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Military Kids in the Media

Ah, television, I love it and hate it.

As a kid, I looked for people who were "like me." That kid in first grade who was playing with Legos? He was like me because we both liked the same cool toy. I liked to rollerblade, which was a debatable hobby for a seven-year-old, but the older girl up the street liked to do it, too, so we were alike. This same phenomenon, identifying with different aspects of people, is also applied to cartoons. Wild Kratts was my favorite show for years because I liked animals, and the Kratt Brothers liked animals. Dora the Explorer had the same haircut as me for a good three years of my childhood. Belle, the Disney princess, liked to read, like me.

Eventually, this quality transitioned to live-action television. One thing I noticed, though, is that no matter how many TV shows I watched, I didn't find a single military kid. There was the military, sure. They're in everything, but usually evil generals. Veterans appeared, yes, and the occasional military spouse, but until last year I had yet to see a true military child.

When I did find a military child represented in a popular show, it was... disappointing, to say the least.

Jessie, from the Disney Channel show Jessie.

Jessie Prescott is a twenty-something aspiring actress who travels to New York to live her dream—against the wishes of her cold, unfeeling military father. Through a wacky series of events found only in a laugh-track sitcom, Jessie ends up nannying for a rich New Yorkian family in a penthouse. From there, the show goes on to cover all her crazy adventures with the Ross children.

The show starts off with military representation well, as Jessie rides in a classic New York Taxi and says, "My dad, who's in the Marine Corps, practically blew his flat top when I told him I was moving to New York." - S1E1

But then, she ruins it.

"But I didn't come all the way from Fort Hood in Texas to be a babysitter." - S1E1

That's when I knew that she had no idea what she was talking about because Fort Cavazos (formerly Fort Hood) is an Army installation, not for the Marine Corps. But to be completely fair, I decided to give her another chance. The distinctions between branches and their installations are more nuanced and are not completely representative of how accurate her military child background is.

But then, she has this lovely conversation with Tony, the doorman.

TONY: "If only one of us could fly a helicopter."

JESSIE: "Wait. I can!"

TONY: "What?"

JESSIE: "Yeah, my dad taught me! He also taught me how to survive in the desert with nothing but a toothpick and a bobby pin." - S1E1

Just... no.

Throughout the show, and consistently at least once in each episode, Jessie references her background as a military child.

For example, when the Ross children misbehave, and she has to come up with a punishment for them, she says, "Back on the base, [my father] either gave me extra rations, or he made me dig a trench in the rain." -S1E15

After being unnecessarily rude to a stranger in the park, she says, "OMG, I am turning into my dad. All I need is a crewcut and a strange desire to have people punch me in the stomach" - S1E15

After showing the Ross children an old keepsake, she says she found it "[w]hen my dad cleaned out our bomb shelter..." - S2E13

Now, I know what some may think after reading this.

But... it's just a Disney Channel show made for children. It's not that big of a deal.

I know-- but it still bothers me. The show uses Jessie's military background almost completely as comedic relief. Most of it isn't even remotely accurate to what a real military child experiences: the resilience required, the extreme ups and downs that come with new orders, the stress of saying goodbye to old friends and having to make new ones, and not to mention the mental strength that handling all of this takes while worrying about the safety of your military parent constantly. The show either ignores these aspects of military life or, more likely, doesn't know they exist.

To have such a huge part of my identity be put into the world as a running joke in a Disney sitcom, with seemingly no awareness of what being a military child is actually like, is extremely frustrating.

Luckily, I found another show that I feel handled military child representation very, very well.

Troy, from the Netflix series Bella and the Bulldogs.

Troy "The Wonder Boy" Dixon is an 8th-grade quarterback for a school somewhere in Texas—until a girl shows up to try out for the football team. She blows him out of the water and becomes the new quarterback, setting the scene for a two-season Netflix series starring Bella (the new quarterback girl) and all her friends (who, yes, eventually include Troy "The Wonder Boy" wide receiver).

You may be wondering where in all of this is the 'military' part of military kid representation. Well, that's what I love most about the way the show portrays Troy and his military background--it's not a running joke or the entirety of his personality-- in fact, I didn't know he was a military child until multiple episodes in when he confides in Bella about a stuffed rabbit that his father gave him before deployment.

"Look, my dad gave it to me the first time his Army unit went overseas. I just keep it in my locker for good luck." -S1E3

The bunny is named Colonel Cottontail. Extra points.

In this same episode, Troy drops everything he's doing to take a call from his dad.

"That's my dad calling from overseas." -S1E3

I love this line because it doesn't over-exposition everything, but it (and the actor, Coy Stewart) does a really good job of conveying how important that call is to him. When your deployed parent calls, you pick up because you don't know when they'll be able to call again. That's a reality that a lot of military kids and spouses face, so it was nice to see it represented maturely - especially in a kid's show.

When his little brother comes to his school for a mentorship program, Troy feels a responsibility to look after and spend time with him because "[w]ith my dad gone, I'm the man of the house." -S1E14

In the second season of the show, Troy's dad comes home on leave and surprises Troy at football practice. It's an incredibly sweet moment that even the principal of the school is in on. The accurate and realistic Army fatigues also get bonus points in my book.

Episode 14 is my favorite because it deals with all the emotions and uncertainties of reuniting with a deployed parent. For the first time, Troy can beat his dad at ping-pong. He seems upset about losing, and Troy thinks it's because he's sad and angry at Troy for beating him. But at the end of the episode, Troy's dad tells him how proud he is of him for stepping up while he's been gone and that he wasn't upset about losing to Troy but about missing out on so much of Troy and his brother's childhoods. It's a very raw moment.

This feeling is real, and it is another thing I appreciate the show vocalizing. Deployed parents do miss out on the lives of their families back home, and that's not often talked about.

Of course, there were also unrealistic moments, like when Troy brings a box of his dad's old military equipment to school and uses it to solve mysteries with his football friends: "But I was hoping we could use this spy stuff to uncover some criminal activity, crush an international conspiracy, or, you know, at the very least-- save the world." -S1E7

But all in all, the show had some really amazing and realistic military child moments that I appreciated seeing in a fairly accessible and popular show. It's clear that at least someone on the show cared about the accuracy of the military child representation.

The representation of military children in mainstream entertainment is... lacking. It doesn't help that the occasional character I've stumbled across has been a walking stereotype and/or completely unrealistic. But characters like Troy give me a little bit of hope, and I'm optimistic that there will be more like him in the future.


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