Why Must Grownups Take Over Children’s Stories?

Adulthood is the ever-shrinking period between childhood and old age. It is
the apparent aim of modern industrial societies to reduce this period to a
minimum.  – Thomas Szasz, author, professor of psychiatry (1920-2012)

There is a trend of epic proportions out there – more like a tsunami, really – in which every square inch of children’s culture (books, shows, characters, merchandise) is being invaded by adult consumers… resulting in the products being warped and twisted to serve this new demographic.

How did this come about? Is it because grownups just won’t grow up? Is it a sign of total freedom that adults are able to remain child-like their entire lives, or a sign of arrested development?

A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to
be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that
there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks
humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in
this world no one is all knowing and therefore all of us need both love and
charity.    -Eleanor Roosevelt, diplomat and writer (1884-1962)

At the same time “age creep” is noted in the young (ie. kids always want to consume media that is aimed at kids older than themselves), there is a definite “age creep” going in the opposite direction. This in itself wouldn’t be a problem – there’s nothing wrong with adults reading kids books for entertainment – except for the fact that the content creators respond by altering their content to pursue this mature audience, thus rendering the material less fit for the young, the intended audience in the first place.

I’ve often heard the advice that the best children’s stories should also entertain their parents. Now if by that you mean that the story should be crafted well enough to stand up to the scrutiny of a grownup, fine. However too often it’s used as a rather lame excuse to cram every children’s movie full of cultural in-jokes, sly sexual innuendo and ramped up thrills and violence, just to keep the parents fully entertained. Who are you trying to entertain here, and at whose expense?

It’s natural that people retain a fondness for the characters and stories of their youth. But just because there are a lot of grown men out there who have always been Spiderman fans, that doesn’t mean that Spiderman movies should now be made only for adult audiences – too violent, dark and frightening by far for the 6- or 7-year-olds of today.

spiderman-in-web-0013 spiderman4-poster-580px-1263256693

The 6 and 7 year olds of yesteryear had mild Spiderman comic books and that abysmal Saturday morning cartoon (when a 7-year-old notices that backgrounds are endlessly recycled you know you are cutting too many corners). Today’s 6- and 7-year-olds have had all their superheroes snatched out of their grasp – unless they can grit their teeth and sit through the hair-raising, gruesome, cynical and sexed up superhero movies of today.

Even the mildest preschool fare is being co-opted by adults with, apparently, way too much time on their hands. Witness the phenomena of “bronies”, or grownups (mostly male) who are rabid fans of the My Little Pony franchise. Sounds like a satirical story from the Onion, but it is absolutely true.

My-Little-Pony-Friendship-Is-Magic-Episode-15

I just ran into another enclave of adult fans of kid-culture when I was searching for images of the Disney princesses. I was interested in body image, and how the designs of the princesses have changed over the years (bust-waist-hip proportions shifting from modest Snow White to buxom Ariel). In the process I came across the Wikia site for Disney Princesses and scrolled in disbelief through the text and subsequent discussion. Included are discussions on the rules for becoming an official Disney Princess – should Mulan and Pocahontas really be included? Isn’t Belle technically more of a queen than a princess? What are the ages of each princess? Does Mulan’s new dress totally not suit her? What do you think of the Princesses’ new sparkly dresses? Which facial characteristics does each princess inherit from their mothers vs. fathers? When will Merida be included in the official lineup? And more importantly, what will she be wearing??!!

830px-NEW-Princess-Lineup-Rapunzel-disney-princess-13513453-1280-800

What kind of world do we live in when news that Anna and Elsa (from an as-yet-unreleased movie) will soon ‘become’ Disney Princesses elicits the following comment from someone older than, say, 8 years old:

OMG !!!!!! SO AWESOME THANKS!!! NOW IM EXCITED TO DEATH!!!

There is a lot of talk these days about how huge the market for children’s products is. This is usually seen as proof that kids today are catered to like little emperors, and have enormous spending power. It’s true that kids acquire more ‘stuff’ than they did in past generations – don’t we all? – but I think the sales figures are skewed by the amount of ostensibly child-oriented merchandise actually being aimed at teens and young adults.

