Sesame Street and of the commercial cartoons, and such training in postmodern irony is undoubtedly the chief educational product of both kinds of program.

It's possible they might remember, later in life, that the Tokyo String Quartet appeared to play a minuet to which Big Bird and Mr. Snuffieupagus, the latter in a powdered wig, did a galumphing dance. But the Tokyo String Quartet is not introduced in a way that differentiates it from other musical acts on $ ISesame Street. No one is there to tell four-year-old kids that they are now being exposed to high culture; that might devalue "How I Miss My X." Indeed, the fact that the minuet is the occasion for a funny sketch places it firmly in the same category as the other music and dancing. Elegance is rendered ridiculous for the sake of the children.

Yet even those conservatives who would abolish PBS without a moment's hesitation still run for cover when the alleged peril to "Big Bird" is brought up against them. In truth, the potency of the "Big Bird" argument, and the reason that the idea of "educational television" continues to have such widespread appeal is simple: parental guilt. The Children's Television Workshop, which produces Sesame Street, lives on parental guilt. The CTW is currently engaged in an aggressive marketing campaign called Project PEP ( Preschool Education Program) to sell the show to as many day care centers as possible. The company's marketers promote the show as an analgesic for More and Dad. "Parents could stop won&ring whether their children are watching TV at the child care center," says Alice Cahn, director of children's programming at PBS, "and hopefully focus instead on the truly important questions: What are my kids watching?"

Parents want desperately to believe that the "truly important" question here concerns content, not television itself. They want to be reassured that television itself is not eating away at their children's minds, and they will pay handsomely, either through tax dollars or donations, for such reassurance. The sad truth is that educational programming for children is really directed at their parents.

James Bowman is movie critic for the American Spector and media critic for the New Criterion.