Growing Up TV

image by imp kerr

When I first began working on this piece, I got a small rush, a kind of childlike excitement. The opportunity to probe (albeit, superficially) the Mowry twins was going to be exciting. Tia and Tamera Mowry represent more than a simple celebrity fad for me, and I imagine, for countless other kids who fell into the “not quite black enough” category. Routinely castigated by cousins embarrassed by my ignorance of rap music, and puzzling to white peers who didn’t understand my preference for the company of novels and the Internet, I’d spent my childhood idealizing a set of norms that their various characters all had in common. They nearly always seemed to somehow not belong, and I envied how easily it appeared for them to wear the burden.

Their most famous roles, portraying newly reunited adopted sisters Tia Landry and Tamera Campbell, had the sisters playing two sides of the same coin, a trope not unfamiliar in our cultural depictions of identical twins; while always similar enough to cement the reality of their sibling relationship, the girls, particularly when viewed as a single unit, were always just a little different from their peers. They existed somewhat outside regular teen behavior like most sitcom kids, but the pair also enjoyed a relatively gentle version of cultural misplacement as black kids who didn’t exactly act like anyone’s conception of black kids: too smart, too funny, too klutzy, too carefree. Whatever the reason, and intentionally or not, this pair routinely defied convention.

The “smart” twin from the inner-city was often unaware of what was cool and usually preferred to take refuge from the sometimes frightening, unkind world in books and schoolwork, which provoked little to no complaint from her single mom. The “cool(er)” twin, hailing from the suburbs, got into quirky scrapes (occasionally enlisting her sister as a scapegoat) and preferred rap music and boys to homework, much to the chagrin of her unmarried father. Each was in her own way a contradiction of type, and even when one sister had a hard time identifying with the other, there was always something in their discourse that belied an understanding the rest of the world would be reluctant to extend. despite spending their childhoods apart, the sisters of Sister, Sister got one another. That was what made their dynamic—and the extremely watchable relationships they cultivated—so entertaining and reassuring. Somewhere, even for the strangest among us, there might one day be an equal, a partner in crime who will complete us.

I loved those wacky twins, and I was eager to relive that love with the now-adult actresses’ reality show. Following them through the trials of marriage, parenthood, and careers that have frankly lost a bit of their former luster, the show is actually one of the least offensive members of the august genre of celeb-reality. And even as I trudged through the first season episodes of Tia & Tamera, I continued to nurse my decades-old fondness, conceding to myself that everybody grows up, me and the twins both. Had you or I aged like the Mowrys in the hell dimension that is the Hollywood spotlight, and had we come of age in front of flashbulbs like the Olsens before them, wouldn’t any of us be attached to life on screen?

After about four episodes, a few things became pretty clear, primarily that you can only make so many excuses for people to whom you owe no obligation. despite spending many of my preadolescent years concocting an elaborate fantasy in which I was the clever, quick-witted younger sister of the most famous African American twins on national television, I found that it was as I had feared. All the things I had expected to hate about the pathos that drives celebrity, all of the things my liberal arts education taught me to loathe, were right there on a show about the lives of my childhood heroes. I wasn’t crushed by what I saw of the twins on this TV show so much as I was crushed that this was a TV show I had to watch, and that, once I’d begun, it was nearly impossible to turn away.

Damn Style Network.

There’s plenty to hate about celeb-reality TV. There’s enough in the lives of an “average celebrity” that will bore anyone who’s been watching The E! Network or Bravo for the past ten years. But what you aren’t ready for if you’ve managed to avoid it for the most part is how embarrassing it feels to watch the intimate parts of others’ lives. To witness actual sisters at odds over one another’s priorities while undergoing a shared experience of motherhood is to try to reconcile how strange it must be for them to find this level of intrusion ordinary or at all comforting. This is what’s scary about the cult of personality in pop culture: We truly have commodified our entertainers’ personal lives. And they’ve largely accepted it, because the privilege of a society’s attention is, I imagine, a rather unparalleled high. This is, culturally speaking, who we are.

A collective fascination with the rich, the famous, and the powerful has a mildly ameliorative, humanizing effect. What we used to idealize has become converted into the sort of accessible fantasy that keeps a dorky preteen company. I came to see my former idolization of the Mowrys with a bit of selfreflective revulsion. It’s not that they’re revolting; on the contrary, they’ve grown into incredibly attractive and humorous women with much of their lives ahead of them, in or out of the public eye. But at its core, our cultural tendency to romanticize and adore characters we “know” from sitcoms is a selfsatisfying projection, a way to cast ourselves in worlds centered around us.

