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 Murmur.com 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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Driving Past Billy’s House

January 7, 2009 at 9:00 am (Introduction, real life) ()

As a naturally anecdotal person, I’m going to start this blog with a story.

When I was in Kindergarten, I rode the bus to school. I actually lived fairly close to all the schools in my town, and by 7th grade I was no longer given the courtesy of a bus; instead, my mom was forced to drive me to and from school each day to prevent me from having to walk through a tangled forest or along busy, sidewalk-bare streets, the only two options for walkers. But back in Kindergarten, I still had a bus, and it was on that big, yellow, diesel-fueled monstrosity that I traveled to school each day.

Of course, we didn’t drive straight to school. There were several other bus stops to hit after mine, all around this little corner of my suburban New Jersey town. To my 5-year-old mind, the trip seemed to take forever–certainly far longer than my ears could stand the incessant repetitions of “Ice, Ice, Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This,” the contents of the only two cassettes the fourth graders brought each morning for the bus driver to play. But eventually, we’d hit the last stop on the route, way out at the edge of town: the front lawn of a boy named Billy, who once ripped my homework in half and consequently earned my hatred in perpetuity. After Billy’s house, the bus would do a k-turn in the dirt-packed parking lot of the sprawling industrial wasteland across the street, and we’d be off, full speed ahead, to my elementary school.

I have, rather notoriously, no sense of direction. My mind contains no functional mental map, and while I can follow some directions from memory after traveling them many times, I have no concept of how those discrete trips might provide me with the raw material for traveling to other, exotic destinations. (The GPS my parents finally gave me this Christmas is, perhaps, the best gift I’ve ever received.) Unsurprisingly, my sense of direction was no better when I was 5 years old, and not even driving anywhere on my own power. So it didn’t even occur to me, until years later, that Billy’s house, which had seemed so far away in those early bus years, was actually about five minutes away from my own house.

This fall, I spent a whole semester teaching 6th grade English at a middle school in a nearby town. Each day, I woke up at 5:30 (or, more frequently than I like to remember, 4:30, to finish work I couldn’t finish the night before), and I was out of my house by ten to seven. As the sun began to peek out from beneath the horizon, I drove down the street toward work, and the first significant landmark I passed–the first thing I noticed, as I focused my bleary eyes on the road ahead–was Billy’s house. And every day, as I would approach that house, some part of me, the five-year-old buried inside, would feel strange. Would feel like I shouldn’t be doing this; like I should, instead, be making a k-turn in that dusty parking lot and heading back in the opposite direction. Billy’s house was a boundary, the thin, soapy wall of the bubble of my childhood, and to drive to my first real adult job, I had to pop that bubble every single day.

In many ways, my whole life has been about metaphorically “driving past Billy’s house.” My natural resistance to change has meant that there are very few new things in my life that I’ve been immediately comfortable with. I was a na├»ve goody two-shoes who never disobeyed my parents until my friends in sixth grade, disregarding my reluctance, taught me how to curse. I was convinced, until age 10, that the only music that existed was country, oldies, and classic rock, because my parents’ music was all I’d ever heard, and when the local country station went off the air I was ready to stage a protest. (Nowadays, I mostly listen to pop, showtunes, and singer-songwriter-type stuff, but Garth Brooks and Bruce Springsteen make up quite a bit of my iTunes library.) I have hated every single interest I’ve ever had–from the Animorphs books I read as a kid to the Hanson music I still proudly enjoy to the comics that currently consume my life–before I became interested in them. Every step I’ve taken in my life has been a case of reevaluating my opinions and expectations, of pushing past the rigid boundaries I always thought I had and realizing that they were little more than soap bubbles after all. Every moment of my life, every new experience, has been about pushing farther, about discovering new worlds, and new parts of myself, that I never imagined. Every day of my life has been about driving past Billy’s house.

And now, I find myself at a crossroads. As a young adult about to enter the workforce in earnest (in a terrible economy, no less), I’m about to make a series of decisions that will each involve the breaking of a new boundary, the trying of something new. I will be frequently “trampling through the brush,” as the title of this blog says–a quote from a statement I invented for myself back in high school: “When two roads diverge in a wood, I often find it’s best to stray from both and instead trample through the brush.” I would be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified of the prospect. But I recognize this new world of opportunities for what it is, and I’m willing–cautiously–to meet it head on.

2009 has just begun, and the new year is always a time for renewal and fresh starts. And so I’ve started this blog. It doesn’t have a central purpose–not like Fantastic Fangirls, the comics blog I run with three of my good friends. This blog is likely to be meandering, with topics ranging from my current life to past reminiscences to commentary on books, music, movies, politics, Broadway, or anything else that comes to mind. I won’t be surprised, or offended, if no one at all reads this. But as I begin my journey into the so-called “real world,” driving past Billy’s house after Billy’s house after Billy’s house, I think it’s worth recording my thoughts, as I have them, to create a document of who I am, and who I’m about to become.

I hope some of you will join me on the journey. Even if, in the end, it only turns out to be 5 minutes long.

Jennifer Smith
throughthebrush@gmail.com

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