On August 26th, 1996, the show 7th Heaven aired on The WB for the first time. The show was about a family of seven (initially) that lived in Glen Oak, California. Religion was a big part of this show, as the father of the family was a reverend at a local church and seen by his family and the community as a man of wisdom. The premise of the show was essentially how Reverend Camden and his wife Annie raised their kids and helped them through moral and social issues with loving guidance. Issues such as premarital sex, drug and alcohol use, homelessness, bullying, and even menstruation were discussed between family members with the purpose of educating viewers on such topics. The show received a great deal of praise and the Parents Television Council ranked 7th Heaven regularly among the top ten most family-friendly shows. Parentstv.org says that, “While addressing topics such as premarital sex and peer pressure, these parents [Annie and Eric] are eager to provide wise counsel along with love and understanding.”
(Annie and an older Ruthie)
Obviously, in 1996, I was not watching this show. But I did try to watch it as I grew older. What I find interesting now is that my mother did essentially everything she could to keep my sisters and me from watching it– but my guess is that this is because she started to notice what I was using the show for. When I started watching, I was probably around 9 or 10 years old, but I was definitely too young to care about the troubles associated with drug addictions and premarital sex. I identified most closely with Ruthie, the youngest of the family (at the time). However, instead of learning how to deal with problems that might arise in the typical ten year old’s life, I learned how to create them. Ruthie was about my age, and I took particular interest in her because she was cute. And I don’t mean I thought she was pretty. She, as far as I could tell, could basically get away with murder because she would get in trouble in a “cute” way. As any reasonable ten-year-old would, I took careful mental notes on what Ruthie did that got her attention without getting her in too much trouble. One such example would be an episode where Ruthie crawls under her bed and uses the wall as her easel for keeping a type of painted diary. When the pictures are found, Ruthie is given a talking to and receives a new diary that she can use to draw her pictures, rather than using the wall. Instead of then asking for a notebook or diary form my parents, I saw this as a brilliant way to steal some attention from my older sisters, while also gaining a new notebook or diary! So I did the same thing. Unfortunately, our housekeeper found the drawings the next day and took me upstairs to a) explain myself, and b) make me clean it off… #backfire
While I didn’t realize exactly what was happening, what I saw in 7th Heaven was obviously quite different from what the Parents Television Council saw. Rather than portraying the potential harm that results from rebellion and mischief, 7th Heaven demonstrated to me how I could do these things that were not allowed, and not have any consequences that lasted for more than a few minutes. In other words, I “[drew] upon prefabricated characters and situations of popular culture to make sense of [my] own social experience, reworking them to satisfy [my] own needs and desires” (Griffin 104).
Griffin asks his readers, “did the television Western help keep children contained within the frame of the screen or did it open young viewers to a frontier of possibilities beyond parental control?” (109) While 7th Heaven is obviously not a Western show, it did portray a sort of new frontier to me, introducing to me an entirely different family with different ways of dealing with conflict, and introducing me to new ideas of “cute” trouble making and attracting attention. Essentially, similar to the Westerns mentioned in Griffin’s article that “encouraged roaming over the countryside”, the show that attempted to educate me on the downside of getting in trouble actually encouraged me that the aftermath wasn’t all that bad and that I should roam this “danger zone” for myself.