On “Friday Night Lights,” the TV Sex Talk Done Right


Spoilers follow!

This
week’s "Friday Night Lights," a show often
ahead of the pack on being realistic about teen life
, featured one of the most rational
"birds and bees" talk between parents and child I’ve ever seen
on TV.

The
plot arc started with a bit of humor, as gruff, harried Coach Eric Taylor
accidentally walked in on his daughter Julie in bed with her newly-rekindled
love interest, quarterback Matt Saracen.  

"FNL"
fans know that Julie and Matt are the show’s "golden couple" – both
of them sweet and fairly well-behaved by conventional standards. They decided together to postpone having sex in the first season because
neither felt ready. So it’s clear to viewers that Eric and his wife,
Principal Tami Taylor, are lucky their daughter is in such a healthy
relationship. 

But
for Eric and Tami, it’s a shock that the slightly-younger Julie is
entering the world of the town’s older kids, so many of whom come from
broken homes and turn to the Taylors for help with wrenching
problems. It’s clear that Eric and Tami, much as they respect those
other kids, want their daughter to be different, and this is
the last in a series of moments which shatter that illusory hope: they
can’t stop her from becoming a teenager. 

Nonetheless,
they handle it well. When Eric tells his wife exactly what he walked
in on, Tami immediately gets up to confront their daughter.

"Wait.
Before you go in there, you’d better know what you’re going to say,"
he says.

"I
have no idea!" she replies, with a shocked expression on her face
(it’s a funny moment, as her character rarely doesn’t know what
to say). And so they silently decide to hold up, which is a wise move.
Neither of them will lose their tempers and Tami can ponder over how
best to handle it. 

Later,
when Tami first broaches the subject with Julie, Julie glumly asks
what her punishment is. 

"Your
punishment is you have to have a talk with me," says her mom. 

And
then, at last, they have that talk. The video is embedded below
and I transcribed the whole thing while watching it so you can judge for
yourself how effective it is:  




    Tami: "So, umm. Do you
    love Matt?"

    Julie: "I love Matt."

    Tami: "Does he love you?

    Julie : "Matt loves me."

    Tami: "He does…And
    what about birth control?"

    Julie: "Mom, I don’t
    want to talk about it.

    Tami: "Hon, that’s
    the conversation."

    Julie: "Yes, we’re
    using birth control."

    Tami: "What kind specifically?"

    Julie: "Condoms. We’re
    using condoms."

    Tami: "Do you know how
    to use them properly?

    Julie: "Yes, I know how
    to use them."

    Tami: "You, know you
    have to use them every time, because you know sometimes boys try to
    tell you…"

    Julie: "Yeah, Matt’s
    really good about it."

    Tami: "And you know,
    just cause you’re having sex this one time doesn’t mean that you
    have to all the time, and you know if it ever feels like he’s taking
    you for granted, or you’re not enjoying it you can stop anytime…
    and if you ever break up with Matt it’s not like you have sex with
    the next boy necessarily."

    [She tears up]

    Julie: "Why are you crying?"

    Tami: "Because I wanted
    you to wait…but that’s just because I want to protect you because
    I love you, and I want to make sure nothing bad ever happens to you.
    And I always want to you to always be able to talk to me even if it’s
    about something so hard like this."

    Julie: "I didn’t want
    to disappoint you."

    [Tami shakes head, hugs
    Julie.] 

Later on, Eric’s "talk"
with Matt is far more succinct: 

    "I know your father
    is in Iraq but if he were here we’d agree on one thing,: Women are
    to be respected," Eric says. And then he pauses. "That is my daughter,"
    he adds.

    Matt’s only response
    is a series of "yes, sir"s. 

The
episode effectively mined the awkwardness and humor
in the situation: shockingly, teens and their parents on TV can talk
about sex without being either cavalier or hysterical. The talk also
demonstrated how Tami, who has been hard on Julie in the past, and indeed urged
Julie to wait when she was first dating Matt
,
has matured and accepted the reality of her daughter’s growth. 
It’s also rare to have such an explicit, physically and emotionally
realistic sex talk on TV, going into the nitty-gritty of condom usage.
Often on teen dramas, the characters are unrealistically verbally and
physically mature, have nearly nonexistent parents, and seem to have
lots of sex without protection being mentioned.  

