Thursday, August 15, 2013

Nice Work, Chris Kutcher

Sunday night, after returning from a quick weekend road trip, my sister, 10 year-old daughter and I collapsed on the couch, flipped on the TV and landed on the Teen Choice Awards. I had possession of the remote, so I could have moved on to something much more intellectually stimulating, but I'm a sucker for awards shows. That, and my daughter kind of lost her mind seeing her favorite Disney actors tottering around in neon stilettos. Pair that with some flashy lights, annoyingly catchy summer tunes ("Blurred Lines," anyone?), and we had an instant Teen Choice Awards viewing party.

As a mom, I struggle with some of our viewing choices at home, and the Teen Choice Awards is no exception. I'm certain that my husband Tim and I don't always use the best judgment when it comes to what we let our kids watch. But we're also not a very typical family. We're very open, for better or for worse. I'm the parent who happily rented Team America: World Police when my stepchildren were way too young, asking the greasy-nosed kid at the movie store, "I mean, how bad can it get with puppets?" 

If you don't know the answer, it can get VERY bad. I'm betting the greasy-nosed kid shared a good snorty laugh with his coworkers after we left. Good-natured, blonde stepmother corrupts young kids with dirty, foul-mouthed puppets. High fives all around.

Also, while I'm admitting our flaws, we are pretty heavy on the TV watching at the Arndt house. I'm totally going to blame Tim for that. When Tim was in elementary school, he was a latch-key kid in the afternoons, and I get the feeling he watched a lot of television as a result. He liked Flipper. He loved watching the old westerns. When Tim went to the horse stables with friends when he was a little boy, his friends asked him where he learned to ride.

"I've never ridden a horse before," he answered, hopping on and riding like a pro, "I learned it on TV!"

This made me scratch my invisible beard, pondering this strange and interesting social experiment. Based on this, could it be that a contributing factor to my husband's vast intelligence was because he watched so much TV? Was this television education Tim received the first kind of e-learning? 

My television upbringing was a completely opposite situation. Growing up, the TV was rarely on at our house. When I was very little, I could watch half an hour each day, and that was usually public television viewing. As a result, I've committed several seasons of Sesame Street to memory. I didn't learn to ride a horse by watching Bonanza, but I can do the pigeon. I can also count to twelve, which comes in extremely handy at bakeries.

When I got married and became a stepmother, I had grand illusions of switching off the television and recreating an even more Utopian version of my childhood where the kids and I would be in our living room, decked out in smocks, painting masterpieces, listening to Vivaldi. That never happened (mainly because I hate crafts). I thought we'd be kayaking on Town Lake, singing in harmony like the Von Trapps. But I'm weird about dark water, and kayaks make me nervous. I thought we'd be baking organic vegan brownies together, but my stepdaughter Stephanie takes after her biological parents when it comes to baking, so she could bake me out of the kitchen by the time she was in second grade. And quite frankly, I am just not a homemaker kind of gal. So instead, we'd come home from a long day at work and school, and many of our evenings were spent cuddled up on the couch together, laughing at mindless sitcoms. We might not have been learning quantum physics together, but we were together nonetheless, and we were happy. And I'm not one to get all braggy pants about my kids, but they all make excellent grades, so Modern Family didn't mush their brains completely.

So my Utopian vision of what our free time would look like resulted in a lot more TV than I thought we would watch. And now that the kids are older, we have a TV in every bedroom. I know! We are awful people! Not to make an excuse, but we all have different preferences at this point. Tim watches political shows and city council meetings, so unless you want to sleep, stay out of his viewing area. I pretty much binge watch HGTV while I'm doing chores on the weekends, so I'm in the bedroom folding clothes, groaning at the Canadians for being unhappy with the size of the nanny suite. My stepdaughter watches NCIS-types of shows. My stepson's into car shows. And our 10 year-old is into Disney.

