Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.
As a child of the ’80s, I remember “Family Ties” being a high quality sitcom. Every Thursday night my family tuned in to watch liberal, hippie boomer parents Steven and Elyse Keaton raise their gaggle of precocious Gen X kids, including young Republican Alex, vapid fashionista Mallory, and wisecracking Jennifer. I related to certain aspects of their family —the kids were around my siblings’ ages and the parents made fun of Reagan. Mainly I think I appreciated that, despite their generational differences, they all seemed to really like each other. Or I’m assuming that’s what appealed to me then, because when I catch reruns on Antenna TV now, I can’t help noticing “Family Ties” is pretty bland and often heavy-handed. From tackling alcoholism to teen pregnancy to youth mortality, “Family Ties” often veered into that unsettling 80s sitcom subgenre we now refer to as “a very special episode”.
You may recall some of the iconic Very Special Episodes of the 1980s, like that “Diff’rent Strokes” with the pedophile bike store owner and the “Punky Brewster” when Cherry gets trapped inside an old refrigerator. A hyper-dramatic tone made these episodes way more disturbing than funny, and their mangled messaging might include certain ideas that may have done more harm than good (like the cop on that “Diff’rent Strokes” episode assuring a young male character he isn’t gay just because he was molested by a man). For the modern viewer, a typical VSE incites shudders, groans, eye-rolls, possibly all of the above.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I recently stumbled upon a season seven episode of “Family Ties” in which Jennifer becomes deeply depressed about ecological issues; 31 years later this story totally holds up! Unlike your typical VSEs of the era, this one speaks to a topic that feels just as relevant now as it was then, and everyone’s reaction to what’s happening feels just as authentic. Sometimes it even made me laugh.
16 year-old high school student Jennifer takes a strong interest in a natural sciences unit called Global Ecology: Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide. She immediately turns full Greta Thunberg, spouting a range of statistics about deforestation, air pollution, ozone depletion, and endangered species. Soon she demands that the family eliminate their use of aerosols and harmful chemicals, avoid using gas heat, and stop accepting styrofoam containers. Steven and Elyse’s reactions to Jennifer’s stringent rules are both hilarious and sweet. As self-obsessed boomers, they savor this opportunity to reminisce about their ‘60s hippie activism; at one point they pause to harmonize on a save-the-wombat version of “Kumbiya”. But they’re also so earnest and happy to encourage their conservationist kid that they immediately fall in line.
The older Keaton children are less enthused. Alex mocks Jennifer for caring about endangered land in the south pole while Mallory flips out when asked to get rid of her toxic hair conditioner. Meanwhile, Steven and Elyse demonstrate their support by buying all new eco-friendly cleaning products and toiletries. Mallory pretends to be excited about her new lentil-based lip gloss, but the family soon discovers she’s been secretly buying that nasty conditioner again. None of that matters to Jennifer, because she’s grown despondent. She even cancels a tree-planting rally she’d organized! Between deforestation, the depleting ozone, and global warming, there’s too much happening at once for her to feel effective. Steven and Elyse encourage her to talk to them, but she says, “Talking doesn’t solve anything.”
When Jennifer shows up to breakfast the next morning wearing a medical mask (oof, too many feelings about THAT right now), Steven and Elyse beg her to talk to the school counselor, young Mr. Hilgenburg. At this point, I’m rooting hard for Jennifer because she has a right to be freaking out! I assume Hilgenburg is gonna be the one who reasons her out of her despair. Much to my delight, he turns out to be just as useless as the school counselors I knew. He starts the conversation in the barfiest way, asking her, “Do you like boys?” Jennifer gets a dreamy look in her eye and says, “Yeah… especially boys who don’t burn fossil fuels.” That’s our proto-Thunberg, always on message! Hilgenburg says she’s become obsessed – “Your fears are more debilitating than the actual problem.” She stands by the fact that these problems are not just in her head, and responds, “Right now we are threatened by a zillion different life-threatening influences.” Then she goes on to list every toxic aspect of his office space, from desktop computer microwaves to the air conditioner freon. Suddenly mansplainy Mr. Hilgenburg falls into a panic spiral, asking this 16-year-old girl, “What we can do to possibly change anything?!” But Jennifer has no answer.
Fear not, the episode doesn’t end on that downer note. Steven and Elyse later find Jennifer listening to whale songs in her bedroom. They commend her for making Hilgenburg aware and getting them to recommit to environmental causes. Aww, these goofy boomers are so nice! (Which means I forgive them for getting horny over the whale song, eww.) They remind Jennifer she must use her talents and persevere because the movement needs her commitment. And when she doubts she can make a difference, Elyse responds with the most right-on advice of the episode, “You don’t have to do it by yourself.” They encourage her to join an organization and Steven adds, “Someday you may head up Greenpeace.” Again, they’re kind of insufferable but also such good parents to this budding organizer!
In the end, Mallory gets on board with eco-friendly conditioner, and even Alex gets excited about the entrepreneurial potential of selling recyclables. Overall, this was pretty good messaging for a 1989 VSE. It’s funny now to hear Steven offhandedly mention that recycling a Sunday run of the New York Times would save 75,000 trees. That’s one good thing about digital media — large scale paper printing isn’t as big a problem anymore! And for that matter, it feels good to say that the hole in the ozone layer is now officially healing since manufacturers phased out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
But as we know, 31 years later deforestation and global warming have grown terrifyingly worse, and our window for addressing these problems is quickly shrinking. With that in mind, I see two main areas where this episode goes wrong:
Too much focus on personal choice and individual consumption Okay, here’s the deal with Jennifer’s uptight list of rules – she’s not wrong about the fact that we all need to learn to live without harmful, polluting chemicals. But even if you successfully shame your family members into making more eco-friendly choices, you’re only solving a minuscule portion of widespread, systemic problems. We needed an international treaty to get rid of CFCs; it didn’t happen because a bunch of consumers stopped buying AquaNet. Also, shame is a poor organizing tactic. It works on rare weirdos like Steven and Elyse, but most normal people react like Mallory – they’ll tell you what you want to hear to shut you up, then pump that formaldehyde conditioner when you’re not looking.
Too little focus on the real enemy Too often when we speak about the carelessness and greed that leads to widespread environmental disaster, we fail to identify the real culprit – capitalism. Jennifer gets so close to pinpointing our biggest obstacle to sustainable living when she tells Alex in the first scene, “Money grubbers are destroying the world for profit.” We can shame each other all day about personal choices, but until we take on the corporate interests that amass billions of dollars from fossil fuel trade (just to name one set of culprits), the rampage and burning will continue.
But again, this tension between personal choice politics and systemic approaches also feels very current. The notion that we everyday individuals are largely to blame for our climate crisis still permeates ecological discourse. Fortunately, with the rise of climate strikes, organizations like Sunrise Movement, and growing demand for a Green New Deal, the discourse has evolved rapidly in the past few years. In my fanfiction sequel to this story, Jennifer is now a 47-year-old ecosocialist organizer, still making Steven and Elyse proud; she even got them to vote for Bernie.