Good and bad lessons for children

Today’s post comes at a slight delay, as I lost faith in my ability to make a post about a TV show I enjoy entertaining for all. Short version: somebody start watching Person of Interest so I’ll have someone to talk about Person of Interest with, because it’s been brilliant this year.

That said, something else sunk into the back of my brain this week. Something that began stewing when I watched this video by Cracked.com’s Daniel O’Brien. You go ahead and watch it while I wait here and wonder why I thought referring you to a funnier, certainly not LESS handsome Dan was a good idea. Skip to the three-minute mark to catch the relevant questions.

And we’re back. Did you catch it? At the three–okay, I’m sure some of you are saying “I’m not watching the video, just tell us what your point is.” I’d do that. In your place. So the point Mr. O’Brien raises three minutes into this dissection of everything off-putting about Beauty and the Beast is how, precisely, is a 21-year-old who was turned into a beast at age 10 supposed to forge the complicated, messy, life-long challenge that is real love with the first girl his own age he ever meets? Daniel argues that most 21-year-olds aren’t emotionally mature enough to find real love under the best of circumstances, let alone orphans who went through puberty as giant hairy beast-monsters and have somehow forgotten how spoons work.

With this in the back of my head, I began taking a closer look at the messages cartoons are feeding to children, and which ones are good and which are messed up.

Bad lesson: “love is instant and easy”

Man, this one is ingrained deep into fairy tales, and I have begun to suspect it is damaging.

So we have the above example of Beauty and the Beast. Let’s throw in The Little Mermaid. Ariel sees Prince Eric, and swiftly falls in love with him. Eric, too, is instantly infatuated with the sound of Ariel’s singing. This is the sum total of their relationship before Ariel saves him from drowning, and a fairly accurate description of their relationship afterwards, as they have still not had what anyone would call a conversation. But it’s still enough for Ariel to decide she’s in love, and that this love is worth defying her father and making a Faustian deal with Ursula in order to abandon the only world she’s ever known to be with Eric. And for this, she sacrifices her voice so that she can trade her tail for legs. The catch? She has but three days to make Eric fall in love with her, and seal that love with a kiss, or she’ll lose her voice and soul to Ursula forever.

As Mr. O’Brien asked about the curse from Beauty and the Beast… what the fuck?

First off. I think, Little Mermaid, we’re putting a little too much emphasis on this kiss. I’m not trying to dump on the first kiss, I’m sure it’s usually great, but despite what Little Mermaid and Back to the Future are telling us, I’m not certain the first kiss is really the magic door to true love. If Eric was about to kiss Ariel because he may well love her, I don’t see how Ursula’s eels blocking that kiss attempt is going to magically undo those feelings. Couldn’t he have tried a second time? At the eel-proof castle? You could argue the moment has passed, but I’m pretty sure a young prince who’s been told he has to get married this week or else could get past one moment being ruined. Second, I’m pretty sure I could get a kiss at this year’s New Year’s Eve party, and I promise you nobody there is in love with me, or would be post-kiss.

And that thing about the prince needing to get married? That’s important. Because that’s the world fairy tales grew out of, where marriage wasn’t always (possibly even not often) about love and courtship. No, this is the world of traditional marriage: an exchange of property between parents of strangers. That’s the world that comes up with the narrative convention of true love at first sight, a world where marriage is a necessity to continue the family line and get dowries for all these maidens you have lying around, and love is just an optional extra. Like seat warmers in a car. Nice to have, but not essential.

Moving past that issue… Who the hell can fall in love, real love, in three damned days? Building that sort of a complex connection with another person is hard enough without some half-octopus sea witch playing beat the clock! But do you know who thinks that is possible? People who’ve never been in love. Like the kids watching Disney movies. Like me at age 15. When I was 15, and decided it might be time to stop liking girls in the abstract and start trying to like one directly, all I had at my disposal was a pop-culture upbringing that said 1) love at first sight is a real thing and; 2) wacky schemes are a great way to win a girl’s heart. What I needed was to be told the difference between infatuation and love, and that wacky schemes are goddamn stupid just talk to girls like they’re people you moron. But that doesn’t make for a good episode of Perfect Strangers, so it did not occur to me.

Sure, yes, a few years later “love at first sight,” which I now consider to be a particularly aggressive form of rapid-onset infatuation, did blossom into a real relationship, but it also turned into a painful life lesson about how what a person wants from the rest of their life can change drastically between the ages of 18 and 25, so maybe those aren’t the ages to decide who you want to spend the rest of your life with. Hey, maybe you’re right, and the person you love at 19 will be the person you love the rest of your life. That kind of love runs strong in my family. But there’s no harm in waiting a few years to see if what you thought was love turns out to be infatuation mixed with a cocktail of teenage hormones, which is a recipe for all kinds of stupid.

