RTF 317 - Postmodernism
May 6th, 1999 | Back to Blog Listing
MAY 7, 1999

As we have gotten closer and closer to the twenty-first century, the lifestyles of Americans and other cultures for that matter have changed drastically. Television has changed drastically as well. It has changed to not only fit the times, but also to make fun of them. Lifestyles that we see in average American households are displayed in realistic but sometimes over exaggerated senses. This is especially evident in "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" and the ever so popular primetime show, "The Simpsons".

In 1986, Paul Reubens was transformed from being a relatively smalltime actor, into a character that children would learn to love, Pee-Wee. Although this was not the first time that Pee-Wee was around, it was the first time he appeared on network television. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure had been produced and released the previous year, but now a show was in the Saturday morning lineup. Each week, millions of kids would sit in front of the screen laughing at his goofy suit, magical bike, and infamous word of the day. But there was certainly more to the show then comedy. Pee-Wee’s show was made up of radical sets, make believe worlds, talking animals, even talking furniture. It was categorically described as an educational children’s comedy. Less the comedy, I suppose one could almost compare it to Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. All of the elements were the same. Of course, anyone’s who has ever watched both of those shows would say quite the opposite. Characteristically, Pee-Wee reflected the life of the eighties teenager and young adult. Hairstyles were very eccentric and strangely colored, a modern house look was always in effect as mentioned previously, and women were not shown to be housewives, but rather important figures in the world. Although all of these things may seem like nothing, they were quite a change for the time. Single hosted shows before this time were nothing like that of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Many times the host would be and older man, talking calmly and enunciating his words, simply trying to get a message across. If the host wanted a guest on his show, it would be another person similar to the host explaining their message in the same sense. I resort back to Mr. Roger. Children were often taken on trips to the post office or the bank. They would see a postal employee named Mr. Smith or a bank clerk named Mrs. Morris doing their job, and learn what they did. The farthest stretch that the show had was “Never-Never Land”, which was made up of humans and talking puppets. Paul Reuben was far from anything like this. His “Never-Never Land” was the entire show. The set was not made up of nice furniture and fishbowls, but rather of magic windows and furniture that talked to the audience. Even the character names were made up. There was Conky, Knucklehead, Captain Carl, and of course, Pee-Wee. The entire show was a display of the post-modernism cinema and television style that had emerged. People of the era were tired of being “normal” and individualism was a key. Children, teens, and even young adults wanted to be different then the "regular guy". This could be seen through the way that people dressed and did their hair to the way that they built their homes. No more slacks and tucked in collared shirts. People wanted to dress in ripped jeans and wear Jean jackets covered in patches. They did not want their hair to be blonde or brown with the standard cut but rather for it to be purple or pink with spikes or even a Mohawk. “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” catered to this style of life, and it certainly became popular because of it.

As the eighties ended and the nineties began, lifestyles began changing yet again and a new display of postmodernism shows would begin. Within that realm of shows would emerge one of the most popular animated series of all times, “The Simpsons”. “The Simpsons” did not necessarily look at individuals differently, but rather at the family. To understand how this works, we must look at each family member separately. We begin with the children. As we have seen in shows in the past, children were generally well behaved, polite, and listened to their parents. Take for example “Leave it to Beaver”. Wally and the Beaver were always civil to one another, they were courteous to their parents, and when they wronged their parents, the apologized and “learned” how not to make the same mistake again. “The Simpsons” is much different from this model. Bart Simpson is the epitome of the nineties child. He is misbehaved, crude to others, disrespectful to authority, and makes the same mistakes over and over again. Lisa Simpson is not quite like Bart, but her ideas are very eccentric as well. Although she is supposed to be extremely educated, she often causes problems for others by means of protest even against her parent’s wishes. She is simply another reflection of the nineties child. Children nowadays tend to form their own radical opinions about matters and do not usually take into consideration what their parents feel about it. The legalization of drugs and especially marijuana can is a perfect example of this. Parents realize the dangers of drugs, but children believe them to be perfectly safe or are ignorant to their dangers. Because of this, we have the “rebel child” that goes out and does exactly what his or her parents would not approve of; in this case doing drugs. As we look at the mother of the family, Marge, we can see yet another perfect reflection of today’s mom. Marge is depicted in a number of episodes as the working mom. She has held down jobs such as a teacher, a policewoman, and even a spokesperson for the community. She is often afraid of where her path may take her, but is not afraid to try. Quite opposite of what we would expect from Mrs. Cleaver who could be seen cooking and cleaning the house at all times. On the flip side, however, this is the way that it was back in the fifties and sixties. That was what moms did. It only makes sense that we would see it would be on television like that. Finally as we look at the father of the family, the infamous Homer Simpson, we can only laugh. As in other postmodernism shows, Homer is known as the “buffoonish father”. Recalling on the Cleaver family, we would expect nothing more from Mr. Cleaver then for him to come home from a hard days work, pay the bills, tell his children goodnight, put himself to bed, and do it all over again. Homer is a little different. In his average thirty minutes, we see Homer skip work, drink himself into a stupor, watch hours of television, and ignore most of the bad things that his children do, not to mention ignoring his wife. This is obviously a harsh way to look at the nineties father, but there is some truth to it. The father of today does not always run the show, and is not always the one on top in the family. In the past the father held the family together, but nowadays we see different and random bonds form between family members. We do not see fathers throwing a ball around with their son as much anymore. Not to mention, slacking off from hard work is more evident now then in the past.

So as we have gotten closer and closer to the twenty-first century, we can see that the postmodernism television shows are changing to fit the lifestyles of Americans. As we have scene in “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” and “The Simpsons”, television follows the time, but it reflects it in some ways and mocks it in others. I can not wait to see how television reflects the twenty-first century, and I especially can not wait to see how it mocks it.