The Great Screen-Time Tug-of-War

Tug of war contested at the 1904 Summer Olympi...

Tug of war contested at the 1904 Summer Olympics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The screentime tug-of-war is, I’m sure, a very very common sport in households today. Technology offers us ever more brilliant and enthralling ways to entertain and educate ourselves, and the desire for knowledge is a good thing, right? And yet, and yet, many parents harbour great anxiety about the slippery slope of screen time.*

Steve Almond has written a great piece on this for the New York Times: My Kids Are Obsessed With Technology, And It’s All My Fault. More

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Princess Issues

Well it looks like times are a-changing. I don’t know whether you follow things like this online, but Merida – the heroine from Pixar’s Brave – was recently added to the official Disney Princess lineup, only her design was ‘tweaked’ a little… Now it’s obvious that she wouldn’t look exactly the same as in the movie, since she’d have to be changed from a 3D CGI gal to a 2D drawing, but somehow in the process she also aged about 6 years, lost a few inches around the waist, and started using makeup.

(Some have also mentioned that her hair has been de-frizzed, but to be fair, I think that just has to happen when you go from CGI to two-dimensional drawing. I mean who wants to draw every single hair sproinging out of her head?)

brave-merida-before-and-after

Merida sexed up and slimmed down to join the princess throng. No surprise there. The real surprise is that there was an immediate furor about the changes, led by the writer and co-director of Brave, Brenda Chapman. God bless her for getting mad and raising a stink.

But wait, that’s not even the most surprising part. This is: it looks like Disney has backed down on the design. Here’s the latest on the story.

The design of those Disney Princesses has always driven me crazy but this news makes me feel like there is finally a wave of opinion cresting on the issue. Cresting and crashing down on the Disney marketers. What finally pushed it over the top was the fact that Merida herself spends the entire movie resisting glittery off-the-shoulder dresses and all attempts to make her more girlie. Which makes this makeover all the more repugnant.

So Disney… give us an uncinched, younger Merida with no makeup, please! And for goodness sake, give her back her bow and arrows!

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??!!

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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.

batman_1966_01 1hRoyzDtpgMU7Dz4JF22RANzQO7

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.

Film Club and Cultural Literacy

Here’s a TED talk about visual literacy through watching old movies, similar to what Martin Scorsese talks about here.

What do you think? I’m a big fan of showing old movies to kids, and I think showing them movies that are radically different from current offerings (ie. historical settings, foreign stories, subtitles, art films, experimental narratives, silent movies, etc.) serves to broaden their experience and knowledge of film and of the world.

So many movies today, especially ones made for kids, are such formulaic, pandering pieces of junk that I can’t help but worry that we’re limiting the very scope of their imaginations. As well as shredding their attention spans and ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Too fast, too loud, too violent. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – watching old movies is a wonderful way of slowing down the frenetic pace of our lives and opening up a window to other times and places.

Related posts:

Watching Old Movies

Click on “Old Movies” in Categories over there on the right, to see all the old movies I’ve reviewed.

Role Models for Boys

It sometimes feels like there are a lot – almost too many – male role models out there in the media, but we should be thinking about exactly what they are teaching children.

Here’s a fantastic TED talk by Colin Stokes, “How Movies Teach Manhood”.

There has been an awful lot of effort over the last few years to present young girls with empowering role models that we haven’t spent enough time really analyzing what baggage is being toted by all those male role models we’ve been trying to balance against. Colin is right, they are usually renegades, fighting (always fighting) all alone against the odds, etc. His comparison of The Wizard of Oz with Star Wars is spot on in its implications of the changing face of movies. (It’s also another argument for watching old movies instead of newer ones, in my opinion!)

After my post a few days ago Positive Role Models for Girls I wanted to follow up with some info about boys, and that TED talk really put everything into a nutshell for me.

Here are a couple of great posts from Commonsense Media on the same topic –

Boy Games With Positive Role Models

And in case we forget that boys are just as inundated with media messages about body image as girls are –

Boys and Body Image Tips

Positive Role Models for Girls

I don’t watch much tv these days (who has the time?), but here’s a list of current TV shows with Positive Girl Role Models from Commonsense Media.

