TLC - The P.T. Barnum of Cable Television

Freak-shows.

Throughout history, differences in the human condition have been fodder for exploitation and entertainment, dating back to the 16th century with street "performances" to entertain the masses. In 1850 you could hand a man a quarter or less and gain admission to P.T. Barnum's "Great Travelling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome" where you could look on in fear, wonder, amazement, or horror at a bearded lady, "Siamese" twins, a three-legged boy, "Fijian cannibals", giants, midgets (as they were referred to then), or any other number of human "oddities".

This phenomenon seemingly reached its peak in the mid-to-late 19th century, when there were over 100 such side-shows traveling with circuses and fairs around the country.

As we moved onward in to the 20th century however, our knowledge, understanding, acceptance and compassion grew, and shows like these disappeared from the mainstream. We have evolved and we look back on these cruel and demeaning displays with pity for the ignorance collectively suffered and sadness for those used and abused because of their differences.

Or have we?

I don't believe we have.

We're just better at making it look acceptable now.

These days all you have to do is sit in the comfort of your own living room and turn on the tv. But while the venue may be different, what's happening is exactly the same as if you handed a man a quarter to see what's behind that curtain. If you watch TLC, that is. 

TLC. Formerly The Learning Channel, they actually used to show educational programming. But when it was clear that was not where the money was, they changed their name and moved in a more lucrative direction. Lucrative, and unsettling.

Over the last decade TLC has essentially become a modern-day P.T. Barnum. While it can be argued that just about every channel/network out there offer some questionable programs (consider this a shout-out to MTV... ), TLC has cultivated a programming line-up that would rival any side-show of the past.

A current list of some of their shows:

- My Strange Addiction

- 19 Kids and Counting

- Sister Wives

- Hoarding - Buried Alive

- I Didn't Know I was Pregnant

- The Little Couple and Little People, Big World

- Toddlers and Tiaras

 

Let's look at that list. A recent episode of My Strange Addiction featured a woman who was obsessed with carrying around the ashes of her dead husband... and eating them. Then we have procreation run-amok and polygamy. People whose compulsion to collect so much of something that they endanger their own lives. Women who give birth without having any clue they were even pregnant. Shows about... that's right... little people. Sound familiar?

Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I am not calling any of the people on these shows "freaks". What I am saying, is that their differences, whatever they may be, are being exploited for the purpose of entertaining others. Of course these days, with the exception of the children, being shown like this is the choice of those we are watching. This was sometimes the case during the heyday of the circus side-shows as well, where many of the adult "exhibits" displayed themselves willingly, in order to earn money. Seems to me, this is not much different today.

But let's please not forget the children. Who truly have no voices here except what their parents or guardians have chosen for them. How is being put front and center on a tv show that people watch because they think you are at best, a curiosity, any different than the parents that sold or contracted their children to the freak-shows of old?

The jewel in this dirty crown (pun entirely intended) without question is the abhorrent and irresponsible Toddlers and Tiaras. This show has been in the news quite a bit recently, and for good reason. Here, TLC shines a big, blinding spotlight on the world of "beauty pageants" for little girls. And by little, I mean as young as a year old, and by beauty, I mean if you consider spray-tans, fake teeth, false eyelashes, more make-up than Ru Paul in full drag, hair that defies any explanation and outfits more suited to 18 yr-old cheerleaders or Vegas show girls, beautiful, on babies and elementary school-aged girls.

I could rant for days on how horrifyingly wrong this is. Why these pageants are legal is frankly a mystery. The exploitation is rampant and obvious - for all of the supporters out there, all you have to do is watch a few episodes with Eden Wood's mother in them and you won't be able to get away from it. For all who cry "scholarship money!", I'd like to point out, that at least from what they have shown, cash is handed over to the winners of these pageants, not checks made out to trust, cash. Ms. Wood said right on camera that she was just waiting for "Hollywood" to call to offer her 6 year old a 2 million dollar contract so that she could then go out an buy a big house in L.A. What parent says to their 6 year old "it's all on YOU, all the money, all the work, it's all on YOU." ? How can you say "well, when we first did her make up we were really bothered by it because she looked 17 and she's only 4, but, well, you get used to it, it's just what you have to do." ? Actually, no, it's not. No one is putting a gun to your head and forcing you to do this to your children.