Sadly, “infatuation is great, but love is incredibly complicated” doesn’t make for a satisfying third act to a romantic comedy.

Better lesson: “Work hard, try your best, and you can accomplish… some things”

And since “Love and infatuation are about as similar as playing a real guitar and playing Rock Band on medium difficulty” makes for a shit romantic comedy, I don’t really have a kids’ movie with that lesson in mind, so here’s how Monsters University, the less-great prequel to Monsters Inc., taught something incredibly valuable.

Monsters University is about how the best-friend duo we met in Monsters Inc. came to be friends in the first place. Both Mike Wazowski and James “Sully” Sullivan are each studying to be scarers (I’m not explaining what that is. Monsters Inc. came out 12 years ago, if you haven’t seen it I have no sympathy). For Sully, it’s just following the family legacy, and leaning on the fact that he’s a giant beast-monster with a naturally terrifying roar. For Mike, on the other hand, working the scare floor is a lifelong dream, one people keep saying is impossible because, as he is small, round, and 80% eyeball, he isn’t scary. But Mike works and studies hard, learns every technique, every scrap of scare theory, everything there is to know about scaring, and in the end…

None of it works. Because he isn’t scary.

But what he does manage to do is combine his knowledge with Sully’s natural ability and coach his scarier friend into pulling off a scare the likes of which no one had seen before. And so they became the record-setting scare team we met in the first movie.

And that’s the lesson. There are some things in life that you can’t achieve, no matter how hard you work or how badly you want them… but it doesn’t mean you can’t still do great things. Just… maybe have a backup in mind. That’s an incredibly valuable thing to teach a child. Maybe you can’t be an astronaut because you get motion sickness super easily, but the other people who work at NASA are pretty cool too.

Bad lesson: CONFORM, YOU SON OF A BITCH

Breaking away from theatrical releases now. Every now and then, you say something you wish you hadn’t. Something like “Yes, Chris Munroe, I will watch the Smurfs with you so that we can live-tweet our disgust.” Or even “Hey, did you know that they did two Smurf holiday specials on DVD?”

And so did we come to watch The Legend of Smurfy Hollow and Smurfs: a Christmas Carol. And while we liked the fact that they abandoned the awkward CG animation and made specials that actually looked like old Smurfs episodes, there was something… unsettling about the latter special.

Grouchy Smurf wants to bail on Christmas this year. Every year, he asks for a hang glider, but every year Papa Smurf (the only person handing out gifts, apparently) just gives everyone a hat. Grouchy’s had enough, and refuses to light the star at the top of the tree like he usually does. So, Papa Smurf does the only thing he can…

He drugs Grouchy.

Specifically, he gives him a potion that makes him see visions of Christmas past, present and future: his former love for Christmas; the fact that Papa Smurf spends all year custom-making Smurf hats for the specific needs of each Smurf (just not well enough that they last more than a year), which is a little insane but there’s no time to go into it; and a vision of the next day, in which Grouchy Smurf skipping Christmas gets literally every Smurf killed by Gargamel.

Which frankly has more to do with getting Clumsy to light the star instead, which they should have known was the worst idea in recorded Smurf history, but the point, the point is that Grouchy Smurf just wanted to be left alone, and in response the other Smurfs roofied him and brainwashed him into loving Christmas again. That, frankly, is fucked up.

Also, come on. He asked for a hang glider and you gave him a hat that can function as a crude para-sail. You have a problem, Papa Smurf. Stop making hats and get help.

Better lesson: everyone leaves, nothing can stop this.

I think we can all agree that Toy Story 3 was pretty awesome, right? It provided a fitting end for Andy’s toys, gave Michael Keaton the best character he’s played in years (Ken), and only raised a few questions about why, if the toys must stay inanimate around humans, they think they actively contribute to their owners’ games.

And at the center of it all? The simple lesson, that no matter how much you love someone, eventually you will lose them. And that’s okay, even if it doesn’t feel that way for a while. Losing people hurts, it hurts a great deal, but it is inevitable, and all you can do is give yourself permission to move on.

Maybe if that had been clearer in my earliest 20s I wouldn’t have kept taking it so personally.

Join us next time when our topic will be… something where I don’t require Daniel O’Brien to make it entertaining.

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