It’s 11:30am and I’m at the grocery store with my mom. We’re heading for the checkout lane and I grit my teeth and clench my stomach, resigned to what’s about to happen. I watch the groceries glide along the conveyor belt and reach the checker. It begins.
“Why aren’t you in school?”
My mom looks at me, giving me the eye that I had better be polite to this lady.
A torrent of questions follow. These usually include the following:
- How do you meet and socialize with other children?
- Do you have friends?
- Do you wear your pajamas all day?
- Do you ever wish you went to real school?
- Do you ever want to get out of the house? (“Hello, I am out of the house” is what I would say if my mom weren’t there)
- What church do you go to?
- (to my mom) How do you do it? I tried homeschooling my kids, but they just drove me nuts. (to me) Do you drive your mom nuts?
I understand these people and these questions. Most children attend public school. I am the rarity called the homeschooler. I have prepared answers to these questions, but they get asked so often, I get tired of responding. Now that I’m at university, the questions have subsided. I’m in the system now. This popular culture class has given me the opportunity to reflect on the twelve years I was homeschooled. Researching how the media stereotypes homeschoolers led me into another interesting observation. Today’s homeschoolers have embraced the media to challenge the mainstream media’s biased perception of homeschoolers. However, the success of these rebuttals is open to question, as many of these types of media reinforce or create yet new stereotypes homeschoolers must face.
Stereotypes: Fact or Fiction?
Type “homeschooler” into Google Images. You’ll get a family of five or more kids wearing long dresses and overalls, a kid in thick glasses winning a spelling bee, and this humorous sign warning of the dangers of interacting with a homeschooler:
Many crazy stereotypes get added to the “homeschooling” stereotype pot, often contradictory ones at that. We’re conservative and liberal. We’re not at regular school because we’re endowed with superior intellect and because we’re idiots who can’t keep up with our grade level. The only “fact” the media can agree on is that we have social issues and live sheltered lives. I don’t identify as any of the above. I lie in the middle of the political spectrum, thinking for myself instead of for a party. I’m not a dummy (4.0 student so far), but I’m by no means a genius. I’m Christian, but grew up in a nonreligious family. As I researched and combed through all these stereotypes about me, I got to wondering: am I an anomaly? Will facts show that I am just that outlier on the graph of homeschoolers?
To summarize my research in a sentence, I’d say that we’re not as bad as the mainstream media presents us, but we’re not as great as we tend to think ourselves to be. First of all, homeschoolers are not so rare as they used to be. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) charted the number of homeschooling students between 2003 and 2012. Based on their criteria for a homeschooling student, the NCES estimated that the number of homeschooling students increased by 61.8% across the United States — that’s about 677,000 new homeschoolers! We’re pretty smart, but not child prodigies either. According to a summary research article — which cites original, already conducted research — the homeschooling environment can “provide supportive learning settings,” but homeschooling students “are more likely to fall behind expected grade.” We’re not that awkward and unable to fit into normal life. Many homeschoolers have adapted easily to the university system. Stanford regularly recruits and admits homeschoolers, finding that “the brightest homeschoolers bring a mix of unusual experiences, special motivation, and intellectual independence.” So, when it comes to picking out the homeschooling facts from the homeschooling myths, one can say that homeschooling works and doesn’t, has its advantages and disadvantages, just like public school. But despite these facts, the media still continues to perpetuate homeschooling myths.
Homeschoolers According to Hollywood
The moon setting over an amorous couple in Paris, the Eiffel tower sitting picturesquely in the background. A gondolier singing an Italian ditty in the Venetian canals. The slanted-eyed Chinese villain with a Fu Manchu mustache. The socially inept, nerdy homeschooler who difficultly attempts to navigate popular culture. However humorous we find these stock characters, we must acknowledge them for what they are: stereotypes that have two-dimensional views of reality. Movies are artifacts constructed by Hollywood — one of the largest producers of media consumed by the masses — informing us how to consider, treat, and value differences and others. So, to start my research on homeschoolers in the media, I watched movies.
I started with Mean Girls, the popular 2004 blockbuster directed by Mark Waters and starring Lindsay Lohan. The film is about a homeschooled teenage girl navigating her way around that frightening rite of passage: high school. The first few minutes of Mean Girls quickly establish what a homeschooler is: nerdy, intellectual, backwater conservative “freaks.”
When protagonist and narrator Cady Heron then assures us she is not like this, it seems like the film has rejected this stereotype. But the content of Mean Girls itself dashes this hope. Cady doesn’t understand popular culture references and is socially inept when trying to fit in at her new high school.
