Monday, December 6, 2010
What Television Teaches Children
The other evening, Neal Cavuto of Fox News closed out his hour with a discussion of his view that television commercials make men look stupid in order to sell products. I agree. The only ones that don’t look like idiots are trying to sell you gold, but even Geico features a very smart little Gekko with a fairly dim older gentleman as his foil.
I often give thanks that I grew up at a time before movies were overtaken by TV as the medium that taught little boys how to be big boys. Our icon was John Wayne and he never disappointed us, even when in his last film, “The Shootist”, he died in a gunfight after dispatching the bad guy.
His advice to a young boy in that film was as close to defining manhood as one can get. His character, John Bernard Brooks, said, “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a-hand on. I don’t do these things to other people and I require the same from them.”
John Wayne and many other leading men of his era unabashedly displayed the qualities little boys wanted to acquire. The “Western” was quintessentially a story about America and, as in the case of “High Noon”, they were about the necessity for courage when it is not to be found in others around you.
The Talmud of the ancient Jewish sages taught, “Where there are no men, strive to be a man.”
I was there at the beginning of television as a mass means of entertainment. It began by borrowing heavily from shows that had been popular on radio and just as Cavuto noted for commercials, those shows frequently portrayed men as foolish or childish. There were radio shows like The Life of Riley, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Jack Benny. Not all were about men. George Burns and Gracie Allen featured a ditsy wife. Thank heavens for I Love Lucy and later The Golden Girls.
As TV sitcoms developed, however, it was usually the man that needed a lot of help. Hilarious, but setting the pace was The Dick Van Dyke Show. Happily, it was followed by the Mary Tyler Moore Show, but that funny gal was surrounded by men of dubious intelligence, not the least of whom was the marvelously funny, egomaniac anchorman, Ted Baxter. “Cheers” featured an entire cast of hopelessly inept men.
Indeed, whether it was men or women, the message of television, then and now, the secret that was kept from children of an earlier era was that grownups, adults, too frequently act like children!
Don't get me wrong. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves. It is a saving grace.
The vast difference between children of the television era and earlier was that earlier times demanded much more of children. Even today, the children of farmers learn the value of chores and skills that their contemporaries must wait into their late teens to acquire. All the way through college years, and beyond, young people too often learn little of the attitudes necessary to function as an adult.
Mark Twain said, "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." Television, I fear, teaches children from an early age that all parents are essentially fools, no more to be respected than one’s peers.
On December 7, 1941, a lot of very young men and women became adults overnight following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the United States into World War Two. We call them “the greatest generation” because they put aside childish ways and assumed the defense of the nation, of freedom.
America is fortunate to have courageous young men and women today. I only wish there were more of them.
© Alan Caruba, 2010