Storytime: Navigating the (Apparent) Minefield

Sometimes you just have to laugh. I wonder if there isn’t anything in the media or entertainment world these days that can’t provoke adult outrage from someone seeking—and too often getting—publicity.  And it all usually comes from one very popular but horribly misguided practice—adults projecting their unresolved personal issues and political agendas on anything that comes in their sights. It doesn’t matter if their opinions makes no sense or ignores the facts; it’s all about getting attention and shocking.

In the 1970’s, the political satirist Tom Lehrer wrote a song called “Smut,” which was a very tongue in cheek tweaking of the Supreme Court and their ruling on inappropriate books. As Lehrer wrote, “All books can be indecent books/The recent books are bolder./For filth (I’m glad to say.) is in the mind of the beholder./When correctly viewed, everything is lewd.” This was, at the time, high comedy, and he goes on to talk about how two of the most classic children’s works of literature—“Peter Pan” and “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”—can be twisted.

Sadly, what was once trenchant comedy has now become a pathetic reality.

Yes, for years, we’ve had outraged groups venting their follies on hidden images in Disney movies or frothing at the mouth over the messages sent by Barbie. (She’s an inert piece of plastic, people. This is classic projection.) One often has a hard time wondering whether or not these are real beliefs or craven publicity grabs. I tend to come down on the latter end, having been called all kinds of names on television for defending everything from Harry Potter to Abercrombie & Fitch.  The goal is to shout down the other side, not engage in any dialogue.

So, since it’s the holidays, of course, we see eruptions designed to stir outrage. First, we hear that Santa is a bully as depicted in the Christmas classic “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Then we’re told that the Muppets are communists and that Hollywood hates America and is trying to brainwash children away from capitalism. It strains credibility in this referenced article that a 6-year-old is concerned about the fate of the villain in “The Muppets” and calls him a “job creator.” It could be true, but then that is one 6-year-old unlike any I’ve encountered. They tend to sympathize with the good guys—especially when they’re Muppets.

When I was studying literature in college, we generally derided criticism that sought to impose a theory or interpretation onto a piece of work that wasn’t inherently there. That’s a fancy way of saying what Tom Lehrer said, quoted above.

Here’s the thing: It’s important to understand stories from the perspective of a child, not impose an adult sensibility on them. Children understand good and evil. For Rudolph to triumph in the end, he has to undergo a test. For the Muppets to band together, they have to have a threat. It’s really that simple, and if you’d like a survey of literature from the Odyssey to Harry Potter, you can find that that is a constant theme. There is hardly a piece of literature or theater, particularly targeted to young people, that doesn’t remove the authority figure and then require the protagonist to make it through on his or her own. This is the potency of literature, to empower kids to vicariously overcome obstacles and challenges so they can do so in their own life. You have to have a very hard heart indeed not to well up when Rudolph saves Christmas. And yet, there are those who want to rewrite it so as to take out the conflict. (Have you watched Saturday morning TV for preschoolers lately? Ugh.) I’m reminded that several years ago, there was a group that rewrote Humpty Dumpty so that he was able to be put back together by all the kings horses and men. Set aside the absurdity of a humanized egg, an abstraction in the first place intended to engage without being too realistic, the lesson this rhyme teaches is that there are certain things that can’t be undone—a much more valuable lesson to teach children than that everything can have a happy ending. Worst of all, the constant barrage of noise, shouting and outrage in these one-sided diatribes undermines any productive conversation; it simply serves to fill the airwaves with a kind of entertainment and provoke emotional responses—which are gone before the next one hits.

Kids are pretty resilient, and in my experience, they understand fiction. It can be cathartic for them. (Catharsis is one of the elements of classic theater, and you can’t really have a story without it.) If they are experiencing challenges with kids in school, seeing Rudolph overcome his challenges can give them hope.

So what do you do as a parent? Well, first and foremost, shut out the caterwauling critics who want to see evil in everything for their own aggrandizement. Laugh at them, if you think it’s appropriate. But when it comes to your kids, especially preschoolers, watch these shows and read the books with them, and talk about them. However, let the kids lead the conversation so that you are responding to their levels of perception and understanding. You may be amazed at what you learn if you listen first—a subject our culture sorely needs.

I need a break from this inanity. I’m going to go watch “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”—you know that classic pinko tale about the bestowal of material goods and prosperity on the masses based on adherence to a mandated belief system.

Please.

I just love to see Max with those cute reindeer horns on his head.

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