As a mother who fancies herself a feminist, I struggle with The Disney Dilemma. I know that some of my daughter's friends watch Disney and some don't, and I can understand the reasons why some kids are not allowed to watch it. It's pretty terrible. Disney is certainly a far cry from Sesame Street. It's obvious that Disney knows this, and is trying very hard to appear inclusive, multi-cultural, and responsible. But let's not fool ourselves, some of those Disney characters are materialistic, narcissistic and, for the most part, extremely irritating. Then you take something like Teen Beach Movie and it's catchy and fun, and has a strong message of empowerment for girls, and we're sucked back in again. Plus, I double dare you to watch Teen Beach Movie and not get up and try to dance along. I watched the dance-along version and I can bust out the main number like a champ. Was it awkward that nobody was home but me? Probably. 

So Disney has us where they want us, at least at my house. There was a point where my daughter began talking back without seeming to consider the consequences. This went on for a bit before my husband had a very interesting conversation with her about the kids she watches on Disney. Tim's take on it was that the kids on Disney may act a certain way, but that it's TV, where everything gets resolved in a pretty little 20 minute bow. Tim suggested that our daughter consider that choosing to behave like the kids on Disney doesn't work well in real life. And she got it. Lesson learned.

Back to the Teen Choice Awards. I allowed my daughter to watch, but I was with her. For me, this is key. I'm not with her when she watches every TV show, but I am around if I am unsure what the material will be. If I'm present, we can discuss together the fact that Miley Cyrus' 7-inch stilettos were a bad fashion choice, not because she's not old enough to wear them (because at 20 she can wear what she wants to), but because she's still unable to walk in them, and watching that tragedy unfold is a bit of a nail biter. (Ask my sister for her cardinal rule about heels: If you can't walk in them, don't wear them). We also talked about how some of the Disney actors who presented awards were showing entirely too much cleavage. There may have been some mild discussion around side boob, and again, how these young actors are influencing kids like mine, and how much of that is okay, and how much of that needs to be recognized as inappropriate for a 10 year-old. For me, it's the conversation that needs to take place. I understand that some parents will simply shield their kids from the exposure altogether, but the way I look at it, the exposure combined with an open conversation helps prepare them socially much more than if they weren't exposed to it at all.

After an hour of Teen Choice Awards, I was exhausted from the sensory overload and the Disney cleavage, and was about to change the channel when Ashton Kutcher appeared, accepting an award the "Ultimate Choice Award."  One of the first things he said was that he "felt like a fraud," and that name was actually Chris (his middle name is Ashton), and he revealed that his name was changed to Ashton when he was 19 when he decided to pursue acting.

I met Ashton Kutcher before he was famous, and likely before he'd changed his name. It was about 1998, and my sister lived in Los Angeles, and I went out to visit her. We were at dinner at a cozy but loud restaurant in Hollywood where the diners sit at long, shared tables. Ashton sat to my right opposite a woman who appeared to be his mother. He wore a knitted beanie pulled down so far it nearly covered his eyes. His hair was long and he was handsome, but to me, he was just any other guy having dinner with his mother.

Because we were sitting right next to each other, and because it was so loud, we chatted for a while. He had moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, and he was with his mother, who was there visiting him. The restaurant was so loud that his mother, who sat quietly clutching her handbag in her lap, couldn't hear what we were saying. Ashton laughed and said, "She's from the Midwest, so she's scared someone is going to steal her purse." 

Ashton told me he'd just signed on to do a sit-com, and they were going to be working on the pilot. He described the show as a flash-back to the 70's. I remember thinking at the time that the idea sounded terrible, but that he was such a nice guy that I hoped things would work out. 

Obviously, things worked out just fine, and the rest is history. When I watched That 70's Show for the first time, I felt oddly connected to that tall, goofy kid who had so much ahead of him. It's been fun watching his career skyrocket, and fun to know that I met him before he made it became a household name and a huge star.

When Ashton appeared on stage at the Teen Choice Awards to accept the Ultimate Award, he laughed, saying he was accepting the "Old Guy Award." At 35, he's certainly elderly compared to the Teen Choice demographic. But I love this speech, simply because it proves that you can make it big and use that opportunity to inspire others to do good things. So perhaps watching TV isn't all that bad, as long as the messages you take to heart are about working hard, being a generous person, and learning that smart is sexy.

Nice job, Chris Kutcher!

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