Cady’s friends are shocked at her having been homeschooled, finding this as interesting and rare as the fact she grew up in Africa. Director Mark Waters and screenwriter Tina Fey explain that the film was originally going to be called Homeschooled and feature Cady as an American homeschooled student, instead of being raised in Africa. But Paramount objected, thinking that the audience might assume that “it might make her too religiously weird if she were homeschooled here.” This remark is telling, showing how the media feels pressured into continuing to uphold certain stereotypes.
Homeschoolers According to (Homeschooled) Hollywood
In 2008, Sony Pictures — an established studio in the Hollywood studio system — founded the label Affirm Films, a studio aimed at attracting a Christian audience. Their 2014 release Mom’s Night Out centers on stay-at-home, homeschooling, mother-of-three Allyson and her attempt at having a stress-free girls’ night out. The film was written by and directed by former homeschoolers, Andrew and Jon Erwin. Before watching the movie, I watched a promotional film for Mom’s Night Out, in which Andrew Erwin sings the praises of homeschooling mothers, claiming he couldn’t have become a successful Hollywood director had his mother not pulled him from public school and homeschooled him.
After watching this video, I had great hopes for Mom’s Night Out. As a homeschooler who has broken into the Hollywood system, Erwin was in a unique place to represent homeschoolers like never before.
The first mention of homeschooling in the film is a negative one, unfortunately, perpetuating the stereotype that homeschoolers possess a “mightier than thou” attitude toward children who attend public school. When reporting her missing car, Allyson describes her bumpersticker “My homeschooling student is smarter than your honor student.” This antagonism pits supporters of the public school system against supporters of homeschooling, and vice versa. Homeschoolers may find characters like Cady Heron offensive, while non-homeschoolers may find Allyson’s self-righteous attitude annoying.
However, neither represent homeschooling well and depict reality. According to a survey conducted by the NCES, 85% of homeschooling parents opted to homeschool their children due to “concern about environment of other schools,” while 16% cited “dissatisfaction with the academic instruction available at other schools” as the motivating factor of their decision to homeschool. So yes, homeschooling parents believe they are making a sound decision to school their children at home. But by touting around a “I’m so much better than you for homeschooling my children” attitude, we do a disservice to ourselves and homeschooling. I have known several homeschoolers with this smug attitude, but from personal experience I can say the media has blown this stereotype out of proportion. We should realize that when we possess this antagonism, and when we create characters like Allyson, we are potentially turning more people off homeschoolers than gaining respect for it.
For me, the main disappointment of Mom’s Night Out was Allyson’s reason for homeschooling her children. Allyson is a germaphobe and obsessed with having control. When her children make her a surprise breakfast, instead of enjoying the sweet moment, she freaks out at the thought they might get salmonella.
Later on, Allyson’s husband knows all is not well when he comes home to find his house a mess. Allyson is hiding in her closet, crying and watching an animal video on YouTube on repeat to block the messy house from her mind. The Erwin brothers imply that it is this need to have control over her children’s lives that partially motivates her decision to homeschool. Allyson’s germaphobic and controlling character is supposed to be comedic. However, this kind of comedy is dangerous. Because of it, we don’t take Allyson seriously. Her decision to homeschool her children based on these irrational fears are absurd, so we might assume homeschooling itself is absurd. Erwin had the opportunity to use the mainstream media to represent homeschoolers well and possibly dispel some homeschooling stereotypes. But instead, Erwin further perpetuated these stereotypes and ultimately did homeschooling a disservice.
The Blimey Cow Solution (?)
We live in a highly connected world thanks to the Internet. If we have something to say, we can get it out to the world. Alternative media gives voice to the individual, a direct link between communicator and audience, instead of via the circuitous route of the Hollywood/mass media system. Homeschoolers have embraced alternative media like YouTube to directly represent homeschooling. Some of these homeschoolers are brothers Josh and Jordan Taylor, creators of the YouTube web series “Blimey Cow.” The Taylors first viral video was their video “You Might be a Homeschooler If…”
The success of this video led to many more “You Might Be a Homeschooler If…” videos, and other videos debunking homeschooling stereotypes. Performing parody skits, the Taylors caricature and overemphasize the stereotypes. With Jordan Taylor’s authoritative and ridiculing narration juxtaposed with these skits, the stereotypes now seem absurd. The Taylors, both homeschoolers, don’t seem at all like the stereotypes.
