Friday, May 21, 2010

A Change of Toon (Babble)

One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed since my kids and I started doing Friday Night Movie Night is just how much children’s programming has changed.  In a lot of ways for the better.  Yes, there are some great things from the past that I want to share with my kids, but I think it’s a very recent phenomenon that any real consideration has been put into what might be not only appropriate, but beneficial for small children to see in movies or on TV.

The first time I gave this much thought was back in 2006 right after Ian left for his first deployment.  Aden was 4 and Mona was 2, and since I was pregnant and tired all the time I decided to invest in a bunch of DVDs we could watch together for when I was too torpid to move.  I picked up a newly released box set of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons I grew up with, because hey, wouldn’t that be sweet and fun?

Now, I’m not someone who tries to shelter her kids particularly.  Bugs Bunny is just a funny cartoon.  But I was really taken aback by all the guns in the Looney Toons shows.  Until I found myself sitting next to Aden who was asking me about all that shooting I hadn’t realized how much of it there was.  There’s a ton.  And you don’t see guns in children’s shows anymore.  Even in programs for slightly older kids, only bad guys might have guns.  Good guys usually know martial arts or have special powers or are simply clever.  I know Bugs Bunny is over the top and it’s silly and I watched those cartoons endlessly as a kid and I came out fine, but it was a little alarming after years of nothing more volatile than Blue’s Clues to see characters getting shot in the face.  And blown up.  And behaving in a way that was, well, despicable.  I don’t know if you could make a cartoon like that for kids today.  Which is probably good, because as much as whiney Caillou grates on my ears, I see my kids emulating the gentle behavior they watch on that show, and it’s nice.  Dropping anvils on people?  Not so nice.  Admittedly, Bugs Bunny wasn’t written for kids (much like the Simpsons today), but it got used that way when I was growing up and no one seemed to mind.

When we do see guns in old programs I make a point to talk to my kids about it.  I explain to them that daddy carries a gun in the Army, but that the Army takes guns very seriously.  Guns are dangerous.  Daddy has never brought a gun home.  Guns exist to kill, and if they see one they are not to touch it.  When I felt sure that they understood that the way the guns were being used in the cartoons was just as unreal as a talking rabbit or a duck having pronoun trouble, I let them watch Bugs and the gang to their heart’s content.  But I’ll never forget how uneasy I felt watching those cartoons with my kids the first time when all I was expecting was to enjoy a little nostalgia.

And it’s not just guns, it’s a comfort with the idea of violence in general that doesn’t come up very often nowadays in programming for children.  My kids enjoyed Pete’s Dragon when a friend lent it to us, and I remember seeing it in the theater as a kid, but the whole first song is a dirty bunch of hillbillies (that was cringe worthy in and of itself) describing all the things they would like to do to Pete when they find him.  I had to listen to Mona and Aden take turns asking things like, “What does string him from a tree mean?  What is fill him full of lead?  Why are they saying let the pup drown?  What is strap him?  Why would somebody hurt a kid?”  Youch.

The other big theme that doesn’t come up in modern children’s movies or TV is characters getting drunk.  I never realized what a recurring presence alcohol was in so many stories until I found myself having to explain what drunkenness was to my kids anytime I popped in a cartoon made before 1992.  I had to talk to Aden about what a hangover was for the first time while we were watching Dumbo.  The idea of Clifford the Big Red Dog on a bender or Dora the Explorer getting tipsy is only imaginable as a Youtube spoof.  I can’t think of a single character created for my kids during their lifetime that was shown drunk on a show.   (Possible exception being Homer Simpson and his friends, but that show isn’t actually aimed at kids.)  That’s fine by me.  I don’t want them seeing alcohol abuse as some funny, harmless thing because they saw it all the time on TV.

Then there are the obvious problems of racist and sexist content to deal with.  Peter Pan is a disturbing example.  I let my kids watch it at someone else’s house, but I told them the song about the Indians was mean.  I’ve always been bothered that Ariel in The Little Mermaid was willing to trade her voice for a man she didn’t even know.   There’s some weird stuff in Popeye and Betty Boop I don’t even want to go into. 

In today’s cartoons there is a much better balance of both race and gender on TV.  My kids are growing up at a time when they know their president is black and their principal is hispanic and several of the soldiers their dad went to Iraq with are women.  I think children’s programming now reflects that because less diversity would look unrealistic to them today.  But it’s complicated having to explain how people used to think back when other movies we watch were made.  And I’m sad to tell them many people still do think like that.

