Nearly two decades ago, I got it into my head to write a book about the influence of television on our culture. I was torn between the titles “The Third Parent” and “Adulthood’s End”.
The main premise behind it was that television took over the role of parent in the household. While up until that time parents were the primary role models and authorities in the household, television usurped those roles. And unlike actual parents, television never aged, its position as the maker of decisions never waned.
Most people take on the more difficult aspects of being the adult in the family out of necessity. As parents are no longer able to care for themselves, their children are forced into making decisions for them they had hoped never to make. They realize there is not authority who can make the tough decisions for them, that Mom and Dad are no longer their protectors should they not be up to a task. This is a rite of passage we all must go through. But as television never ages, we never pass that rite, never assume the mantle of maturity. Television is always going to be the one to tell us how to behave, how to dress, what narratives to believe, which culture to consume. As the television only transmits and never receives, how could the relationship ever be otherwise?
Below is a short introduction I did for a book that I’ve been writing in one form or another for decades, but is far from being a reality yet:
It was the latter part of the 1970s and our president was discussing the fuel shortage. He gave a simple suggestion to turn our heat down a few degrees and wear a sweater if we were cold.
It was the sort of advice our parents would have given us and that was the problem. You see, the first generation of children raised on television were now grown up and we did not want to listen to our parents anymore. We preferred to listen to our televisions because the television always told us what we wanted to hear. The television told us we deserved a break today, that sugary snacks were good for us, women were made to be ogled and there were no repercussions to casual sex.
And so a new politician emerged to tell us of the new and improved classic homemade way of doing things. The television had a lovechild and he was called Ronald Reagan. He would explain our world the way we wanted to hear it, just like all those other neat guys on TV. We wanted a handsome and winning personality, not our stuffy old dad. We wanted Ronald Reagan, not Jimmy Carter. Hannity, not Colmes.
We could have whatever we wanted. You go, girl, you deserve it. We could have whiter teeth AND fresher breath. We didn’t have to live with ring around the collar or waxy yellow build up anymore. And so when the voters went to the polls in November of 1980, the changes that had begun in the 1950s had finally come to fruition.
The shift had taken place and the rift between generations, the one television had caused, was glossed over. Never again would we have to listen to adults. Nor would we ever be expected to become adults ourselves. We were all free now to leave the unpleasantness of making difficult decisions behind us. The only choosing we had to make was whether we would drink Miller Lite or Bud Light. We were the Pepsi generation and we were never going to grow old (or up).
There was a new authority now, although we never chose to really think about it that way. We didn’t need parents anymore nor did we have to become them. We could be friends to our children rather than rule makers or—God forbid—role models. We could use the time we weren’t busy making money to spend it. We could buy for a second time all the toys of our youth and never have to be responsible for anything. Because, after all, authority was not given to us, it belonged to the market place. By merely choosing between Pepsi or Coke, magic forces would make the world into a Heaven for us all. Authority was decreed through television waves that mystically traveled through the air and into the privacy of our houses. Complex decision making was uncool, we wanted our nation’s problems to be solved as easily and completely as Jack Tripper’s problems were every Tuesday night on ABC.
As for getting older, well, that was something our parents did. We would have none of that, because growing older meant taking on responsibility, and television would take that burden from us. All we had to do was stay up on the latest trends, buy the products that were currently trendy. We just had to listen to the same music our kids did, pretend to find some value in it. Forget about finding meaning in our own lives, we had to find ways to relate to our children, even if in the end all we did was validate the line being sold to them by the advertisers.
And when the lines and the droopiness and receding hairlines and e.d. showed up, well television was there with the answers. Our skin could look as smooth as Joan Rivers’, our boobs as perky as any saline-bag celebrity. And for guys, hey, it was just like the 60’s, only the drugs now were Rogaine and Viagra. Death was only an illusion, which meant we never had to worry too much about figuring what life was all about. All we had to do was hang onto our youth. All we had to do was keep flunking Maturity 101 so we never had to graduate.