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Is it Still Okay to Laugh at 80’s Shows?

Was my small-town Southern upbringing in the 1980’s an example of free-range parenting, or incidental neglect due to parental work obligations?

I like to fondly look back on that time of parents never knowing where their children were until dinnertime as a period of adolescent liberty.

My mom worked at my Aunt Lou’s travel agency, so during the school year I scattered to the winds from 2:15-6:00 pm.

In the summers it was a daily adventure where my beat-up boys’ ten-speed “Brownie” would take me to Franklin Pool for a day of swimming and exotic exploring in the town’s sewage tunnels.

Some days I would swing by my Granny’s for KFC followed by candy cigarettes and Slush Puppies at The Cupboard. My favorite flavor was The Suicide, for the two-pumps per every single flavor explosion of sugary intensity.

“Suicides,” were also a name for gym class line drills. Not a great message. There’s a lot to unpack about growing up in this time.

Some of it brings a smile and others bring shock and judgment that “that’s how it was.”

What we saw in movies and on television is no exception.

In elementary school, when that bell rang I would often walk the one block to my friend Jennifer’s Aunt’s house to wait for my mom. I couldn’t tell you her real name but everyone called her “Boob.”

At Boob’s house we splayed out with a giant plastic green bowl of hot Pop Secret and two red Kool-Aids on the carpet, an afternoon of SuperStation TBS bliss ahead of us. The line-up I recall favored such classics as Gilligan’s Island, Good Times, Silver Spoons, Happy Days, the Brady Bunch, Little House on the Prairie, Leave it to Beaver and The Munsters.

Our favorite was Laverne & Shirley, which we could role-play to no end. I remember feeling it seemed so glamorous to live with a roommate in a big city.

“Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!”

To me, the lyrics to that title sequence were very, “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar.”

I loved watching all of those shows. A couple of mom friends recently shared they were pushing Little House on the Prairie marathons on their kids so they could get some work done. I have been using screen-time as bait to get my seven-year old to complete school zooms and homework so he’s jonesin’ for anything, even pioneer melodrama.

As I heard the beginning strains of the opening song, I was happily right back in Boob’s living room.

I anxiously watched my boys’ faces hoping they’d get into it long enough to meet Almanzo and see his fever squashed by being dunked in a tub of ice. Alas, as soon as Laura’s dog Jack got lost downriver in the pilot episode, it was over.

My son was bawling, yelling to turn it off. He cannot stand the depiction of injuries to animals onscreen, nor apparently ones disappearing in raging waters even if they don’t really die until Season 4 but he’ll never know because we had to SHUT IT DOWN.

Sigh… no Almanzo. No Mary goes blind. No mean Nellie Olsen lessons on bullying. No carrying your lunch in a pail, walking miles to school. Dammit.

I felt like I was onto something here; that I could begin to introduce all these shows of my childhood to my kids!

What would their reaction be? Would they love them too? Would I still like these shows?

I was giddy at the options. Family Ties, My Two Dads, The Jeffersons, You Can’t Do That on Television, Wonder Woman, The A-Team, oh God I could go on. But then I showed them Diff’rent Strokes. I found myself laughing at scene-stealer Gary Coleman, but then cringing at certain storylines or dialogue. I’d pause the show and point out that this is discriminatory, or that was degrading, or people don’t say that anymore.

My kids loved this show. I see a lot of positives in it; the messages about acceptance, lessons about bullying, drugs, and even stranger danger are all valuable. But frankly I didn’t know if I should be laughing anymore. It’s the same problem a lot of older movies and television shows are encountering now.

Can we watch shows we enjoyed as kids with the same level of gratification because of the nostalgia factor, or do we need to now hold them to current standards of acceptance?

I began to realize how problematic it is to introduce older entertainment to kids today without a lot of monitoring and guidance. If they are laughing and enjoying these shows, are they becoming indoctrinated subliminally to the misogyny, the racism, the smoking, the cursing, the lack of representation, the presence of stereotypes, etc.?

Is it any worse than what they’re watching today?

It’s difficult to assess my kids’ honest reactions if I’m interjecting every few minutes to try to “correct” the misdeeds of decades old television production. Does it absolve me of the guilt of allowing them to see these missteps so long as I’m present to correct them? Shouldn’t I be interjecting every five minutes with modern entertainment as well?

The bottom line is that media can be a wonderful learning tool and get through to kids in a way that verbally giving a lesson cannot. It can also be problematic and display the very thing you’re telling your kids to not do, or how to not be.

The best I can do is to expose them to the past, educate them about the differences, and hope they get as much laughter and joy out of some of these classics as I did.

I might even allow some Kool-Aid even though if memory serves, it was made with an entire bag of sugar.

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