Those of us of a certain age may remember the children’s programming of the 1970’s that promoted social and cultural awareness, the idea that we are all different but really, we are all the same.
Shows like ZOOM, The Electric Company, The New Zoo Revue, Villa Alegre and The Big Blue Marble presented the idea the world belonged to all of us, it was really a kind of not very subliminal sensitivity training for a new generation. ( Generation X and I’ll get to that in a minute.) From Villa Alegre I learned some Spanish words that can actually be used in public and mixed company and they also promoted the idea of trying foods from different countries. The Electric Company was beyond cool, with stars like Bill Cosby and Rita Moreno, teaching all of the ways we say hello, how to get along, how to be decent humans. From Zoom I learned how to get out of a pair of Chinese handcuffs, make a variety of craft projects from things found around the house and I fully admit to really wanting one of those striped Rugby shirts. I had a pen pal through The Big Blue Marble’s system of connecting children from across the globe, (no, I’ve never tried to locate her again and I remember not knowing what to write to her about and thinking that I’d rather just watch the show.) For me, those programs were about a world that I had no other access to, like their adult counterparts of today, travel shows and combination food and travel shows, they made those faraway places seem more glamorous than they really were. But the message was about the humanity of the things that we have in common, and respect and appreciation for other cultures, kind of the idea that sauerkraut or salsa wasn’t so weird and that other kids in other countries did a lot of the same things that kids do here.
These programs presented a sanitized version of being an American kid, with all of the representatives of said American Kiddom so incredibly well-adjusted that it was difficult not to envy them. (Sadly I wasn’t allowed to watch the New Zoo Revue as one of the adults in my life insisted it wasn’t really a children’s show but that everyone on the show was only marginally talented, smoking dope and that adults who dressed up in costume so they could run around with children likely had some kind of agenda, the same was said to me of H.R. Puff n’ Stuff.) In a time when “All in the Family” was the most popular show on television, before it had been revealed the Carrol O’Conner was not really the disgruntled bigot Archie Bunker that he portrayed, something that many Americans, including my father, a sexist bigot himself, readily believed and supported, these children’s shows were seen by some as an attempt at the subtle brainwashing of the American child, a “reprogramming.” With catchy tunes, seemingly hip, always even-tempered adults, the most well-informed, well-mannered children ever seen in public, most of them wearing turtle necks and Garanimals sets, the programs appealed to the good nature in all of us, or at least the possibility of it.
Perhaps there were those with a crystal ball into the future who foresaw the global economy, the Euro, the internet, a world that was expanding and contracting at the same time, perhaps envisioning a utopia that would be nothing less than a daily culture festival where all of us would go from one food booth to another sampling the goods, blissed out on Churros, Gyros and Egg Rolls.
It didn’t work.
While it may have softened the overall tone of our vernacular for a time, eventually there seemed to be what could only be called a backlash, a rebellion against this sing-song mentality of unicorns and rainbows. As a parent in the 1990’s, I witnessed the ushering in of a giant purple dinosaur named Barney and then, the dreaded Tele Tubbies, who were maligned as being effeminate, while at the same time that bands like Nirvana were exploding onto the music scene and the lean, clean preppy look of the 1980’s was giving way to flannel shirts and hair lengths that hadn’t been seen since the 1970’s.
Some people simply don’t like being told what to do. The very nature of rebellion began to change as the accepted definition of the word “rebellion” became distasteful because it isn’t rebellion or being rebellious if all you are doing is being who you are, the word they were looking for to describe that was “cool,” but they couldn’t use that word either because it was suddenly uncool, to be cool. A new generation, my generation, was taking its turn at rebellion. Unlike previous uprisings of angst ridden youth, what was mistaken for laziness was really a kind of apathy, ambiguity and uncertainty, something in us that really resented all of the bait they threw at us. Not to mention a little bit of disillusionment that world was not the great big harmonious melting pot that they had served it up as being during our crucial developmental years.
In the early 1990’s, when I first heard the term “Gen Xer” applied to my generation there was a question attached to it, “When are they going to do something?”
They said we didn’t have a cause, we didn’t have a plan, we didn’t have a clue, we didn’t have a voice. I’ve watched clips of those shows again, on the great nostalgia Wayback Machine that we call youtube, and looking at them now I see the naiveté of those who thought they could change the world by attempting to reprogram the American kids of the 1970’s, as though we would grow up to be ambassadors of good will to all the other children of the world who didn’t have network television and School House Rock, we would be a product of the so-called liberation from what the Baby Boomers saw as the hypocrisy of their own parents. The backlash against the sing-song we can all get along mentality that was presented to Gen Xers in our youth has been a growing graphic realism presented in most of our major forms of entertainment and an unwillingness to accept the definitions heaped on us by others.
