Monday, April 24, 2017

Obsessions with Disney and Stuff Like It: Negotiating Life with Children and Television

“Mom, aloha means hello and goodbye. And ohana means family, like we’re all connected.” My five-and-a-half-year-old daughter just finished watching Disney's Lilo and Stitch and bragged, "I know a lot about Hawaii."

She was correct in her triumphant translations of aloha and ohana, but I insist she cannot know "a lot" about Hawaii from a Disney movie. Hawaii is more than aliens and hula and people who don't always wear shoes. She ought to know about the Kapu System, Captain Cook and King Kamehameha, and how colonization kills people and culture. I will sit her down and walk her through this another day, another age.

For a decade and a half I asked myself these questions: are 85 minutes of quiet and wonder worth the confusion a Disney movie offers? Is Disney the evil empire implanting our children with sexist and racist stereotypes that will take years of anti-racist training and a library of feminist books to undo? Should I forbid all things Magic Kingdom? Or will that make Disney the forbidden fruit, thus, more appealing?

I've answered this question differently on different days and I arriving at an answer that is as clear and flexible as the constitution. I came to this conclusion after a struggle.

I have two sets of children. The Bigs, ages seventeen and fourteen, and the Littles, ages three and nearly six. The two batches of kids are growing up with a decade between them. When the Bigs were born, we didn't own cellphones. When the Littles were born, I latched onto my smartphone for every feeding of the nearly two years I nursed both of them.

Parenting is fraught with figuring and reasoning and a fair amount of outright obsessing. I try to stick with the former and talk myself off the ledge when the latter takes hold.

When I was pregnant with my firstborn, I implored my husband to consider our embryo’s future media consumption. Once our baby was on the outside, we’d avoid Disney just as during gestation we avoided alcohol, grocery store birthday cake, and Taco Bell. I explained if we didn’t take precautions, our children would be confused about America's indigenous people. Watching the seemingly benign Peter Pan could lead to disaster. None of our friends were American Indians, so we'd have to provide them with an accurate and complete picture some other way until they could read Sherman Alexie to themselves.

Deep down I am a contrarian. If I am drawn into a conversation about school vacations, I declare a preference of nature over theme parks and unscheduled days over endless camps. If I detect a tone of superiority when I hear an overprotective parent brag about their two hours of screen time a week, I proudly confess we sometimes watch three hours a day. I pretend to be nonchalant, settled. It is my duty to be the devil's advocate.

As new parents at the close of the 1990s, a time before cellphones or Hulu or even a DSL connection at home, Philip and I sought advice from experts in books. We did the purest things we could manage. Good students, we wanted to get an A in parenting. Nearly no refined sugar for any of us and, partly to keep Mickey in his place, no television in the house. We were forced to read and play gin and have friends over for dinner.

Eventually some friends loaned us their spare TV and we bought a VCR. For movies only, we pledged. This was the thin edge of the wedge. Still, watching took effort. It required walk to the store to rent a tape. Soon enough we attached bunny ears to the TV and discovered CSI and Survivor. Still, television was confined to the living room and the hours of the evening when our baby was asleep. He remained untainted by any images on a screen, let alone Disney.

For his second birthday, one of our meddling friends bought our son a video, Winnie the Pooh Sing-a-long. It seemed harmless enough, an imaginary world created in a book in the 1920s. It was a literary classic and the 23-minute video provided us an endless amount of time to get stuff done, like the dishes. Our son said "Pooh-one-more-time" so many times that it became our password for frequent flyer accounts. Thus, Disney wormed its way into our tiny, happy family.

On vacation, two-and-half-year old Sumner watched The Lion King with his godfather. I thought: too scary, too much patriarchy, and too much Nazi imagery. And why is everything about Africa for kids only about animals? Maybe I was overreacting. Perhaps it is it just a movie about lions and sibling jealousy leading to murder? Who can argue with the artistic value of a villain voiced by Alan Rickman? His godfather is Jewish, so maybe I could trust his judgement.

Soon after, my aunt showed him Cinderella on a playdate with his cousin. I figured having a stay-at-home dad and a mom who wore clogs would mitigate the messages woman must clean, marry a man, and have small feet to fit in tiny shoes. It was a magical world with talking animals in important roles, so how much would he extrapolate from the movie to his real world?

