Monday, July 03, 2006

Ideologies of Youth Through Turtle-Coloured Lenses

I have, in the past two weeks, become intimately familiar with Franklin the Turtle -- not the series of children's books in which this character originated but the animated television series based on the books.

I am not a fan. It has been difficult for me, however, to really articulate what I dislike about the show.

Franklin is, of course, a turtle. His age is left undefined but it is in the range bounded by him being able to "count by twos and tie his shoes" but those facts still being worth noting explicitly. His universe consists of a semi-rural or small town environment populated by his parents, his friends -- a bear, a beaver, a goose, a snail, a rabbit, a fox, all named for their species -- and his teacher, Mr. Owl. Each episode is eleven or twelve minutes long and consists of some sort of age-appropriate conflict that is handily resolved within the set time frame. The challenges include meeting a new kid at school (a moose), being made conscious of one's difference from peers (having no teeth to lose 'cause, hey, you're a turtle), and wrestling with fear (in this case, of heights, which prevents full participation in the delights of a tree fort).

I find that understanding my reaction or the reaction of any adult to material targeted to young people, from toddlers to young adults, is always an odd business. I am not, after all, the target audience; it shouldn't be surprising that I remain unmoved. But I think that, given what I do, it is reasonable for me to have reactions to texts targeted at young people as exercises in writing and as embodiments of political ideas, even if my passions are not inflamed by the suspense of when Steve might find Blue's third clue or whether we the audience will, through our shouts, manage to foil Swiper's most recent attempt to steal Dora's stuff.

I don't feel confident in asserting this without reservation, because I don't know that I've sampled widely enough or thought deeply enough. As well, I suppose it could be argued that it is nothing specific to children because, after all, there is no shortage of popular texts targeted at adults in our culture which are poorly written, assume audience ignorance, and/or paint a primary-colours simplistic picture of the world. But I still don't think I'm making this up: The dominant ideology of childhood and youth in North America assumes the existence of particular kinds of incapacities in young people and those assumed incapacities combine with a perfectly understandable impulse to protect to create both social spaces and narratives that are not only painful (for me) to experience but also go beyond what is true for adult spaces/stories to insulate our young ones from anything that might disturb ways of knowing and being and doing that are dominant, normative, and boring. (And though I won't talk about it here, I should add that the flip side of this is youth who 'prematurely' cease to qualify for this statutory innocence, whether it is through dominant responses to Blackness or queerness or street-involvement or political activity, and who are then targeted for very different, much harsher kinds of regulation that, I suspect, is probably much closer to what adults who are "Other" experience but that also has flavours particular for youth.)

An early observation I made that has lead me towards this assertion was not actually about stories but about the nature of conversation in spaces organized around the identity of "Mom (and occasionally Dad)". The conversation of (mostly) Moms has no reason based purely on the fact that it comes (mostly) from women who have given birth to be any less interesting or engaging or challenging than the conversation of any other group. My own opportunities to collect data shape this conclusion of course -- certainly the spaces I'm talking about are not intimate (mostly) Mom spaces, and I tend to be rather reserved in many social spaces, so I don't tend to push boundaries much. But despite this there is a distinctive feel to coversation in such spaces, both that I've participated in and that I've overheard, which keeps to a certain range of topics and strongly discourages straying off that path. I've concluded that this has to do with the presence of children. For their sake, anything that might be controversial or unusual or counter-normative is submerged, to keep the space untainted by conflict and, in effect, by complexity.

Another data point: Some years ago on a whim I checked a few novels targeted at teenagers out of the library and read them. I'm not sure what compelled me -- some vague notion of trying my hand at writing one, perhaps, or just curiosity, since I did not read such things when I was younger. They were uniformly atrocious. They seemed to be based on the premise that the human brain does not congeal from goo until one leaves one's teens, and that what teens really need to turn them on to reading is simplistic plots and bad writing, that "age appropriate" really means "completely dull." I know this is not universal because for some reason a couple of years later my partner bought a teen novel which I read as well and very much enjoyed. But in retrospect, though it was an order of magnitude more sophisticated than anything in my random sampling from the library, and though it did actually permit a sympathetically portrayed character (not the main one) to have sex with her boyfriend without suffering divine authorial retribution, there was still a sense of cocooning the reader in some way.

