“Who the hell is that?” a friend of mine whispered.
“He looks like a freak!” another friend said in between giggles.
I followed their gaze to see who they were gossiping about, prepared to have a good chuckle of my own, but when I spotted the victim of my friends’ vicious comments, my eyes widened in surprise – I knew exactly who this traffic-stopping, eccentric man was.
He wore a bright purple top hat, à la Willy Wonka, except it had a saffron-colored feather on it. His dark black curly locks, which dusted his shoulders, sharply contrasted his translucent skin. He wore an orange knit sweater that matched his hat’s feather and tight purple pants that seemed to restrict his legs’ freedom.
Clink, clink, clink.
That was the sound his black leather boots made as its loose buckles thumped against its metal features.
I’ve never seen anyone dressed like him. No one did. But I, unlike my friends, didn’t think he was a freak. I, at the time, was too embarrassed to admit I knew him, but we attended the same private grade school for eight years.
While my friends snickered away, my thoughts flashed back to eighth grade when top-hat guy, let’s call him Dylan, shocked the whole class with a surprising revelation.
One day, our religion teacher, a surly nun that no one – and I mean no one (not even the other teachers) – liked gave us an assignment that prompted us to watch the local news.
The class nodded – watching TV for homework seemed easy enough. But there was one classmate of mine who wore a troubled expression.
Dylan raised his hand.
“Yes?” the nun said to Dylan.
“I-I don’t think I can do the assignment.”
The nun frowned. “Why not?”
My classmates curiously stared at Dylan, waiting for an answer.
Dylan’s eyes dropped down to his desk. “I … ”
“Spit it out Dylan,” The surly, impatient nun said.
“I’m not allowed to watch TV.”
The whole class gasped. What did he mean he wasn’t allowed to watch TV? Not even Fear Factor? Friends? Did he know that Joe Rogan was friggin’ awesome? Did he even know what a Chandler was?
Though those shows were “all the rage” back then, his answer to those aforementioned questions was a shocking no.
“Well, why not? Why can’t you watch TV?” the frustrated nun shot back, asking the same question we were all wondering.
“My mom said that TV is full of brainwashing that’s far too corruptive for impressionable minds,” Dylan replied.
We all knew Dylan’s mom. She worked as an English teacher in our school. She was a bibliophile who instructed us to read everything from Shakespeare sonnets to Robert Frost poems. Under her wing, we read classic novels such as The Giver and Bridge to Terabithia. She made us watch old-school musicals such as My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and South Pacific.
We all loved her – she’d whisk us away from our dry geometry and biology classes to expose us to film masterpieces. She had the graceful, angelic aura of an old-Hollywood musical lead actress – she had a personality that mirrored Maria from The Sound of Music, and she looked like her, too.
There was no doubt in my mind that Dylan’s mom – our English teacher – made sure her son was cultured with time-honored movies and literature. And now that I look back on it, she would be the type to ban television from her household. I, too, would prefer my son sink his teeth in To Kill a Mockingbird than watch him get swallowed into some reality TV cesspit.
“Well, it’s just the news! Surely your mother could let you watch the news, no?” The nun told Dylan.
“I’m not even allowed to watch the news,” Dylan replied sheepishly.
The class gasped again.
The surly nun sighed and changed the assignment to a prompt that everyone could do – Dylan included.
So here’s the thing – back in the day, we all wore school uniforms so I never saw any of my classmates’ fashion styles, let alone Dylan’s.
But at that time, outside of private school, I saw boys draping themselves in FUBU, Sean John, and Rocawear while girls sashayed in Juicy Couture, Von Dutch, and Hollister.
Our brains were all melting while watching MTV shows like Punk’d, TRL, and Cribs, and we were all subliminally told how we should talk, walk, and dress. We were all clones birthed by “Mama MTV.” In our desire to win “cool points” and validation from our peers, we drank in all the imagery we saw glaring on our TV screens and regurgitated it back out as our “own” shopping selections when we were at the mall.
But not Dylan. His mother banned TV, except for using it as a tool for popping in VHS tapes from her classic film collection. Dylan’s only other source of entertainment were trips to Broadway spectaculars like Wicked.
Fast forward to the present, and while my gossipy girlfriends can only see a “freak”, I see a nonconformist who’s managed to evade the media’s influence to become his true, unadulterated, individual self – purple top hat and all – without TV’s subtle brainwashing.
But of course, there are cons to living a TV-less life. Curious about Dylan, I asked a mutual friend, Nina, about him. “Well, he’s annoyingly out of touch with pop culture, politics, and current events,” Nina told me. “But I can tell you this – he is a film and literary history genius. He may not know about The Jersey Shores or The Big Brothers, but he can tell you who was the second African-American woman to win an Oscar, which isn’t so bad, is it?”
While my friends continued to chuckle at Dylan as he walked down the block, I looked at my friends’ outfits, and they both wore jeans that ripped at the knees and lace-up boots.
I looked down at my own outfit – an embarrassingly similar ensemble as well.
I asked myself one profound question: “If we never watched a single show on TV, if we never bombarded ourselves with YouTube and Instagram imagery – if we were completely devoid of media – what would we really look like?”
Would I be wearing a tutu with thigh-high boots or somethin’?
You never got the chance to cultivate your own style. You think you did. But look around – most of us have similar fashion. Even if you think you’re “different” ’cause you subscribe to some “subculture” like K-pop or somethin’, there are still millions of others – just like you – who are hypnotized by the same media niche.
No one, on the other hand, looks like Dylan.
That being said, I leave you with this thought-provoking question:
Is it Dylan who’s the freak – the uniquely styled individualist who evaded the perils of corruptive television – or it us, the clones shaped by our media’s subliminal messages, who are the true freaks?
Who would you be, dear reader, if you weren’t blitzed with visual stimuli that invaded your subconscious to tell you how you should walk, talk, and dress? What would your raw, unadulterated, pure self look truly look like?