Before his third birthday, my mom sat him in front of the parent-approved Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. Later, she found him cowering behind my father's empty recliner, afraid of the Heffalumps and Woozles. She felt like she'd just forced him to watch Scarface and vowed not to frighten him again. I reasoned he would not suffer any long-term damage as facing fear was a good thing.

I played it cool at the Tot Lot, casting my vote with the laid back moms in favor of some TV instead of cheering on the Waldorf-leaning parents' blackouts. But in private, when life with a small child felt out of my control, I looked for a culprit. Were our son’s early morning wake-ups due to a frightening reel of the final scene of The Little Mermaid running in his head? A life of sleep deprivation would be miserable. Sometimes he whined about being bored. Would Disney make his brain lazy so the complexities of Narnia and Middle Earth wouldn't appeal? When he entered preschool, would he force little girls into sparkly dresses and try to save them?

In reality, he seemed pretty well-adjusted, despite his firm footing in the wonderful world of Disney. He was comfortable wearing pink and yellow, he treated little girls just like little boys, and continued to have a flexible imagination. He was a lateral three-year-old thinker: cooking things in his play kitchen for his trains and assigning everyone he knew a Winnie-the-Pooh character or dinosaur species he expected them to personify.

By the time my son was four-and-a-half and his new sister was one-and-a-half, television became less about feeding my over zealous ruminations and more a matter of survival. My husband was a second year medical student and I was in grad school. While the new baby napped, I plugged my son in so I could get some homework done. With no godparents, aunts, or grandmas to encroach on my ideals or help out, I carefully controlled what he watched: "Thomas the Tank Engine" tapes and PBS shows. I drew a new line for aggressive sheltering: no cable. We made a Disney allowance for Mary Poppins, which we picked up for a quarter at the garage sale. I often found him clinging to the ottoman and stepping-in-time with the chimney sweeps. It was kind of magical.

There were high points in Disney's filmology. Features like Wall-E and Enchanted turned Disney conventions on their head. Wall-E's environmental allegory captivated my kids' imaginations and led to many conversations about technology and waste and the mechanized shopping carts at Sam's Club. Enchanted parodied the Disney princesses' dogged sweetness while showing kindness and optimism might prevail in a battle of good and evil. I began to relax. A bit.

When grad school ended and we moved to a house, a cable line lay next our 24 inch television hidden in the second floor playroom. The lifeline was so tempting. Within weeks, we plugged it in and became bootleggers of basic cable.

Previously Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, and Cartoon Network, luxuries left to hotel rooms and grandparents' dens, were pumped right into a room designed for play. Television was limited to an hour and Disney Channel was strictly forbidden, primarily based on my artistic objections. Hannah Montana was not funny and Zoey 101 was beyond stupid. I wouldn't raise children who liked bad comedy.

Fortunately the only thing my son at eight and my daughter at five could agree on was Sponge Bob Square Pants, a creative home run. I barely needed to intervene. We all began to say "imagination" airily like Sponge Bob and Patrick, miming a rainbow over our heads. When the family was glum, I put on my best Sandy voice, "Howdy. Holy Guacamole, Sponge Bob." My angst receded. Cartoons could be edifying. There were bigger fish to fry: keeping up with a 60-hours-a-week job, staying sane during my husband's grueling overnight shifts and sleep-deprived hangovers, and keeping us fed.

Soon enough we had a big screen television (for football games) and paid for cable (for football games). And then like most Americans, we stopped watching television. Or so we told ourselves.

We got serious about streaming. It began by catching up on a few of my favorite shows on Hulu and evolved when our Blockbuster Rental store closed. It felt less like watching television because it is so much more private. No longer did I fulfill my craving for an easy narrative by watching TNT reruns of Law and Order in the middle of the house on a shared T.V. where my husband could judge me and my children might emulate me. Now I could privately dial up the episodes I hadn't seen on my laptop, the place where I worked. I could grade papers and quietly let something play in the background. I watched more television, but it was better television, I told myself.

I lost myself in season after season of quality programming. I loved Don Draper for the vulnerabilities he let soar every so often and watch one episode after another just to see those moments revealed. One Christmas break I assembled my wedding photo album, ten years after the wedding, while watching Bill Hendrickson navigate polygamous life in a way that reflected moments of my own marriage--money was often short and blending individual agendas was tough. I dialed up an episode of Bones when I needed to fold laundry or purge old toys.