My six-year-old is in turns fascinated and mystified by the world of teenagers. She loves to mimic their catchphrases, and even tries on their ‘world weary attitude’ for size. Her classmates are starting to pay attention to teen pop stars and other young celebrities. One problem with this is that so much tween and teen media is rife with girl vs. girl antagonism, gossip, rivalry and catfights. It takes some effort to find shows in which girls are thoughtful, nice, loyal and true friends to each other. And that show girls who have interests other than boys and the mall.

We may have come some distance in media depictions of women. At least we can see women in a variety of non-traditional careers now, but there still remain insidious stereotypes about how girls treat each other and these still need to be turned upside down. And don’t even get me started on the depiction of women in comic books and computer games…

We’ve still got a long way to go, baby.

See also: Commonsense’s list of Strong Female Characters in Books.

And on this blog, type “strong girls” into the search box above to see my list of great female characters in books and movies.

Death in Children’s Books

Here’s a great essay from the Random House website Hazlitt – Life and Death in Children’s Books by Jowita Bydlowska. I like her point “what’s better than books to ruin a child’s innocence?”

I’m also more than a little smitten with the 18th century children’s book that would make your hair stand on end – Der Struwwelpeter. It’s particularly fascinating because children are much less horrified by it than their parents. (Generally. It’s still not for everyone, I hasten to add.)

Der Struwwelpeter: Die gar traurige Geschichte...

Der Struwwelpeter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Martin Scorsese on Visual Literacy

Here’s a great 2006 interview with the director, in which he makes the case for teaching young people visual literacy by watching and making movies. (courtesy of Edutopia)

With the increasing dominance of media imagery in our daily landscape, it’s important that our children learn how messages are put together, how their eyes are being directed, how their emotions are being played, and maybe even how to craft images themselves. After all, the rise of digital media has made image collection and manipulation available and affordable for everyone. The next generations are increasingly going to be confronted, pummelled, swayed and played by the media-makers, and basic visual literacy will help them negotiate this new landscape.

The Problem With the News

tv

It’s been a bad week in the news. There’s never really a good week in the news, because the main function of the news is to tell you all the bad stuff, but this week was particularly awful. As adults, we can put these stories into some kind of perspective. Usually. Not always successfully, on a week like this one. Because it’s really hard to shake off the sense that threat is everywhere and disaster waits around every corner.

If it’s hard for us, think how much harder it is for children to process disturbing news stories. Not just the stories, but the relentless images that accompany them – distraught people, photos of the victims, disaster zones, war zones, fires, crumbling buildings, the wounded, the dead.

I stopped watching television news long ago, partly because I don’t have time for it but also because the reporting was becoming too sensational and, frankly, too stupid. The radio has provided me with ample information of current events, and in a much less disturbing manner.

Until this week. Whenever my daughter was around I found myself lunging across the room to click off the radio whenever a newscast began… every hour on the hour. The way the story was being handled just made me sick, so I wasn’t sorry to give up on my radio news entirely. (What put me over the top was a snippet I heard before shutting it off, in which a reporter was asking someone if any of the child victims suffered.)

I’ve come across a couple of helpful links here for parents who want to reassure their kids about recent events – some advice on how to console your children and make them feel secure and safe.

Fred Rogers on Tragic Events in the News

PBS: Talking With Kids About News

Commonsense Media: Explaining the News to Our Kids

As for us, we’ve been on a media fast for this week of tragedy. When I shield my daughter from newscasts, am I preventing her from learning about the world? Only if you think the nightly news is an accurate and balanced portrayal of that world. Until our broadcasters show a little more taste and restraint when reporting on the tragedies of the day, I am glad to just leave the radio off.

In a previous post I wrote about what scares children of different ages, and touched upon the effect of news reports – What Scares Your Child.

‘Back to Basics’ When Teaching Kids to Write

English: School room.

English: School room. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are at all interested in literacy and education, you should find this article from the Atlantic really fascinating. It talks about correcting the pendulum-swing of faddish educational practices, and going back to teaching students how to write – how to build proper sentences and paragraphs and how to organize your thoughts into essay form. Nouns and verbs and prepositions and clauses and all that old-fashioned stuff.

It’s pretty convincing, and it’s quite interesting to follow the efforts of a staff of high school teachers in New York as they analyze why their students are unable to write effectively.

Unfortunately the issue is framed by some as a creative writing vs. essay writing battle. Emotions and self-expression vs. disciplined intellectual structure. I think the real sweet spot is in the middle, balancing both aspects of writing.

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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.