Yes, I understand that there are exceptions, and that there are likely parents of these girls who are truly trying to earn some money to help with their future education. But people, giving your 4 year old fake boobs, a hot-pink, skin tight outfit, making her up to look like a bad Barbie on What Not to Wear, filling her full of coffee and Pixie Stix, and making her believe that she is not beautiful unless every single thing about her is fake... is not the way to do it. The body image issues these very little girls already have, just make me sick to my stomach.

And while TLC may not be forcing anyone to do anything, they are certainly providing the incentive/motivation/vehicle for this to continue and possibly flourish. The chance to "be on tv" and "get famous" are powerful drugs to those hungry for any kind of attention, even if it's negative.

 

Human nature will not change. I'm not writing this to judge anyone who watches these types of shows, I understand that when given the option to observe unusual people or circumstances, we will. We will always be drawn to things that are different, things we find strange, outrageous, bewildering, amazing, in both good and bad ways. Whether it's because we are curious, afraid or confused and want to understand, or because knowingly or not, we feel better about ourselves when we see others in situations we deem difficult, or, we actually find the differences of others entertaining somehow, there will always be an audience for the freak-show.

TLC has simply chosen to capitalize on this.

Ol' P.T. would be proud.

 

I think about this a lot because I have Josh. My son. My Toadie, who, even in this day and age, prompted a man to say that he should be in a cage.

I know that people look at us when he's acting out. Even when he's not. Because he's different. Back in the day, he probably would have been abandoned or sold to some freak-show purveyor. This makes me die a little inside.

So am I being too hard on TLC? Am I over reacting? Come on now, it's just tv... right?

Right?

 

You tell me.

 

How Far Do We Go?

Wasn't planning on another post today, but something happened yesterday that I think is important to talk about here. 

Josh was bitten by another child at school.  This is not the first time it has happened, it was in fact, the third time in the last couple of months, all by the same child.  A child getting hurt at school or being targeted by another child is certainly not unique to special needs children, but dealing with the issue in that respect is an entirely different ball-game on all sides. 

On the one hand, I am in Angry Mother-Bear mode, someone HURT MY CHILD.  We all have that instinct, the need to protect and keep them safe.  It's a big part of our job as parents.  When they do get hurt or their safety is compromised, we feel guilty, angry, scared, sad, you name it.  With typically developing children however, as they grow up, you transition that responsibility for their safety gradually over to them.  We teach them to look both ways before crossing a street, not to touch the stove or iron when it's hot because they could get burned, not to use the stapler on themselves (don't laugh, I did this when I was about 4 or 5 while standing at the counter in a bank with my mom - kids are insane, I actually remember thinking, "I wonder what this would feel like?" and then just stapling my thumb...  ), and we can even teach them to stay out of or away from situations/people that might harm them.  I can't do this with Josh.  He has absolutely no concept of danger, therefore personal safety is also meaningless.  So with him it's completely in the hands of the adults that are responsible for him at any given time, whether it's me, his dad, or the staff at his school.  So part of me is angry with the grown-ups he was with at the time, especially since this has happened before and I was assured after the first time that the staff had a "plan" in place to make sure that this other child would not ever be close enough to Josh for this to happen again.  Clearly that "plan" is not working, since it has happened twice more since then.  But I can't really be angry with them, since as a parent I know perfectly well you cannot always keep things from happening even when you are right there.  I can't be angry with the other child either.  If he were a child without special needs, that would be different.  A child without developmental issues can understand right and wrong.  Children like Josh and this other little boy, cannot.  I feel badly for his parents too, as I know how devastated I would be to find out Josh was hurting another child or children like that, and I know it's not their fault either. 

There is responsibility here though and it lies with those that make decisions about staffing.  In the world of Special Education as in all types of schooling, it always comes down to money and who gets how much and for what.  Giving a child a 1:1 aide costs $$ and many districts will not just hand those out to every teacher who says they need one for one of their kids.  It usually needs to be pretty extreme issues of care/safety to get this.  Josh had 1:1 for many years when he was younger, primarily because his tantrums were so extreme and prolonged, and he engaged in self-abuse behaviors.  In my mind though, any child who is known to be a danger to others should automatically be given 1:1 supervision.  The risk that is run when they are not, is too high for everyone involved.  You risk other children being hurt, as Josh has been.  I am contemplating posting pictures of the bite marks, just so you can see what we are talking about here.  Not sure if I should, I'll decide later, but these bites have left CSI-worthy dental impressions complete with bad bruising that lasts a good week or more - and this was through two layers of clothing, including a sweater.  So I know these bites were hard.  Have you ever been bitten?  It's extraordinarily painful.  All I can say is thank goodness he wasn't in short sleeves when it's happened, as his injuries would have been pretty severe.  

