Parents, other than me, like to think that they are strictly controlling what their children watch, or that someone, at least, is strictly controlling what their kids watch. That is, either parents place limits on what kids, especially little kids, can watch on TV and in the movies, or they petition the government and TV stations to place limits on that so that they can be lazy and not parent themselves. Either way, though, most parents generally make at least a half-hearted attempt to make sure their kids aren't being exposed to harmful influences.
But is it enough to simply say "Make sure there's no naked breasts and that the characters don't say anything more harsh than "Dang it."? I think not. I think not because first, who says "Dang It" anymore? That's what I wondered when The Boy last night got a little frustrated with the flipbook of Newton's Laws of Motion he was making...
... and the fact that a junior in high school is learning Newton's Laws of Motion through the making of a flipbook either makes me very happy or very sad about the school; I can't decide that yet because I haven't seen the flipbooks...
... and he said "God... Dang It," with the pause in there to let me know he would not have said Dang unless I was there.
But secondly, it's not enough to place those two rules on filmmakers and publishers and other creative types, because filmmakers and publishers and creative types, when not planning on completely destroying the television show Battlestar Galactica (yeah, I'm resigned to the fact that tomorrow night they'll kill off that show) are extremely sneaky, so sneaky that they will convince parents that a Beloved Character is nice when in fact that Beloved Character is sending all the wrong messages to your little tots.
Don't believe me? Then check out this list of The Best Beloved Children's Characters Who Are Not Quite What They Seem To Be:
1. Woody from "Toy Story."
What parents think he is: Parents think Woody, Andy's beloved cowboy toy voiced by beloved actor Tom Hanks -- Tom Hanks, who's never done anything to raise suspicion that he might be morally abhorrent (other than fall in love with a fish and have a raucous bachelor party and spend a couple of years cross-dressing) -- parents think that Woody is an upright cowboy, leading the other toys in the bedroom in a forthright, straightforward way. They think he's honest, and kind, and devoted, and all sorts of other good things, the same things they think about Tom Hanks when they forget about the fish and the party and all.
What Woody REALLY is: Arrogant, selfish, potentially murderous, and concerned only for his own hide. Seriously. Consider this: Woody tried to trick the other toys into not knowing it was Andy's birthday party. When the dinosaur tried to roar, Woody was condescending to him and didn't try to help him at all. He knocked Buzz off the dresser just to get a chance to go to the pizza restaurant, and then wasn't even going to go help find him -- and only helped Buzz in the end because he wanted to get back home and didn't want the other toys to hate him. Then, in the second movie, after proclaiming his loyalty to Andy, Woody almost instantaneously decides that he's going to go live in a museum where he can never be discarded or worn out.
Why he's still a good character for your kids to watch, maybe a little? He is Tom Hanks, after all. If a man can throw a wild bachelor party and marry a fish and still maintain our respect, he's worth listening to.
Who a better role model might be: Buzz Lightyear, of course. Buzz, even when he's a little confused about whether he's a toy or just a person made of plastic who never has to eat and who has somehow landed on a planet of giants, helps others out and is generally hard working. He's the one who got the dinosaur to be able to roar, you know. And he sets out to rescue Woody as payback without even mentioning that when Woody rescued him, he only needed rescuing because Woody had shoved him out the window in the first place. And he wears his seatbelt.
2. Snoopy from Peanuts.
What parents think he is: Snoopy has this sort of lovable, everydog aspect to him. Parents think of him as a fun-crazy kind of dog -- well-behaved, with a vibrant "life of the mind" that teaches kids to enjoy their imaginations. Also, people associate Snoopy with happiness:
What Snoopy really is: Snoopy is a predator, plain and simple, and a taunting, kind of mean one, at that -- but also a coward who hides behind anything he can. And, Snoopy might hate mankind and be hiding from us a secret that will lead to destruction of the world.
