How To Make Peace with TV, with Rebecca Carroll
Rebecca Carroll is a cultural critic, host of WYNC’s Come Through podcast, and critic at large for the Los Angeles Times. TL;DR: She is qualified to talk about television. But during quarantine, she’s found herself reexamining the role TV plays in her own family and how it’s actually a pretty good thing when times are particularly tough. “I just don’t think that this whole screen time thing is as negative as a lot of folks do. So long as I can have a conversation with my kid about what he is consuming, so long as I can have a conversation with him about what he is thinking, I am pretty lax about screentime.”
Follow Rebecca Carroll on Instagram at @rebeljunemarie and on Twitter at @rebel19
Want more from Rebecca?
- Listen to her podcast, Come Through, to hear 15 essential conversations about race in a pivotal year for America. Visit wnycstudios.org/podcasts/come-through
- Find more of her work, articles, and books at rebeccasimonecarroll.com
[01:03] I’m Rebecca Carroll. I am a writer, a cultural critic and the host of a podcast called Come Through, and this is Good Kids. As a cultural critic, I consume a lot of content and I sort of have the theory that I can’t talk sh*t about something if I haven’t seen it. So that usually means like if it’s something like this Tiger King documentary, which I knew I was gonna hate, but I couldn’t talk about it until I actually watched it. That’s like “trash TV” to me. But I wanted to talk about the ways in which I feel bonded to my kid — not that the bar has been lowered, but that he’s actually consuming stuff that I consider my work, and that we can talk about it in that way. So I’m a writer and he hates writing. I read, I love to read, and he’s not a reader.
[01:56] But when it comes to TV or movies, that’s a place where we can connect. I mean, he actually has pretty good taste. I’m going to give an example of this show called Dave. I’m pretty sure it’s on FX and it’s about this white mensch-y Jewish guy who’s a rapper. And he has this like black hype guy and a really talented black producer. And like, the optics of it could not be worse, but the writing of it is actually pretty clever and pretty smart. So my son introduced me to that show, and I was very, very snobby about it before watching it. And then I was like, well, it’s interesting what “trash TV” means, right? I mean, especially now that we’re talking so much more about the value of content — it’s just an interesting conversation to have when you are the parent of a teenager, particularly in quarantine, what constitutes a really good show and who gets to decide that? Like this is his world right now, right? This is his world. And so, you know, if he wants to watch this white Jewish rapper and rely on his black friends to help him promote his rap debut album, I mean, who am I to say that that’s not quality television?
[03:36] But then that also brings into question what is safe? What is safety? Especially as the mother of a black child, a black boy, no less, in these times. I mean, I say these times, it’s really time immemorial. You know, I think that there are things that he should be able to watch and feel safe watching them, but also understand that there are things that are not safe, but he should still feel safe watching them, if that makes sense. I think that there are stories like When They See Us, the Ava DuVernay series, which was just gutting for me. I watched it three times. And it was so important for me that my son watched it, first of all, because it was, I thought, really good, but also because it resonates and is so relative to his own experience. I hoped the whole time that I wasn’t traumatizing him, but I knew that it was really important for him to see it.
[04:40] It is absolutely a balancing act, all of the time. But in quarantine during this pandemic, I’ve had to constantly rein myself in so that I’m not dictating to him how to have this experience. Because I keep thinking, like, imagine being a teenager during this pandemic. Is his generation going to be the generation in 15 years that washes their hands every five minutes? We just don’t know. But I think that if I can allow him to have as organic an experience as possible, then he can write his own history.
[05:25] So he has not wanted to go out at all. The other day he decided he wanted to go to the deli to get some ramen noodles. So he put on the mask and, you know, he wore his slides over to the deli and came back and seemed fine. But it was the first time he’d been out in six weeks. And rather than sort of grill him, how did it go? How was that? Did you see people? You know, I just sort of let him be in charge of that experience and not kind of push it or interrogate it too much. Because I think that as parents, whatever age are kids are, we’re trying to direct how they should feel about a global pandemic when they’re feeling it for the first time. And that they should feel it the way that they feel it.
[06:22] Since we’re all together and we live in a pretty small Brooklyn apartment, I’m just more mindful of how I’m experiencing it, too. Because I know that our kids, they take in whatever it is that we express, whether it’s verbal or or not. So I think I tell myself it’s really enough to be as present and as honest with my own experience as I can, which means that sometimes I don’t feel great about what’s going on. I feel frustrated. I have to continue to be a parent in the ways that I believe are important. So he asked for an outdoor — we have a very small outdoor space, but part of it’s paved. And so we got, you know, a seven foot tall outdoor hoop, which took forever to assemble. But, you know, he’s constantly saying to me, because I’m working at home, can you play basketball with me? And his dad, too, we’re working at home. And so we have to sort of keep saying this is a work day for us. We would not be here if not for the pandemic. Can I play later on in the evening? Let’s revisit it then. Maybe on the weekend. But I that’s something I definitely have to fight.
