Do we need to re-think kids films? A (sort of) defence of Eric Bolling
So, in case you’ve had something proper to do this week, let me outline the situation. Last Friday, Fox Business Network anchor Eric Bolling announced his concerns over the upcoming Muppet movie – a belief that the family film had worryingly left-wing values due the antagonist being a oil baron by the name of Tex Richman. Let’s set aside the fact that the Muppets have always used classic movie sterotypes as a tool of comedy, and that even in choosing the name of their ridiculous baddie it’s obvious to anyone that he and the narrative device he represents should be taken with a pinch of salt. Let’s set that aside, and concentrate on the central issue – that Eric Bolling believes that instilling our children with an anti-capitalist agenda is morally problematic. Heck, by his count we’re one Muppet sequel away from global communism.
So does he have a point? Do children deserve full, uninhibited access to the pros and cons of socialised medicine delivered to them in the form of lovely dancing socks? Of course not. But nevertheless, there’s no denying that the majority of Western kids films are set against a certain political, social and philosophical backdrop, and seem to embody the same stereotypes and tropes again and again. Is it harmful? Not necessarily. But it’s certainly worthy of discussion.
Ever seen an unattractive Disney heroine? Yes, it’s an obvious place to start, but in a noisy global market of jostling entertainment the sad fact is that its often the musician/TV host/film star that sparkles the brightest that gets the most attention. It might be said that kids are offered respite from this exhausting, jangling circus in their most treasured stories, but is that the case? Disney’s bug-eyed, internal-organless princesses do little to set ever-murmuring body worries to rest, with last year’s The Princess And The Frog the latest to fall prey to the world’s most boring Ideal Woman stereotype. Yes, it was a step forward to have a heroine of African origin. Yes, it was a step forward to have her working in grotty shop, or whatever it was. It still doesn’t take away from the fact that they were still two steps in rather uncomfortable stilettos, neatly fitting into the Beyonce Mould Of Feminism: if you’re a hottie, it’ll all be OK.
And while we’re on the women thing (yep, we’re still here), it’s still rather worrying that Pixar have yet to produce a female protagonist. Sure, they’re set to change that with next year’s Brave (what’s that? She’s a princess? Brilliant), but the fact remains that of their eleven feature films, not one has begun its tale from the perspective of a woman, young or old. And why? Because for some reason, some mad reason, beginning a story with a male character is neutral, to begin with a female one is a choice. And that’s not to say that Pixar do not show off their female characters to be strong, independent and smart – if anything they are, perhaps a little bizarrely, almost always intellectually superior, braver or kinder than the male protagonist – but that’s simply not the point. For years and years the most powerful and successful makers of children’s films have stuck to one formula when it comes to gender, and I cannot help but believe that in swallowing tale after tale of stupid boys being eventually helped out by a smarter, braver and – inevitably – more attractive female is a little unhealthy. For boys as well as girls.
The other ever-present problem with Disney’s, Pixar’s, Dreamworks’ output is that they have no qualms in mauling history in order to achieve their narrative ends. Who knew that Pocahontus spoke with such a clear YooEsA lilt? That Hercules and his crew just wanted to play basketball on the streets of Thebes? That any Panda of Vaguely Eastern extraction practises his Kung-Fu with a decidedly Californian drawl?
That’s not to say that any child brought up on a diet of World History According To America will necessarily end up believing that his or her country or language is the most important in the world, but… well… it does, a bit. Why read Studio Ghibli’s subtitles when we can listen to the same character WITH THE VOICE OF BRAD PITT? Why go straight to the origins of The Lion King – nicked almost entirely from Japanese animation series Kimba The White Lion – when you can bypass the original creators and funnel it through the America machine? Why engage an additional mental faculty when it’s easier to sit back and swim in the familiar bath of Hollywood Voices? So what if it breeds laziness, if it renders children incurious as to what lessons and stories other cultures and nations have to offer? Yes, of course all of these films teach many positive lessons – the value of teamwork, compassion, patience, love above all – but that isn’t to say that we should wriggle happily into every familiar trope these studios throw at us simply because we recognise them from tales we’ve loved in the past.
Do not mistake me, I do not believe that Eric Bolling is correct in his assumption that our children are slowly being brainwashed by a nuanced combination of cushiony faces, political manipulation and songs about penguins, but neither is it necessarily a bad thing to occasionally re-evaluate the things we take to be staples of mainstream kids entertainment. We’re subjected to enough morally worrying messages at the hands of our media as soon as we slip greasily into our teens (hello Stephanie Meyers) – surely it’s not a bad idea to wonder whether we’re starting our kids off fairly? Perhaps it’s not even a question of whether the messages we fire over and over again are the right ones or the wrong ones, perhaps it’s simply that we need to make sure our messages, lessons and stories are varied, interesting and as diverse as the world we take them from. It’s all very well making sure the dastardly Tex Richman gets what he deserves, but if justice only ever served in the same way, at the hands of the same characters and with the same outcome every time you have to start to wonder who the bad guy really was in the first place.