Amy Sohn: 'Baby Einstein' Was My Porn

As I packed up my Baby Einstein DVDs to ship them back to Disney, I felt excited for the easy cash but also a little sad. After public-health lawyers threatened Disney with a class-action lawsuit for unfair and deceptive practices, arguing that the Baby Einstein series does not turn babies into geniuses, Disney agreed to refund the full purchase price of DVDs bought after 2004.

My husband and I began to buy the videos in 2005 when my daughter was an infant, and for the next two years, Baby Einstein was my porn, my escape. And it's not easy to give up porn. Though the series’ claim was that it made children smart by introducing them to language, art and classical music, what made it compelling to me as a new mom were the interstitial montages of parents and children, a kind of fantasy for harried mothers like myself.

In these sequences, with no source sound, set to synthesized versions of Schubert, Beethoven and Lizst, blonde children played tag on rolling green lawns, a grandfather and granddaughter both in overalls strolled on a farm, and families had merry pillow fights in California king beds. Children were helpful, well-mannered, and tended to. In a huge suburban kitchen, two African American girls helped their mother make pancakes while Dad worked on homework in the background with the son. An in-fridge shot revealed an Asian mother and daughter opening the door, the girl reaching for chocolate cake while the mother pushed it aside and selected a bowl of fruit instead.

I knew these families were too attractive to be real, but I wanted to believe this fantasy of domestic bliss. This was a world with no Zoloft, no mastitis and no wine. The Baby Einstein parents did all the things that we were unable to do with our own babies, because if we were, we wouldn’t have been plopping them in front of the TV while we took a shower, made a business call, or had sex.

Strangely, the children in these montages were unlike today’s children in that they were sometimes pictured with no adult supervision. They were self-sufficient and filled with wonder at the universe brought on by their lack of television exposure. The only time I saw young children in front of a television in a Baby Einstein video, they were approximately six and nine years old - ancient in Baby Einstein years - and naturally, they were watching with their dad.

The ultimate Baby Einstein parent, of course, was creator Julie Aigner-Clark, who provided chipper voiceover even after she sold the company to Disney in 2001. Blonde and spirited, she looked like Julie McCoy the cruise director and talked like Melanie Griffith. She seemed so certain of the videos’ benefits to young children that I didn’t care that her husband was a Republican National Committee donor or that the series was praised in a 2007 State of the Union address by George W. Bush.

In the "About Baby Einstein" portion of the videos, which I got to hear many times if I was answering email and couldn’t press Eject fast enough, Aigner-Clark opined that "the most important thing that we’ve done is to encourage parents to sit with their children, to interact with their children, to dance with their children." Ha! The fiction of Baby Einstein was that parents were watching it too, when most parents - who hadn't discovered the parent-porn snuck between the puppet shows - it was a virtual babysitter.

For anxious new mothers who didn’t like the idea of leaving a baby unattended, Baby Einstein provided the handy fiction that parental neglect could be an opportunity for stimulation. Of course, a baby is also stimulated if left in a bouncy chair in the living room to play with her toes, but Gen X moms who were left to play with their own toes as babies now spend thousands on therapy working out their anger toward the Me-generation mothers who let them do it.

When I get my $63.96 refund from Disney I will spend it at H & M on much-needed winter clothes for my daughter. But when I pay I will be thinking of my favorite Baby Einstein money shot, when a mother kisses her toddler goodnight and a wide shot of the house shows the light going out in a window. There may be screams of protest, but you can’t hear them over the Schumann.

Read about the Baby Einstein refund here.

Amy Sohn is the author of the new novel Prospect Park West, about four mothers in brownstone Brooklyn.

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