[07:39] Is my not agreeing to play basketball with him traumatizing in some way during this time? Does he need to just remember that his mom dropped everything and played basketball on the outdoor hoop with him? So, I mean, these are the things, right? These are the things that you constantly think about. What has been surprising is how actually heartening it is to know where he is, to know where my son is all the time. Again, it’s a small Brooklyn apartment. We all have very big personalities. We certainly have gotten on each other’s nerves. But for me, especially given how bonded I am to my son, it’s been kind of moving, surprisingly. I didn’t anticipate feeling so moved to know where he is all of the time. I mean, just sort of like a little bit of a backstory, I was adopted. And so my son is my first family of my body. And after I had him, I mean, I was utterly unprepared to feel this kind of wave of both euphoria, but also — it was just arresting how devoted and in love I felt. That has carried through for us now that he is a teenager. You know, he’s always been kind of a cuddler, we’re both kind of cuddlers. And it’s kind of great that, you know, we’ll be curled up on the couch some evenings during this pandemic, and he still wants to snuggle. And he still, you know, I can see sort of just sort of peeks back to when he was a baby, and we had those first kind of foggy, beautiful, intense days after he was born. So, you know, it sounds really like I’m completely over romanticizing it. But at the same time, you know, he’s my only kid and I do feel that way. I do feel grateful to have him in my sight all day, every day.
[12:14] I was raised in rural New Hampshire, and I had parents who were extremely laissez faire. At a certain point. I was just sort of on my own and I gravitated towards television. And so I watched an inordinate amount of television, even growing up in nature and the outdoors. I mean, in my early, early life, you know, my brother and sister and I spent a lot of time outdoors, fishing and picking berries and looking for frogs and all those quaint, bucolic things. But when I reached probably by 11 or 12, I was drawn to TV. And so when it came to our son — and my husband and I have fought about this. I just don’t think that this whole screen-time thing is as negative as a lot of folks do. So long as I can have a conversation with my kid about what he is consuming, so long as I can have a conversation with him about what he is thinking, I am pretty lax about screen time Now, my husband feels very, very differently and this extends to gaming. My son’s a big gamer. But I do think that it can’t be all the time, but I feel like I learned about people and storytelling, different senses of humor, and kind of walks of life and fashion and all sorts of things through television. And so that’s where I come from when it comes to parenting and screen time.
[13:54] Now, in terms of the pandemic, I mean, like we’re not puzzlers, we’re not sitting around the table doing puzzles. You know, my son hasn’t played a game of Uno for, I don’t know how long, maybe three years. We’re not gamers like that. Like we don’t do board games. So I want to be mindful of what all of these studies and statistics say. My husband’s a sociology professor, and so he reads things about human behavior, and he often has a very good case, and we try to find a happy medium. But personally, I feel if you can talk through what it is that you just watched, then it’s OK.
[14:45] When it comes to consuming television or media, you know, my job is to make sure he can express or understand what it is that he’s taking in. I remember I took some heat from folks because I let my son watch Empire when Empire first came out. We would watch that together. And that, to me, was like a great TV watching experience because it was like this black show, and, you know, they were Kehinde Wiley paintings in the house of Lucius. And, you know, it was very juicy, but it was also very, very risque or PG-13, or maybe even beyond that. But I knew that if we watched it together, and he had questions or concerns, or I thought it looked like he was scared or puzzled, we could talk about it. And so a couple of years later, I had the opportunity to interview Taraji Henson, who is Cookie on the show. And my son really, really dug her character. And so I told her that we watched together and he was a fan of hers, and how I had had parents criticize me for letting them watch it. And she said, “so long as he has you guiding him through it.” And that’s exactly how I felt.
[16:03] My son has an annoyingly persistent habit of asking while we’re watching what’s happening. And then, you know, it may come up in a conversation the next day or that evening or, you know, I think that what really is the through line is that my husband and I both really encourage curiosity, and the sense of kind of interrogating, or engaging with what it is that you’re consuming. To not be passive. In other words, to, you know, to sort of see it, but also think about it. Now is a really great opportunity to do that. I think for parents, it’s really, really OK to be discerning of what your kids watch, but also to let them watch. And I think that the other thing as a critic to think about is that there are countless creators, artists, writers, thinkers whose work goes into making media, making television, making movies, who have a broad array of insights on the world. And that is kind of magical if you think about it that way. And you value the work and the effort, you know, that has gone into making certain things. So I have a lot of folks in the “industry” from independent film to Hollywood film to, you know, Web series to TV series. And I know what it takes to produce and create a piece of work. So, I mean, I am very, very cognizant of that when I take in media as a critic, but also as someone who loves creative work and also as a parent. And I think that that’s an important thing to remind your kids of. Somebody made this. Somebody produces this show every day. That’s their job.
[18:14] And that’s something, I think, if you can allow your children to see media or television in ways that go beyond just the just the show they’re watching, that can be a real gift. Especially now when we’re all holed up in our homes looking for, you know, inspiration, looking for sort of clarity or some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. I think more than ever, we need to look at not just media, but art and relationships and find the joy where we can.
[19:00] If you want to hear more from me, you can listen to my podcast Come Through wherever you get your podcasts. And please rate and review. It helps a ton. And you can follow me on Twitter at @Rebel19.
[19:17] Good Kids is a Lemonada Media original. Andrew Steven is our producer, and the show is executive produced by Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Music is by Dan Molad. Westwood One is our ad sales and distribution partner. Like us, give us a five-star rating, and recommend us to a friend. If you want to submit a show idea, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.