So now what?  Well, after discussing the situation with his dad, we have decided that we won't send him back to school until they can come up with a solution to this problem.  The easiest and most sensible seems to be to provide the extra staff member so that this other child can have the constant supervision he clearly needs. But I have no idea if the school district will do that.  School districts are interesting entities and I think will likely be the subject of another post here down the road.  So the question is, how far do we take this?  As Josh's mother I cannot bring myself to send him knowingly back in to a situation that I now consider un-safe.  I wouldn't be doing my job if I did.  Here in Washington state however, we have a law called the Becca Bill which allows the state to go after parents whose children are absent from school more than a certain percentage of time.  As an example, let me just throw this at you: when Josh gets sick, you can pretty much count on his having to be out of school for at least a week, sometimes a little longer.  This is just the way he is when he gets ill, things tend to linger with him. I get letters from the school, warning me that they will invoke the Becca Bill if he misses any more, and this is after he has been SICK and they know he has been sick.  Seems to be taking the Bill out of its intended context, which is truly negligent parents who don't know where their kids are or simply don't send them to school or provide any alternate form of education.  Regardless, this is what we deal with.  So now I have him home, he is not sick, and I honestly don't know how long it will be before we get some resolution on the issue.  If they tell us he has to come back or they will take us to court using the Becca Bill, do we come back with the pictures I have of these injuries and counter sue?  How far do we take this?  This is what his dad asked me and we decided we were in agreement that Josh's well being was worth it even if it means a court fight.  But really, that would be the last thing any of us needs to be dealing with, let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Behind this surface issue of there needing to be appropriate measures in place to keep our kids safe, there is the more difficult one of dealing with your child being hurt in the first place.  A child who doesn't understand except that he has been hurt a few times now, all I can think is does he wonder why I haven't helped him? Does it scare him? And I just die inside.  Josh first started school when he was three.  In Washington, once children who need special services reach three years old they move from Early Intervention to the school districts.  Three.  I had to take my three year old to a regular elementary school.  The program and teacher were great, but it was still a very difficult thing, especially since at that time he was in the uber-tantrum and self-abuse phase of his existence (we'll talk about that in detail another time).  He had only been at school for about two months when one day I brought him home, was changing him and noticed he was covered in bruises.  Covered.  I was horrified and completely stunned.  I took the rest of his clothes off.... they were everywhere, finger-tip shaped bruises all over his little body, as well as a large, circular pattern of bruising in the center of his back.  I was beside myself, honestly the emotion was the worst combination of heartbreak, rage, and guilt you could ever possibly imagine.  We kept him out of school, had the requisite meetings and were told that the staff working with him to that point just didn't have the necessary training to handle him during his tantrums - they were trying to hold him so that he wouldn't keep hitting himself (which he did at that stage), but in the process held him too hard and at one point tried holding him in a chair, hence the bruising on his back.  So we informed them we had taken photos, and that they had better provide him with staff who had appropriate training.  Turned out that was quite effective.  But the damage was done, no pun intended.  I can't tell you how hard it is trusting others to care for and be responsible for him at this point.  If anyone ever wonders why I will not ever have him take the bus or go to the camps that his teachers keep pressing me about, this post is your answer.  At not yet 12 he has been injured badly enough like this 4 times now - that first incident and now the three bites. 

I know that school is good for him, the routine and the structure work well for him and it keeps him busy.  When he is on breaks for too long he gets bored and then destructive, which is not good, and I can't enforce structure at home the way they do at school, he is very rigid about those worlds being separate.  All I want is to keep him safe and happy and it kills me that he's had to go through all this.

Edit for update:  A meeting with the school district SpEd co-ordinator and the school staff is scheduled for Monday April 19th, we'll see what comes of it then.  In the meantime, he is at home with me.