Today's kids yearn for movie heroes who ditch the parents and fly solo, as in 'Brave'. Let's take a hint.
Merida of Pixar's 'Brave,' the latest in young quiver-wielding heroines.
It's a little like clockwork. Every few months or so, someone comes out with a new book or article about the decline and fall of the next generation. The gist of it generally goes like this: "Kids these days, they don't know how to work, they're lazy, they're sassy, addicted to screens of all shapes and sizes, they're just generally all round no good!"
The most recent addition to this trend is a New Yorker article from the excellent Elizabeth Kolbert called "Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost?" The piece is currently occupying the top spot on the most-read list on The New Yorker, and frankly I am not surprised by this fact. It is a fine essay, but more importantly, it taps immediately into our most fundamental feelings about our children: a) that we love them; and b) that we're failing them.
Writes Kolbert, "With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world. It's not just that they've been given unprecedented amounts of stuff -- clothes, toys, cameras, skis, computers, televisions, cell phones, PlayStations, iPods... In many middle-class families, children have one, two, sometimes three adults at their beck and call. This is a social experiment on a grand scale, and a growing number of adults fear that it isn't working out so well: according to one poll, commissioned by Time and CNN, two-thirds of American parents think that their children are spoiled."
The point that Kolbert comes to is that a large share of the blame can be laid at the feet of parents, but that it's not nearly that simple. We're all products of our society, children and adults alike, and I use the term "products" advisedly since this is what a great deal of modern life is about. It is most explicitly what kids movies are about. Even the kids know it: they troop off to see the latest offerings, be it Madagascar 3 or the latest Spiderman reboot with a dead look in their eye, knowing already that there is nothing there. The lack of any genuine feeling isn't surprising. What is, is that we still expect it to be. Occasionally though, something curious rustles about in the bushes. When this happens, it behooves you to part the undergrowth and take a closer look.
Parents just don't understand
The most recent Pixar film Brave does not deviate much from lockstep formation of most other kids films, concerning as it does the conflict between parents and children. It's an old fight, one that's in almost every fairytale every written and then adapted to the screen by a committee of film executives. So it is with Brave, where the well worn plot concerns the Princess Merida, groomed and trained by her mother Queen Elinor to be a lady. Aside from a faint whiff of feminist empowerment (Brave was the first Pixar film to be directed by a woman, Brenda Chapman, although she ended up having to share the directing credit with Mark Andrews), the film doesn't have much to offer that is new. Merida wants her freedom and independence, and her mother wants the mantle of adult responsibility upheld. The battle lines are drawn or in this case computer animated, and away we go. The story unfolds as expected, the eventual order of things is established, happily ever after etc. But watching it I noticed something.
The very first thing that is critical in films aimed at kids is the need to rid oneself of those ponderous bleating accoutrements called parents. Oh to be free of such drapery! In Brave, Merida shucks off her mother and heads for the hills atop a giant Clydesdale named Angus. This is where the film genuinely comes to life, lush, dappled, gorgeous life. Deep in the forest Merida is free to do as she pleases, whether that means shooting arrows, climbing cliffs or drinking from the cold clear foam of an alpine waterfall. Watching this I was reminded of the one film that seemed to most excite the small set lately, namely The Hunger Games, where the idea of being alone in the woods, relying on your native instincts, armed to the teeth, free to hunt and kill with impunity sets off fireworks in young minds. So too Wes Anderson's latest outing Moonrise Kingdom comes to life when the kids take to the woods, running for their lives from the grey dreariness of adult responsibility. I cannot help but think that a phenomenon like The Hunger Games is a response from some synapses deep in the human brain that recall the pleasures derived from messing about in the woods, unfettered and free. Not only free but self-reliant, depending only upon one's skill and intelligence for survival.
Let them loose
This is a point that Kolbert also makes in her New Yorker piece, that much of modern childhood's dissatisfaction comes from the fact that life is a little too easy, there is too much stuff, too many distractions, that the real meat of survival has been so far removed, that we miss it and mourn it in some deep corner of our mammalian brains. Whether depression or anxiety or bullying behaviours are the result of this is unclear, but certainly there is something big and fundamental missing. That big missing piece is summed up beautifully by author and scientist E.O. Wilson, the granddaddy of biophilia, who states in an interview with NOVA: "Soccer moms are the enemy of natural history and the full development of a child."
Love that man...
In her article, Kolbert draws comparisons to different modes of parenting, specifically those of Amazon tribe the Matisgenkam to modern day Los Angeles. In Matisgenkam society, children's self-sufficiency is not only praised but more importantly practiced. Ms. Kolbert writes: "by the time they reach puberty Matsigenka kids have mastered most of the skills necessary for survival. Their competence encourages autonomy, which fosters further competence -- a virtuous cycle that continues to adulthood. The cycle in American households seems mostly to run in the opposite direction. So little is expected of kids that even adolescents may not know how to operate the many labour-saving devices their homes are filled with. Their incompetence begets exasperation, which results in still less being asked of them (which leaves them more time for video games)."
Wilson also has much to say about what modern life has done to humanity (he's written one hell of a book about it called The Social Conquest of Earth), but one point that particularly jumps out and bites you on the bum in the NOVA interview is this: "Psychologists and psychiatrists themselves seem in agreement on the benefits of what's called 'the wilderness experience.'
"To be able to [give this to] young people who may have gotten themselves all tangled up with their concerns about ego and peer relationships and their future and are falling into that frame of mind and becoming very depressed because they have such a narrow conception of the world. The wilderness experience is being able to get into a world that's just filled with life, that's fascinating to watch in every aspect, and that does not depend on you. It tells them that there's so much more to the world... The dire comparison I make is between children brought up in a totally humanized, artificial environment, urban or suburban, and cattle brought up in a feedlot. When you see cattle in a feedlot, they seem perfectly content, but they're not cattle."
Feedlot bovines is an interesting comparison to draw between contemporary kids and the culture they inhabit, but it rings true, like a piece of lead pipe against a gong sending wavy lines of recognition that reverberate in your brain. In removing the struggle to survive, the domestication of kids has resulted in a generation of lambs to the slaughter, stultified, bored out of their tiny minds and prone to bad behaviour. We're a little afraid of our precious darlings who have been raised on a diet of cultural meanness, from Jackass to Family Guy. The reason that a grandmother from Long Island is now some $700,000 dollars richer is perhaps partly because of this very idea. But before you launch into a stirring rendition of "Gee, Officer Kruptke," let's pause for a second. Are kids these days really that much different from kids in those days?
Maybe they are, but if their fascination with escape is any indication they're not that far removed from kids of yore. The winnowing down of experience to a screen, be it movie or computer or iPhone has left a big old hole in our heads where bigger things used to live. It is little wonder that hollowness echoes through this particular cultural moment. As Wilson points out in The Social Conquest of Earth, "We are an evolutionary chimera, living on intelligence steered by the demands of animal instinct." In other far less elegant words, we built our Space Age society overtop of a Stone Age brain, but in the deepest recesses of our human selves the need to go home endures. It is interesting that even when penned up and corralled so effectively, some inner wild instinct, coiled deep inside our genetic code, unfurls itself and calls for freedom. Let the children lead the way.