Hello Kitty anyone? What looks like a franchise for 3-year-old girls is actually churning out products like cell phone covers, makeup cases, computer/iPhone/iPad accessories, car accessories, etc for kitsch-savvy teens and adults. So postmodern!

And while grown women are squealing over their new Hello Kitty toaster or bronies are debating the colours of their My Little Pony action figures, the superhero franchises are becoming ever more disturbing and violent.

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Why the constant push to be “edgier”? Why is the roll-out of a “darker” Batman a development to be cheered? Because that’s what grownups want to see. And grownups don’t seem to have much interest in letting kids keep their childhood heroes to themselves.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lyle
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 09:51:35

    Hey Kim
    I get where you’re coming from and agree with the general point. I share your unease with some of the innuendo in today’s cartoons. But, a couple of mitigating factors.

    First, in many cases the cultural poaching has gone in the other direction. When the Batman character was created in the late 1930s, comics were not considered an exclusively ‘kid’ medium (as they came to be redefined in the 1950s-60s). Batman was specifically created for adults who liked crime stories. Many of those early stories were actually more violent than anything seen since. So the cheers that went up for a darker Batman were mainly because the character was being taken back from an inappropriately childish version.

    Similarly, Spiderman was created primarily as a teen character. Part of the Marvel Comics revolution was that they started once again creating comics aimed at teen and young adult audiences. The childish 1970s cartoons were the anomaly, not the norm.

    Second, this phenomenon of adults invading kids’ media is nothing new. Bugs Bunny is full of references and adult in-jokes but we don’t notice them because most of the references have been long forgotten (e.g. Foghorn Leghorn was a tribute to then-popular adult comedy character Senator Claghorn). And, of course, the Flintstones broke ground as a cartoon that could be enjoyed by both children and adults. For that matter, the original Batman show was popular not just because it appealed to kids but also because it was written to be ironically funny to adults (“pass me the Bat-shark repellent, Robin!”) and had sexual innuendo (was Catwoman’s costume designed for a kid audience?)

    Ultimately, that second point could be stretched back infinitely in time. The Grimms’ fairy tales compiled ancient tales that were told for the entertainment (and moral instruction) of both children and adults, although many of those tales were clearly too frightening and disturbing for children (hence their later Disney-ification.) The idea of kids-only entertainment may, therefore, be a largely modern notion. It is an idea that has value but we should not be surprised if we backslide from time to time.

    Reply

    • Kim
      Mar 19, 2013 @ 10:33:53

      I’m not saying these things have not occurred before, but what is different now is that the ways in which the superhero franchises, for example, have changed have actually REMOVED them from the children’s realm entirely, ie. a six-year-old who adores Spiderman and sees that there’s a new Spiderman movie out cannot actually go to see it because it is too scary and violent – it’s rated PG-13.

      The level at which shows pander to the grownup audience has increased exponentially since the sixties. Ironic humour which appeals to adults is a far different thing from a referential joke that stops the story dead in its tracks and which holds absolutely no interest for the child viewer. “Pass me the Bat-shark repellent” doesn’t leave a child thinking “I don’t get it.”

      We’ve come so far in developing media that speak to children, that talk to them where they live – it’s just a shame if the grownups go and hijack the whole show.

      Reply

  2. Lyle
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 16:10:22

    OK, fair enough … if we’re at the point where a kid can’t see a Spiderman movie because it’s too scary then yeah we’ve probably gone too far. And it will probably be much the same with the upcoming Superman movie – and that’s one character who definitely was designed for kids. Some of it is just the way the movie ratings system works; for example, I wouldn’t have any problem with my boys, at any age, seeing any of the Iron Man movies but because those movies have too many explosions in them they’re considered PG-13. But that’s OK by me – it just gives me more excuses to see more superhero movies 😉

    Reply

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.