Finding Myself in 90s Kids’ TV

February 26, 2010 at 10:28 am (Reflection) (, )

(Crossposted to Murmur.)

Recently, I wrote about my experiences with teen television, and how I’ve never been quite able to identify with TV adolescents, due to a general lack of diversity that doesn’t reflect my own high school memories. I still stand by that statement, but at the same time I know there have been teenage characters I’ve related to on television — particularly teens on shows made for younger children who I found myself trying to emulate when I was in elementary or middle school. So when frequent contributor Dave Carr asked me to share some of my experiences with early 90s children’s television, I was happy to take him up on the offer and talk about two of those aspirational characters — Clarissa Darling of Clarissa Explains it All and Doug Funnie of Doug.

Clarissa Explains it All, which premiered in 1991, wasn’t about much of anything, really. Unlike the high-concept shows that seem to populate tween TV today (Hannah Montana is secretly a regular high school student! Zack and Cody live in a hotel!), the shows of my childhood were largely about regular kids who were only remarkable in that they had a TV show about them. There was a comfort to that, a feeling that you could BE those characters, without too much effort. Clarissa Darling, in particular, was the kind of person I wanted to be. On the surface, we had a lot in common: two parents who loved each other and their children, even if they didn’t always understand them; an exceptionally annoying younger brother; a friend who was a boy, but with whom she didn’t have any sort of romantic attachment. She wanted to be a journalist (and would have become one, had a planned spinoff/final season actually happened), and she was always a little weirder than average. I related more than a little.

However, she was also ridiculously cool. She wore the sort of insane outfits that didn’t even make total sense in the early 90s when the show was created, including those floppy denim hats with the big flowers on the front (yes, I had one). She had a pet baby alligator and hubcaps on her wall and she was unapologetic in her weirdness. Every episode she talked directly to the audience (the main gimmick of the show) and enumerated her problems, always coming up with the most creative solutions to solve them. (Half the time, the problem was her Alex P. Keaton-esque younger brother, Ferguson, and I refuse to confirm or deny whether or not I ever used one of her “solutions” to defend myself against my own annoying sibling.) And she frequently designed computer simulations to illustrate her problems, something I yearned to do myself. (It would be a few years before I even got a computer of my own, and that was an already-ancient-at-the-time Commodore 64 with DOS.)

But perhaps the best part about Clarissa is that the show never left the confines of the Darling house. We knew, from Clarissa’s narration and interaction with the other characters, that a world existed beyond her front door. She went to school, she went on vacations, she went shopping. But we never saw her do any of those things. We only saw her house, her family, and her best friend, Sam, who entered her house by climbing a ladder and crawling through her window (complete with window seat — how I coveted that!). If the show had a guest star, it was because someone (another friend of Clarissa’s, a relative, etc.) was visiting. And perhaps because we never saw the outside world, it was easy for me to imagine that her world was my world, that her school was my school and her other friends were my other friends. Clarissa represented an ideal that young girls could actually aspire to, filling in the blanks with their own lives and histories, and the show, which began the year I started Kindergarten, still means a lot to me to this day. Sometimes I even wonder where the characters would have ended up as adults. How quickly would Ferguson’s political career with the Republican Party have gone up in flames when his lefty journalist sister blew open a political scandal? I’d love to see the 15-years-later for those characters.

Doug, a cartoon about an everykid and his adventures in a new town, Bluffington, premiered the same year as Clarissa, and was one of the first three NickToons on Nickelodeon. (The other two being Rugrats and Ren and Stimpy.) Before the show moved to ABC (and fell drastically in quality), Doug was a staple of my Nickelodeon viewing, and I couldn’t help forming a resonant attachment with its shy, awkward hero. Sure, Doug was a boy, but otherwise he was a lot like me — stuck in his ways (he wore the same clothes every day), slightly gullible, nervous in social situations, and a thoughtful dreamer who recorded everything that happened in his diary. He had an anthropomorphic dog named Porkchop, a wacky best friend named Skeeter, a frenemy named Roger, and an idolized love interest named Patti Mayonnaise, in addition to his parents and drama nerd older sister, Judy. Unlike Clarissa, which succeeded largely because of its focused domestic setting, the best part of Doug was its placement in a very real-seeming school. I identified with Doug’s anxieties about homework assignments and evil vice principals and looking foolish in front of his crush, and with the idea of having friends who would just as soon torture you as support you. (3rd through 5th grade were tough.) And sometimes I even envisioned myself as a superhero, as Doug did — he secretly drew comics in his bedroom about the adventures of Quailman, a version of Doug with a cape, a belt around his head, and underwear over his pants. (Perhaps my eventual descent into comic book obsession was inevitable.)

Also interesting, though perhaps more thorny, was the fact that other than Doug himself, who was Caucasian, all of the characters on Doug had skin and hair of colors not found in nature and heavily exaggerated/cartoony/impossible hair and features. This meant, essentially, that race was hard to pinpoint in the Doug universe, and while this sort of post-racial world/elimination of race concerns can be problematic in itself, it was easier for me to see my non-white friends in Doug’s universe than it was in similar shows of my childhood with explicitly all-white casts. For a show about a white, male, middle class protagonist, Doug was at least a tiny bit more progressive than most.