One
other show in my memory, which I consistently compare to FNL for its
nuanced view of teen life, featured a long "sex talk." Compare Tami
and Julie’s conversation to
this one between Angela Chase and her mother Patty
in the short-lived drama "My So-Called
Life": 

    Patty: Ah, this is hard.
    We need to talk.

    Angela(voice over):
    When I was twelve, my mother gave me my sex talk. I’m not sure either
    of us has fully recovered.

    Patty: Now that you and
    Jordan are, ah–

    Angela [looking pained]:
    Oh my God. Mom, please.

    Patty: Angela. I can accept
    that you have a boyfriend.

    Angela: I don’t have a
    boyfriend.

    Patty: Fine. A pal. A male
    pal. Whatever word you want to choose. The point is–I’m your mother,
    and I don’t think you’re ready.

    Angela: Mom, pleeease.

    Patty: I don’t think you’re
    ready. But, I have to know if this is what’s happening because–I don’t
    think that I-I keep you from–

    Angela [covering her ears
    and curling up in a fetal position]: Mom, I beg you to stop.

    Patty: I need to know that
    you are using – I mean, I remember how this feels. I do. But – but – it’s
    the times that we live in, it I-

    Angela: Mom, please–

    Patty: Honey. I know you
    don’t want to think about these things. I know you think that you’re
    invulnerable, but–

    Angela: I don’t think that.
    You have no idea–

    Patty: You have to use
    some kind of protection if you are going to be–

    Angela: Mom, I’m not having
    sex, alright. Really. I’m not even close. To an embarrassing degree.

    Patty (relieved): Oh, ah.
    Ok. I’m sorry honey, I just–I just want you to be prepared when the
    time comes. Whenever the time comes.

    Angela: It will never come.
    Not with Jordan.

    Patty: Is that’s what’s
    bothering you?

    Angela: No, nothing’s bothering
    me.

    Patty: Something’s bothering
    you.

    Angela: Mom, you couldn’t
    possibly understand or help, so please. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings,
    but just please.

    Patty [hugs Angela]: I’m
    here if you need me. You know that.

    [Patty leaves. Angela
    sits on her bed with a pained expression on her face.

The
primary difference between the two scenes, besides the clear gap in
characters and context, is that Patty starts out by assuming that she
knows what her daughter’s up to, while Tami begins by asking more
open-ended questions. Even though the answers she receives are monosyllabic,
Tami gets the information she needs so she can give Julie advice on
how to be emotionally and physically safe. Although her "I wish you
would have waited," feels like a nod to the right wing, it’s not
inconsistent with Tami’s character. She makes sure that Julie understands
that her desire for her daughter to postpone sex came from her own
maternal protectiveness, not some kind of absolute moral judgment. 

Patty
Chase, on the other hand, starts out by being judgmental – "you’re
not ready" – and ends up making her daughter Angela feel bad about
herself for not having sex. And although she also urges safety
in the sense of using protection, she’s less concerned with her daughter’s
emotional well-being and more with going through the motions of the
talk, and basically getting it over with. The show took a realistic
approach as well, but its parent character handled the situation more
poorly. Perhaps if Patty, like Tami, had been given another chance
later on, she would have fared better. 

Of
course, on the opposite extreme from both these "talks" are characters
like "Big
Love
"’s Barb,
who is Sarah’s mom, and "Beverly
Hills, 90210
"’s
Felice Martin, who is Donna’s mom. Both these characters throw fits
and get angry at their daughters when they discover they’re sexually
active. Barb actually shouts Sarah, "You need to stop!" Needless
to say, neither are effective at influencing the behavior in question,
nor should they be. 

While
there’s no perfectly right way to talk to kids about sex, Tami’s
method of waiting until she’s calm, being honest about her own feelings
without projecting them on her daughter, and covering the bases of physical
and emotional safety is a surprisingly good model. And it’s a good
model without being a preachy one or being inconsistent with the show’s
tone or characters. 

Do
you remember any other notable talks about the "facts of life" between
parents and kids on TV dramas, sitcoms or even reality TV? Are there
any "talks" you recall between dads and sons that stood out? Please
share them in comments!

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Follow Sarah Seltzer on twitter: @sarahmseltzer

  • invalid-0

    I have seen this clip many times and it still gets me every time. What I didn’t expect is that even just reading the transcript would make me tear up.

