While reading this humorous and engaging take on homeschool stereotypes by the blogger Kelly Green and Gold I started thinking about some way to track how homeschooling is represented in popular media. That’s a huge task of course. But I knew that the website HULU archives a lot of television, so I wondered if there was any way to search the site for homeschooling themes. It turns out that HULU has a very interesting “closed caption” search engine that allows you to search for any term or phrase throughout their television holdings. The limitation is that HULU doesn’t keep shows on their site forever. Perhaps there is a logic to how the site operates that I couldn’t figure out, but just from looking at it cursorily it seemed like you never really know what you’re going to get and how long it will be there.
So while a one-time HULU search for homeschooling doesn’t automatically bring up every mention of homeschooling on every show that’s ever been on TV by any means, it seems occasional searches, say once every six weeks or so, would be a good way to stay abreast of what mainstream TV is doing with homeschooling. My search on April 15 turned up four quite interesting hits. Here they are. [Caveat: our family doesn’t watch a lot of television, so I’m not a very good guide to the nuances of these shows.]
The first, and most interesting one, was from a show I’ve never heard of called The Return of Jezebel James. According to wikipedia, it premiered mid season in 2008 on Fox but was canceled after only three episodes due to poor ratings. That third episode, however, called “Needles and Schlag,” featured a homeschooling plot line. The show is about a children’s book editor named Sarah, and in this episode she has received a brilliant manuscript. Sarah and a colleague are discussing the book. Here is an excerpt of the dialogue:
-the first 20 pages are good!
-yay! You like it.
-A lot. Who wrote it?
-A 15-year-0ld boy.
-15? You’re kidding.
-I was a schlump at 15.
-He’s already graduated Harvard.
Later in the show we meet the boy and his family. The family is played for laughs, but to me it only seemed offensive. The boy’s name is Ethan. He and his parents arrive in New York from Iowa. Parents are stereotypical country bumpkins amazed by the big buildings and modern technologies like a computer printer. Ethan himself is wearing a cape and Viking helmet, running around the publisher’s library like a doofus talking about all the books on the shelves he’s read, many in other languages. Ultimately Sarah loses the contract for Ethan’s book, but not before one of her staff has been asked by Ethan’s parents if he has “accepted Christ as his personal savior.” After watching a good chunk of this show I see why it was canceled after only three episodes.
The next hit came from a show called Cougartown, season 1, episode 15, titled “When a Kid Goes Bad.” One of the female characters on the show is complaining to the main character (played by Courtney Cox) about too many neighbors being allowed into their coffee circle. To make her point, she says,
Why don’t you just invite those creepy homeschooled kids from next door? They could wow us with math skills while they stab us to death?
Though it sounds horrible out of context, the scene is actually pretty funny (at least to me). The speaker is obviously being ludicrously hyperbolic and the comedic timing and repartee is excellent. Nevertheless, the assumptions made here are unsavory.
The third example comes from the popular show Glee. On its most recent (as of this writing) episode, number 14 of season 1 titled, “Hell-O,” two popular cheerleaders are gossiping about the glee club’s unpopular lead singer Rachel. They are making fun of her clothes. One of the pair opines, “Those sweaters maker her look homeschooled.” Again, out of context this line sounds meaner than it is meant to be taken in the context of the show. The character who said it is obviously a total ditz. A few lines later she says, seriously, “Did you know that dolphins are just gay sharks?”
Finally, another show I’ve never heard of called Brothers and Sisters, in season 4, episode 14 titled “The Pasadena Primary” mentions homeschooling in passing. A female character isn’t going to her high school reunion. She explains why, “Remember when I lost my bid for president senior year? It was the biggest upset in the history of San Marino high school as I recall.” To which her mother (played by Sally Fields) responds, “She begged us to homeschool her for the rest of the year. ‘Send me to a convent,’ anything!”
While it would be foolish to generalize too much from these four examples, it is at least interesting that all of them easily make homeschooling seem like something more negative than positive. The Jezebel James example is the most absurd, combining as it does both the stereotype of ignorant backwoods fundamentalist and eccentric child genius. The others seem to be using homeschooling as a convenient symbol for whatever is anti-social, uncool, or escapist. Taken together, they suggest that television writers and producers would do well to attend to the comments of Kelly Green and Gold that first got me into this. Kelly writes,
I think it is important to show that home education is a “healthy” educational alternative that “emotionally healthy” people often choose. They may look and behave a little differently, but the differences are positive. We aren’t weirdos, or hippies, or religious fundamentalists, in any more significant proportions than is the population at large. Some of us are conscientious objectors to forced education who are permitting our children to learn in freedom. Pretty much all of us are simply people who believe that our children’s educational needs will be better met outside school.
Kelly may be understating the distinctiveness of homeschoolers a bit (there no doubt are higher proportions of religious fundamentalists per capita among homeschoolers), but you get the point. However, to the degree that outsiders view homeschoolers as just normal folks they are unlikely to be written into plots or laugh lines at all. Whether unflattering misrepresentation is better than no representation at all I’m not sure.
If anyone reading this knows of any other relatively recent example of homeschooling being used in TV or Film, please feel free to share. I may return to this theme in a couple of months and see if there are any new developments.