On Middle Age, Intentional Parenting and Media Criticism

Living room with teal couch and large flat screen that says "built for America."
This is our living room. I don’t want to post photos of my kids without their consent and they’re under the age of consent, so… “Built for America” was a total accident, but sort of perfect so I am please with it.

Recently, I have reached the point in my life where I am past the age of experts, which is to say that I am actually in the cohort of “real” adults who are driving the status quo and the locus of common sense that everyone else is relying upon to construct their reality. What this really means is that when I am not sure what the best choice is to make in any given situation, there isn’t some other [older, wiser] adult that I can turn to and ask them. When I was younger it was easier to appeal to older people because they were the age I am now and they had more of a handle on the terms of reality than I did. But in this current moment, they are outside of the stream and I am in the center of it.

Here is an example of what I am talking about. Because it is October, our family has been going through Halloween-themed media blitz. I’m solidly in my late 30s, so Halloween for me means films like Hocus Pocus, The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horrors,” and also Halloween episodes from television shows like Home Improvement and Roseanne [despite everything you may read on my blog please understand that I LOVE television and I will never apologize for love]. The last of these two shows are windows into the popular consciousness of the 1990s, which is to say, these are television shows that showed viewers what we were all considering our collective zeitgeist. 

My kids are 11 and 8, and averse to real horror, so Halloween media that is about families and hijinks that are all resolved in 23 minutes are exactly their developmental stage right now. They think that episodes where Dan and Roseanne Connor take turns trying to pull off the ultimate prank – but no one is actually hurt – are the height of a great time. As an adult, looking back through the lens of cultural “progress” I see these episodes differently, and since I have a wider aperture than just the late 2010s/early 2020s – arguably the only time that my kids have ever lived [because they only have a sense of collective consciousness that goes back 3-5 years] – I have a series of filters to apply that they do not. I am literally their context for the last 30 years. A lot has happened.

My kids, for instance, don’t live in a world where a Dan Connor dad-figure would find his masculinity threatened because the DJ Connor son-figure [who’s like 6] wants to be a witch for Halloween and  “everyone knows” witches are girls and boys can’t be girls. They not only know several children with nonbinary gender orientations, they also live in a world where when little children want to experiment with costumes that correspond to the “opposite” gender their Millennial and Gen Xer parents tell their Baby Boomer grandparents not to draw attention to it [because it doesn’t “mean” anything].

My children need their mother to explain to them why Dan Connor is bent out of shape about it. I have to say, “in the early 1990s and earlier most people had a very ridge sense of gender and any violations of it meant that someone was ‘gay’ and ‘gay’ was pretty much always bad.” This is actual history to my children. Dan’s male friends in this episode tell him to calm down about DJ’s costume because they know it doesn’t mean anything, but the audience still understands why Dan is anxious about it because that audience was more uncomfortable with boys wearing girl costumes than they were comfortable with it. This was TV telling people to be comfortable.

Then, four or so seasons later, my kids need their mother to explain to them why Dan and his new brother-in-law can suddenly be so comfortable with their masculinity [because shifts in popular consciousness about gender and sexuality] that the prank they contrive to trick Roseanne with involves both of them pretending to be gay not to mock gayness but because it is now something that can be normal enough to funny ha-ha instead of funny for punching down at a marginalized group. There are copious, fabulous drag queens at the Halloween party and they are just normal people. The episode culminates with both brothers-in-law being discovered en flagrante dilecto [at least for prime time]. 

I know that when this episode aired more than half of viewers probably cringed internally being shown two men in bed kissing, but that they also knew they had to laugh or they wouldn’t be in on the joke. There are two proudly out, gay characters in the episode. They call straight people “breeders.” Homosexuality isn’t something to be mocked anymore, don’t be a homophobe, lighten up and take a joke, ya breeders. We want to be in on the joke.

I don’t know how well these episodes really hold up for a modern audience. There are some still not great parts and I think it really is trying too hard to be ok with gay culture, but it is an interesting windows into the recent past. There are these stock phrases that I employ sometimes like, “when I was a kid you not only could not be out as gay in middle school, most people thought it was deviant and dangerous.” Obviously, some people still think it is deviant and dangerous – and my kids get to watch this play out in real time about trans people – but the majority of people don’t really think this anymore. Gay people are – in a  cultural sense – just people [even if the courts are not totally there].

[For the record I also say things like, “notice how this particular kid is overweight and no one thinks it is terrible to tease them about it. Even the adults agree that fat people are bad” or “notice how Lisa Simpson is almost always right, but it’s completely OK for everyone – including her parents – to disparage her intellect.” I’m sure this will land my kids in therapy, but in the good way].

