Originally published April 28, 1997
Funny how much a baby changes your life.
Forget about changing diapers and crying, spitting up formula on your favorite clothes or demanding your attention when it’s least convenient. That’s all quite secondary to the joy seven-month-old Baby Media brings to our lives.
No, what surprises me are the many ways little Charlie changes the way I think about the media.
First there were the little things, like no longer leaving the latest Playboy on the coffee table or in the “library.” Not that Charlie will see it at his age; we’re more concerned about not leaving it around for his 12-year-old baby-sitter to discover.
More important, I’ve been thinking about the overall images of women my son will get from the media. On TV, there’s Roseanne, cracking wise at her own family’s expense. Fran Drescher — “The Nanny” — who puts great import on material possessions and physical appearance. And Ellen DeGeneres makes sophisticated double-entendres about lesbianism and sexuality at 8 o’clock.
Not exactly the “family fare” that Mrs. Media and I think will be appropriate for the newest member of our family.
In the movies, I’m suddenly paying attention to the roles and presentation of women and not being at all impressed. Women are consistently victims or play second-banana to male leads. These things that didn’t even cross my mind a year ago make me wonder about an entire generation of Charlies out there. The pay-TV movie channels are the worst offenders, invading our homes with the most gratuitous, exploitative and violent films out there. (We call Cinemax “The Naked Channel” because no matter what time of day, there is almost always somebody running around unclothed.)
No doubt most women wonder what cave I’ve been living in, but these images really never made an impact — other than titillation — until Charlie was born and I began suspecting about the world he will inherit. I even found myself thinking I over-reacted in knocking Tipper Gore’s campaign for labeling record albums with lyrics that might be inappropriate for young children.
Although I hope my child might one day share my delight in reading comic books, his gender-positive choices are seriously limited: Every major female character, from super-powerful Storm and Jean Grey of the X-Men to mentally tough Lois Lane, is drawn with unbelievable torsos, gravity-defying breasts and waists so tiny they couldn’t possibly digest food properly.
I discussed all this with my friend Sean, whose Olivia is two months older than Charlie. He said he was shocked to read children’s books from a little child’s perspective. Sean saw an angle on all this that I hadn’t even considered.
“The male figures in these books are either buffoons or they don’t care about their kids!” he said. “Their message is ‘Raising a child is woman’s work.’ It’s really disappointing.”
In Bambi, he noted, the little deer’s father is rough. And while the father of The Lion King is a strong moral figure, he dies early in the story and is replaced by his treacherous brother.
“Typically, the father-figures in these stories are bad,” Sean says. “That’s not the message I want to send my child.”
Looking at Charlie’s shelf of Dr. Seuss books, I wondered why the children bedeviled by The Cat in the Hat worried about their mother returning home but not their father. And in P.D. Eastman’s equally classic, Are You My Mother, it never even occurs to the little lost bird that it might have a father. Fathers really do get short shrift — a disservice to both little girls and boys.
On another front, news stories recently described how, in the rush to sell “Star Wars” merchandise, parents of little girls found a dearth of “Princess Leia” dolls and action figures. My own experience at a toy store was similar; the only Princess Leia figures made her look like a teen-age boy.
My sister-in-law, Cathy, raised two boys to manhood and started over again three years ago by adopting two baby girls. She told me that whenever she sees female action figures she scoops them up like rare jewels and stores them away until the girls will be old enough to play with them. I’ve followed her lead, starting a collection for Charlie with “Deanna Troi” and “Dr. Beverly Crusher” toys from the Star Trek: First Contact movie. (I passed on the pneumatic “Xena” toys, however.)
Another project is looking for positive female articles in newspapers and magazines. While Rachel won’t read for some time yet, I’ve already stashed away in her closet two New York Times Magazines with the cover stories “Heroine Worship” and “Women Muscle In,” the latter about the explosive boom in professional sports opportunities for women.
I’m not sure where all this or my old, open-minded, live-and-let-live, childless views are headed. I’m no puritan. I believe in absolute free speech. I think the recent TV ratings are meritless and ineffectual, offering no substance as to program content. Without that, they amount to less than nothing.
But mostly, I believe monitoring what a child sees, hears and reads is a parent’s responsibility. That’s something I felt before I had a child and something I want to live up to now as a father myself. So as long as my media counterparts will print or broadcast anything to make a buck, I will look both ways before turning on the TV or opening my child’s books.