I, for one, resent the term Gen X-er and always have, could be there are Baby Boomers who feel the same way about being called Baby Boomers. In my opinion the term was born out of laziness, something so-called Gen Xer’s have oft been accused of and perhaps that goes with the territory of being the next generation to come down the pike. They called us Gen Xers because they couldn’t wait any longer for us to identify ourselves, they couldn’t wait to label us, ironic. It is without a doubt that the “tune in , turn on and drop out” culture of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, produced the same accusations of laziness and irresponsibility that the Gen Xers have been saddled with, among other things. I don’t consider myself a Gen Xer. Those of us born in the late 1960’s have been lumped in with those born in the early 1980’s and everyone in between. Those born in the early 80’s were, to state the obvious, not children in the 1970’s, and that certainly isn’t meant as a slight to them. I am twelve years older than anyone who was born in 1980, and trust me, a lot happened in those twelve years. What do they know about the Electric Company, Joe Namath, Farrah Faucet, The Frito Bandito or buying the world a Coke and teaching it to sing? The other day I almost bought a bag of Taco flavored Doritos just because of the nostalgic retro packaging and it occurred to me that Gen Xers were in many ways the first real victims of advertising, we wanted the cereal with the toy inside, the Evil Knievel stunt cycle, the Barbie Townhouse and G.I. Joe, as seen on t.v., something that adds credence to the brainwashing theory, Here kids, get your parents to buy you this. My generation is the first generation fully raised on television and completely commercialized consumerism. The 1970’s were made to sell and be sold.
Being an American child in the 1970’s was a completely unique experience and our rebellion has been a quiet one. As a generation, I wonder if we really don’t seem to have a voice because none of us would assume to speak for anyone else in the group, we are a group of individuals, and besides that, didn’t they tell us that Pepsi was to be the voice ( choice) of a new generation? The Baby Boomers had a very definite idea of how to do things better or at least differently from their parents, and we are the product of that, so massively powerful in their numbers and self-assuredness that their way was and is better, what brave soul from any generation after would dare to rise up and question it in any way? That in and of itself is a very dangerous thing, that we, as a generation, have not been expected to have our own ideas or to question the authority of the generation of our parents, but that rather we have been expected to carry their torch. The world is a mess? The Baby Boomers have been voting since 1968, the year that I was born. I’m not offering an opinion about that one way or another, simply stating that fact and posing the question as to who really made this mess society is dealing with.
For some of my generation, well it kind of seems like they’d just as soon see it all burn at this point and that’s some message to be sending to the generations that came before us, that there are those in my generation who have looked at things and decided that it’s all so screwed up, still, after all of these years of Baby Boomers running things, that we might as well throw a match on it.
I don’t share that opinion, I think that it’s all really screwed up but I’ve always been a believer that we can fix things, that we can figure it out, I have faith in humanity. And perhaps it is selfish but I like the retro packaging on the Doritos, are they trying to subliminally set us back to obeying their mantras, to not questioning them as though we were still children?, and I only recently discovered how much I truly enjoy some things that so-called civilization has to offer so I’d hate to see it all go bust.
The world was supposed to become a global melting pot of acceptance, that’s what they said they wanted, no matter what color, no matter what culture, the preaching was tolerance and acceptance. Then came September 11th and the world seemed to say to the U.S. in a lot of ways, “Welcome to the club.” We remembered that everyone the world over didn’t get cable television in the 80’s and internet access in the 90’s. The Children’s Television Workshop and that little dude who was hankerin’ for a hunk of cheese never said anything about terrorism, we, as a generation, didn’t have even the preparedness of “stop, drop and cover.” If you lived in California during your school years you might have been treated to an earth quake drill every six months but that was really about it when it came to disaster preparedness training.
I think about that day, watching, on television, as the Twin Towers fell and the surreal quality that took that time over… The Big Blue Marble, perspective, tolerance, acceptance, the strange era of my youth that brought global events into everyone’s living room in color for the first time and how they used to play the U.S. National Anthem every morning at two a.m. before concluding the broadcast day, and what that said in so many ways was that things weren’t perfect here, but that this was still the very best place in the world that one could be…I sit in front of this screen now, trying to be thoughtful and choose my words, on a sensitive subject, with intelligence and care, it bothers me as I feel as though I have become in many ways my own thought police, realizing how much the world has changed in the last decade and how far does the average citizen really want to go these days when it comes to upsetting apple carts? Tolerance? Acceptance? Perspective? Compromise?
When did freedom become a word to be whispered?
For me, the programming of my youth created more questions than answers.