I read a post yesterday written by a mother who was explaining why she wouldn’t let her young daughter watch The Little Mermaid, because she found the central theme of the story – that of a girl giving up the gift of her voice to follow the man she loved – to be too disturbing.
She has a point. There are disturbing messages in many of the old fairy stories and classic children’s books that my kids read, whether or not they have been Disneyfied. What Katy Did? A girl’s rebellious spirit is tamed out of her through injury and illness. Beauty and the Beast? I’d like it more if it was a prince who had to demonstrate how he learned to value inner beauty by marrying some hideously mutlitated crone who was rendered back to gorgeousness by his true love’s kiss.
Our children’s minds are so malleable, so precious, that it is natural for us to want to shield them from what we see as harmful beneath the sugary gloss of fantasy.
The trouble is, where to stop? How to prevent external influences shaping or misshaping growing young consciousness into the warped understandings we may see in ourselves and perceive even more in those around us (and them)? We can’t, of course.
When my children were younger, I tried too. I limited television to CBeebies, just as “treats” were restricted to the occasional mini box of raisins. It didn’t last. Partly it was due to fatigue or laziness, partly due to the recognition that, try as I might, I couldn’t keep the world out. As I type this, my newly-turned-8 year old daughter is listening to the radio on her brand new CD player. It’s a cheap and fairly crappy piece of pink plastic, and the tuning isn’t great, but through the static and the whinging of her four year old brother who wants her new Nerf gun, I can hear the words of that damnably catchy “Cheerleader”. She’s singing along, just as she was a few minutes ago to “Worth It” which (and forgive me while I hoick my bosom and purse my lips) seems to be a sweetly romantic love song between a man and a woman begging him to do her the honour of pleasuring her.
I don’t think my daughter really processes the lyrics that she sings, but I hate hearing the sounds from her mouth, even knowing that she’s unaware of what they mean. What to do, though? I could insist that she listens only to pre approved CDs, I could restrict her time at friends’ houses where she may rifle through YouTube clips, ask their parents to switch off the car radio when they’re giving her a lift here or there. But even if I could do it, even if it wouldn’t brand both her and me as utter freaks and resolve quite quickly the problem of what might happen at friends’ houses since she would no longer have any, what would happen when she heard music in a shopping centre, or saw a clip on a TV in a doctor’s waiting room or a magazine at the supermarket checkout?
The truth is that, much as I may want to control what my children are exposed to, I can’t. It isn’t in my power to protect them by trying to ensure that they don’t see or hear things I don’t like until they’re no longer under my control. I hate aspects of our culture, where sex, and being both available and desirable for it are prized above many things I value more. I hate that women’s bodies are so much wallpaper, their appearance so much public property, their fuckability so much currency, and that this attitude is crystal clear in much of the music my children hear and the images they see on television, magazines and online. I hate this for my sons as much as I do for my daughter.
I can campaign, certainly, but even if the tide is for turning, it will be long after my children are grown and gone. I can’t shut my children safe in some harbour, out of the reach of the messages I don’t want them to hear or figure out for themselves. But I can help them do that in some kind of context. I can talk about things we see with them, and I can, by my words and my example, give them a different understanding of how life and love and relationships work.
I don’t have to spoil the magic of a happy ever after as the credits roll and the bride waltzes in the arms of her hero in a beautiful dress, but I can make sure they all know that wedding days aren’t really the culmination of a woman’s life.I don’t have to talk over a video of women in their smalls (if that) gyrating around, but I can sure as hell point out when they’re missing, together with the fact that no-one seemed to die thereof. I don’t have to scorn my daughter’s love of clothes and pretty hairstyles to praise her for her strength and draw attention to the muscles or the achievements of women in the public eye, rather than how they look on camera.
I can’t change what they see, but I can do my hardest to try to change the way they see it.