Somewhere around 1981, network television producers discovered that (a) sexual abuse existed, (b) it was very, very bad, and (c) they should probably address it in some way. First it was handled in a rather lurid manner, as in the child porn drama Fallen Angel, then eventually softened enough to be sitcom fodder, as seen on the infamous “Bicycle Man” episodes of Diff’rent Strokes. At some point, someone had an intriguing thought: “Gee, perhaps we ought to have a show that tells children how to avoid these horrific events, rather than focusing on the events themselves.” That resulted in 1984’s Strong Kids, Safe Kids, which, like virtually every PSA made during the 80s, is equal parts sincere, baffling, corny, and. at times, inexplicably creepy.
Having come to the very sad (yet apparently correct) conclusion that children will listen to television actors and cartoon characters more than their own parents, the program features Henry Winkler, both as himself (wearing a series of terrific dad sweaters) and as the Fonz, John Ritter, and favorite of the young folks Mariette Hartley, as well as the Smurfs, Scooby Doo, the Flintstones, and other familiar animated faces, most of whom just show up at random moments in clips that only occasionally seem to relate to the subject at hand.
The program also features actual professionals, including Dr. Sol Gordon, a psychologist specializing in human sexuality (and not surprisingly the only person who really has anything of value to contribute), and Kee MacFarlane, who is described as a social worker, but whose mannerisms and pastels-heavy wardrobe suggest someone who runs a Reiki clinic out of her beachside home in Santa Monica. Around the time Strong Kids was released, MacFarlane was a key figure in the McMartin Preschool trial, a travesty of justice that lasted a mind-boggling seven years, cost California taxpayers more than $15 million, and destroyed an entire family. The trial was only just starting to get under way at that point, however, and MacFarlane’s expertise in “recovered memory therapy” (later deemed to be horseshit) still made her a leading figure in the prevention of child molestation.
A musician named Chris Wallace also appears, and he personifies one of the pressing issues with Strong Kids, which is that it has no idea who its audience is supposed to be. Sol Gordon’s advice is largely for parents, while the Fonz seems to be addressing the 8 to 12 year-old set. Dressed like a child and hanging around in playgrounds, Wallace is performing strictly to the six and under crowd, singing simple songs that teach body parts and how to tell the difference between a good touch and a bad touch. Certainly the program would like to be all things to all people, but imagine being an 11 year-old boy sitting on the couch with your mom, watching a grown man in overalls play guitar and sing “All boys have a penis/so no matter what you’ve heard/remember that penis is the proper word.”
Like a lot of PSAs made for the young folk, Strong Kids wants children to believe that life is a treacherous landscape of strangers eager to do you harm, to the point where you should even learn how to do a special scream (referred to as a “honk”) to alert people to danger (because plain old screaming might be misinterpreted as just playing, you see). At one point, using puppets, Kee MacFarlane demonstrates some of the things a stranger may say to a child to convince them to cooperate with them. This is some horror movie level shit, with a giraffe puppet saying “I could hurt your parents, or even kill your brother and sister,” like a tiny, furry Charles Manson. Knowing that MacFarlane used puppets to coax the alleged victims of the McMartin Preschool into claiming that they were part of a Satanic sex cult, and that one of their accused abusers could fly, gives this scene an extra edge of surrealness.
Now, I’m not saying that a child molester has never threatened to hurt a victim’s parents to keep him or her from talking. The bit with the puppets, though, as well as the weird, foghorn level scream the program encourages children to learn, illustrates a glaring issue with Strong Kids, and very nearly every other PSA about child molestation–it’s focused almost entirely on how to avoid being victimized by strangers. Despite the fact that, like adult rape victims, the vast majority of child molestation victims know their abuser, exactly one throwaway sentence in the entire 45 minute program mentions it.
While correct in driving home the idea that a child should tell someone they trust if they’ve been abused, it doesn’t explain what to do if the abuser is someone they trust, as is the case in 90% of sexual abuse cases. Instead, it spends nearly ten minutes coming up with numerous unlikely scenarios to illustrate how a complete stranger might coerce a child into doing what he says, including offering candy, and that old favorite, asking for help to find a lost puppy. With the truth evidently too horrible (or too controversial) to bear, the child audience is given a lot of earnest but largely useless “tips” to protect themselves.
But Strong Kids, Safe Kids is earnest, I will give it that. Even when the Fonz threatens to run the viewer over with his motorcycle if they don’t pay attention (which I suppose is less scary than a giraffe saying he’s going to murder your entire family), it’s very earnest. Even with the Teletubbies style method of repeating words, songs, and animated clips ad infinitum, it’s very earnest. Much of the advice Dr. Sol Gordon offers, which can be largely summed up with “Parents need to stop freaking the fuck out when it comes to talking about sex and human anatomy with their kids,” is legitimately helpful. Nevertheless, kids can be told the proper names for their genitals without the help of a creepy guy dressed like Dennis the Menace, and they can be taught that no adult automatically commands trust (if you want to see how well that works out, I direct you to a little film from 2015 called Spotlight). Strong Kids, Safe Kids is in the right ballpark, but hitting towards the wrong end of the field.
Watch it here