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Portrayal of children in popular media

Posted by nightphoenix on July 12, 2010 in Process |

So the hubby and I went to see Despicable Me on Saturday. It was an entertaining movie…solid story, solid character arcs, lots of funny moments that weren’t over-the-top. In fact, a lot of the humor was surprisingly smart for a movie of this genre, even the fart jokes and such.

But I was especially struck by the three girls. They were perfect for the role they had in the story, and they really called something to my attention that I hadn’t thought about before: how children are portrayed in movies now, versus how they are portrayed in much older movies, like Pinocchio and Peter Pan. Despicable Me had a tight soundtrack, one where you notice the music because the action in the movie is moving right with it (as opposed to just background ambiance). The three girls’ theme exemplified them perfectly: it kept the hip-hopish rhythm and beat that ran through the whole movie, but it had this very innocent, upbeat flute melody floating on top.

Children in movies now, when they are actual characters in the story, are much more worldly than they are in, say, movies from 50 years ago. Monsters Inc. actually played with this idea a little; the monsters were having energy shortages because children were getting harder to scare. The girls in Despicable Me were never afraid of Gru (the main character), even though he was what amounted to a super-villain. And it wasn’t because they were too young or stupid to see what he was. They didn’t like him. They didn’t trust him. At times, they were a bit intimidated by him. But he didn’t scare them. Perhaps they saw through him? He really wasn’t such a bad guy, after all. In that way, they remind me of Boo, from Monsters Inc. The only monster Boo was really afraid of was Randall, but I don’t think she was afraid of him because he was a monster…she was afraid of him because he was bad. Sully came through her closet just like Randall would have, but she was never afraid of Sully (except for that one time when she saw him act like, well, a monster.)

The kids in Peter Pan, even though they dealt with pirates and Indians on an almost daily basis, were really very innocent. It was all a game to them. Even the pirates and Indians in Neverland, in a sense, were more like children than adults…after all, only a child would be utterly humiliated by being forced by another child to say “I’m a codfish”, as Hook was forced by Peter Pan to do at the end. Also, children in popular media from 50 years ago always expect to be rescued. I think that stems from a basic expectation that children needed to be saved, protected, sheltered from bad situations. However, today’s media is not afraid to point out that sometimes children don’t get rescued, don’t get protected, don’t get sheltered from bad situations…and that sometimes a child is forced to save themselves, as it were.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I really don’t think that children from 50 years ago were actually more sheltered or more protected from bad situations than they are today. Parents have always fought. Kids have always been abandoned, beaten, neglected, etc. However, today’s society and today’s movies, books, television, etc are, on the whole, more willing to acknowledge such troubled childhoods. Childhood is, perhaps, not the idol it was in years past…and so we’re not afraid to show the tainted, dark sides of it. Thus, children in movies today are more adult, more shrewd, more self-sufficient on the whole than children in movies were in the past…and I think it has to do with both that toppling of the idol of idyllic childhood, and with the relatively modern shift to a more transparent society, where taboo behaviors are exposed and discussed instead of shoved away and ignored.

The boys in Pinocchio were probably about as worldly as boys that age could get, but there was still a basic innocence to their characters. They were drinking, smoking, playing pool, vandalizing stuff…but it was almost like they were playing dress-up with adult behaviors. They had no understanding of the dark feelings and tragedies that drive adults to do destructive things…they were just imitating what they saw. They didn’t get it, you know? They were portrayed as being naughty because they were boys, and that was just something boys did. The same scene, if played out in a movie today, would have those same boys being naughty because their parents are divorced, or because their father drinks and beats their mother, or because their mom is dating a man who hates them. In general, it’s less socially taboo to portray dark motivations and scary skeletons onscreen now, and that’s especially apparent in the portrayal of children. Compare the three orphan girls in Despicable Me to Penny from the Rescuers, or Oliver from Oliver and Company (Oliver is a cat, but he’s essentially a child).

However, the ever-increasing worldliness of children in popular media has not swallowed up the essential innocence of childhood…in fact, the worldliness makes the innocence stand out all the more to me. Children are still essentially good in most movies. I think this really comes out in the modern onscreen child’s ability to sense which grown-ups are truly good and truly evil, no matter how those grown-ups appear or act to everyone else. In fact, children are often the only ones not fooled by appearances. A combination of worldly shrewdness and childlike innocence, perhaps? It’s almost like children are portrayed as understanding the adult world better than the adults do, in a sense. They see the crap (as opposed to being sheltered from it), and they see through the crap because they still have a child’s innocent understanding of How Things Ought to Work.

Interesting. Children in movies like Peter Pan teach by demonstrating the purity of childish foolishness. Children in movies like Despicable Me teach by demonstrating the incorruptibility of childish wisdom. Children in older movies are pure because they don’t see or understand adult things. Children in modern movies are pure despite seeing and understanding adult things. So has the basic concept of childhood really changed over the years? Is it more corrupted…or is it actually less corruptible?

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