Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How DJ Tanner Changed My Life

Disclaimer: I wrote this as a sample essay for my students. Their prompt was to write about how a pop culture figure from their youth has made a lasting impact on them. I am warning you only because this post is a little long, since it's actually an essay. But it's pop culture-y and fun, and if you are a product of the 80s, it's a must read!

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I have never been an avid TV watcher. I don't hate TV by any means; I just have so many other interests and passions that watching TV often feels like a waste of time unless it's a particularly spectacular show. However, I do watch TV every now and then. When I am home visiting my parents on a vacation, it's not uncommon for me to get sucked into an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I remember watching similar shows with my parents when I was a young child... Murder She Wrote and Colombo to name a few. My parents have a thing for murder mysteries. I also watched Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood during breakfast before preschool. But there have only been two TV series in my entire life that I would say I actually watched faithfully, from start to finish. The type of show that you videotape or DVR (depending on the decade) when you are away from home, so you don't miss a single episode. Those two shows are Full House and Gilmore Girls.

I won't get into Gilmore Girls here. While I love the quirky banter between Lorelei and Rory, the mother and daughter characters on the show, and the many allusions to literature and pop culture that are so cleverly woven into the show's dialogue, Gilmore Girls didn't shape my character much, since I didn't start watching it until I was in college. Full House, though, is a whole different story.

Full House began in 1987, just a couple weeks after I turned five years old. It ran until 1995, when I was experiencing the pre-adolescent angst that is the first year of middle school. The basic plot of Full House hardly resembled my own life. On the show, a widowed father, Danny Tanner, raises three girls in San Francisco with the help of their vain, musician uncle and a quirky family friend named Joey. My childhood was happening in the burbs of Seattle. My family lived in a nice three bedroom rambler, not a town home in the midst of the city. My parents were married. We hadn't tasted death within our immediate family, and we didn't have friends and extended family living with us.

However, Danny's three daughters, related to me in every way, or so I thought. I remember talking to my own sister about which daughter in the Tanner family was best. Was it D.J., the bossy, stylish, and responsible oldest child? Stephanie, the middle child that you couldn't help but empathize with as she looked up to  D.J. and tried not to be treated like a little kid? Or Michelle, played by the now iconic twins, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, who was a sweet but sassy youngest child?

There was never a doubt in my mind. I wanted to be just like  D.J., with her studious ways, her serious boyfriend, and her responsibility in leading her younger siblings. And it's true. In many ways, I was like  D.J.. She was just a few years older than me and had better hair that I desperately tried to replicate. The poofy and excessively hair sprayed  "D.J.  bangs" were not my finest beauty moment, but I felt like a supermodel at the time. A supermodel named  D.J. Tanner, the young teenage star of Full House.

But I like to think that  D.J. Tanner was a good role model for me in a lot of ways, even if her hairstyles were not one of them. I didn't know many older girls when I was growing up, and yet I felt the weighty burden, probably emphasized by my parents' constant reprimands, that I was supposed to be a "good example" for my younger sister and brother. But how was I to know what a good example looked like in my manners or behaviors if I didn't have any older siblings to learn from? This is where  D.J.  Tanner became a crucial figure in my life. She was the older sister I never had, and she shaped me week after week for eight impressionable years of my youth.

First,  D.J. Tanner was a good student. She got straight As, just like me. But  D.J. showed me what I was supposed to do with those good grades. I was supposed to become a a "college-bound" student. In season seven,  D.J. frantically studies for the SATs and even has a nightmare about the test going poorly. Very few people have nightmares about the SATs, except for people like  D.J., who wanted to go to Stanford, and me, who started a list of potential colleges to attend in the eighth grade.  D.J. confirmed to me that college was something to strive for. When  D.J. got her own room in season five, after sharing with her sister, Stephanie, for so many years, my most vivid memory of the room is of the desk where  D.J. would study. It was almost, in my ten year old eyes, reminiscent of a dorm room, where studious girls live in chic independence. Of course, my college dorm room, with its tile floors and old bunk beds looked nothing like  D.J.'s room at home, but her dedication to go to college must have impacted me more than I knew at the time seeing as I am now in the third year of a PhD program.

It was not only  D.J.'s mind, but also her body that impacted me.  D.J. and I were not so different. We were generally pretty and well-liked at school. We were bookworms, not athletes. We were skinny, but not the skinniest. Yet, I got to watch  D.J. go through trials associated with body image before I ever stepped through the doors of a high school. When  D.J. decides she is "too fat" to attend a pool party in season four, she goes on a crash diet so she can look like the picture of a supermodel she posts on the refrigerator to motivate her not to eat. She then takes her undernourished body to the gym, where she collapses on a treadmill. The lesson? You don't have to be the skinniest girl to be beautiful. Thankfully, I kept a fairly realistic view of my health and body throughout high school and even today, over ten years later.  D.J. was my personal supermodel and she was just the right size... average and healthy... just like me.

