Awkward pop-culture experiences with parents
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
In reading the AVQ&A about movies that aren’t about sex or violence, a line jumped out at me: “there’s nothing in that movie that I’d feel ashamed about watching with my parents.” What pop culture did you experience with your parents, where suddenly an unexpected cringe-inducing shaming moment emerged? —Kara
When I went off to college, I got into film in a major way, and a roommate and I put a giant piece of poster board on the wall and wrote down the titles of films we’d heard about and felt we need to watch to further our film educations. But I spent enough time on academics, extracurriculars, and social activity that felt I wasn’t going through films fast enough, so at Christmas break, I’d take home lists of Serious Business Film-Scholar movies to track down and watch during the downtime. Which is how I ended up watching Grave Of The Fireflies with my family at Christmas. That wasn’t embarrassing so much as heartbreakingly bleak, sad, and inappropriate to the season. But the following year, I compounded the error by insisting we all go to a theater together to see The Piano, which I knew little about except that it was supposed to be a terrific art film. The results weren’t as mortifying as they might have been if I’d been 14 instead of 19, but it was still two hours of sitting with my family, and watching Harvey Keitel’s ass, Holly Hunter’s protracted sexual awakening, and eventually Sam Neill getting crazy with an axe. I squirmed all the way through it, knowing exactly how much my family was hating every moment of it. Mom’s only comments afterward: “Well. That was certainly depressing,” and “Tasha does not get to pick the Christmas movies anymore.” For extra awkward value, that’s been a running family joke—but also a basic rule—ever since.
I feel like I should preface my answer to this question by revealing that I once took my mother to see Pulp Fiction, and although I wouldn’t say she walked away from the experience a Quentin Tarantino fan for life, she did like the film—and more importantly, she enjoyed sharing the experience of seeing one of her son’s favorite films with him. I did, however, experience a profound desire to make a mad dash for the exit on Mother’s Day 1999, when I decided that my mom, a retired teacher, would appreciate the premise of Alexander Payne’s Election. I was not wrong about that, for what it’s worth, but having not actually seen the film yet myself, I was relying strictly on the trailers, which made it look like a fun teacher-vs.-student romp. Being utterly unprepared for quite how much sexual content was contained therein, I spent a great deal of the film sinking progressively deeper into my seat, wondering if my blushing was visible in the dark.
Oh, so many of my pop-culture memories fall into this camp. I was an only child, so my family pretty much never watched kid-appropriate movies, because my picks were always outvoted. I’ve never seen Mary Poppins, but I have seen every crappy, generic drama released between roughly 1998 and 2004. I watched a lot of tasteful sex scenes during that Friday-night family-movie time, and not a one of them was comfortable. There is, however, one time I can recall my mom picking a film specifically because she thought I would like it. It was Saturday Night Fever, and I was 9 years old. I liked Grease, so surely I would love to watch a movie all about John Travolta dancing. Because, in my mom’s memory, that’s all that movie was about. Turns out rape, machismo, racism, and accidental death aren’t really topics a 9-year-old can comprehend, so I spent a lot of time asking questions. My mom is still horrified that this happened, although why she didn’t just turn off the TV, I’ll never know. Maybe if she had, I’d be able to watch that movie again. As it is, I’ll never be able to think about it without feeling the first adolescent pings of confusion and awkwardness.
My mom took me and my sister to see Airplane! End of story, except that my mom was horrified when she heard me laughing when Julie Haggerty performed fellatio on the inflatable “Emergency Pilot,” and realized I was sufficiently well-informed to get the joke. (I never told her that three-quarters of my sex education came from reading her copies of Portnoy’s Complaint and Eye Of The Needle.) The funny thing is, the theater was so packed that we couldn’t find three empty seats that were even close to each other, so to my childish delight, I got to sit by myself and pretend I wasn’t part of a family unit. But people who know me a lot less than my mother did have told me that my laugh is hard to mistake for anyone else’s.
I don’t know how this came to be, but I saw There’s Something About Mary in the theater with my mother, who, when I was a youngster, prohibited me from saying “sucks” and “pissed off,” or calling adults by their first names. Even if my mom hadn’t been there, I probably would have been shocked by some of the material in the movie, but with her there, I wasn’t sure whether I had to pretend I didn’t know about things like masturbation and semen and the fact that balls exist. Somehow, though, I don’t remember the experience being that incredibly cringe-inducing. I think my mom and I each just pretended the other one wasn’t actually present in the theater for that hour and a half as we—both of us—laughed our asses off. “That was funny!” we agreed afterward, without going into any particulars then, or ever again.
My parents—especially my dad—were fairly loose about my brother and me getting exposed to adult language or sexual content, going back to when we were in single digits. He had a reel-to-reel tape of George Carlin’s Occupation: Foole that he played while we were around, and openly left his Playboys out to read as if they were as innocuous as TV Guide and Good Housekeeping. But when my then-13-year-old brother brought home the LP of Eddie Murphy: Comedian (the audio version of the classic Eddie Murphy: Delirious special) and played Eddie’s opening bit, even my fairly liberal parents cringed. I guess Carlin talking about “Seven Dirty Words” is fine, but Murphy talking about the common-in-the-early-’80s views of AIDS and homosexuals, and his impression of Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden having anal sex, was crossing the line for them, and they demanded my brother take the album back to the Sam Goody he got it from. Sheepishly, he did so, and picked up the Rappin’ Rodney album, which passed my parents’ cringe test just fine, even though Rodney Dangerfield swears his ass off throughout the album.
