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So yes, in the course of rambling on about Feminism in Watership Down, below, I got a little carried away. Especially does this bug in terms of children's media (which Watership really isn't, but we'll ignore that for now). It's something I've been personally confronting lately, as I rummage around in my Sesame Street-intensive past. Do you realise, fellow Gen-Xers, that the newest DVD sets of the show carry a disclaimer to the effect that "These early episodes of Sesame Street are intended for grown-ups, and may not meet the needs of today's preschoolers"?

Sad, and a little strange - not least because accurate. On the one hand the belief is that children are more sophisticated than ever before; on the other, that they’re fragile flowers whose every input needs monitoring for fear it’ll corrupt the mechanism.You see it reflected in the pages and pages of 'what behaviours is The Mole Sisters teaching my child'-type posts to the TreehouseTV forums, complete with just-saw-it-on-Oprah-so-I-know-it’s-scientific vocabularies. In the Fat Albert movie, which disavows the crude-but-funny 'snaps' that made the show famous in favour of hauling in a little (white) girl to teach the gang proper English. In the attitude of my nephew's pre-K teacher, who reacts to the news that this four-year-old has taught himself to read with 'Well, we need to think about how much he actually comprehends...'

Yes. She really said that. I swear, you just want to grab these people by their PTA-attending pencil necks and hiss, "Look, I spent an entire ruddy childhood watching a trenchcoated Muppet sidling up to innocent kids and asking if they wanted to buy an 'O' – that’s when he wasn’t off stealing the Golden An just for kicks - and somehow I managed to become a fully functional member of society..." [shaking them violently] "DO - YOU - UNDERSTAND?"

…Heh. [ahem]. Well, maybe there is something to be said for social conditioning. I'm not advocating wholesale exposure to disturbing imagery, either; children’s mechanisms can certainly suffer from neglect, and on the whole it’s a Very Good Thing that those closest to them realise that. But you can get carried away with it, is all I am saying. This obsession with socialization, with carefully categorizing every possible influence in the here and now, actively works to stifle any imaginative possibilities for the future. Worse, it gives kids the impression that intelligence, thinking about the answers, is much less important than getting the answers right. If you’re going to ensure the world is laid out exactly as it should be, then where’s the inspiration to think about what could be?

When I was a kid, or so it seems, educational media refused to talk down to me, treated me as though I was a smart, aware kid deserving of respect. The assumption was that I knew that the world wasn’t perfect, but by God it was interesting. Becoming a good citizen was, like every other aspect of learning, held up as the key to unlocking worlds. Watching your Franklins and Arthurs today – engaging as they might be in themselves -- putter round their middle-class living rooms learning middle-class values, oh, do I miss that sense of ‘Look! This is what’s out there, and it could all be yours! Pay attention, ‘cause here’s how!’ Do you realise, The Backyardigans is almost the last series left in which the characters actually do completely different things each week? Scary.

Sesame Street used to be about that kind of wonder. So did Schoolhouse Rock (one episode of which actually includes the line ‘…forever, towards infinity/No-one ever gets there, but you can try…’). The Electric Company hauled in everything they could think of, up to and including Spider-Man, to keep me alert and interested. Even dorky TVO standard Readalong followed this trend, as best they could with bad child actors and a talking skeleton. You still see flashes of that now and then, mostly on PBS – Between the Lions was probably the last great example – but the raw excitement of learning is long gone, and the notion that kids can be trusted with their own thoughts and feelings has apparently gone with it.

Nowadays, the approved characters are those that run round and round on pallid little tracks of good behaviour, as determined by the majority - ie, those with enough time on their hands to care about the fine points of what a three-year-old cartoon bunny is teaching their children. What is said is less important than the race or gender of the speaker. Creativity and individuality is allowable only in terms of deviation from the norm; any dissenter must and will be brought back into line, becoming upright little citizens of some bizarre netherworld where everyone is happy just because there’s no alternative.

(I once read an amusing attempt to define exactly what creeps so many adults out about Barney. Loosely paraphrased, it was: ‘Nobody is ever allowed to be upset on that show for ONE FREAKING SECOND! Even when the one kid’s dog died, they just refused to let her be sad! Crazy!”)

It’s the difference between the original Blue’s Clues, which at the very least taught kids that if they used their brains something amazing would happen, and the spinoff Blue’s Room. In which the producers are too busy ensuring that Blue explains exactly how much fun! we’re all going to have to notice that she’s speaking in a little boy’s voice. Never mind, it’s off to celebrate the birthday of the little character whose main goal in life is to have birthdays! Because, y’know, having a cake and streamers and such is just ever so empowering. This little girl is clearly going to grow up to force the other characters to wear bridesmaid dresses with butt bows the size of Cleveland, and frankly I hope she does.

It’s all very well, in a given Dora the Explorer episode, that the characters complete their tasks in a given sequence; but their little, simple, primary-coloured world is painfully devoid of any other reason to visit. There’s no sense that anything they do is going to lead to higher things…except that, the way she’s been potrayed in later episodes, Dora is apparently being groomed to rule as Queen of the World someday. After which we’re all going to wear matching unisex outfits and play government-mandated soccer games in which nobody actually wins, just stands around and congratulates each other – in Spanish, natch -- for managing to kick the ball. ‘Fun’ happens when the fox gets into the orangeade and everyone gently persuades him to put it back…as gently as is possible when everyone’s shouting at the top of their lungs, the better to ensure everyone’s most banal utterance is heard and valued. I’m starting to think that the world of The Giver got its start when someone found an ancient Party Time With Dora DVD.

