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Popular Culture Parenting: A Father's Proudest Day

Stephen Swanson

Prompted by Brad's excellent essay on The Office Nativity, Stephen Swanson reflects on a recent way that popular culture has adjusted his expectations of fatherhood and the potential for father/son relations.

The Greatest Parenting Tool Ever

When my wife and I were expecting our first child, Henry (now 2), we furiously searched for advice on the "must-haves" for parenting in the beginning of the new millennium.  Many friends had great advice, like "Don't read 'What to Expect...' if you are prone to worry about unlikely things."  Other sources, like the explosion of mommy-blogs and podcasts had great suggestions.  We turned to colleagues who had recently became parents for valuable hand-me-downs and suggestions, but the greatest piece of advice was this, "Get a DVR.  Just do it."

I had scoffed at the TiVo craze.  I had laughed alone as comics made fun of the mascot and the schedules and the funny noises and suggestions that it made, but the DVR has saved our lives.  Not only can we tape all of our shows to watch when we want, but just like the commercial shows, when my son wants/needs attention, I can just pause the TV and read a story.  I had completely passed that off as drivel created to make customers think that this, but it works.  The most important use has been to always have a selection of beloved kids shows and movies on hand when needed. (There was a whole month where he raptly viewed the Pixar Shorts Collection, and you have no idea of the eternity that it can take to switch the TV to DVD, open the DVD, put in the DVD, wait through the intros, select "play".)

"Oh No!":  Things that I did not know at 2.

Because of the DVR, Henry has little knowledge of commercials.  Stories are cohesive and continuous, within his daily allotment of TV, and he seriously struggles when we watch live TV or Hulu.  Who are these women in white rooms who rub thing hands on table-tops?  The commercial comes on, and "Oh NOOOO! Where'd it go?"  Because of his online viewing, he also is familiar with "'uffering" and has become adept at putting his finger on the touch-pad when the screen goes dim.

The Real Point of Pride

One word: "'impsons".  Yup, he loves it.  It beats Thomas, Yo Gabba Gabba, and Backyardigans out of the water.  All he needs to hear is the "doo DOO dee Doo" of Danny Elfman's opening score, and he will run from any part of the house, and while we fast-forward through the Itchy and Scratchy cartoons, Henry finds the familiarity of the characters and objects in the show extremely exciting.  People "walk", have "books", ride "bikes", and "animals" abound throughout every episode.

Henry was always a hesitant speaker and signer, but he happily describe the events of the latest "Simpsons": laughing, kissing "oh no"-ing, and, yes, even "Ha-ha"ing along with Groening's creations.  When the episode ends, he speaks and signs, "Dada...Mama, please more 'impsons.  Please."

As I tell my students, the power of visual narratives at their best is that they allow for both immediate identification and for depth and complexity as viewers engage with layers and layers of connectivity and meaning.  The best of popular culture, to which I believe the Simpsons has won a predominant place, holds the power to challenge and grow with us.  My pride is not just in his good taste that eschews the frustrating same-ness of children's television for clever and subtle character and plot, but because Henry not only recognizes images but also cheers, "He did it!", when Homer succeeds in stopping Bart from bringing down the school with the old Springfield Subway and gives him a hug, and how could any father not have their heart touched by that, least of a popular culture scholar.


Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain  aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications (Calvin College), Film Studies (Central Michigan University), and Media and American Culture Studies (Bowling Green State University. In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and depiction of ethics in detective narratives.