The way America has loved these twins, along with their somewhat more successful counter-parts, the Olsens, feels a lot like a bad romance. We loved them until they began to fade from our view, and then, once out from under the oppressive weight of our scrutiny, they grew up. But we didn’t handle the way they moved on without us very well, especially given how much of their early stardom depended on our affections. There began to sprout up all these little things to remind them how important they once were to us. At their trials and mistakes, we jeer mockingly from the sidelines; and at their achievements, we scoff and think to ourselves, “They’re nothing without us.”

As regards most aspects of celebrity, that’s ostensibly true. you’re not famous if you aren’t, well, famous. But there’s something that a child star in particular, growing up behind the reflective glare of American television, has to face. We’re all actually waiting for them to “lose their innocence,” to succumb to the trappings of the life that our constant scrutiny has suggested they deserve.

Which brings us to the long-lost Mowry brother: Barack Obama.

Now there’s an example that a black nerd can get behind. The Ivy League, followed by a marriage to a fabulous wife who doesn’t mind that he’s kind of a huge geek, followed by command of the greatest military force the world has ever known. It’s like going to sleep with thick plastic glasses and waking up with superpowers. And a Nobel Peace Prize.

I remember Election day 2008, sitting up until the polls closed with my family and a few friends. I don’t remember a dry eye in the house, as President-Elect Barack Obama took the podium and promised to deliver change to America. And I remember thinking, I can’t believe that I believe in a politician, that my heart is truly moved by how compassionate and committed to justice and dedicated to truth this guy seems. I, along with much of the world, had the audacity to hope for a better world in his hands.

But how disappointed we get when the ideal sticks around for a while. We begin to realize that, in time, not only does the paragon’s glimmer begin to fade, but right along with it disappears our capacity to even trust our expectations. I can only imagine how tricky that degree of exposure and level of expectation must be to navigate if you have the nation’s nuclear arsenal at your disposal.

They all asked for it. No one told the Mowrys, or President Obama, or anyone else to get up there and dance for us. And yet, aren’t we very much the reason that these young women continue to work for our affections? Isn’t it our collective despair at the state of things a huge reason why a bunch of people gave a headstrong, young, inexperienced junior Senator from Illinois, the purported antithesis of corruption in a state infamous for the same, a shot at changing the culture of governance? It wasn’t the president who gave us hope, we instilled it in him, all the while knowing he’d never manage to fix our problems. Just like teen celebrities do all the time, the president accepted a bad-faith job offer.

That there is a racial subtext may well be a huge part of this. For why do we have such great hopes for these folks in particular? The charming, smart, quirky light-skinned African Americans who, with such a gentle hue had a lot of folks betting on them. They could inspire the nation rather than just us. Perhaps they still do.

America constructed for itself a paradigm through which “white” and “black” could look similar enough to confuse any passerby: educated, well-spoken (or, avoiding anger and ebonics), and not natural-born athletes. And in the twins’ case, we lucked into two of them.

With them, we almost don’t notice that we are complicit in this horrible, stress-inducing thing that happens to people who are probably of perfectly noble character in their own right. Since these individuals gifted us with their virtue of inoffensiveness, we have come to believe that we are entitled to push them up onto the stage for our collective judgment, a process in which precious few can stand non-participation. If you can stay on the right side of public opinion, life is probably pretty sweet. But it never, by definition, lasts forever.

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It’s the projection of our ideals in this way that gets us into trouble. Trying to know ourselves through the lens of our most pervasive archetypes is a failing on our part. Creating an accessible model, with which we can all be proud to identify, does some good: in these examples, we work to get past racial prejudice by supplanting nasty notions of black inferiority with, say, visions of the former editor of the Harvard Law Review or clever but dilemma-prone twin sisters. But it also has the effect of confusing celebrity with virtue, our own quality with the rise and fall of symbols.

I came out of the Sister, Sister and Tia & Tamera “research” feeling expectedly empty. I’d lost illusions I realized I’d been holding onto tighter than I thought. But the shattering of childish daydreams allowed for some clarity, along with the understanding that I’ve got new, far better reasons to cherish the Mowry twins, if not the system that brought them into my life.

They’re not the ideal, but a reminder that the notion of perfection is self-deluding by its very nature. Also, maternity clothes shopping is apparently a nightmare.