Our Television-Made Parents, or Watching TV with My Mother
My 87 year-old mother has lived in an assisted care residence for three years. Like many of the people at the LaConnor Retirement Apartments, she did not really “choose” to live in assisted care — she ended up there after a series of medical emergencies made it impossible for her to live in her own home. Living with the tension between being forced into and choosing assisted care is one of several things shared among many of the residents there. Two other typical commonalities are hatred of the food and television-watching, lots of television watching. While there are times when I walk down the hall to my mother’s “apartment” that I notice how quiet it is — in fact, eerily quiet given how many people are living and working in a relatively small building — I often hear television soundtracks blaring behind closed doors. I guess this isn’t surprising — probably most households are ‘television on” environments when residents are home. But here most residents are “home” all the time, many no longer able to drive — in fact, many are no longer able to walk even short distances without use of canes or walkers. Most live in their own apartment alone, few have pets (although they are allowed here, as they are in many assisted care residences). My mother is envied by many residents because her son, my older brother who lives nearby, visits about four times a week (in every one of my visits, which is about four times a year, I am told by residents or caregivers how lucky my mother is to have such a devoted son). This envy suggests that many residents don’t have such frequent visitors. And, of course, the blaring television soundtrack isn’t a surprise either, as most are hard of hearing and some, such as my mother, are reluctant to wear their hearing aids.
Before you run from this column to sign up for long-term care insurance, to sign petitions for assisted-suicide, or to give your parents a call, let me get to my point — what is media studies missing in not paying much attention to the senior audience? Do we comply with media industries who also tend to ignore these audiences? Given how much commercial time is oriented towards senior-related products (everything from denture adhesive to “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” emergency alert systems), advertisers have identified hours and programs that are assumedly drawing a senior demographic (or are these commercials for the middle-aged children who are buying these products for their parents?). Yet, doesn’t every U.S. television history textbook and course syllabus cover the wholesale cancellation of network programs that were proven by ratings to “skew too old” in the late 1960s (an action repeated with some regularity in following decades)? But have we merely accepted that television programming producers and networks reject these audiences without exploring the implications of this attitude for our understandings of who watches television, and how and why? My question is not asking what is the world missing by the cancellation of Mayberry RFD, Murder She Wrote, etc., but what our field might be missing by not researching and analyzing what seniors watch, what they get pleasure from in watching, and how they understand what they watch. Do our assumptions about domestic vs. public viewing of television — assumptions gained through some of our field’s most “groundbreaking” audience research and historical studies about the power relations constructed in, by, and around the spaces of television viewing — alter or get more complicated if we have to think about those audiences who have generationally (and perhaps institutionally) re-defined relations to domestic and public sphere spaces and experiences? What if we were to consider that the largest voting block in this country is seemingly the most understudied media audience?
I’m hardly going to answer any of these questions in this essay, nor am I claiming comprehensive knowledge of the extent that seniors have been included in audience or historical studies (though my research to date has come up with few citations for work in this area in journals of either a social science or cultural studies orientation). And, my posing of these questions is not meant to denigrate the importance of media studies which have not included consideration of senior-age audiences and spectators. Certainly, my interest in these questions has been inspired by my own personal experiences in the last several years with my elderly parents, which have been further complicated now that my mother is widowed and can no longer live alone. Maybe the aging of more media studies scholars (and of their parents) will result in increasing studies of elderly audiences, just as some of our best scholarship on how children understand television and how media institutions and programming address them was inspired by media scholars witnessing their own children’s experience of television. [As an aside, please note that I am aware that Annette Kuhn's An Everyday Magic does start some of this work on the elderly in relation to film fans.] In the last part of this essay, let me suggest some of the specific questions I’ve pondered as I watch television with my mother.
My mother basically watches four channels: TCM, CNN, SCI-FI, and the fourth rotates among FOX Movie Channel and/or AMC, and The Weather Channel (when one of us children who lives far away visits her, she frequently checks the weather for our travel home). The surprise in this group is perhaps the SCI-FI channel (more about that in a minute), but it is perhaps not a surprise that she is oriented towards cable channels rather than broadcast channels given cable’s narrowcasting strategies. The choice of channels that are devoted to showing older (mostly Hollywood) films is predictable as well. When my mother was growing up, movies (in good competition with radio) were the primary source for popular narrative — she saw silent films at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and in fact, her generation was the one fretted over by the first major social science projects studying movie audiences, the studies sponsored by the Payne Fund, which were summarized in a famous book, Our Movie-Made Children. When she was a young mother fretting over her own children, these same movies were now showing up on television — the births of her children in the 1950s coincided exactly with the years in which the studios first leased or sold packages of old films to television. While we watched programs produced for television when I was growing up, Hollywood movies were the “programs” most likely to bring the whole family together to watch. Unlike the radio programs my parents grew up with that were not re-broadcast at this time, these Hollywood films were broadcasted and for that reason were something from their generation that they could share with their children. I can say that without a doubt — even though my mother has always been a reader — that films are the popular form of entertainment, visual culture, and narrative with which she has had most familiarity all her life and that she shares with her baby-boomer children.
