This week my daughter brought home an old favorite from the library, and so tonight I found myself returning to Ariel’s Royal Wedding/Aurora’s Royal Wedding. It can be read from either side, telling a different story each way. Each story is about the wedding of a Disney princess.
Sometimes it seems as though grown-ups feel ashamed that kids like things that kids like. There's some kind of gap between what grown-ups who, say, write for Slate want to be able to say their kids are into and what the kids actually enjoy.
But then again, can adults really say that The West Wing isn't an implausible wish-fulfillment fantasy? When someone described The Gilmore Girls as an alternate America where Al Gore was president isn't that a kind of power fantasy, too? I defy grown-ups to make a compelling case that the wish-fulfillment aspirations and power fantasies of grown-ups are ultimately more "grown-up" than those of children, and that would include everything to do with alcohol and money and sex.
There's just so much wrong with this stuff ideologically, after all. Because what six-year olds need to be introduced to is appropriate ideology. :) Was it not Jacques Ellul who wrote something about how education plays a necessary role as pre-propaganda to formal propaganda on the part of companies or the state?
But let's step back and consider the thinkpieces about Buffy the Vampire Slayer twenty years after the show started. Are we going to see a comparable level of think pieces from journalists about the compelling and profound cultural impact of Blues Clues in shaping young minds? We get to find out in a couple of weeks. The thing about grown-ups writing about stuff kids enjoy is that if it reaches the point of being a topic at Slate it seems the topic is the ideological significance of who likes what for what reasons. Because what first-graders watch gives us an opportunity to opine about the ambitions and anxieties of empire.
No, I'm actually totally being serious right there. If you want to find out what stories we consider really sacred you could propose the idea that we should look at what stories are considered safe enough and what morals are important enough that we impart them to children. In that sense I bet you could learn more about the American ethos from a season of Blues Clues than from Game of Thrones.
What grown-ups, particularly the kinds who go on to liberal arts colleges and get degrees in the humanities, anthropology or social science seem to want to skim over is that we ALL seem to have this American propensity to have a childhood nostalgia train for things that grown-ups wish we didn't. I mean, there's folks who can write academic papers about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it's a thing for that show to be discussed in feminist terms but it didn't seem very feminist in seasons 1-3. It seemed more like an incredibly arch, self-insulated within its own winking genre ironies, send-up of high school life as characterized by the permeation of a supernaturally evil caste system. Once everyone got out of high school it stopped being a winking allegory about high school and became, ultimately, a pretty conventional superhero thing. The series finale did not really do anything to dispel this.
The more seriously the show took itself the harder it was for me to take it seriously. What made the show fun early on was its opting to not take itself seriously, to have patently ridiculous moments where Buffy intones in a completely serious speech about how she has to go save the world, AGAIN! It worked because teenagers can already see quotidian things as suffused with literal and figurative apocalyptic significance. It feels like the end of the world when the stakes are low. But moving forward beyond the high school years the stakes became, well, not that different from the tedium of Age of Apocalypse that was met with "meh" from critics this year.
So, here we are decades after the days of Reagan and what franchises have come back in big movie format? Transformers. G. I. Joe. Tron. Chipmunks, TMNT. You know, it's seeming like the comebacks and reboots were for stuff like that and not for Reading Rainbow. The kinds of stuff that parents who write for Slate might "prefer" to write about would be non-licensed stuff but that seems like it's empty talk. Who had a great big homage to Wishbone when it hit its twenty-year anniversary?
I mean, besides this:
The thing adults seem to complain about is that "real" art has to somehow undo all the "lies" taught in childhood stories but I am not sure where all these alternatives are that teach kids what the truth about the world is. What's the kid-friendly equivalent of the prestige genres people have been writing about? Where's the kid-friendly version of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, The Americans, Game of Thrones, and so on?
It seems daft to complain that kids are into licensed characters while grown-ups go watch a fifth Jason Bourne movie. It seems like a self-indicting complaint to talk about the unrealistic fantasies of stories that children like in this election cycle, or ANY election cycle. Could we be half as cynical in our popular entertainment as we are if we weren't fairly openly committed to the fantasies so bereft of realism that we complain about?
If we want realism we should tell kids stories that have messages like this:
Your life ultimately doesn't matter in a society as big as ours and when you die you will be forgotten because that's how life and death work. You don't have any long-term power to change the world for the better so you can try, if you like, but odds are you're going to work in a potentially unsatisfying job and that's how things go. If you think you've found someone special it might work out or it might not. Your destiny is largely going to be a function of your socio-economic class but what we prefer to tell ourselves is that there's no fate but what we make and class distinctions don't matter.
What shows more contempt to readership? Telling them stories that keep them optimistic about the human condition being basically good and redeemable or telling them the truth even if that means telling kids that, on balance, their lives "probably" don't matter beyond their circle of family and friends and that they should prepare to be cogs in a machine?
The reason this sort of think piece about the evils of entertainment for children rings so hollow is because I have yet to see, in the last twenty odd years, that the grown-up versions are more honest.
Particularly for an author at Slate, this seems like a weird high horse to mount because a progressive cause would seem by definition to defy reality as it is. Medieval sorts did not necessarily think it was "problematic" if the prince said or did something to save the day, did they? What about the history of the civil rights movement? Was that animated by what conservatives sometimes called a "realistic" approach about racial relationships? Or was it animated by an idealism about the potential for people of all races to share society together? The reason we keep selling idealistic fulfillments of fantasies to children is somewhat obviously because we're selling them the ideals of what we would like to be able to say our society is, even when we know otherwise. If the kids like the stories that authors like Roth consider licensed commodity crap there's room to consider the real buyer, the parent.
Even if there were a Tyrion Lannister action figure counterpart to Princess Luna pony I doubt kids would be asking for the former as a Christmas present. If you want to somehow conjure up those two toys from the ether and stage a scene from Equus, well, glad that you probably can't do that. :)