Recently, of course, I have had the opportunity to encounter a positive bounty of material targeted at the still-in-diapers set. For this age group it is even harder to distinguish targeting towards the actual cognitive capacities of pre-schoolers from the more ideologically dubious protection-as-indoctrination idea I'm exploring here. Shapes, colours, and A-B-Cs are, after all, shapes, colours, and A-B-Cs, and there really are things I would not want the nearly-3-year-old that depends on me seeing, because they would upset him and I couldn't really explain. In addition, material targeted at the youngest children tends to be collections of imagery rather than narratives. I'm sure such collections can be analyzed in a way analagous to my discussion here but I am less confident in my ability to do that. I also wouldn't want to come across as experiencing a blanket dislike of all texts targeted at that age group. For example, I quite like Dora the Explorer even if it is too similar to a video game in narrative structure for my liking, some children's books have amazing art and decent stories, and the "Big Musical Episode" of Blue's Clues is very well done. (And if the co-creator of the show that does Blue's voice, as shown in the "Making Of" segment on the DVD, wanted to be my friend, I wouldn't say no, 'cause she's cool.)

Which brings me finally to Franklin. I have some quite specific complaints about the writing -- stupid lines and the like -- but the source of my distaste is more general.

The main point of identification with the show is Franklin himself. It is through his experiences that we are intended to experience this world, to understand it. Yet everything outside of Franklin in this show is portrayed as being good or at least innocent, and the lesson underlying all of the specific lessons-of-the-episode is that when there is dissonance in Franklin's experience, it is up to Franklin himself to change, to adapt, to learn the lesson -- in other words, when there is negativity in a toddler or pre-schooler's world, they are told that they should seek the source of the problem exclusively inside themselves.

The harmful implications of this meta-lesson should be obvious.

The innocence of all that is not-Franklin (and, by extension, not-the-viewing-toddler) is shown in a variety of ways. Franklin's world is steeped in imagery associated with ideas of goodness and purity and a simpler time or place, things that most of us don't experience and mostly doesn't exist -- the idyllic rural setting, the copious greenspace, the absence of sustained want or anything remotely dangerous, the universality of happily heternormative domestic units as the basis of all social organization. All that is bad can be fixed within twelve minutes. All of the classmates at school like each other unreservedly, at least once the twelve minutes are up. Authority is innately benevolent and always right. When the school needs books, why, it's a reason to have the fun of a bake sale instead of questioning why a core tool of a core social service needs to be financed through child labour (let along questioning the social organization and disciplinary role of that social service).

The presentation of Franklin's relationship with his parents is particularly annoying. I know that I am not beyond using inflection in stating L's name as a means of indicating my mood or opinion, and I'm not convinced I should be beyond it -- as with any manifestation of parental power it should be exercised with care, but to the extent that it communicates something that needs to be communicated and is respectful of L, I don't think it is necessarily bad. But in Franklin, his parents' use of his name as either an experssion of bemusement or of disapproval (as a sort of trigger for mechanisms of self-policing) is one of the primary markers of their role in reinforcing to Franklin that any and every deviation from "normal" and "okay" in his world has its genesis inside of him. For example, when he indicates that he does not wish to eat brussel sprouts because they are "stinky," his mother and then father reminisce about vegetables they disdained for stinkiness. When Franklin adds with greater enthusiasm and in complete harmony with the spirit of the conversation to that point that broccoli is the stinkiest vegetable of all, suddenly it's not okay and he is made aware of this fact by his mother saying his name in disapproval. He hastily performs repentance and his public self is brought into harmony with his parents' ideas of "normal", his impulses to other ways of being stigmatized.

Another important example that does not involve the device of Franklin's name: He is anxious about a pending visit to a relative he doesn't know, Aunt Turtle. He expresses his anxiety by asking factual questions about her. His mother -- of course the one primarily responsible for giving emotional care -- responds by addressing the underlying anxiety, which is good, but does so in a way that completely ignores the substance of the questions asked, thereby trivializing Franklin's own chosen stragey for dealing with what he is feeling and implying that there is no need for him to try and exert agency himself when there is something about his environment that he is uncertain about, he should just be quiet and trust those with power over him to make it all better.

It may not be as aesthetically atrocious a piece of writing as the Reader Rabbit cartoon that L was into last month, but, as I said, I'm not a fan of Franklin. There certainly are particularities in how Franklin does it, and many other texts targeting pre-schoolers would be less obvious, but I think it is one strong piece of evidence for my more general assertion that the dominant constructions of childhood and youth function not only as reasons for providing protection that is actually appropriate but as screens for getting parents to accept unquestioningly narratives that subtley or not-so-subtley normalize oppressive realities in the name of protection. "They wouldn't understand" or "They shouldn't have to deal with it" may sometimes be true but too often they are code for infusing the mass culture experienced by youth and children with material that will discourage them from challenging or even questioning an oppressive status quo.

The obvious follow-up question is how to do things differently when it comes to stories for young people. There is no obvious answer, however, and this post is already long enough. Exposing at least the younger among young people to stories that show the true horror of the world we live in is doing them no favour, only damage, and complexity that is incomprehensible is pointless, but it should certainly be possible to avoid doing those things while still telling stories that challenge and provide a path towards questioning and critical understanding rather than towards numbness and dumbness.

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