So, is “Blimey Cow” the solution? Should all homeschoolers drop what they’re doing, make a video, and post it on YouTube? Unfortunately, “Blimey Cow” has some similar problems to Mom’s Night Out. Like the Erwin brothers, the Taylors unintentionally perpetuate their own homeschooling stereotypes. For instance, in the video “Seven Lies about Homeschoolers,” Jordan Taylor claims that “most homeschooling families vote Republican. That’s a stereotype that’s actually true.”
That was a pretty general, board statement, so I did some research to see if that was true. While no survey or published research exists on the political demographics of homeschooling families, political scientist and Stanford professor Rob Reich says the homeschooling population has become more diverse. “No longer the preserve of left wing unschoolers and right wing religious fundamentalists, the great range of people who have chosen to home school their children make it difficult to draw even broad generalizations about the phenomenon.” So, the Taylors cannot make this claim without denting their up-to-now intact reputation for dispelling stereotypes. Homeschoolers stereotyping homeschoolers is dangerous because it factionalizes homeschoolers and without a united front, we cannot hope to change the mass media’s ideas of homeschoolers.
Society will not stop stereotyping us if we don’t stop stereotyping ourselves first. We must acknowledge that like all groups and identities, we are individuals in a cosmopolitan community. There is no one type of homeschooler. Homeschooling is growing more popular; it has become more mainstream, and so hopefully we can look to a better future for homeschooler representation in the media. But we must present ourselves well first. Now more and more often, when I tell someone I was homeschooled, I get answers like:
- That’s so cool! I know someone who was homeschooled!
- Me too!
- Tell me more about what you did as a homeschooler.
The media is a platform where we can directly communicate who we are to others. Let’s use it to our advantage.
My biggest take-away from this course has been that the media may be a reflection of reality, but like all reflections, it is one-dimensional and distorts certain aspects of an issue. For instance, in the excerpt from This American Life we heard this term, we learned how the press convoluted Al Gore’s Love Canal comment. The media misquoted and pulled the sentence out of context. Because news readers and television viewers were not present at the speech, we were “forced” to see the event through the lens of the media. I learned we must critically analyze the media we consume. The media may reflect reality, but it offers a certain reflection of reality as envisioned by someone else.
During this term, I was afraid of becoming overly cynical and critical. I feel we have to try to approach the media with as much of an objective mind that we can muster. We can’t accept everything we read or see, but it’s just as dangerous to assume everything we read and see was created by a malignant entity with evil intentions. My second biggest learning moment this term was realizing there is hope in attaining better balanced, and more inclusive media. With platforms like YouTube, personal blogs, and social media, we can directly share our experiences with the world, instead of allowing the mainstream media, the “middlemen,” to provide us with a prepackaged interpretation of the world around us.
Blimey Cow. “Seven More Lies About Homeschoolers.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 November 2013. Web. 27 May 2016.
—. “Messy Mondays: You Might Be a Homeschooler If…” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 30 March 2012. Web. 27 May 2016.
“Digest of Education Statistics 2013.” National Center for Education Statistics: Institute of Education Sciences. U.S. Department of Education, May 2015. Web. 27 May 2016.
Foster, Christine. “In a Class by Themselves.” Stanford Magazine. November/December 2000: n. pag. Web. 27 May 2016.
“Homeschooling in the United States: Statistical Analysis Report.” National Center for Education Statistics: National Household Education Surveys Program. U.S. Department of Education, February 2006. Web. 27 May 2016.
Jamaludin, Khairul Azhar, Norlidah Alias, and Dorothy DeWitt. “Research and Trends in the Studies of Homeschooling Practices: A Review on Selected Journals.” TOJET: The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology. 14.3 (2015). Web. 27 May 2016.
Mean Girls. Dir. Mark Waters. Perf. Lindsay Lohan, Jonathan Bennett, Rachel McAdams. Paramount, 2004. Film.
“Mission Statement.” Affirm Films. Sony, n.d. Web. 27 May 2016.
Mom’s Night Out. Dir. Andrew and Jon Erwin. Perf. Sarah Drew, Sean Astin, Patricia Heaton, and Trace Adkins. Affirm Films, 2014. Film.
Mom’s Night Out Movie. “Mom’s Night Out: From One Homeschooler to Another.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 17 April 2014. Web. 27 May 2016.
Reich, Rob. “More Oversight Is Needed.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 2 December 2015. Web. 27 May 2016.
Reitz, Michael. “How the Media Gets it Wrong about Homeschooling.” Practical Homeschooling. Home Life, Inc., 2004. Web. 27 May 2016.
Unknown User. “Mean Girls – Homeschooled.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 30 October 2010. Web. 27 May 2016.