I could have gotten this context from my parents about television programming made in the 60s and 70s [I didn’t, but I could have]. They had lived through these times and could have served as translators of sorts for the world I was born into but was about to be involved in the slow changes thereof. There were definitely some shows I watched on Nick at Night that made me think, “wow, everyone my parents age is racist and misogynist AF” [this is barely a lie if you watch what could be on TV in the 60s and 70s and it really puts some “gaffs” of the 1990s and early 2000s TV into perspective]. My parents were clear about cultural progress in terms of history, but they never walked me through the popular media of their times that encapsulated the story their generation was learning/being told about reality. My kids are probably ready to major in media studies…

This imparting of context doesn’t go backwards as well. I remember being on the cusp of adulthood and watching Super Bowl halftime shows with my parents and them being fairly disgusted with the displays of youth culture considered mainstream [they have probably never seen a music video and this was before Nipple Gate…]. I remember my mother – who was a teenager during the Summer of Love – and my father – who was actually at Woodstock – tell 19-year-old me that “those Sex and the City girls talk about sex too much” when they realized I watched this show. I feel like their reactions were more about how their ability to empathize with these narratives was impaired because they were not stories about them. They were about 10-20 years older than I am now, and already they were sensing the shift of their own relevance. This is going to happen to me too [sometimes it already does like whenever my kids tell me about celebrity YouTubers].

Now, the time of my parents being in the cohort who shapes reality is largely passed. I mean, don’t tell them that, because they [and their generations’] are still holding on to all three branches of government with all the narcissism that their young selves would have derided their parents for so doing during the Civil Rights Era and Vietnam War, but I digress. There is a strong tendency for older folks to use their comfort with a world that barely exists anymore to tell people living in the now that we don’t know what we are talking about. 

If you try to explain to the average 65 year old why the average 16 year old is existentially terrified about climate change and that they [the 65 year old] should therefore consider changing their behavior, they are nowhere near as receptive to the lived experience of the 16 year old as we would expect the 16 year old to be about gender and sexuality mores of the 65 year old. Grandpa gets to be a little “old people” bigoted, but grandkid needs to understand about the “real world.” What that 16 year old thinks is vastly more important than what that 65 year old thinks and not just because the 16 year old has possibly 60 more years to live in this world and the 65 year has maybe 15, but because the 16 year old represents the prevailing tide of collective momentum and the 65 year old is running an older version of our human operating system.

This isn’t an argument for putting folks over a certain age on ice flows and sending them out to sea [I am certain this is a vaguely racist and ageist sentence and I imagine that a 20 year old could correct it for me, please help me, 20 year old], it is an argument for gracefully bearing the responsibility of carrying the torch for humanity forward in time. I don’t think people over a certain age are sub-human and ready to be put out to pasture. In fact, because of my associations with my religious community I have many friends over that certain age and I find myself continually grateful for their wisdom and insight. I do think many folks fitting into the Baby Boomer [and older] generation(s) are more concerned with their legacies on earth than they are about the world that younger people actually want to live in.

This makes me wonder what I, as a person mid-way between the young and the elderly – a middle-aged person – who is on the cusp of being able to drive popular consensus and policy, can do to reconcile these failures of shared reality. The first Millennials are turning 40 next year, ya’ll. Linear time truly astounds.

I understand that to a certain extent this is normal generational stuff that probably everyone either has already or will eventually have to deal with, but also: it’s the first time I have ever been in this place in my life. The reality of getting to be middle-aged is that television told me I was going to be the one with all the power at some point, but it didn’t tell me what to do with it. Most of the parents on television were sort of hapless, or sticks in the mud, or oblivious, and though I know that basing one’s life trajectory on popular media is probably the wrong way to go, it still begs the question of what to do with all the power and privilege of my middle age.

It’s worth noting that when I tell older folks about this basic, low-level anxiety, they always say something like “you’ll figure it out, we didn’t know what we were doing and we were fine.” But like, were you? I’m a really intentional person – I seek out media to show my children so that I can nonchalantly say things like, “look at what a great friend they are to this character, supporting their experience” or “notice how this parent is making their kid doubt their own experience? Kids deserve parents who listen to them.” – so I want to be able to be intentional about this time in my life as well. I wish my own parents had shoved more of their wisdom into my pre-adolescent years before I stopped listening to everything they said, because the things they did say in that time still play in my head like an instruction manual for how to be alive.

I wanted to be a parent because, as a 21 year old who was poorly differentiating from her own parents, I realized that the value of parenting and long childhood was being able to support your children in being the selves that they wanted to be instead of the self you wanted to have been or want for them to be. This is my constant check, and I think I do well [as in I am an objectively good parent], but I don’t have a crystal ball [and I know I am not all powerful] so I worry sometimes that I am not doing it right/enough for the world my kids are inheriting. I don’t think that because there is no manual for this sort of thing that it makes it ok to half-ass it or to ass-it [this is a word now] in completely the wrong direction.

The feeling of not knowing how to do something properly is a dreadful feeling to endure long term, so I get why people do not think about this stuff. This is just how I am built, so I’m going to keep trying to own my own ignorance as I walk through this thing and I REALLY think outcomes would improve for everyone if more people did so as well.

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