Teens can learn important stuff from goings-on in this bedroom


April 05, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

If you are over 16, you might not know about "Blossom," the NBC sitcom starring Mayim Bialik as a teen-age girl coming of age in an all-male household.

But there are a bunch of reasons that you should. They range from understanding why adolescent girls dress the way they do to making sure your daughter grows up knowing her life counts as much as a boy's.

TV plays a role in such matters, and "Blossom" is groundbreaking in the positive role model it offers millions of young female viewers every Monday night at 8:30 (Channel 2 in Baltimore), as the only girls' coming-of-age story in a sea of similar shows featuring boys. Besides, with shows like "Cosby" leaving and "Cheers" graying, "Blossom" is one of the shows NBC is betting its prime-time future on and all the millions of advertising dollars that entails.

Last year at this time, most adults didn't know about Fox TV's "Beverly Hills, 90210." Then there was a wire service story during the summer about stars of the show being mobbed and fans injured at a Florida shopping mall, and adults suddenly found out that more than one out of every two teen-agers near a TV set on Thursday nights had been religiously watching "Beverly Hills, 90210." Many of the teens have since told interviewers that the show is one of the most important things in their lives.

"Blossom," now ending its second year on NBC, is not the phenomenon that "Beverly Hills, 90210" has become. Though Bialik, a gifted musician and singer who played the young Bette Midler character in "Beaches," is all over the teen magazines -- Teen Beat, 16 Magazine, Seventeen, YM -- there have been no mall mobbings yet for her or any of her co-stars. But "Blossom" is getting there in its own way.

The show is right behind "90210" as the second most popular show with teens -- at about the same 50 percent audience share. And it's having the same kind of high impact on the lifestyle of that audience.

More than consumerism

Fan and fashion clubs have sprung up in response to the show and Blossom's funky, eclectic wardrobe. Club members watch the show and then call each other to talk about Blossom's outfits (she averages six a show). Club members also cooperate in trying to put together the various pieces -- hats, leggings, suspenders, vests and layered shirts -- that make for a Blossom outfit. One of those members, Courtney Porter, 15, told the Chicago Tribune's fashion writer that she likes Blossom's look "because it's not fake. . . . And when you see it on TV, you want to wear it more."

In corporate headquarters, the kind of television that makes you "want" something "more" is considered great television. But "Blossom" is teaching more than consumerism.

The show is also telling adolescent girls that their concerns and feelings are as important as the concerns and feelings of adolescent boys. And that is a radical departure from the usual message of TV, says Dr. Sheri L. Parks, who teaches television at the University of Maryland in College Park.

It starts with the structure of the show. Instead of the tribe of male and female teen characters who clique together in the halls of Beverly Hills High, most of "Blossom" is set in the Russo household, where Blossom Russo, 16, lives with her father, a rock musician, and her two older brothers. One of the brothers is a recovering drug and alcohol abuser. This is not the Nelson household of "Ozzie and Harriet."

Much of the important stuff takes place in Blossom's bedroom, where she's often visited by her best friend and confidante, Six (Jenna von Oy). Blossom is constantly negotiating between her private (female) space of the bedroom and the more public (male) space of the rest of the Russo household. You don't need to be a women's studies major to appreciate the parallels between the world of "Blossom" and the larger society. Adolescent girls can find more than fashion tips in this show; they can watch someone like themselves try to work within a male power structure.

But, Dr. Parks says, it's even more basic than that. Studies show that girls will watch TV programs featuring boys, whereas boys are far less likely to watch shows featuring girls. The reason, she says, is that boys are socialized to believe that girls are less important. As a result, Dr. Parks says, the pattern in television is to "overprogram male." And that overload of programming with male stars and male concerns reinforces girls being undervalued in society. It's a vicious circle of sexism.

"The message that adolescent girls get [from television] is the culturally consistent message -- which is an unfortunate one -- that boys are more important than girls and that the dramas that boys go through are more socially and culturally important to the rest of us than that which girls go through," Dr. Parks says. "Even in 'Beverly Hills, 90210,' the boys are the main characters, and the girls come up and either create the problem or tag along. The boys talk the most . . . and they are the ones who come up with the solutions."

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