admit it: I like TV series. They don’t last long, some have artistic merit, while others are funny, or soothing and predictable. They help you unwind after supper. After years of avoiding TV altogether my husband and I got cable, opening up my television world for the first time. Our decision happened to coincide with an explosion of good, funny, smart, and highly entertaining English-language shows (for decades unavailable in dubbing-happy Italy).
I don’t claim to watch these for sociological reasons, but I can’t help drawing conclusions about the societies that produced them.
I’ve always favored medical dramas. At age 12 I dreamed of being a doctor, which many dismissed with a laugh. “You can’t be a doctor, you’re a girl!” was a line I heard often. (The real reason, it turned out, wasn’t my sex, but my aversion to math!)
In the early 1960s, I became a fan of “Dr. Kildare,” a fascinating show, given the era in which it aired. It often left the plot suspended, without a resolution, which was uncommon in “happy ending” times.
One episode stood out for me.
In it a female intern and Kildare fall in love. The climax is her interview for the residency at the hospital. The panel asks many questions, but all hinges on one: “Do you have any intention of marrying?” At the time, marriage was inextricably linked with having a family, which would lead a woman out of the workplace, wasting the efforts of those who’d trained her.
The line ended on that question, but it was clear she’d reply “no,” marriage wasn’t in her plans, breaking Kildare’s heart.
The long-running “Grey’s Anatomy,” a mainstream TV staple that first aired in 2005, represents another and different side of the story. Most of the hospital characters are either surgeons or skilled specialists, almost all of them female. Most have children and share childcare (such as it is) with their partners, usually other doctors. Mostly the childcare in question consists of handing their kids over to day care centers to then pick them up when their shifts end. That’s when they’re not trying desperately to figure out what to do with them when they’re delayed at the hospital, which happens often.
We rarely see these doctors interacting with their kids. We rarely see them wishing they could actually spend more time with them.
If one partner gets a great job opportunity in another city, the other doctor must, unfortunately, bid farewell to the child (the kid’s opinion is strangely absent).
The underlying idea in this series is that parents love their kids, but, as they say in any creative writing class, it’s all about “show, don’t tell,” and viewers get no signs of parental affection. They do, however, see how much the doctors love each other. Clothes fly off in storerooms and supply closets with no concern that someone might walk in.
Amid all this lust, it can seem that emotional interaction with children, not sex, is what’s being subject to censorship.
To these people, careers come before all else. Given these priorities, kids just don’t rate that much time.
Yet they never seem to mind being treated inertly, like packages in need only of shuffling around from babysitters to relatives to day care. They never protest or become sad. As is the case on many shows of all kinds, babies and toddlers do not possess personality or character. This isn’t especially surprising. A static character, bereft of development, rarely makes it past fiction editors unless it’s a child.
But while scriptwriters profit from expert advisors on the medical side of their stories, they seem not to have asked anyone what children are really like.
Or maybe they simply don’t care.
That’s odd since many overworked parents long to spend more time at home with their children. In any credible plot, the relationships between parents and children would have to play a critical role, for no other reason than to better outline the character development of the parents themselves. Or fail to establish that aspect of character. Are children less important than careers? Does this absence of realistic depiction of real children and their complex feelings reflect a cultural attitude of dismissiveness? Or does it contribute to it?
It used to be that certain categories, women among them, received superficial, one-dimensional TV portrayals. Women were often depicted simply as “wives.” Racial minorities, when they even appeared, depended on caricature and no one felt the need to apply depth to their characters. It seems we’ve now hit the final frontier: children, who, in most fiction, seem interchangeable. Babies and toddlers are props, emotionless. Leaving one with a stranger poses no problem. A prop is a prop.
And what a sad story that is.