  • heather-corinna

    That is one of the most glorious things I have ever seen done in mainstream media when it comes to parents and teens around sex, if not THE most glorious.  Holy cow!  Thanks so much for pointing it out.

  • sarah-seltzer

    I know Heather! It’s truly great that they did this, and I hope that rumors about the show being renewed are true, because this season they’ve introduced a few new characters (including one queer teen) and I’m hoping the writers will explore their issues with similar subtlety.

  • harry834

    that the conversation between Eric the coach and Matt, ought to have been a bit longer and/or more sensitive/less judgmental? I do like his message of respecting women, but I get the "she’s my daughter, and I’m watching you" vibe.

    We praised Tami for not initially assuming to know what her daughter was doing. I feel like Eric the coach did not take that step with Matt. 

    • http://www.onehostgator.com invalid-0

      I think that Eric the coach does represent the typical father on many levels. He has a hard time verbalizing what he wants to say.

  • harry834

    I didn’t see the show. Maybe he said it gently.

  • jodi-jacobson

    Sarah,

    I love your work and this piece. I have not watched this show regularly, but will go back and do so.

    However, one thing I did want to offer, was about the point you raise in regard to Tami telling Julie she wishes she would have “waited.” I am not so sure it is fair to characterize this only as a “nod” to the right wing. Unless I missed something, the message was not so much about “waiting til marriage,” but rather perhaps just that she wished it had not happened so soon, or that she had waited til she was a bit older. I don’t know, I am just putting it out there.

    And I do so as the mother of a nearly 13-year-old daughter, as a woman who is decidedly not “right wing,” and as someone who believes that sex is a very good thing and should be both enjoyed but practiced responsibly. I do want my daughter to wait to have sex, until she is ready. I don’t know when that will be; it won’t be up to me to make that decision. But it is not the same as saying “wait til marriage.” It is, in my mind, wait until you are ready and can handle it, enjoy it and be responsible about it and to be in such a relationship with someone you care about and cares about you, for however long that lasts. I am quite sure that when the time comes, I will have mixed feelings. Just as I did when she suddenly veered from one stage to another at various ages….when she was younger and i could carry her on my hip to the point where she no longer wanted to be carried, when she had no barriers at all about playing full on with boys and then veered from that to having only girls as friends, when she went from wearing only sports clothes to sudden interest in dresses and makeup..it is the movement from one stage of life to another, and sometimes it is bitter-sweet and as parents, we often want to hold onto those stages because each of them has a sense of time passing and a loss of something so lovely.

    And i have exactly the same feelings about my 9-year old son. One day he had no qualms about kissing me at the school drop off; suddenly he could no longer be seen doing that and I was lucky to get a kiss a block away.

    So I think that the part about “I wish you waited” isn’t only about the right wing. It is probably about all of us, and is normal. That is different than shaming, blaming or pretending that older adolescents and young adults won’t be sexually active.

    So for what it is worth, even that part felt genuine to me.

    Thanks for a great piece.
    Jodi Jacobson

  • invalid-0

    The conversation is brilliantly portrayed. I especially liked Julie’s “I know, I know already!” protestations at Tami’s point regarding the proper use of condoms. That’s spot-on for a teenager!

    I think it should be noted, however, that in the ideal scenario, a conversation like this would take place much earlier in a child’s development—before s/he begins to take an interest in sex, and no less importantly, before the “shell” of teenagers in our culture has ossified. It’s much harder to connect with a sullen, jaded teen on a difficult subject like this, than a bright-eyed, naive kid who still thinks you’re the greatest mom/dad in the world.

  • sarah-seltzer

    That is a great point Jodi. I think the "waited" stuff only felt like a nod to the right wing because of the context–primetime show on a network, not cable, a show that’s already pushing boundaries. But within the scenario itself,  ultimately I think that it definitely rang true with Tami’s character and with how a mother like Tami would feel–that urge to hold onto time and be able to protect the child. It was incredibly poignant.

  • invalid-0

    Tami did talk to Julie about sex two seasons ago, in a conversation that was also frank and touching. As someone who just watched the episode a few months ago (I got into the DVDs and just started watching in real time), I was struck by the parallels and the way that Tami and Julie have both grown while remaining true to themselves.