The choices I relished with streaming, scared me when it came to my elementary school children. It seemed impossible to set limits for myself let alone them. We made arbitrary rules: no PG-13 until you are 13, door open if you have an electric device in your bedroom, no screens before 8:00 am on the weekends, no "Glee" (Disney for teens) ever, and no television on school nights.

When my son sometimes struggled with books assigned in middle and high school, I knew it was Disney's fault. I hypothesized he hated reading Shabanu because he was expecting Aladdin's Jasmine. He couldn't get through a book about life in Trujillo's Dominican Republic because he had no experience with life's harsh truths. He said it was about slow plots and being forced to do anything. I was convinced he would never be a feminist if he didn't eagerly read books about strong women.

Soon enough, the Bigs were sixteen and thirteen. They wielded smartphones I armed them with and watched whatever, whenever. I hate when they retreat into their caves and lay in bed stuck in the blue light of Youtube or Netflix and their ever present invitation to watch the next video.

This new world order, has some benefits. While we don't rent DVDs on Friday nights, order pizza, and watch movies together, we do show-sharing. This is when one of us watches a show and recommends it to the rest of us. Each of us watch the show at our own pace, checking in with the person a few episodes or seasons behind, delighting in all that is revealed. We've shared Veronica Mars, Parenthood, Lost, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development. Game of Thrones is inventing new story conventions, Veronica kicks so much ass, and everyone loves that I cry when the Parenthood's Bravermans yell at one another. We share the narrative.

In a world that overwhelms--social media, video games reward you for connecting jewels or candies--excellent television, even pretty good stuff, is a refuge, a shared story.

In this new landscape of television consumption, over a decade after we became parents, we pressed the reset button and had two more children. Disney is back in play. We are a million miles away from Pooh-one-more-time.

And, once again, television is survival. Everyday, at least once a day, I must freeze my small children in front of a screen so for a few moments I can catch my breath and hold back the avalanche of housework threatening to suffocate us. Streaming changes how small children watch. These platforms are smart, attuned to my littlest daughters preferences for fairies over squeaky monkeys and magical ponies over shows teaching them to read. These girls have a menu and my three-year-old tries to touch the TV like an iPad, dialing up her own destiny. I try to guide them to certain options (not too scary, not too fluffy, no repetitive sounds or songs) and still allow them choice.

Disney's marketing has shifted with this new way of watching. At our Walgreens, princesses are packaged together, a kind and controlled feminine force, capable of looking flawless, getting what they want, and smiling most of the time. Elsa and Anna are painted on a tiny lunchbox next to Cinderella, Aurora, Tatiana, and Mulan. My girls watch these films, some made in the 1950s and 1960s and some made this decade, as if they are a series, a epic of international royal cousins. The racism in the new packaging too. White princesses in front, princesses of color in the back or to the side. Mulan and Pocahontas can be streamed for free, but you have to pay to see the white princesses movies. I see where value is placed.

My dad showed the girls Peter Pan recently. One of my crunchy friends heard of this and was worried for their little minds. She wanted to know how I'd talk to them about how Tigerlily and her savage tribe were portrayed. I had forgotten about this part of the film. Am I losing my edge or maybe suffering from years of overcaffeination and sleep deprivation? I hope to chalk it up to perspective.

I do not say: you are watching racism. But I do say: I wouldn’t marry someone who was as mean and cruel as the Beast. It is so cool Pocahontas likes nature like you, but colonization didn’t happen like this. At all. And finally, why does Wendy have to take care of everyone?

Zola asks some questions too. She wonders why boys' Pull-ups have superheroes and girls' Pull-ups have pink princesses. She still wants straight hair, but thinks high heels are impractical and uncomfortable.

So, here's what I've settle on for now. We watch Disney. When Zola bragged about her solid knowledge of Hawaiian culture, I blurted out, maybe too intensely, "You can't trust Disney."

And there it was. My response was knee-jerk, immediate. No musing. I had my answer. After a decade and a half of overthinking it, I had arrived at a strategy to the problem: what to do about Disney?

You can watch it, just don't trust it.