Recently, I was watching a popular sitcom about a family doing their best to get by in life without driving each other crazy. The clan included a good-looking but dim older sibling who was more interested in socializing than school, a smart, bookish middle child who could be counted on to help solve problems, and the youngest sibling: cute, sassy and charmingly offbeat.
It was entertaining, and yet somehow very familiar…
“Wait a second!” I cried. (I yell at the TV a lot. You probably don’t want to watch reality shows with me.) “Haven’t I seen this family before – back when they were called The Brady Bunch? No, wait – it was Eight Is Enough! No, Growing Pains! …Or was it Roseanne? …The Cosby Show? …Home Improvement?…Malcolm in the Middle?”
Actually, all those shows – and many, many more – are populated by the same tired old stereotypes we’ve seen on TV since the first black-and-white Motorola entered the American living room. The premise, location and plots may vary from program to program, but the kids in them are pretty much the same, with slight variations to keep viewers from catching on too quickly.
That’s not to say that these shows aren’t well-acted or enjoyable. Some of them are even an important part of television history (Cosby was the first show to feature an upper-class black family; The Brady Bunch addressed stepfamilies; Roseanne presented the blue-collar point of view).
Still, it would be nice for once to see small-screen children break free from the mold. How about a group of siblings who are all into academics? A plus-sized cast member who doesn’t crack jokes every two minutes? A privileged kid who also happens to be nice?
Here are some of the kid-types I’d be happy to see fade into TV history. Any more you’d like to add to the list?
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The Cute But Dumb One 2 of 11With only occasional exceptions (such as Suburgatory's Tessa), beauty and brains don't mix in the TV-verse. Worse yet, we're supposed to find it charming and funny. The hunky jock needs a tutor to help pull up his grades? Side-splitting! The model-pretty 16-year-old blows off her studies to hit the mall? Hilarious! Mixed messages for our kids about body image, intelligence and society's obsession with looks? Um...
The Brainy Nerd 3 of 11Oh, there are plenty of smart kids on TV, too. Just look around - they're the ones with the glasses...and the lack of fashion sense, sports skills and love lives. This Velma stereotype may never die completely, but couldn't we at least give it a bad case of the flu?
The 20something Teen 4 of 11From Dobie Gillis to Happy Days to Glee, small-screen high schools have traditionally been populated with "kids" whose own graduation robes have long since been packed away. Some young adults can convincingly play teens, while others...not so much. Suppose we set a rule? Once an actor trades the acne cream for wrinkle remover, it's time to move on to more age-appropriate roles.
The Disappearing Baby 5 of 11It's hard to be a TV infant. Everyone looks forward to your arrival, but once you're on the show, no one knows what to do with you. An episode or two will feature a glimpse of you in your carrier. Maybe Mom gets a plotline about How Hard It Is to Adjust to a Newborn. Then you just kind of...vanish, forgotten and pretty much pointless. (Anyone remember what Emma Gellar looked like? How about Ceci and Philip Halpert? Didn't think so.)
The Funny Fat Kid 6 of 11It's a rule that dates back to Shakespeare's Falstaff: The plus-sized character is the wisecracking best friend, the comic coworker or - in this case - the funniest kid in the family. This character may be comfortable with his size (like Modern Family's Manny), but he still isn't going to be the most popular one in class or the most sought-after prom date. We've come a long way in the area of fat acceptance...but, alas, not that far.
The Quirky Kid 7 of 11Shows featuring children usually have a QK as a family member or friend. He might be a child with special needs, a visitor from another planet (see: The Neighbors) or just a different-drummer type who just happens to like wearing mismatched clothes and quoting Tolkien. The QK can be a valuable cast member if the character is more than just the sum of his/her eccentricities (such as Max in Parenthood). Otherwise, s/he tends to come off as a one-dimensional gimmick for laughs or ratings.
The Troublemaking Twins 8 of 11One day, writers will come up with a show that explores the complex relationship between siblings born on the same date. Right now, however, If a TV family includes a set of twins - particularly if they're identical boys - their main purpose in the show will be to pull pranks and smile mischievously.
The Too-Cute-for-Words Kid 9 of 11This child exists simply to elicit an adoring "AAWWWWWwwww!' from viewers. If she (it's almost always a girl) can lisp out a cute line or two, so much the better. The TCFWK reached its peak three years ago with Good Luck Charlie, which stars a winsome toddler whose sister makes video diaries for her. But children don't stay tiny forever - just ask the Olsen twins or Mason Reese (Who? Exactly). It's time to retire this TV kid archetype and save a generation of adorable actors from a future of "Hey, weren't you...?"
The Wealthy Snob 10 of 11Here's one reason to be glad you're not rich: Your kids will grow up to be kind, tolerant and unselfish. When you're a rich kid on TV, you're fated to be a popular, well-dressed snootmonster who gets her kicks out of snarking at classmates. Only after she suffers a family trauma (a divorce or a stock-market blow) is she allowed to show some vulnerability. By that time, we're so over her hackneyed self.
The Cousin Oliver 11 of 11As immortalized in The Brady Bunch, the Cousin Oliver is a cute but totally unnecessary new kid cast member brought in to revitalize a show with sagging ratings. Fail-o-rama. Show me a series with a Cousin Oliver, and I'll show you a program on its last legs and a young actor who'll spend years trying to live down his reputation.
Read more of Shana’s writing at Momsperiments.
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