My career in television was brief — the length of a single conference call — but instructive. A few years back, producers of a show designed to introduce children to classic works of literature wanted some advice about Don Quixote. (Since I was then on my own quixotic quest for a doctorate in Spanish Renaissance history, they figured I had something to tell them. Being eager to supplement my graduate stipend, I let them think so.)
In the draft adaptation that the producers sent me, there was one scene that I felt compelled to speak up about. Don Quixote, excited by a puppet show about Moors battling Christians, unsheathes his sword in defense of his co-religionists, cutting up the Muslim puppets and nearly decapitating the puppeteer. That’s the way Cervantes wrote it; but in the children’s version I read, the knight merely knocks over the stage. I suggested that this would undercut Don Quixote’s madness — his deadly, though frequently comic, seriousness.
But Don Quixote is a role model, one of the producers explained. Having him break things, especially with a weapon, would set a bad example.
“Well, yes,” I said cravenly. “I can see how that might be a concern.” (Of course I should have held my ground. Not that it would have changed any minds, but it would have given me a flattering explanation for why they didn’t call back.)
A paranoid and delusional old man, however eloquent and magnanimous, is hardly an ideal case study for teaching clear moral lessons to the young. But never mind that. The point here is that kids inclined to slash up puppets don’t need fiction to inspire them. On the other hand, most little ones will readily absorb parental commentary along the lines of: “Don Quixote was crazy. Don’t do anything like that yourself. Or I will spank you very hard.” (The last part is optional. Pacifists will have plenty of non-violent alternatives to hand.)
Every generation has things it doesn’t want to show its children, but whereas our parents and grandparents were loath to compromise their offspring’s innocence, we seem afraid to test their brains. TV programs and movies for children today seem premised on the notion that the young are immediately and infinitely suggestible, for good or ill. Anything “negative,” any violation of current taboos, must be condemned in the most explicit and heavy-handed fashion or, better yet, not shown at all.
It wasn’t always thus. Alcohol use among minors, as far as I know, was no more respectable in America half a century back than it is today. Yet as I watch, over and over, the movies in my two-year-old’s growing collection of Disney DVDs, I’m increasingly struck by the levity with which they treat drunkenness.
In Dumbo (1941), the title character accidentally sips some champagne, then hallucinates pink elephants in a sequence so spectacular that it could be an ad for Perrier Jouët. In The Aristocats (1970), Uncle Waldo is a goose who escapes from the kitchen of a French restaurant where he has been thoroughly basted in white wine, occasioning much hilarity at his stumbling and slurred speech.
This sort of thing, as anyone my age or older knows, was till recently considered well inside the bounds of acceptable kiddie fare. I grew up immersed in such humor, but have never had a drinking problem, and no one I know who does has ever suggested it was the fault of cartoons.
Banishing vice from our children’s screens won’t make it go away. Sometimes the best way to discourage a practice can even be to show it. As long as the people who make today’s kids’ entertainment are intent on behavioral conditioning, they’d do well to take their cues from Disney’s Pinocchio (1940). Not only does it include an impressive cautionary tale in the episode of Pleasure Island, where naughty boys are turned into donkeys for the sins of truancy and vandalism (both graphically portrayed). It’s also a classic of antismoking propaganda. The sight of Pinocchio’s face turning green after a deep drag on an illicit cigar is worth a thousand public service announcements in dissuading kids from lighting up — and in making them laugh at the same time.