I could go on about other shows I related to, the shows that helped to define my childhood. I could go on for pages about Boy Meets World, possibly my all-time favorite show, and the ways in which I’m essentially the lovechild of Cory and Topanga. But I think I’ve revealed enough about myself for one day, and I want to encourage others to talk about the shows that defined their childhood — particularly the shows in which they saw reflections of themselves. What do you remember?


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Olympics in the Twitter Age

February 18, 2010 at 9:42 pm (Analysis) (, )

I’m watching the Olympics.

I’m aware that this does not make me unique. Half the world is currently watching the Olympics to one extent or another. But this is the first time in my life that I’ve ever watched a single Olympic event all the way through, much less glued myself to the TV to watch as many events as I possibly can. It’s really unusual for me, and I’m still trying to figure out how this happened.

Sports have never been my thing. I can objectively admire athletes’ talent and dedication, and while I’ve never been a real athlete myself, I can understand the appeal of playing sports – the rush of adrenaline, the fun of competition. I played floor hockey in middle school and had a great time, terrible as I was at it.

But watching sports, I’ve never really understood. Part of it is my need for a verbal narrative in my entertainment. I get as little enjoyment from dance, foreign language opera, and cooking shows as I do sports. I need a script, words I can understand and follow, driving the narrative, and sports commentators aren’t enough when the action is so visual/physical and essentially wordless.

My other problem is that I’m a delicate flower with a bleeding heart and I can’t stand watching people lose. It’s hard for me to take pride and joy in someone’s victory when I know it means loss and failure for someone else. Add that to all the injuries and falls that inevitably happen in most sports, and I spend most of my sports-watching time cringing.

But I’m watching the Olympics.

Part of the reason, I’m sure, is the point in my life I’m at. I’m living with my parents, working a job I don’t have to think about when it’s over each day, preparing for grad school in the fall. I have access to cable TV and no after-work obligations, and since my parents enjoy the Olympics they’re likely to be filling the living room anyway. That’s how I wound up watching the Opening Ceremonies – I came home, and they were on, and I settled in on the couch to enjoy my parents’ company and watch Wolverine play the fiddle in a canoe on the moon.

But the word “company” is key there. Because, however much I’m enjoying watching the Olympics, I wouldn’t enjoy it nearly as much if my parents weren’t watching. Or if my friends weren’t watching. Or if dozens of the people I follow on twitter who live all across the world (from Canada to Australia) weren’t watching. Olympic fever has swept up everyone I know, and in the face of that enthusiasm and chatter, it was pretty much inevitable that I’d wind up watching too.

And I like it. I like that this is an event, a common thread between almost everyone I know, from close friends to distant acquaintances. As I’m writing this post, my father has just interrupted me to tell me how he spent half of a meeting at work today talking about yesterday’s curling competitions with his coworkers. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about. None of these people actually cared about curling (the most mockable Olympic sport), but the momentousness of the Olympics compelled them to watch, and this gave them all new common ground the next day.

They say the Olympics are meant to bring the world together, and I’m not sure if that actually happens. Certainly there’s plenty of political controversy involved that may, ultimately, outweigh the good the games bring. But I do know that the Olympics have succeeded in bringing common ground to some very uncommon people, helping me to get to know acquaintances better and making me feel like part of a huge, ongoing, international dialogue. It’s a really nice feeling.

I’m still not sure I actually care about any Olympic events. Not even figure skating holds my interest intrinsically. But I do care about the community feeling the games have spawned, in the age of Twitter, and I don’t for a moment regret the time I’m spending on my couch right now, watching women’s snowboarding.

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Thoughts on Avatar from a Future Media Studies Scholar

February 1, 2010 at 3:57 pm (Review) (, , , )

As those of you who read my twitter already know, last week I got a phone call accepting me to the media and cultural studies PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is, well, pretty damn exciting, and I’ve been a little bouncy about it ever since. I haven’t heard from my other potential schools yet, so I haven’t made any final decisions, but the program at Madison looks nothing short of amazing and perfectly in line with my interests – that is, academically analyzing comics, children’s media, and the representation of race, gender, and sexuality in film and TV.

So this weekend, with those future plans in mind, I decided to finally bite the bullet and go to see James Cameron’s Avatar. Epic sci-fi doesn’t tend to be my thing at the best of times, and I’d heard enough about the racial implications of the story, and the general poor quality of the script, that I didn’t think Avatar was something I particularly needed to see. But, I figured, if I’m going to be a media studies scholar, it would be silly not to see the newly-minted highest-grossing film of all time. And so I went.

I’ll say this up front: the movie exceeded my expectations. Granted, my expectations were exceptionally low. But I was impressed with a lot of features of the movie: the realism of the CGI, the effectiveness of the 3D, the beauty of the set pieces. The artistic design was simply gorgeous, and though my knowledge of the technical processes of filmmaking is close to nonexistent, I can see why some are heralding this film as a giant step forward in technological innovation. I hope the technology developed and perfected for Avatar will be used effectively in many future (and, hopefully, better) films.

The length didn’t bother me, either; I didn’t find myself looking at my watch. The movie was well-paced and visually engaging even when the script left me cold. And I was generally impressed, with some caveats, with the representation of women in the film, one of Cameron’s acknowledged strengths. But the racial problems were, ultimately, too massive to ignore.

I’ll cut here, for the sake of the 2.5 people in the world who plan to see this movie but have yet to do so.

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