How can I say all that? Easy: remember how Snoopy used to torment Linus by trying to get his blanket from him? If it doesn't shake you up enough that a dog, a dog which is nearly as big as the kid, is stalking the kid, then consider the metaphor: a beloved household pet is trying to steal security from little kids. Snoopy used to taunt the cat next door, only to back down.
And, if that doesn't put the icing on the cake for you, here's this topper: Snoopy overheard the secret plans the birds were making, and then didn't do anything about what was clearly some sort of bird 9/11:
Man's best friend? I think not.
Why he's still a good character for your kids to watch, maybe a little? Snoopy does take joy in the little things, like suppertime and friends, and he also shows a lot of initiative, like when he cooked Thanksgiving dinner for Charlie Brown. Wouldn't we as parents want the young ones to be ecstatic when we fulfill basic parenting tasks, like feeding them, and would we want them, even more, to take over fulfilling those basic tasks themselves?
Who a better role model might be: Almost everyone would instinctively say Linus, but he has his own set of problems -- that thumbsucking and the blanket, and his reliance on religion as a crutch, plus I'm pretty sure he welched on his deal with Ms. Othmar to stop carrying his blanket if she stopped biting her nails. And he had a crush on Ms. Othmar in the first place and we all know how student-teacher crushes end up these days. So, instead, why not go with "Franklin?" Of all the Peanuts gang, only Franklin didn't have any real obvious problems, character defects, or annoying habits. He was just a regular kid who occasionally showed up in the madhouse of Charlie Brown's world. I'm pretty sure that Franklin, these days, does not let the rest of the ol' Peanuts gang access his Facebook profile.
3. Max from "Where The Wild Things Are."
What parents think Max is: A loveable, if sometimes ill-behaved little boy who learns the importance of behaving properly. Max is acting up and gets sent to his room without dinner, only to set off on an (imaginary?) adventure in which he travels to where the Wild Things are, and engages in a rumpus with them, only to get homesick and return home, where his dinner awaits him and (presumably?) he eats it and goes to bed.
What he really is: An unrepentant little terror who learns that the best way to respond to discipline is to recede from reality and/or to take his anger and frustration out on someone else. When Max is sent to his room, does he sit and learn his lesson? No, he does not. Instead, he sails around the world and in and out of a year to find some Wild Things, who he immediately bullies into making him the king. Then, in the middle of the rumpus, Max arbitrarily ends the party and sends all the Wild Things to bed without their dinner -- even though they were just following the rules. Max demonstrates that he has no understanding of why it wasn't okay for him to be a Wild Thing, while simultaneously showing that he has a cruel streak. For his behavior, Max is then rewarded with a still-warm dinner -- and no lesson learnt.
Why he's still a good character for your kids to watch, maybe a little? Max does go to his room, at least, when sent there. These days, Max might refuse to go to his room, call the authorities, and report that he was being starved, resulting in a court order that his mom and dad give him pizza for breakfast.
Who a better role model might be: That one Wild Thing that's kind of like a lion with scaly legs -- (almost as if Simba, and not Tom Hanks, had run away with that mermaid). He's a monster, yeah, but he at least bowed to the king and showed a certain amount of respect for authority. Plus, he threatened to eat Max if Max left them and ran away, and while you as a parent can't do that, what with cannibalism not being an approved punishment, you kind of want to instill that thought somehow, don't you?
4. The Itsy-Bitsy Spider:
What parents think the spider is: A cutesy little bug that shows the value of persistence. Rain come down and wash you out? Crawl up that spout again, little one! In short, they think the Itsy-Bitsy Spider is this:
What he really is: This:
And that's crawling up your waterspout -- trying to get into your house so that it can wait until you are asleep and then it will drop into your mouth and kill you.
Why he's still a good character for your kids to watch, maybe a little? He's not. For God's sake, it's a spider. Why wasn't it a squirrel? Or a chipmunk? Chipmunks are always crawling into our rain gutters and taunting our cats. Can't we teach persistence with the itsy-bitsy chipmunk?
Who a better role model might be: Anyone that's not this:
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