The reputation of television since its introduction to the American consumer in the 1940s has been far from stellar. Pejoratives such as “TV melts your brain” and “the boob tube” are indicative of the long-held view of TV being an anti-intellectual medium, especially in comparison to literature. TV makes an extensive appearance in Robert Coover’s The Babysitter and Junot Diaz’s Drown, but both authors do not condemn or show disdain for television. Rather, Robert Coover and Junot Diaz use TV in their stories to reflect on the way we think about things. In The Babysitter, the TV acts as a mirror to our everyday sexual and aggressive desires, while in Drown, TV demonstrates how we align our feelings onto what’s portrayed on the screen. By portraying TV as a medium of reflection, Coover and Diaz use TV to occasion major plot developments in both their stories. Through TV, Coover effectively allows anything and everything in the Babysitter to happen, while Diaz reveals the pain of loss and betrayal Yunior and his mother feel.
In The Babysitter, Coover uses the presence of the TV to remove the boundaries between reality and fantasy. This can be seen in the blending of the TV programs with the actions of the characters. The western on TV hints its presence during the tickling scene of the babysitter, where “on screen there’s a rattle of hooves, and he and Bitsy are rolling…in a crazy rodeo of long bucking legs” (213) and later more fully manifests itself when Jack imagines himself protecting the babysitter from Mark by slamming “a hard right to the guy’s gut, clips his chin with a rolling left” (212). Meanwhile, on TV the “dark beardy one” receives “a hard blow to the belly” and to “the face” from the “lean-jawed sheriff” (214). When the western fades into a spy show, the storyline: “the man…is following a woman, but she doesn’t know why. The woman passes another man, something seems to happen, but it’s not clear what” (221) likely intimates the sexual tension Mark and Jack feel towards the babysitter, but whether this results in violence (225) or something more consensual (222) is unclear. Indeed, throughout the story we have this idea of something happening, but we’re not sure exactly what happens. The events in The Babysitter couldn’t all have occurred due to logistical problems. For example, Coover provides two drastically different endings: 1) the babysitter wakes up and Mrs. Tucker is pleasantly surprised that the dishes are done and 2) the babysitter and Mrs. Tucker’s children are dead. We know both chain of events couldn’t have happened, but we are not told which one is the correct version. Ultimately, however, the distinction between reality and fantasy is unimportant because there is none. One storyline is not meant to be reality and the others a myriad of unrealities—we are meant to believe they all could have occurred. TV is important in this lack of distinction, for not only do the events in the TV bleed into the events in the story, the nature of TV itself is a fusion of reality and fantasy. In TV lies the difficulty of distinguishing the fictional from the documentary. For Coover, then, TV serves as a reflection—it holds a mirror up to reality, which is pervaded by fantasy to such an extent that the two can be considered integral and inseparable.
TV also blends into the style and structure of The Babysitter. The vignette-like events mimic TV’s form, while the discontinuous collage of narration resembles the collage created by channel switching. From the exclamation of “the dishes are all done!” to the final reply of “let’s see what’s on the late late movie” (239), there is no real closure—the end is akin to pressing the power button on the remote control. The possibility that the entire story takes place on television allows us to explore yet another level of how we view fantasy and its relation to reality. The common adage is that watching TV gives us ideas, and bad ideas at that. But Coover would argue that TV is actually a reflection of our own sexual and aggressive tendencies. If there’s sex and violence in TV, it’s because there is sex and violence in our minds. After all, TV programs aren’t ordained by the supernatural—they are written by humans, and surely reflect what is in our thoughts.
