The latest ABC “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” special featuring episodes from '80s sitcom classics “The Facts of Life” and “Diff'rent Strokes” brought back lots of childhood memories for Gen Xers who grew up on these shows.
I suppose this may be the reason why Gen X actors were chosen to portray these iconic child and teenage roles with “The Facts of Life” cast featuring Jennifer Aniston, Gabrielle Union and Kathryn Hahn playing the beloved characters of Blair, Tootie and Jo. Allison Tolman starred as Natalie, Tootie’s witty and perceptive friend.
“The Facts of Life” was a unique show in that social and racial dynamics were evident, but were not examined in a contentious manner. The girls attend a New York boarding school under the care of a compassionate housemother named Edna Garrett. Tootie immediately stands out because she is the only Black girl at the school, and Jo comes from a working-class background and clashes with the immaturity and pettiness of Blair, who is from a wealthy family.
I often tell my students who take my TV diversity class at Ohio State’s Lima campus that the '80s were the golden era of television for my generation. We had great storylines that were both humorous and serious, and there still seemed to be somewhat of an innocence within family situations depicted on TV during this decade. Siblings fought over privacy on the telephone, yes back when landlines were a thing, and parents had to juggle a work-life balance. I thought the “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” recreation of “The Facts of Life” episode "Kids Can Be Cruel” was especially appropriate for friendship conflicts teens still experience, even 39 years later.
I was in the seventh grade when “Kids Can Be Cruel” originally aired in 1982. The plot focuses on the crushes that Blair and Natalie have on two of the guys from the all-boys Bates boarding school while the girls prepare box lunches for a charity auction. The boys bid for the box lunches of the girls that they want to have a date with. While Blair and Natalie are hoping to spend time with the boys they admire, all the girls begin looking over comments in the Slam Book, a Snapchat equivalent of the '80s.
To Mrs. Garrett’s dismay, she discovers that some nasty and cruel comments were written, and Natalie is upset that Blair identifies her crush. To get back at Blair, Natalie deviously poses as her classmate telling a boy named Carl, whom no one finds attractive due to having braces, that Blair wants to go out with him. This ruins Blair’s plans for her box lunch date and humiliates Carl.
Viewing this episode as an adult, the obvious difference is that we didn’t have social media back then. Vitriol was still spread among teens in the '80s, but you had to work a little harder to do it. Usually, a Slam Book or even a yearbook or bathroom wall could be used for those spiteful means long before the advent of smartphones. The lesson taught in this episode that is still significant for kids is that words and actions have consequences.
One thing I noticed that I completely overlooked as a middle school student when this episode debuted is that it focused on the hurt feelings of a boy. Growing up in the '80s, I did not see many TV storylines that explored how boys could be shamed the way Carl was. Girls still devised vindictive shenanigans like Natalie, but presently, many girls seeing similar, hurtful words in a social media post or text message go into deep depression, or worse, commit suicide.
I’ve always believed that my generation was blessed to have school administrators and parents like Mrs. Garrett who sternly corrected us when we misbehaved and taught us that we had to respect others. I also strongly believe that those in my generation benefited greatly from in-person interaction with our friends.
“The Facts of Life” showed that although Blair, Tootie, Jo and Natalie had their fights they grew to sincerely care for one another. Being much older and a little wiser now, I understand that true friends love “at all times,” as stated in Proverbs 17:17. This is the meaning of friendship that we need to teach young people today who struggle to connect with their peers.
This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: Examples of true friendship found in 1980s sitcom 'Facts of Life'