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Rated: E · Essay · Opinion · #1616881
A reprinted rant from my LiveJournal on the dumbing-down of post-millennial kids' TV.
So yes, in the course of rambling on about Feminism in Watership Down I got a little carried away. Especially does this bug in terms of children's media (which Watership really isn't, but we'll ignore that for now). It's something I've been personally confronting lately, as I rummage around in my Sesame Street-intensive past. Do you realise, fellow Gen-Xers, that the newest DVD sets of the show carry a disclaimer to the effect that "These early episodes of Sesame Street are intended for grown-ups, and may not meet the needs of today's preschoolers"?

Sad, and a little strange - not least because accurate. On the one hand the belief is that children are more sophisticated than ever before; on the other, that they’re fragile flowers whose every input needs monitoring for fear it’ll corrupt the mechanism.You see it reflected in the pages and pages of 'what behaviours is The Mole Sisters teaching my child'-type posts to the TreehouseTV forums, complete with just-saw-it-on-Oprah-so-I-know-it’s-scientific vocabularies. In the Fat Albert movie, which disavows the crude-but-funny 'snaps' that made the show famous in favour of hauling in a little (white) girl to teach the gang proper English. In the attitude of my nephew's pre-K teacher, who reacts to the news that this four-year-old has taught himself to read with 'Well, we need to think about how much he actually comprehends...'

Yes. She really said that. I swear, you just want to grab these people by their PTA-attending pencil necks and hiss, "Look, I spent an entire childhood watching a trenchcoated Muppet sidling up to innocent kids and asking if they wanted to buy an 'O' – that’s when he wasn’t off stealing the Golden An just for kicks - and somehow I managed to become a fully functional member of society..." [shaking them violently] "DO - YOU - UNDERSTAND?"

…Heh. [ahem]. Well, maybe there is something to be said for social conditioning. I'm not advocating wholesale exposure to disturbing imagery, either; children’s mechanisms can certainly suffer from neglect, and on the whole it’s a Very Good Thing that those closest to them realise that. But you can get carried away with it, is all I am saying. This obsession with socialization, with carefully categorizing every possible influence in the here and now, actively works to stifle any imaginative possibilities for the future. Worse, it gives kids the impression that intelligence, thinking about the answers, is much less important than getting the answers right. If you’re going to ensure the world is laid out exactly as it should be, then where’s the inspiration to think about what could be?

When I was a kid, or so it seems, educational media refused to talk down to me, treated me as though I was a smart, aware kid deserving of respect. The assumption was that I knew that the world wasn’t perfect, but by God it was interesting. Becoming a good citizen was, like every other aspect of learning, held up as the key to unlocking worlds. Watching your Franklins and Arthurs today – engaging as they might be in themselves -- putter round their middle-class living rooms learning middle-class values, oh, do I miss that sense of ‘Look! This is what’s out there, and it could all be yours! Pay attention, ‘cause here’s how!’ Do you realise, The Backyardigans is almost the last series left in which the characters actually do completely different things each week? Scary.

Sesame Street used to be about that kind of wonder. So did Schoolhouse Rock (one episode of which actually includes the line ‘…forever, towards infinity/No-one ever gets there, but you can try…’). The Electric Company hauled in everything they could think of, up to and including Spider-Man, just to keep me alert and interested. Even dorky TVOntario standard Readalong followed this trend, as best they could with bad child actors and a talking skeleton.
You still see flashes of that now and then, mostly on PBS – Between the Lions was probably the last great example – but it's too often accompanied by an annoying 'aren't we just precious enough to kiss!' vibe that betrays who the writers are really interested in rewarding. The raw excitement of learning for learning's sake is long gone, and the notion that kids can be trusted with their own thoughts and feelings has apparently gone with it.

Nowadays, the approved characters are those that run round and round on pallid little tracks of good behaviour, as determined by the majority - ie, those with enough time on their hands to care about the fine points of what a three-year-old cartoon bunny is teaching their children. What is said is less important than the race or gender of the speaker. Creativity and individuality is allowable only in terms of deviation from the norm; any dissenter must and will be brought back into line, becoming upright little citizens of some bizarre netherworld where everyone is happy just because there’s no alternative.

(I once read an amusing attempt to define exactly what creeps so many adults out about Barney. Loosely paraphrased, it was: ‘Nobody is ever allowed to be upset on that show for ONE FREAKING SECOND! Even when the one kid’s dog died, they just refused to let her be sad! Crazy!”)

It’s the difference between the original Blue’s Clues, which at the very least taught kids that if they used their brains something amazing would happen, and the spinoff Blue’s Room. In which the producers are too busy ensuring that Blue explains exactly how much fun! we’re all going to have to notice that she’s speaking in a little boy’s voice. Never mind, it’s off to celebrate the birthday of the little character whose main goal in life is to have birthdays! Because, y’know, having a cake and streamers and such is just ever so empowering. This little girl is clearly going to grow up to force the other characters to wear bridesmaid dresses with butt bows the size of Cleveland, and frankly I hope she does.

It’s all very well, in a given Dora the Explorer episode, that the characters complete their tasks in a given sequence; but their little, simple, primary-coloured world is painfully devoid of any other reason to visit. There’s no sense that anything they do is going to lead to higher things…except that, the way she’s been potrayed in later episodes, Dora is apparently being groomed to rule as Queen of the World someday.
After which we’re all going to wear matching unisex outfits and play government-mandated soccer games in which nobody actually wins, just stands around and congratulates each other for managing to kick the ball. ‘Fun’ happens when the fox gets into the orangeade and everyone gently persuades him to put it back…as gently as is possible when everyone’s shouting at the top of their lungs, the better to ensure everyone’s most banal utterance is heard and valued. I’m starting to think that the world of The Giver got its start when someone found an ancient Party Time With Dora DVD.

…Sigh. I suppose now would be a good time to issue the standard disclaimer: I’m not an early-childhood education expert -- nor even a parent -- and it’s kind of silly for me to be playing one on the Net. But I do speak as one who used what I was handed to kindle a lifelong love of learning and respect for knowledge. It’s literally painful to me to watch kids settling for mediocrity – moving up from Dora to Hannah Montana through High School Musical...

...uh-oh. Maybe for all our sakes, I should just stop there.
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