Thursday, August 04, 2016

over at Slate Gabriel Roth manifests the anxiety that his kid likes licensed character commodity garbage
This week my daughter brought home an old favorite from the library, and so tonight I found myself returning to Ariels Royal Wedding/Auroras 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.

These stories are the juvenile equivalent of pornography: They aim to gratify base desires as voluptuously as possible. They describe wedding planning in tantalizing detail: choosing the dress, learning to dance, visiting the baker. Each contains a tiny conflict, resolved within two pages. (Ariel wants her mer-family to be able to attend the wedding; Prince Eric suggests they hold the ceremony on the royal ship.) There is so much wrong with this stuff ideologically that its easy to overlook just how meager it is aesthetically, what thin gruel for the imagination. Reading it, its hard not to take offense at the contempt with which the publishers treat their readership.

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. :)


Cal P said...

Couple of thoughts:

I don't think your commentary goes deep enough in terms of ideological blinders. You commented on the kind of realism that Roth is looking for: it's a tough world and no one loves you, you're here one day and gone the next, and no one cares. Life is a play told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Those were Macbeth's words, not Duncan's, and it was Macbeth who was power-mad and delusional, and the one who is ultimately slain.

The reason I bring up Shakespeare because Macbeth was not the realist in his story, but the darkened mind, blinded by his own resentment and lust. For Shakespeare, Nature itself reeled from the plague Macbeth brought upon the land. I'm not arguing whether Shakespeare was right or wrong, but that even the "dark" and "realistic" world we sometimes see in movies is itself a product of an ideological filter. Yeah, Roth says, shit like princess Ariel doesn't happen. But what if it does? He sounds like the film critic in M. Night Shyamalon's Lady in the Water. He is too blinded by what he knows a good story to be that he can't adjust to when life's script doesn't fit (and he dies in a black-comedic fashion).

While Roth may think life is just Game of Thrones, and I've been tempted to say such, it's not. At least, that's not just a given or obviously apparent fact. As some have said, Game of Thrones is just modern people dressed up like Medieval princes and peasants with dark clothes and dirty faces. It's just as ideological as Princess Ariel and Prince Eric getting married. There's that sick joy(?) of "coming to terms" with "reality" and being one of the new elect who see how things "really" are. It's merely the inverse, not a categorical difference.

My critique of the Princess book would be more along the lines of how C.S. Lewis saw fiction viz. Aslan's last speech. The time in Narnia taught the Humans how to live in 'their' world, particularly finding their own world's Aslan. So we have to ask: how does this fiction help us live in our world? Not in a kind of utilitarian calculus, but rather whether it opens our mind to new depths. Princess Ariel's obsession with her wedding reveals a fixation on self-indulgence that runs rampant through American marriage culture. Game of Thrones is equally self-indulgent in its closing off of the Human spirit and mind for the sake of "grittiness".

Perhaps that's the blessing of the current era of TV. So many TV shows are dark that people are starting to wake up and realize the fact. It's not enough for a show to be "dark", it's become a cliche. Which is truly ironic, like James Dean being a poster, or Goth being a brand.


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I admit I didn't feel like going quite deeper enough on the ideology thing. If you're stating that Game of Thrones is a kind of photo-negative of a kind of inward focused anti-realism to an Ariel's wedding I probably agree. I'm not entirely sure what realism Roth is looking for, I was riffing a bit more on the clash between the ideals that a progressive/left/author-at-Slate sort would aspire us to aspire to on the one hand vs what we actually see on the other. If Roth's complaint is that the Disney princess isn't how the real world works a trouble is that a progressive is, in some sense, arguing at a political level that that is how it SHOULD be able to work. There's a potential tension between dismissing the fantasy when its spun as a yarn for children while making it foundational to the aspirational politics you endorse as a grown-up.

Whereas a traditionalist might say, "Hey, sometimes the princess wedding thing really has happened" a contemporary/modernist/too-smart-for-that sort has to stand aloof from it all. But the thing is if that's the stance they want to take they need to stop asking "why do my kids/our kids keep wanting these fairy tale lies?" and ask "why are we so okay with telling them?" If we lament that kids are given impossible or unrealistic dreams why should we dodge the bullet about who spent the time, energy and effort to literally sell these dreams? It seems like a double standard that can be grotesquely unfair to kids who, pretty literally, can't know any better in some cases.

I've grown pretty skeptical about what passes for entertainment for adults. It's a lot harder to pull off all-ages friendly entertainment if you can't resort to the usual prestige-TV tropes of violence and sex, so it seems doubly hypocritical of writers to complain about violence and misogyny in prestige TV while still looking down on fare that's actually geared toward a more all-ages scene. Now that it's not the night before another day at the day job there's more time to bounce ideas back and forth.

Cal P said...

It's not photo-negative as an inverse (outwards oriented realism), but as just another self-protective ideological barrier. It's easy to say that world is dark and evil and people are nasty and vicious. In fact, that's what many Conservatives have said for 200 years (e.g. Burke on the French Revolution). But that's just another ideological lens. Game of Thrones is trying to tell us who we really are, but it's sounding like Macbeth or the Joker from Nolan's Batman. Not everyone is a raving cannibal who is merely conformed by social pressures. Hobbesian anthropology may be more true, but it is an argument to be made, not just stating the facts. The BS princess wedding might have pockets of truth too (e.g. Eric and Ariel compromising on their wedding plans by having it on a boat).