As the manifestation of television became more and more pervading, TV garnered a reputation of being not a medium of information and entertainment, but of manipulation and superficiality. While both Coover and Diaz do not view the TV in a negative light, the cultural presence of TV has changed over the years, and that evolution is clearly present in how the two authors incorporate television in their writings. Coover focuses so much on the TV because in his time, the TV was still considered a newfangled invader. As popular as the TV was in the 1960s, it was still easy to remember a time without the box in the living room. For Coover, there was a huge difference in how life was before TV and how life was after TV. By the time Junot Diaz wrote Drown in the 1990s, TV had become so commonplace that people no longer considered it to be a cultural phenomenon, but an indispensable part of everyday life. While TV dominates the storyline of The Babysitter, TV takes a much more background role in Drown as a culturally embraced setting for social interaction. “Families arranged on their porches, the glow from their TVs washing blue against brick” (1666). We see Yunior watching TV with his mom, after she told him Beto was home. “I put down a towel down on the sofa and we watch television together” (1668). Yunior then recounts how he and Beto watched a porno together at Beto’s apartment, which led to Beto touching him. “I kept my eyes on the television, too scared to watch” (1672). Coincidentally (or not), the TV was on both times when he and Beto were engaged in sexual acts. “We sat in front of his television, in our towels, his hands bracing against my abdomen and thighs…I had my eyes closed and the television was on” (1672-73). And finally, the TV once again unites Yunior with his mother as they watch what seems to be a dubbed version of Bonnie and Clyde. In all these scenes, the TV serves as a background medium for deeper companionship among the characters.
These moments of companionship are important in the overarching plot of Drown because Diaz uses TV to reveal the true feelings of the characters, who often hide behind a mask of coolness. Prime examples are when Yunior watches TV with his mom. “We settle on the Spanish-language news: drama for her, violence for me” (1668). His mother wants to see drama to match her yearning for her husband who has left her, despite knowing the relationship could bring her nothing but pain. Similarly, Yunior desires violence because allows him to displace some of the anger and resentment he harbors towards his former best friend Beto, as well as perhaps himself. “I was angry at him, wasn’t I?” (1668).While Beto is the college boy, the assimilated individual who has shed the heteronormative masculinity, Yunior is stuck hovering between action and inaction. Much of his narrative is composed of references to the present, in relation to the past: “Little has changed” at the pool (1667). “The circuit I make has not changed since my looting days. Bookstore, record store, comic-book shop, Macy’s. Me and Beto used to steal like mad from these places” (1669). For Yunior, his mother represents stagnation, while Beto represents mobility. Though he hates the image of his mother, unable to stop calling his pathetic father (1669-70), he cannot bring himself to leave his New Jersey hometown like Beto, who encourages him to do so. “You need to learn how to walk the world, he told me. There’s a lot out there” (1671). TV offers an avenue for action that Yunior cannot yet do in real life.
Watching Bonnie and Clyde is another attempt at solace for the pain of betrayal for Yunior and his mother. The scenes on the TV lure Yunior and his mother with memories of the true feeling that had existed between the two couples before betrayal separated them. The hail of bullets that are going to tear Bonnie and Clyde apart become a metaphor for the actions that separated Yunior from Beto and his mother from his father. For Yunior, his hail of bullets was when Beto touched him, and the fact that he let Beto touch him. For Yunior’s mother, it was when her husband left her for another woman. Just before Bonnie and Clyde are destroyed in the movie, his mother takes off her glasses. Though this is an act of weariness, it is also a symbolic gesture of not wanting to accept Bonnie and Clyde’s fate, because she is still not ready to let her husband go. Yunior knows that his mother is dreaming “of strolling with my father” (1673) because he too, is dreaming. By subconsciously pairing his mother’s fantasy with his own memories, Yunior indirectly reveals he misses his friendship with Beto. Watching TV allows Yunior to reflect upon these thoughts which he normally wouldn’t allow himself to do. The TV offers “background noise” for Yunior—the same way the TV was on both times when he and Beto were together, it is only when he is watching TV that he allows his mother to yearn freely for his father, and himself for Beto.
Both authors portray television as a medium of reflection. Coover breaks down the barrier between the external world and the internal space of the mind, showing how the programs on TV mirror our own tendencies, while Diaz conveys how we apply what’s on the screen to our own feelings. By using TV extensively in their stories, Robert Coover and Junot Diaz demonstrate the various ways we think about reality, our fantasies, and our emotions.
Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: Norton, 2013. Print.