Television’s Kid Problem

I was talking with a friend about Bones the other day and the topic of Michelle came up. And my friend said ‘Michelle who?’ And I said ‘you know. Michelle?’ And my friend said ‘no…’ And I said ‘Cam’s daughter?’ After a bit of talking around it we managed to get it straightened out and everyone was back on the same page, but I thought it was kind of symptomatic of a larger problem on television, namely, where are the children?

Where do we see kids? On shows specifically set in the home, and sometimes on family dramas, we see children, which kind of seems to imply that this is the natural environment for children, where they belong. On hard dramas, we almost never see kids, despite the fact that some of the characters have them and they are referenced. Children are used to advance storylines, sometimes (we’re supposed to see Booth as more humanised because of his son, to fret for Bailey as she tries to balance her desire to be a surgeon with the desire to raise her son), but we very rarely encounter them as fully realised characters.

When kids do have a more active role, it’s usually because they are precocious teens or child prodigies. They are mini-adults. Alexis on Castle has teen moments, but she acts like more of an adult, is treated like one, is read as one. Which is both good, because I think that teens deserve respect and autonomy, and bad, because it reinforces the idea that only teens who act ‘right’ deserve that respect, to be treated like human beings instead of objects to control[1. I have more thoughts on Alexis that I’m going to be discussing in another post shortly, suffice it to say that there’s actually some nuance to ┬áher depiction and I like that about the Castle crew (who presumably aren’t reading this since I pissed off one of their screenwriters).]. Likewise with Emily on Lie To Me; she’s a teen, but she’s much more of an adult.

Many television shows don’t seem to know what to do with infants, toddlers, and young children, so they are simply erased. They are either quickly aged out, or conveniently stuffed to the back, or brought up now and then, but not really engaged with. On Buffy, the creators got around the kid problem by having Dawn created as a teenager, skipping the early childhood years altogether, which I suspect is the secret wish of a lot of television shows, too. They want characters to have children because they feel like they should, but they don’t actually want to address childrearing, talk about children, have children on screen where people can see them.

We see children when they are being bad and must be punished, when they are a problem for their parents, or when the show wants to use them to remind viewers that women cannot pursue private family lives and professional careers because it’s simply too hard, but otherwise they are not to be seen, heard, or spoken of, really. They are props, much like the pictures of them we see on the desks of the characters. Most of them are not presented as real people with their own personalities and motivations.

Television’s problem with depicting children is a frustrating one for me, because I feel like many dramas, in particular, focus solely on the professional lives of their characters and present a really imbalanced picture of what it’s like to be a working professional. Even when they’re trying to depict the life/work balance, they do it badly, usually showing it in a state of profound imbalance. We almost never see women breastfeeding their children, men making after school snacks for their daughters. The idea that children are there solely as a plot device and should otherwise be at school or at home translates into modern society, where many people seem actively offended by the idea of children in public spaces. Spaces, supposedly, available for the use of everyone, yes?

And when the only children who are allowed to actually play real roles are the precocious ones, it also reinforces slanted ideas about children and which ones should be allowed to speak and engage with society. Which ones have value. The savvy, canny teen who has every privilege in life and is thus able to rattle off a long list of accomplishments has value, a name, a role in every episode. Teens who haven’t had as many opportunities, who might be sad or frustrated or struggling in school, don’t appear as often, because they’re boring. They’re a burden or a problem. It’s ok to write them off, television does it all the time.

It’s hard to strike a balance on a television show. You have an hour to tell a story, to tie it in with other stories, to advance the plot, to develop the characters. It’s not possible to cover all things in all episodes, for every episode to be a perfectly accurate and evenhanded depiction of the lives and experiences of the characters. But I think it’s telling that when creators are sitting around deciding what to show, family life often comes last, unless it is specifically a show about family life. The least important thing for viewers to see, it appears, is characters interacting with their children or cleaning their bathrooms or picking stuff up at the grocery store. These things might be a bit much in every episode, but they’re a notable void when they are continually referenced, but never actually shown.