There are unexpected issues that come up with the older shows, too.  We rented the first season of Fat Albert recently because I loved it as a kid but don’t think I’ve seen it since the 70’s.  My kids spent the first three episodes completely fixated on the fact that Fat Albert was fat.  “Why is he so fat?  Does he exercise?  Why does he look even fatter on the disc than on the show?  What does he eat that makes him so fat?”  Characters may be more diverse in some ways on TV today, but only in ways we see as healthy.  The only fat characters I can think of in kids’ movies and on TV today are actual pigs.  I can name more characters in wheelchairs on the shows my kids watch than ones with weight issues.  I’m not sure what to make of that.  I just think it’s intersting that while watching Fat Albert none of my kids were curious why everyone spent all their free time in a garbage dump.

I’m obviously not one of those parents who bans TV for her kids.  In our case I don’t see the point.  I like TV, and my kids like TV.  If my kids weren’t also keeping up with violin practice and going to choir and biking around the block and using their hula hoops and learning to cook and putting on magic shows and doing about eight hundred million other creative endeavors, then I would worry that TV was causing them to miss out on something.  But I watch TV or DVDs in the backgroud while I work or fold laundry, and no one ever tells me I lack creativity or don’t do enough in an average day.  I have one friend who told me he grew up without TV because it broke one afternoon and his parents never replaced it.  He felt the result was the development of bad time management skills, because he had all day to get a few things done, and kids he knew who squeezed in time for TV were more efficient at more tasks.  I don’t know if I buy that, but it was a take on kids and TV I hadn’t heard before.

In any case, I appreciate that there are enough decent shows on today that I don’t have to worry much about what my kids are watching when they turn on the TV.  I love Word Girl, and Cyber Chase isn’t bad, and even though the new Electric Company doesn’t look anything like the one I grew up with, my kids get excited by it and always learn something.  The Saturday morning cartoons they watch are junk, but so were the ones I liked as a kid.  There is a value to having that kind of cultural touchstone in one’s life, even if the result is having a bunch of dialogue from the Brady Bunch permanently lodged in my head (or for Aden a lot of Pokemon information).

The biggest challenge with popular media for me is trying to help my kids avoid things they don’t want to see.  They choose not to watch things that are upsetting, but so many things that aren’t appropriate for them are marketed in a way that seems to include them.  They know to turn off Family Guy or South Park if they run across them even though they look like kid shows, but there are so many new things all the time that look fun to them that I have to screen and it gets tiring.

Someone lent me a copy of Avatar recently and Aden asked if she could please watch it.  I told her I would watch it first since I didn’t know how she would react to it.  Personally, I found the film disappointing, maybe because I was seeing it following too much hype.  It was very pretty, and if you like one kind of chase scene after another there were a lot of those, but it felt most of the time like I was watching a video game.  The plot was so thin and the characters so flat (ironic for a 3-D movie) that if you stripped away the visuals there wasn’t much there.  Not one character did anything unexpected.  Anyway, I didn’t forbid Aden from seeing it, but I told her there were some things I knew she wouldn’t like.  She’s sensitive enough that watching the big tree come down would have her crying for days and I don’t see the point. 

But my big problem with it was how awful all the military people were.  Every man in uniform was cruel and thoughtless.  My children don’t need to see images of people dressed like their dad killing innocent creatures and destroying beautiful things with no remorse.  Maybe there are soldiers like that, but I haven’t met any.  The first friend I had who got sent to Iraq works as a naturalist here in the Milwaukee county parks system.  He led a team of army firefighters and in his spare moments documented the wildlife he saw.  I may not agree with our use of the military in many situations, but individual soldiers are still people.  Avatar would have done better not to paint soldiers with such a broad and ugly brush.  But then, decent character development would have taken time away from the pretty pretty pictures, and I’m a violin maker not a professional film critic, so I’ll just let that go.

Regardless of any challenges there are helping my kids navigate a world full of TV and movies, I’m glad we live during a time of so many choices.   PBSkids does a great job, and I’ve learned as much from the kids’ Signing Time DVDs as they have.  (Now if I can just find them a Shirley Temple movie where I don’t have to explain about wars or slavery we’ll be set for a good Movie Night some Friday.)

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