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Shows the Famiily Can Watch

[Religion News Service, September 3, 1996] 

 A recent television awards ceremony sought to honor so‑called "family" shows; advertising for the program proclaimed that it would celebrate "shows the whole family can watch together." The tone was both defensive and opportunistic.

The show’s producers read their demographics correctly: There are a lot of parents out there who are just plain peeved. It’s not that we want pablum, but we want shows that we can watch together, ones that aren’t booby‑trapped with sexual references that explode in little clouds of embarrassment.

In my own family, we’ve seen show after show go bad on us. At one time, gathering around the television for a visit with "Ellen" was a high point of the week. Then a new season began with a show that focused a little too leeringly on the sexual habits of the leading lady’s parents and Ellen’s own embarrassment with the subject. The Mathewes‑Greens ‑‑ mom, dad, and three teens ‑‑ spent an awkward half hour as the show plowed on, feeling steadily more uncomfortable. We haven’t watched "Ellen" together since.

Note: We haven’t watched it together; some of us watch it occasionally on our own. It’s still a funny show. But just as Ellen was embarrassed when confronted with her parents’ sexuality, my teens don’t want to sit on the sofa next to me and hear extended sexual joking. That feeling is mutual. I don’t believe "Ellen" will corrupt them, and I certainly won’t forbid them to watch it. But we’ve lost the fun of watching it together, and it’s a loss I regret.

Another interesting point is that this intolerable awkwardness was present only because my kids are teens. This turns upside down one of our assumptions about age‑appropriate fare: the rule that there should be no sexual references in material for young children, but that the content may increase gradually as the child grows older.

Yet all parents know that there is a period in kids’ lives when humorous sexual fare is innocuous. (I’m considering comedy here, not "Body Heat.") A decade ago, I could rent R‑rated comedies with little to fear. Double‑entendres soared over their heads. What they understood of sex and their bodies was straightforward and unashamed; the primary association with breasts was still breakfast. Things didn’t get uncomfortable until puberty loomed onto the scene.

An earlier age understood this. "One of the unwritten laws of contemporary morality … requires adults to avoid any reference, above all humorous reference, to sexual matters in the presence of children. This notion was entirely foreign to society of old," the French historian Philippe Aries writes in "Centuries of Childhood" (Vintage Books).

Aries supplies entries from the 17th‑century diary of Heroard, court physician to King Henri IV of France. As Heroard reveals, Henri’s son Louis XIII was the object of sexual banter from the cradle. While a toddler he was engaged to the Infanta of Spain and given some understanding of what this meant. His attendants taught him an entertaining game: When asked, "Where is the Infanta’s darling?" the little boy would reach under his robe and be rewarded with gales of laughter.

Little Louis was encouraged to expose himself to visitors (to a "little lady … with such fervor that he was quite beside himself"), and his impudent questions, remarks, and actions delighted the whole court. Until he grew a little older.

"After 1608 this kind of joke disappeared: He had become a little man … and had to be taught decency in language and behavior," Aries writes. Louis’ case was typical; for children of the age, "gestures and physical contact were freely and publicly allowed which were forbidden as soon as the child reached the age of puberty. … The child under the age of puberty was believed to be unaware of, or indifferent to, sex."

Oddly enough, this had nothing to do with the "innocence" of childhood ‑‑ this concept, which evolved later, presumes that childhood is a fragile state, easily defiled. It implies, in turn, that children are capable of sexual response, and must be protected from exposure to temptation. Seventeenth‑century parents thought such response impossible, but not because they thought children were innocent. They had no such illusions. Children, they knew, could enjoy physical humor as much as anyone (those who insist on the natural modesty of children have apparently never overheard the bathroom jokes on a kindergarten playground). But before puberty, they believed, fun could be safely allowed that would be inappropriate later on.

As a parent of teens, I sympathize. Many shows and videos we could once have watched as a family now provoke too much awkwardness. I miss the good old days. There are many voices calling for innuendo‑free programming for "innocent" young children, but I’m looking for something a little more mature than Saturday‑morning cartoons.

Won’t someone make a show I can watch with my teens?

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