My mother has short-term memory difficulties, she finds it difficult to understand what my brothers and I “do” for a living (for instance, she kept asking me when I last saw her, who “grades” me), and we can’t talk about politics, but when we watch movies together, we can discuss the film narrative, our favorite actors, and some aspects of the production’s intertext (e.g., “whatever happened to Jeanette MacDonald?” “who wrote this film?” “I saw this film as a child”). Not only do these conversations while watching movies with my mother provide my brother and I with “safe” but deeply felt ways of expressing pleasures and knowledges with her, we look to them as gauges for her cognitive and memory abilities. While watching Journey to the Center of the Earth with her, she asks us several times whether our father had seen this film (he had, many times), but without prompting she seems to remember the exact moments of the narrative in which he found the most pleasure in The Quiet Man. My brother reminds her that Journey to the Center of the Earth is one of the first films we were taken to at a movie theater as a whole family, and we recall other early family outings, such as attending The Music Man in a sneak preview. This continuity and collective identity as a family is not just a “subject effect” of a televisual programming strategy of the past (on broadcast television ) or present (on TCM et al), but an actively constructed identity that she and we formed together when we watched television in the 1950s-70s in our family home and now in the 2000s in her assisted living apartment.
The SCI-FI channel also provides my mother continuity with past pleasures and identities. A life-long reader and viewer of mysteries, horror, and science fiction, my mother’s conservative religious and political beliefs have always been complicated by avid pleasures in forms that often take grotesque excess, corruption, Satanism, and the paranormal as basic narrative and stylistic premises. However, although she still finds pleasure in these genres, she now she finds it harder to follow the sometimes baroque directions of such programs as The X-Files re-run on this channel. While her hearing problems may exacerbate her inabilities to follow aspects of the narrative, she also seems to have lost ways of recognizing certain kinds of spectatorial cues. In some cases this seems to be related to aspects of televisual “flow.” For example, she seems to think that Stargate, which has followed X-Files in the program schedule on the SCI-FI channel, is actually a continuation of the latter program. No matter how much my brother tries to disabuse her of this belief, she struggles in conversation to connect the plotlines of the two programs. Does this suggest that sustaining the pleasure she has gotten in certain genres in the past is more important to her than a clear understanding of what is taking place on a narrative level and/or has the way channels transition from one program to the next changed (yes!)? Her ability to recognize the distinction between parodic and non-parodic forms has also changed — not only is this perhaps a hindrance to her understanding aspects of X-Files, but in a more curious twist she can now only interpret episodes of The Loretta Young Show, which my brother showed her on tape (and which was a show she once loved and took seriously as sincere melodrama) as a parody.
While my discussion of watching movies with my mother suggests some of the ways we could start talking about television in terms of collective family memory and across-and generation identities, I think some of mother’s “surreal” interpretations of the SCI FI channel flow and old 1950s television melodramas suggest another set of questions about how considering elderly audiences could be of interest to media studies. While studies of media on children and teens (from the Payne movie studies to current research on children and teen viewers of television and new media) are invested heavily in relating media experiences to a model of identity that is in the process of developing (cognitively, politically, emotionally, etc.) and projecting towards adulthood — i.e., there is often an explicit or implicit belief in a kind of progression, maturation, or development, whether for “good” or “bad,” that takes place in the child in relation to media experiences — studies of elderly audiences would have to grapple with models of identity that do not necessarily imply progression in this sense. I’m not suggesting that the elderly only exhibit a cognitive regression, but rather that some of their responses to and experiences with media texts imply both cognitive regression and progression, both memory loss and memory sustaining present and future selves. The simultaneous presence of multiple and contradictory forms and temporalities of identity might be present in subjects of other generations (I have become aware of my own cognitive “regressions” and temporal “simultaneities” more frequently as I notice my mother’s), and it is possible that studying senior audiences might help us recognize this. In other words, the active television viewer that is the senior viewer might help us to complicate our models of identity, temporality, and collectivity in relation to television viewing and television history. And in paying attention to the generation of media audiences who were among the first studied by media researchers (as in the Payne fund studies) and who were the young and middle-aged adults addressed by the television industry discourses in the late 1940s-50s — and need I mention how much paying attention to those discourses has changed television historiography? — we have an opportunity to think about how media address and media consumption has been sustained and changed in the course of a single generation’s life time.
Please feel free to comment.