D’oh, my response to bad pop-culture dates fits this question well. But here’s another that involves my sister. It qualifies, because growing up with sisters 11 and 13 years your senior basically means having three mothers. So I can tell you that seeing Basic Instinct with my 27-year-old sister was awkward. At least she let me see it—had I conned my very conservative mom into taking me, she would’ve dragged me out at the opening scene. The opening scene, naturally, is a couple of people banging, then the woman viciously stabbing the man. Okay, racy, but not the worst thing—no, the worst thing came when Sharon Stone spread her legs in the film’s infamous interrogation scene. Perhaps then my sister finally realized her 16-year-old brother had used her for access to a very sexual R-rated movie, and I’m sure the implications of that were even more unsettling. (Hey, the Internet wasn’t a thing yet.) In my defense, my friends had told me it was a good movie—beyond all the sex—but I won’t lie about why I was there. In retrospect, I should’ve just asked my very permissive dad to take me. He would’ve been even more into it, saying something to the effect of “That blonde had some rack!” as we walked to the car.
The family dog died last year, shortly before Labor Day, and I happened to be home when it happened. As you might imagine, it cast a pall over the holiday weekend. My mom was especially upset. The next night, I was determined to give my parents something to distract them. I suggested that we watch an episode of Louie, which I’d been talking up for a while. “Louis C.K. is brilliant,” I told them. I knew it might take them a couple episodes to get into it, since it’s such a distinctive show. That’s the part I remembered. The part I forgot was, at the end of the pilot episode, C.K. does a bit about dead dogs, and the pile of dog corpses where the vet throws your dead dog, and what if your dog were actually alive and he woke up in this pile of dead dogs. He just kept going and going, in his pull-no-punches way, in what seemed to be a thousand-minute set about canine death. When it was finally over—I was in such shock and agony through the whole thing that it never occurred to me to simply turn the TV off—all I could do was turn to my ashen, shattered mother and apologize. She said nothing. But my dad, his jaw set, decided to turn the knife and said, “So, do you think that was brilliant?”
The first time my folks stopped by my college apartment, my roommates and I were watching the movie Fame on some cable movie channel, and after a few minutes of showing my parents around the place and having a pleasant chat about school and the novelty of living away from the dorm, Fame reached a scene where one character gave a long, loud, angry speech, in which just about every other word was “fuck.” We all tried to ignore it and keep talking, because turning off the TV at that point would’ve meant acknowledging what we were all hearing. But the speech went on and on, and after about a minute, I had to relent, sheepishly, certain that my parents were now going to think of my new apartment as the place where I sat around watching dirty movies all day.
In the mid-’90s, a cinephile friend of mine recommended Bad Lieutenant without telling me much about it—I think he might have said, “If you liked Reservoir Dogs, you’ll dig this,” or something along those lines. Anyway, a little while later, my mom came to visit me, and I decided we should watch a movie. It being my unlucky day, the video store had Bad Lieutenant, so it came home with us. Then the horror began. The drug use and degenerate gambling were the high points, and I don’t know if I can describe the unbelievable awkwardness of sitting through some of the more grotesque sequences of that movie with mom. I do recall the masturbation scene with the two teen girls as being particularly excruciating, though. To pick up the common thread, I have no idea to this day why the hell I didn’t just shut it off and apologize, but I guess it felt somehow more uncomfortable to acknowledge how profoundly fucked-up the whole thing was by turning it off. Anyway, when it was finally over, all my mom had to say was “I didn’t like that movie much.” Yeah, mom, me neither—not under those circumstances, anyway.
My dad more or less let me do whatever I wanted as a child, with terrible consequences for both of us. Following my parents’ divorce when I was 11, my life was a sad, joyless parade of junk food, playing hooky, and R-rated movies. Hell, at one point, I even convinced my dad to procure the Sherilyn Fenn issue of Playboy for me, since as a 13-year-old, I somehow couldn’t buy it myself. But even considering the unusual nature of our relationship, it still felt awkward-to-mortifying watching The Doors with him. I don’t know whether it was the sex, the drugs, the egregious overacting, or the ham-fisted stylization, but good Lord, was that a mistake I will know well enough never to make again.
It sometimes seems to me like every other day of my childhood was an awkward pop-culture experience with my parents, but for some reason, the one that sticks out in my head was the time we watched Jerry Maguire together. I was 13 the first time I watched an R-rated movie, which was A Few Good Men, not some salacious journey through the dirty depths of the human psyche. Because there were limited places and options for me to actually see movies, it was relatively easy for my parents to keep a lid on what I watched, and they took full advantage of this until I was around 15, when they suddenly just… stopped. They were still aware of what I was watching, but they evidently decided I could make my own decisions, even though they never communicated this to me. All of this led to the point where they asked if I wanted to watch Jerry Maguire with them, without my younger sister around. I was, of course, more than happy to. Now, you may remember Jerry Maguire as a largely pleasant Cameron Crowe comedy with Tom Cruise at his Tom Cruise-iest, but it has an early scene where he’s in bed with his girlfriend, and she shouts, “Never stop fucking me!” It was the most “adult” thing I’d ever seen with my parents around, and they didn’t seem perturbed by it. Indeed, they seemed as if this was the sort of thing they might pass every day on the way into town. My mom even chuckled a bit! It’s entirely possible this was just their discomfort at watching it with me, but I can assure them, the feeling was mutual. At any rate, the rest of the movie isn’t nearly as bad, so it ended up being as much of a bonding experience as we could have had at the time. But that whole segment was still really weird.