…Sigh. I suppose now would be a good time to issue the standard disclaimer: I’m not an early-childhood education expert -- nor even a parent -- and it’s kind of silly for me to be playing one on the Net. But I do speak as one who used what I was handed to kindle a lifelong love of learning and respect for knowledge. It’s literally painful to me to watch kids settling for mediocrity – moving up from Dora to Hannah Montana through High School Musical...

...uh-oh. Maybe for all our sakes, I should just stop there.

tags everywhere!:


( 12 responses — respond )
Mar. 3rd, 2009 01:39 pm (UTC)
I was in so much trouble when my teachers found out I could read. This was in preschool, and I ended up having to leave, because they said I was a bad influence on the other kids.

Also: WORD.
Mar. 3rd, 2009 11:52 pm (UTC)
Yeah, this is what I could not believe - as related by my baffled sister, the teacher seemed to be totally concerned with my nephew conforming to 'normal' for his age group...like the fact that he was so hungry for learning he'd unlocked the key all by himself was an inconvenience. Crazy.

Also, thanks. :)
Mar. 28th, 2009 11:25 pm (UTC)
I'm a student "observer" (one step below a student teacher) in a first-grade classroom, and I see this constantly - bright, hyper kids who are shushed and treated like "problem students" because they finish their homework and then start asking how to spell new words or how to multiply. It's incredibly frustrating and so very sad. These kids are made to feel like they are wrong and bad because they are...too SMART? Too eager to learn? What is wrong with our world?

*rant over* :P
Mar. 4th, 2009 12:39 am (UTC)
HUZAAH! I have inspired awesomeness, indeed.

This is great. From the kids on Barney never being allowed to be upset to the Doctrine of Specialness that leaves no room for anyone to actually be exceptional.

This made me sporfle:

This little girl is clearly going to grow up to force the other characters to wear bridesmaid dresses with butt bows the size of Cleveland, and frankly I hope she does.
Mar. 4th, 2009 01:41 am (UTC)
Hee, thanks. Yeah, you've got this inspirational thing down...which is good practice, all things considered. :)

the Doctrine of Specialness that leaves no room for anyone to actually be exceptional.

Yup, exactly.

Edited at 2009-03-04 01:44 am (UTC)
Mar. 4th, 2009 02:04 am (UTC)
Hey, I'm Kalquessa's sister. I am a parent, and I agree! I remember Watership Down, Milo & Otis, the cartoon versions of LOTR, and the Secret of Nimh. There was some normal stuff in there like Strawberry Shortcake, My Pretty Pony, and Care Bears. I think most of them still had bad guys. Where did the bad guys go?

I hate Dora. SO. MUCH.

My baby's absolutely favorite video? The cartoon version of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are from back in the 60s.
Mar. 4th, 2009 03:05 am (UTC)
Thanks, and welcome! (Also, auxiliary congratulations on becoming an auntie!)

The chance to share Sendak is one of the very few things that would motivate me to have kids of my own...well, that, and then moving on to Arnold Lobel, and then The Phantom Tollbooth, and...Yeah, as soon as my sister mentioned the reading thing, I was totally 'Not a problem. I'm on it.'

Where did the bad guys go?

I would venture a guess that the little birthday-loving girl from Blue's Room irritated them to death. Seriously, she has to be seen to be believed ("It's my birthdaybirthdayBIRTHDAYBIRTHDAY!!").

I would also like to point out that the name of Strawberry Shortcake's nemesis was The Peculiar Purple Pieman of Porcupine Peak. Because there is more real cleverness in that one 'peculiar' than in the entire DVD boxed set of Wonder Pets. And that's terrible.

Edited at 2009-03-04 03:08 am (UTC)
Mar. 4th, 2009 02:20 pm (UTC)
Haha! And The Pieman's song? Hacha cha cha cha cha...love it!

Have you noticed that Dora is pretty much yelling all the time? Although...I feel bad, I was totally hating on Dora yesterday, and today they had an evil Witch that Dora had to defeat. Go figure.
Mar. 5th, 2009 04:39 am (UTC)
Yeah, Dora has taken to going on fairy-tale themed adventures lately. That this handily creates a whole bunch of different Dora costumes (Fairy Princess, Mermaid, etc.) for merchandising purposes I'm sure is all an enormous co-incidence. :)

Have you noticed that Dora is pretty much yelling all the time?

Yes. So is the spinoff show with her cousin Diego. Which is a shame, because it's kinda sorta teetering on the verge of charming otherwise - cute animals, gotta love 'em - but just completely unwatchable with that shrill monotone going on.
Mar. 28th, 2009 06:11 pm (UTC)
Stumbling in from the links on RJA's journal
Well said, and I could not agree more -- and this is why I plan on collecting all my old beloved childhood shows on DVD, and letting my own kids have at them one day.
Mar. 28th, 2009 07:12 pm (UTC)
Re: Stumbling in from the links on RJA's journal
Welcome! And thanks.

There are few things in this world funner than sharing old favourites with kids - I recall the day my bro-in-law came home with the Schoolhouse Rock anniversary DVD. That was three years ago, and the kids are still singing the 'I'm just a Bill' song.
Dec. 31st, 2010 03:57 am (UTC)
Well, I was totally blown away with that. I told my wife and she agreed. I would like to hear whatever else you have on this. Excellent!
( 12 responses — respond )

i am

The sun is cold
And the misty hills bespeak me Of long-ago dreams;
Not lost, only waiting
Kept alive by those who might listen – And watch –
Over the hills to the sea.

This is the story of those dreams...with all-too-frequent detours into reality.

my world at large

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