But perhaps the most significant trait that  D.J. modeled for me was that of loyalty.  D.J. might have been smart in school, but when it came to picking friends, she made some pretty strange choices. There are very few episodes of Full House that don't include Kimmy Gibbler, the crazy next door neighbor, barging into the Tanner's kitchen wearing some strange outfit (even stranger than typical 80s fashion) or practicing some kind of weird behavior. Kimmy is eccentric, unloved by her own family, and often annoying. And, yet, Kimmy is  D.J.'s best friend. D.J. supports and encourages Kimmy through the whole series. Sometimes this support is rather unethical, such as letting Kimmy, who typically earns bad grades, copy her papers at school, but other times it means teaching Kimmy about the dangers of drunk driving or preventing Kimmy from getting married  to her mindless boyfriend. While many of the Tanner family members can't stand Kimmy and are constantly making fun of her,  D.J. is always loyal and kind to her strange friend. In one of the most memorable episodes of the show, D.J. forgets Kimmy's sixteenth birthday. It is one of the few times you see Kimmy's serious side in the show, as she is hurt by her DJ's uncaring ignorance. Although this type of behavior is not typical of  D.J. who got distracted by her six month anniversary with her boyfriend, she confesses her mistake to Kimmy and gives a sincere apology. Because DJ has been a loyal friend for so long, the two are able to reconcile. I think it's the only Full House episode that ever made me cry, and DJ and Kimmy's friendship taught me to look for friends in unlikely places as well. My friends didn't have to be "cool" or "popular" for me to love them and invest in them.

D.J.'s loyalty doesn't stop with Kimmy. She is also faithful to her boyfriend Steve, who is a jock to the max, always talking about wrestling and eating all the Tanner's food. Although he and  D.J. don't have a lot in common, especially scholastically, she is loyal to him throughout the course of the show. Although they break up in season seven, he comes back on the show in the final season to take  D.J. to her senior prom, perhaps loyal to her after all her years of loyalty to him.  D.J. also shows a ferocious loyalty to her family, particularly her younger sisters. Although Stephanie often pesters her older sister, D.J. is always willing to help Stephanie when she is in need. She also protects Stephanie and acts as a mother if necessary, such as the time she prevents junior high Stephanie from taking a wild car ride with two high school boys that ends in an accident.

This loyalty must have impacted me, because I, too, am a loyal friend, often striving to maintain friendships across time and distance. Before email and the accessibility of social media, I would often hand write and mail notes to my childhood friends after we all moved away from the neighborhood in which we grew up building forts and watching Full House. Even now, I live in a different state than most of my best friends, and I pursue these friendships through calls, emails and visits as often as I can. Like  D.J., my younger sister is also my best friend. Although she often annoyed me when we were young, as she was prone to reading my diary and taking my clothes without asking in a very Stephanie-esque fashion, we have grown to be extremely close friends over the years, the way I imagine  D.J. and Stephanie would be if their characters still existed today.

Although  Full House was cancelled over fifteen years ago,  D.J. has never quite left me. In fact, Candace Cameron Bure, the actress who played  D.J., still has an impact on my life. As a beautiful wife, mother, and professional writer, Bure paints a picture of who  D.J. might have become had the show continued for another decade. Bure's happy marriage, her joy in motherhood, her healthy view of weight and body image, her career as a writer and speaker, and her openness about her faith are all examples of what I would like my life to look like over the next few years. Bure is as an example of the type of woman I strive to be and hope I am already becoming now. It looks like  D.J. is still impacting me after all these years.


Gentri said...

I need to watch full house now. My favorite episodes are the ones where they go to Disney World. Love that show so so much. Still a favorite.

Jenny said...

This makes me happy. As the oldest sibling in my household, I too looked up to DJ and now still find Candace Cameron Bure awesome and love following her on twitter.

Beffy 55 said...

I have to say Jen, you picked a very good role model for yourself. When ever I think of your personality traits, the two that always come to mind are your loyalty and how you try to follow God in everything.

Kristin said...

This is one of the best things I've ever read. I want to read all the essays your students write and I want to take your class. Maybe someday...

Adam n' Shalyn said...

Well said. Everything that you relate to with DJ is so true especially your loyalty to your friends! You have shown me what a true loyal friend is and what it looks like over the years. Just look at all the amazing friends you have in your life. I admire that SO MUCH!!

Jillian @ Hi! It's Jilly said...

Wow! Awesome essay! I loved Full House, too, and looked up to DJ. They don't make shows like that any more!!

Hi! It's Jilly