The conventional thinking may have been that TV was going to rot our brains, but the opposite was probably more true — TV may have been forming them.
The average American watches more than five hours of television a day, making it a prime source of storytelling and relationships for many people. Yet, TV isn't only about investing time in fictional characters; it's also to discover truths about ourselves and others along the way. These relationships, often called "parasocial relationships" can teach us everything from compassion for others to the type of person we want to become.
Adolescence is the time in our lives when we start taking action on these impressions of who we want to become. Since we're more likely to have TVs in our bedrooms as adolescents, we may spend a lot of time with a particular character in an intimate setting, getting to know them and ourselves a little bit more.
We reached out to milennials and asked them which TV characters or shows helped them understand a little bit more about themselves, whether it be their race, gender or sexual orientation — or just being different.
Our gender identity begins developing as early as age 2, but that sense of gender changes over time. TV can sometimes influence that fluidity. Some respondents told Mic that, as early as age 7, TV shows helped them figure out that their gender identity and the gender they were assigned at birth did not match.
The Wonder Years: "I watched The Wonder Years often, trying to learn everything I could from Winnie Cooper about the girl I was supposed to be, but I found myself relating far more strongly to Kevin Arnold, always feeling like I was saying the wrong thing and being misunderstood. I felt like being a guy was the most difficult thing in the world, probably because I was trying to be a boy from inside a body that people saw as belonging to a girl. I always felt like I was wearing a costume, and Winnie Cooper was that costume for me." — Brandyn, 27, a transgender man.
Adventure Time: "BMO from Adventure Time definitely helped me find my gender identity — genderfluid — 'cause she uses both 'he' and 'she' pronouns. And when I heard that, I felt it suited me in a way." – Kimberly Brown
According to the Critical Media Project, media plays "an influential role in shaping how we think about and enact race in our everyday lives." But racial identity can be hard to navigate alone, which is why TV characters helped some of Mic's readers along the way.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: "I am mixed and have often struggled with my identity, growing up with Fresh Prince I learned pride, felt so many emotions and that it is OK to be weird and quirky. Till this day it is still my favorite TV show." — Carrington Christmas
My So-Called Life: "[It] may sound weird, but as a black girl who grew up as one of the only black people at my school (you could count us on one hand), I felt a kinship with Angela [from My So-Called Life]. I felt alienated from the kids I went to school with, because they didn't 'get me.' I sometimes found it hard to communicate with my parents about my feelings ... I always felt out of place, struggling to learn about and identify with my 'blackness' while living the life of a rich suburban kid." — Nicole El
It is well-documented that LGBT representation on TV helps promote greater tolerance for queer people; teh Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has even made an annual tradition of marking how many LGBT characters are on TV just to reinforce that truth. But LGBT representation has an even greater power: According to Mic's readers, some of their first queer feelings came from TV characters.
Glee: "I spent a lot of time hiding myself and being confused and lashing out at people when I felt uncomfortable. [Santana] never lost her fire but opened her heart to love, and it's something that I admire. And it helps me too. I don't have a kick-ass girlfriend, but I was seeing a slightly exaggerated version of myself on TV." — Jennifer Elvira
Daria: "Daria didn't care about sex. I don't remember anything about her sexuality being openly said on the show, but she was represented as a pretty asexual character. I'm an open demisexual now." — Bitty, 30
My So-Called Life: "The character of Rickie Vasquez, played by Wilson Cruz, showed me that one can be gay and fabulous and complex — a real character, not a stereotype!" — Fabio, 29
Xena: Warrior Princess: "I didn't know what gay was until I stumbled across [fan fiction for the TV show] one evening looking for something else (not porn — I hadn't gotten there yet). But the idea of two women being together romantically was new to me, and I realized that I connected to the characters. It was a couple more years before I admitted that I was gay. Once that happened, it made me feel less alone in a vital way but also colored my understanding of where queer people were allowed in the world." — Megan, 24, on Xena: Warrior Princess
X-Men: "Here was an alternative universe in which 'mutants' struggled against a world that was afraid of them, and that fear manifested as hatred. Upon reflection, their primary conflict was an internal battle against their own kind (wish I'd paid more attention to that lesson). Mutants even developed their powers around the time of adolescence, which for me — as a young, gay kid hitting puberty — resonated deeply. Also, everyone in X-Men was fucking hot." — Nic Holas, 33
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: "[I] took one look at the red ranger's pecs and knew right then that I was a 'mo." — Sean, 25
Sailor Moon: "I became a huge fan of Sailor Moon ever since I saw the commercial. I think it was the idea of girls fighting evil in cute nautical outfits that attracted me to the show. I remember seeing Sailor Moon kissing Tuxedo Mask for the first time, and in my mind, I was thinking I'm her. I wanted to know how it feels like to kiss another guy." I wanted to know how it feels like to kiss another guy. There were also gay characters in the show, and seeing them on TV at the time [made] me feel that guys kissing another guy is OK." — Jackie, 28
Ellen: "It was the first time I had seen someone come out openly on national television. It was historic, and it made me feel like I could do the same thing." — Larry, 33
Just Feeling Different
In psychology, identity refers to a person's conception of self. While not linked to a socially structured identity like race, sex or gender, the pride someone feels in being themselves can be affected by TV, as well. The relationships we nurture with TV characters often make us feel less lonely and able to deal with isolation.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "I was always the smart but awkward 'sidekick' type, but as time went on, you got to see Willow become the hero of her own story, and she made me believe I could have that for myself too." — Jessica Rose
The Facts of Life: "I was a tomboy [like Jo] and from a difficult background, but that show taught me that you can find your place anywhere, no matter what background you come from. As an adult, I bought the first three seasons on DVD for my niece (who's 12), and she loved them too. The life lessons are still relevant and never dated." — Susie Gale
Hey Arnold!: "Arnold showed me that you can be a poor kid that gets made fun of, but you can't let what the world tells you keep you from reaching your potential. That, and he had one sweet-ass room." — Dwayne Thomas