My generation was the first of the “latch key kids”. We were the ones coming home to empty houses and afterschool specials. An after school special was a made for tv movie that had a theme we kids would especially relate to like teens and drugs, teens and sex, teens and divorce. They were designed to help us have conversations with our working parents. I was a bit too young for these after school specials. But I watched them anyway. Anything geared towards kids was a special. We didn’t have entire channels dedicated to kids. We had “specials” every once in a while. That’s all.
When Nickleodeon finally did come on the air, it went off at 6pm. So, it was just a couple of hours of cool kids shows like You Can’t Do That On Television. That left us to surf either reruns of old shows like Mary Tyler Moore and Maude or watch the evening news, Wheel—-Of—-Fortune and Jeopardy. CHiPs was another rerun that was on and Kojak. Dr.Who and The Lone Ranger were generally always on channel 24 (PBS).
Now, we kids were not supposed to be watching the afternoon talk shows like Phil Donahue or Oprah. Much of their content was questionable for young impressionable minds.Like the time Phil wore a dress on his show. Sally Jesse Raphel and Jerry Springer and Geraldo were on the major networks. Phil taught us about cross dressing, Jerry taught us about relationships, Sally taught us about transgendered people, Geraldo taught us about racism and Oprah taught us how to feel about it all. They taught us not to be scared of people with AIDS, that it was now perfectly acceptable for white people and black people to get married and that we all needed to make ourselves happy and not rely on others for said happiness (it was the 80’s, the “ME” decade).
We met drag queens and KKK members and single mothers and teen parents and “little people” aka midgets, and people who loved their pets more than their partners. If it wasn’t for Phil and Oprah we would have never known that too much excercise was actually a disorder and that pills and booze don’t mix. And sex, don’t forget all we learned about sex!! How to please your husband, how to get your husband to please you, how to know if your man is cheating, how to cheat on your man, how to tell if your man is gay, how to tell your man your gay. The new American family was becoming legitimized. Kids with two dads, being raised by grandparents, foster kids, kids living on the streets. Sally loved to do the shows with the homeless kids. And ofcourse there was the famous chair throwing incident on Geraldo.
While our parents were at work, we learned that we were good enough and smart enough and worthy of love and a large income and how to make couscous and salmon. Self esteem was the hot new buzz word. Phil would start with the disclaimer that today’s show had “adult topics” and all children should be removed from the tv viewing area and then do show on incest. Ask me how I know. I mean, I was a kid and Phil specifically told me to leave the room. As if just by telling me to leave the room because of adult subject manner was gonna get me to move. What it did was make me go grab the chips and dip and make sure I was back in time for the juicy stuff.
Without Oprah and Sally telling me that I was equal and deserved equal pay for equal work, I would have never known! I have to admit, I was too young to actually be a “latch key kid”. And I was lucky enough to have my grandparents in town. All that meant was that I would catch the last of Guiding Light while eating cookies and milk (or peanuts and Pepsi)and then be banished to the playroom to do my homework, where I would catch one of the talk shows or after school specials. Gram wouldn’t kick me outside till 4, after my homework, and Oprah, were done.
I have to give these talk show hosts full credit for being prepared on my wedding night. Ok, before my wedding night(but they said that was perfectly ok and acceptable) They prepared me for high school, college and life. They told me about crack cocaine, the night club scene, swingers and cancer, STD’s and how to prepare for the end of the world. There was so much they taught me, that they explained to me, that they proved to me was “normal”. I think most of us can say this is true. Really, without these important people on tv, would we children of the 80’s be as evolved and accepting as we are today? I think not. We were on our way as most of our parents had their minds opened by living through the 60’s and the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution and the Beatles. But, our parents were not necessarily forthcoming with their own personal experiences which is why we needed to hear about Darren Robinson (the Human Beatbox…come on you totally knew that one!).
Today, our children have round the clock programming geared specifically towards their emotional and educational level. But really, what are they learning about the hard realities of life? Their programs teach tolerance but it doesn’t teach them that there are people in this world who are not tolerant.And the way to deal with those people is by whacking them with a chair. It is teaching them their ABC’s but are they learning about the 90 year old great grandma who is going skydiving AND bungee jumping at the same time? I mean, really, TV may have been our companion, but for our kids it is their babysitter. Look at us, how bad did we turn out? Is it not our generation who has given our kids Yo Gabba Gabba and Secret Life of the American Teenager (starring Molly Ringwald!!)? Those are two shows that never would have been born without a Phil show on LSD and a Sally show on families struggling with teen pregnancy.
Everytime I speak publicly I remind all the 30 somethings that without Oprah we wouldn’t even know the word co-dependent and we would all still be stumbling around our own sexuality. We owe these icons a great debt. While many of our parents were on the ME decade train and completely focused on climbing the latter of success, these talk shows were taking care of our emotional growth. Thank you Jerry Springer for all of the paternity tests and ways to confront our cheating baby daddy brother’s uncle. Thank you Sally for showing us the reality of running away from home. Thank you Phil for allowing gay married men and women to be out, loud and proud. Thank you Oprah for showing us that we can be black and rich. And thank you Geraldo for showing us how to forgive the assholes who break our noses. I love each and every one of you in a very special way. Not in a “I’m gonna be on Jerry for loving you” way, but special none the less.