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AFA Journal

TELEVISION

Bad Advice

What TV parents teach their children about sex

Ed Vitagliano
News Editor, AFA Journal
AFA Journal, June 2001 Edition

Last month, “Parents behaving badly” examined how parents are often portrayed on TV as rude individuals, childish buffoons, or losers who have no control over their lives, their homes, or their children. This month’s feature is the conclusion to this two-part series.


There was a scene in the famous Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life when actor Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, is a boy in desperate need of some wise counsel. He glances up and sees a sign with the smiling face of a man, and underneath are the words, “Ask Dad, he knows.” Little George races to ask his father what he should do.

That big screen moment – now played out every year on the small screen during reruns of the film – reinforced a concept as old as civilization: that parents are a much-needed source of wisdom about the crucial issues of life for their children.

Hollywood rarely reinforces that notion now, and what passes for civilization in Tinsel Town today is usually hedonism. Especially when it comes to the issue of their kids having sex, TV parents dispense what most real-life parents would consider bad advice.

Swingin’ teens, applauding parents
Sexually promiscuous television teens are part of Hollywood’s tired old recipe for laughs. On Fox’s hit sitcom That ’70s Show, for example, the cast of Wisconsin teenagers is so sex-obsessed as to make the viewer imagine that there isn’t a young person in our culture who considers sexual purity an option. Jokes about “car sex,” promiscuous girls, sexual impotence, male genitals and sexual arousal pepper the dialogue as a rule, rather than the exception.

Even worse, however, is the reaction of parents when their authority happens to intersect with their children’s sex lives. On the February 21 show, police catch high schoolers Eric and Donna having sex in the car, and the teens wind up having to tell both sets of parents. Donna’s dad gets angry when told, but her mother applauds both the sex and the confession: “Well, I’m happy for you. Thank you for being honest. That took a lot of courage….”

On the other hand, Eric’s parents have the opposite reaction – his mother is the one who is distraught about her son having sex, while the father is more matter-of-fact. “I can’t believe that you’re all surprised that your 17-year-old is doing what 17-year-olds do!” says Dad. “Big deal!”

Even though one parent from each family is shown being uncomfortable with the thought of their child having sex, it is never a misgiving rooted in any set of moral or religious principles. In fact, both negative reactions are portrayed as momentary and based in rather meaningless concerns: Eric’s mom, for example, just doesn’t want to face the fact that her baby boy has grown up.

Safe sex rather than moral sex
While Married…With Children was certainly more satirical in its approach than most sitcoms, Hollywood nevertheless seems intent on ensuring that traditional moral views concerning sexuality rarely rear their ugly heads. When a note of parental disapproval is sounded, it often borders on the absurd.

For instance, on a 1988 episode of Mr. Belvedere, teenager Kevin is forced to confess to his parents that he brought a girl home to have sex with her. His father’s only objection to Kevin’s sexual behavior is to shout, “[Y]ou oughta know better than to bring a girl like that into this house! You take her to a motel!”

For most TV parents, however, the worst sexual misdeed their kids could possibly commit would be to have sex without a condom. NBC’s Sisters, for example, was a frequent champion of all forms of licentious sexual expression. On one particular 1994 episode, Georgie and John find their 16-year-old son Trevor in bed with his 20-year-old lover. Initially Mom is upset, but the dad argues, “Would you rather he do it in the back seat of a car?”

Both parents confront Trevor only to make sure he is “taking precautions.” In the same manner in which one would expect a mother to pick up her son’s vitamins to ensure his continued good health, Mom begins picking up condoms for Trevor when she goes to the grocery store. Naturally, it is all for his own good.

Even on such ordinarily family-friendly shows as the ABC hit series Home Improvement, Hollywood writers know only one sexual message to put into the mouths of TV parents. In a 1996 episode, Jill, the series’ mom, pushes husband Tim to have a father-son talk about responsible sexuality. Although the entire 30-minute episode dealt with sex, neither parent ever mentioned the possibility that Brad might want to wait until marriage before having sex.

Virginity is for losers
When the discussion in a TV family turns to sex, no subject draws more laughs – or more ridicule – than virginity. In the minds of Hollywood writers, to be a teenager and a virgin seems to be almost inconceivable, and not being sexually active is a one-way ticket to permanent loser status.

That view is often shared by television parents. On an episode of CBS’ High Society five years ago, for example, Dot tells her teenage son that she’s embarrassed that he’s still a virgin.

On Fox’s Grounded for Life this past February, Lilly complains to her mother because she’s 15 and hasn’t had sex yet. This preoccupation about having sex leads Lilly, a ninth-grader, to lie to two 11th-graders she wants to impress. Lilly tells the two upper classmen that she and her (fictitious) college-aged boyfriend regularly “do it.”
When Lilly tells her father about the fabrication, rather than get angry and correct his daughter’s twisted ideas about sexuality, Dad laughs and asks, “And [the 11th-graders] bought it?”

As if virginity were something of which one should be ashamed, Dad later chastises Mom for “outing” their daughter as a virgin to her two friends. In still another scene, Lilly is shown angrily saying to her mother, “[Y]ou exposed your daughter as a virgin.” It was humiliating, Lilly insisted, that people would no longer think she was a “slut.”

A wonderful life indeed. It’s becoming more and more clear that television teens might be better off not asking Dad questions about sex, because he no longer knows the answers.