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TV or Not TV

TV or not TV, that is the question. Like most members of my generation, I grew up on TV. I remember long Saturday mornings lying on my stomach on the stubbly living room carpet. While the Southern California sun blazed outside, the air inside was cool and filled with cartoon voices—Bugs Bunny, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Johnny Quest. On school mornings, we’d watch “H.R. Pufnstuff” while gulping down chocolatey bowls of Cocoa Krispies. In the afternoons, my mother let us watch “Scooby Doo” before the five o’clock news. As I got older, TV shaped the way I saw the world. I wanted to live in a split-level suburban palace like “The Brady Bunch.” I wanted to have Marcia Brady’s long, blonde hair and perfect, even features. Even as a young adult, TV sometimes seemed more real than real life. During one particularly depressing college semester, the young interns on “St. Elsewhere” felt like my closest friends.

When I got married, I still watched too much TV. During the first years of our marriage, Tim and I ate all our meals sitting side by side on a couch in the TV room. After our first daughter, Rebecca, was born four-and-a-half years ago, she joined us in front of the seductive black box. When “Entertainment Tonight” was over, I’d take Rebecca upstairs and bathe her roly-poly pink body. I’d dry her fuzzy red hair and her round cheeks and dress her in a soft, cotton sleeper. Then we’d go back downstairs. Every night Rebecca nursed herself to sleep to the soothing strains of the “Final Jeopardy” song.

When Rebecca got old enough to pay attention, we turned the TV off. We started eating meals at the dining room table. When Rebecca was fifteen months old, we got a “Sesame Street” video. By this time, all Rebecca’s non-Catholic friends had bookshelves filled with videos: Disney Sing-Alongs, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin. Even our Catholic friends bought each new Disney video for their kids. Rebecca watched her one “Sesame Street” video a million times. A few months later, we relented and bought Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. At Rebecca’s request, we fast-forwarded through all the scary scenes with the Wicked Queen.

Since then, our video collection has grown slowly. We own Bambi and Mary Poppins and Dumbo. Rebecca loves the old Charlie Brown movies. As Rebecca’s gotten older and been joined by her younger sisters, Angela and Lucy, our television rules for the girls have evolved to the following: Only videos. Only on the weekend. The rest of the time, the TV is in a closet in Tim’s and my bedroom. We don’t have cable. Tim and I occasionally watch some evening TV after the girls have gone to bed. Every now and then, we roll the television out while the girls are still up so that Tim can watch a baseball game. Last month, we visited Tim’s brother Chris and his family in Steubenville, Ohio. Chris and his wife, Sandy, home-school their six children. They don’t own a television. Sitting at the table after lunch one day, Tim and I asked Chris why they don’t watch any TV.

“I can see limiting TV the way we do,” Tim told his brother. “Certainly, there’s not much on network TV that’s appropriate for children. Even when we watch baseball on TV, we need to keep an eye on the ads.” While Tim spoke, I thought about the many times we’d changed the channel so Rebecca and Angela didn’t see Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme, automatic weapons blazing, blow away a pack of bad guys. “But something like ‘Sesame Street’ or a nature show or Dumbo,” Tim continued, “what could be objectionable about that?”

“The medium itself is evil,” Chris answered. “TV encourages passivity. It’s completely antithetical to the contemplative life.”

Tim and I came back from Steubenville thinking about TV. Were we doing our children harm by letting them watch Mary Poppins sing “Just a Spoonful of Sugar”? We decided to find out what the Church says about television. The Catechism seemed to echo Chris’s words. In its discussion of the social communications media, the Catechism says that the mass media give rise to passivity among viewers. Users of the mass media are encouraged to practice moderation and discipline and to form “enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences” (CCC 2496). The Catechism also discusses the tension between the media and Christian purity. Because Christian purity requires the purification of the social climate, the communications media should exercise respect and restraint. “Purity of heart brings freedom from widespread eroticism and avoids entertainment inclined to voyeurism and illusion” (CCC 2525).

I thought about how perfectly these words described many television programs. If the busty, bathing-suited beauties of “Baywatch” don’t epitomize eroticism, voyeurism, and illusion, I don’t know what does. “Baywatch” also happens to be the world’s most widely syndicated show.

Pope John Paul II has addressed the family’s response to the mass media in a number of his encyclicals. The Pope writes that the Church supports and promotes the dignity of man as well as the dignity of marriage and the family. The mass media, on the other hand, falsify the truth about man. “What truth can there be in films, shows, and radio and television programs dominated by pornography and violence?” (Letter to Families, 20). The Pope emphasizes that human beings are much more than the images produced in advertising and shown in the mass media.

Familiaris Consortio also speaks to the mass media’s role in disseminating a false vision of family life and the dignity of persons. The Pope notes the difficulties the faithful have in maintaining certain fundamental values under the mass media’s barrage. As evidence, he points to the spread of divorce and remarriage, the acceptance of purely civil marriage, and the rejection of moral norms regarding human sexuality in marriage. As usual, the Pope is right.

A few months ago, I let Rebecca and Angela watch “Sesame Street” for a special treat. Lucy was napping, and I had some writing I had to finish. I decided to use the TV as a baby-sitter. The girls leaped about with delight when I rolled the TV into the living room. As I turned on the set, Rebecca and Angela settled onto the couch to watch. While I sat in the office tapping away at my computer, I could hear my two little girls giggling at Ernie and Bert’s antics.

When I’d finished my work, I joined the girls on the couch. On the screen, children played on a playground. As a song played, different children mouthed the words. The voice was always the same. The song was about how, even though we’re all different, “we all sing with the same voice.” Each verse explored a different theme. One verse talked about how we all have different names, but “we all sing with the same voice.” Another verse talked about how we’re all different colors, but “we all sing with the same voice.” In a third verse, we all live in different places, but “we all sing with the same voice.” In the last verse, the children sang about their different families. A different child’s face appeared for each line. “I live with my brothers three, it’s just my mom and me, I have one daddy, I have two.” “Two daddies,” I thought. Rebecca and Angela didn’t blink. Just another song on “Sesame Street.” We haven’t watched “Sesame Street” since.

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