Here’s a question:
If it is vital for parents to understand not just the content of films aimed at children, but the “lessons” those films teach, why aren’t more people paying attention to the “lessons” that all films teach?
I just saw Finding Dory. It was great. And it had a great “message” (see Alissa Wilkison’s review for Christianity Today as one testament). Like Inside Out and Zootopia, the current run of Disney and Pixar features are gearing their stories to teach kids important life lessons about having a healthy sense of self-worth, handing emotions, and dealing with others.
This should come as no surprise and feel right in line with what Christians who grew up watching McGee and Me or Veggietales know. Visual stories can be fun and silly and really engaging, but also teach a valuable lesson. In fact, Christian media has been doing this with videos for people of all ages, to the point that people from our tradition tend to look for morals in all films. What is the message? What’s the take-away? (For more on this, see another article by Wilkinson titled “Lazy Cultural Engagement”)
Christian media, and Christians watching media, are not alone. Sesame Street was and is intentional about creating a diverse environment that engages children and teaches important life lessons about self worth and emotions, as well as letters and numbers. Oscar is a grouch, but Big Bird is his friend anyway. Grover makes all kinds of mistakes, but he learns from them. Elmo’s good intentions don’t always result in his being as helpful as he’d like, but he changes his behavior when he realizes this. There are all kinds of examples running rampant on Nick Jr. and Disney Kids.
Kids are not adults, you say. Kids need safe content.
Children are impressionable, sure, and they are developing. But to some extent, all humans are impressionable. If it’s okay, in fact it seems an imperative, for children’s media content to teach good lessons, why doesn’t the same imperative apply for all people?
We think we can handle it.
Here are a few things to note:
- American audiences are not that good at reading sarcasm, satire, or irony. Archie Bunker was supposed to be someone we laughed at. Half of the audiences that tuned in to All in the Family considered him a bigot. The other half thought he was a hero. That half missed the satire. Only a misunderstanding of satire could result in Bart Simpson or any of the characters from The Family Guy being people one should mimic. In real life we would not choose to be around these people. They’re only funny when we laugh at them…except to many audiences they are funny, and mimicking their behavior becomes good for a laugh, approval, or asserting influence.
- Children’s stories haven’t always been safe. Consider Grimm’s fairy tales. Consider many biblical stories. David and Goliath is not a nice clean Disney fantasy. It’s a beheading during a battle. Should children not be exposed to grim realities? Let’s not get started on the rest of David’s life, it’s pretty much one R rated film after another.
- Safe stories don’t point out our need for grace. Movies and television are full of comforting lies. Capitalism and self-confidence will save us (Enchanted, The Wizard of Oz; virtually every film ever made). Romance is the greatest love there is (Love Comes Softly, Moulin Rouge, and virtually every film ever made). Those thoughts don’t line up with Christian doctrine at all, yet they are all over the stories we consume all the time.
We need to rethink what safe is.
There are ways to engage in media that help us make informed choices about ALL the movies and television we watch (Remote Virtue was written for just that purpose).
Finding Dory was fun, and affirming. I liked the message. I’d want kids to see it. But I hope as they grow, they can learn to take in difficult stories too, and understand how Mud or Philomena or Mad Max also have important things to say about growing up, forgiving, and freedom.