Sunday, April 24, 2016

Thinking of the Children

A few months ago, before Alex Hirsch made an important announcement, I caught a video of people reacting to an altered opening of Gravity Falls, a fantastic animated show on Disney that is worth more than several blog posts. People these days on YouTube sometimes post their to watching episodes blind, so that they can provide entertainment and connection with the viewers. It gives me an incentive to work out and do yoga while watching, at the least.

In this case, the reactions varied because the opening featured an antagonist distorting the traditional opening credits and theme song. Three kids reacted; so did about eight adults. While the adults' reactions varied from open-mouthed gaping to wide grins, the two kids at the end laughed at seeing what the antagonist had done.

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"Where did these kids get their courage?" I wondered. "How come they're enjoying themselves when this is terrifying the older viewers?"

As a kid, everything scared me. I watched a lot of PBS since we didn't have cable, and mainly I preferred the cutesy or hilarious stuff on YouTube. My favorite shows included The Magic Schoolbus, Sailor Moon (the watered down dub that had synthesizer music), Arthur, The Jewel Riders, Batman: The Animated Series and Superman confused me, while Johnny Quest seemed too dark. A few late night commercials that featured people drowning gave me a fear of going on boats for a long time. Thus I wasn't a kid who would laugh at a hostile show takeover.

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and a dark version of “The Three Little Pigs” were probably the only books I read that I laughed at while other people found terrifying, in part because the characters in both stories seemed to not realize they were in a morbid fairy tale. In fairy tales, characters receive rules like to stay on the path, be kind to strangers and offer your food, and use your brains to outwit evil. Within Willy Wonka’s factory, the children ignore direct instructions to not drink from a chocolate river or chew untested gum or attempt to snatch a squirrel, and the results are morbidly hilarious. Quick recap: the book, films and theater adaptations feature five kids and their parents going into a factory with sweets that defy traditional convention but also are made quite dangerously, and four of the kids end up suffering terrible fates because they try to mess with the factory's mechanisms.

As for the "Three Little Pigs," the version that we read in preschool involved the three pigs surviving and boiling the wolf for stew. The picture book illustration featured the pigs setting the dinner table, and preparing to dine on wolf meat and bread. It felt hilarious, and other versions didn't quite meet the same amount of karma with either the wolf simply getting boiled alive and two of the pigs eaten,

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Fear is a conditioned response, that children learn from their environments. People may develop arachnophobia, for example, by witnessing their parents reacting to spiders with fear as the Eyewitness documentaries mention, or being trapped in the car with one as a child. Television taught me to fear drowning. The older we get, the stronger or weaker these fears become, depending on our experiences; learning to drive, for example, got rid of most of that fear of drowning, though watching Titanic still makes me anxious. I also become more scared when characters I like get hurt, because my empathy for them has increased with time.

Does this mean that kids who aren't scared of Gravity Falls do not perceive the same fears that adults do when watching the same material? It's possible, but it may also be possible that children can see a story as just a story, while adults know that people can and will get hurt in real life and see their fears reflected in an animated medium. An antagonist taking over the introductory credits implies that he can enter our world and change our reality, which can be nightmarish and a mind-screw. Having that in a "kid's show" adds to the fear, because it slips past the censors.

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In either case, I believe that we should nurture courage in children, because learning to be afraid of irrational things is just as bad as being afraid of reasonable dangers. It's better to laugh at the things than cannot happen, than to recall the things that can.

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