The first “sex scene” I ever saw on-screen was in Top Gun, a film I was allowed to watch with my parents as long as I closed my eyes and put my fingers in my ears during “the rude bits.” Of course, I peeked, and years later as I careened through puberty, I remember thinking how much easier it would have been if we had kept that same censorship technique in place – how it might have saved me (and, I suspect, them) from the inevitable awkwardness that ensued every time we sat down to watch television.
Honestly, I would have preferred to not watch TV with my parents during those formative years, but we only had one TV, which meant that if I wanted to watch something, there was a good chance my parents would be joining me on the sofa too. There were the usual battles for ownership of the remote, and while there were some shows we all enjoyed – Friends, ER, Frasier – I spent a lot of time defending my decision to watch teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Roswell.
One of the many, many things that I love about teen shows are those cringe-worthy “after school special” episodes. You know, the ones that deal with BIG issues, like drugs, pregnancy, bulimia, and yes, sex. I find the heightened drama and convoluted, wordy scripts of those episodes, kitsch in the best possible way. I can laugh at them now but back then I took them pretty seriously and my parents were quick to tease both their and my own conviction. My parents dismissed anything in the TV guide prefixed by “teen” as unrealistic, cheesy and silly, but, forced to view them with me, I discovered the more that they watched, the less they complained. Instead, we discussed the actions and emotions of the characters on-screen – not how old the actors portraying them looked (even if they did look closer to 30 than 15). And in some instances, the shows became less “mine” and more “ours.” Two good examples would be the seminal teen series My So-Called Life and Freaks & Geeks. Both of these shows were a hit with me, and my parents, from the start.
One of the first scenes I remember from the pilot episode of My So-Called Life (Jordan Catalano leaning, aside) was when the 15-year-old protagonist Angela emerged from her bathroom in just a towel and bumped into her dad in the hallway. She explains the awkward encounter like this: “My dad and I used to be pretty tight. The sad truth is, my breasts have come between us.” I wasn’t able to verbalize it at the time but it was exactly how I felt at her age. And although I would never have spoken to my dad about it, I would like to think that watching it played out on-screen, while he sat beside me, might have reassured him in the same way it did for me; our experience wasn’t an uncommon one.
I think what my parents liked most about My So-Called Life was that the storylines focussed on the adults as much as the teenagers. Exploring Angela’s relationship with her parents was every bit as important to the show as developing her school friendships and romances. Her dynamic with her mother was complicated and in the pilot she said something I believe most teenage girls express at one stage or another: “Lately, I can’t even look at my mother without wanting to stab her repeatedly.” At the time I thought Angela’s behavior was rational (it is, for a teenage girl) and justified (it’s not, but I only know that now that I’m older). I found her mom Patty infuriating, but watching their relationship on-screen helped me realize that, most of the time, Patty was just concerned – she wasn’t, in fact, trying to ruin Angela’s life. Kinda like how my mum wasn’t trying to ruin mine.
Although largely a comedy, Freaks & Geeks offered its share of talking points too. Namely, that the age-old quest to figure out who you are and where you fit in, never stops being relevant. It was only through watching these shows that I discovered – shock, horror – that my parents were once teenagers, too. The dialogue in these series helped me to relate to my parents and offered them a platform to share their own stories from adolescence – some of which were eerily similar to my own experiences.
I couldn’t comprehend it at the time, but I now realize how important it was to watch these “teen” shows together; how they helped us understand one another and allowed us to communicate in organic ways. Self-confidence, peer pressure, and sexuality were all open for debate when we watched Angela turn down sex with her crush Jordan Catalano. The great thing was we could discuss these issues without embarrassment or tension because we weren’t talking directly to each other – we were talking about and through the characters.
Years after it first aired, a friend and I decided to spend the whole weekend in our sleeping bags watching every episode of My So-Called Life on my living room floor; my parents found any excuse they could to join us. And when Freaks & Geeks creator Paul Feig replied to an email I wrote him at 15, my mum was perhaps even more excited than I was that he had replied.
At 17, I left home but my parents continued to watch Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer without me. The shows might have been unrealistic, cheesy, and even silly at times, but I think my parents would agree that those shows, and the evenings we spent watching them together, were every bit as educational (and far less painful) than any textbook.