Innocence, Corruption and the Screening of Childhood
- Wednesday, August 17, 2005
In his book, "The Disappearance of Childhood," cultural critic Neil Postman notes that since the 1950s the line separating children and adults has blurred, often to the point of being indiscernible. Children are now depicted not as kids, but as mini-adults. Postman places much of the blame on mass media, primarily television, for providing cross-generational access to what had previously been considered "adult secrets" – about social problems, sexuality, crime, etc. How the media depict children can tell viewers a lot about societal attitudes toward children – movies, for example, can both move and mirror culture.
There have been a number of films with children in starring roles this year, but I find it noteworthy that the only ones who have a childhood distinctly different from adults occur in movies set in quirky rural locales or fantasy landscapes. Some films have children becoming mini-adults as a result of circumstances beyond their control, but what is most disturbing are the films in which the disappearance of childhood is communicated through the vulgarization and sexualizing of children in common modern suburban settings.
Children of the Heartland, Children of the Poor
One of the most genuine, childlike portrayals in this year's crop of films is AnnaSophia Robb's character, Opal, in "Because of Winn-Dixie." Opal has a sense of wonder and innocence. The film does not completely candy-coat her life. Her father, the local pastor, has problems relating to his daughter while caring for his flock. She was abandoned by her mother at an early age. Opal and her dog do manage to create community in their Florida town, but Opal gets even more than she gives. Lessons in wisdom and maturity comes to her from adults – from her father, from a local librarian, Miss Franny, Gloria, a recluse, and Otis, the caretaker of a local pet shop. Opal is not the know-it-all, cynical kid; she is a real child.
Another example is Freddy Highmore as Charlie in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Charlie has needs – most of which are quite basic – and he has to rely on adults to help him. His family is pitiably poor, but he finds comfort and wisdom from both his parents, and the extended family. Both sets of ancient grandparents live with, and love, little Charlie.
What is intriguing about these two examples is that neither of them is set in what most would consider the "modern world." "Winn-Dixie"'s locale is a rural Florida town populated by what have become stereotypically quirky (though lovable) residents. Charlie lives in abject, but fantastic, poverty. His home, shot at odd angles, communicates the unreality of it all. Conversely, all of the other children represented in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" are parent-controlling aggressors who seem right at home on most modern public school playgrounds. Their mothers and fathers seem confused or lost – there is little doubt who is pulling the strings in these families, and it looks eerily familiar.
Postman argues that cultures create mini-adults when children gain early access to mature secrets. Historically, some children have been forced to grow up early as a result of circumstance or tragedy. In "Saint Ralph" (which opened in limited release on August 5 and is rated PG-13 for language, sexuality, and brief backside nudity), Ralph Walker, a smoking, drinking, un-athletic 9th-grade Catholic schoolboy in Canada knows that only a miracle will pull his ailing mother out of a coma. He believes that God has spoken to him, and that the miracle requires that he win the 1954 Boston Marathon.
Before his mother lapses into the coma, Ralph is a troublemaker in school – acting out in despair. With his father dead and his mother hospitalized, we discover that Ralph supports himself by selling off household furniture to the local pawnbroker. Like many 14-year-olds he is obsessed by girls and "impure thoughts." It is only when his mother's condition worsens that he recognizes the need to grow up, and discovers that it is not nearly as easy as he thought. Miracles, he is told, require purity, prayer, and faith. While he has confidence that he can win the marathon, Ralph knows that his thoughts are anything but pure, and he has a difficult time praying. Ralph wrestles toward adulthood through keenly adolescent struggles. His mentor, Father Hibbert, teaches Ralph the meaning of Christian purity (that repentance and forgiveness are the keys), and that prayer comes when needed. Without robbing Ralph of his vision, Hibbert introduces him to the adult reality of doing your part.
Films like "Saint Ralph" don't show the disappearance of childhood that Postman laments. They simply record a historical fact: When parents are absent, children are forced to mature. What "Saint Ralph" wisely chose to do was insert an adult mentor – demonstrating that a bunch of kids together could not come up with the right answers in life. A mature perspective is required.
Against the pure childhood of Opal, the struggling childhood of Charlie, and the abbreviated childhood of Ralph, stands "Bad News Bears" (2005, rated PG-13 for rude behavior, language throughout, and some sexuality). I once read an interview with Pauline Kael, the longtime film critic for the New Yorker, who wondered aloud whether all of the stage parents of little girls who did not get the role of Regan in "The Exorcist" were wistful: "When they see 'The Exorcist' and watch Linda Blair urinating on the fancy carpet and screaming ... are they envious? Do they feel, "That might have been my little Susie – famous forever'?" I had the same reaction to the children who played the team in "Bad News Bears" – a remake of the 1976 film about a degenerate Little-League coach who brings together a team of misfits. I wonder if the parents of the children who did not get these roles are sad that it is not their children, larger than life, up on the big screen, uttering obscenities, making vulgar gestures, and listening to a middle-aged man use sexual metaphors.
In this version, Coach Buttermaker has one of his Little Leaguers mix him a martini, and at the end of a game hands out non-alcoholic beer. He tells the kids he is taking them to batting cages, when instead he has them perform his job while he "supervises" and has a beer. At batting practice he beans all of his players while he drinks himself into unconsciousness. This is all supposed to be funny – but there is more.
Language. As Postman notes, in protecting childhood "There even developed language secrets – that is, a store of words not to be spoken in the presence of children." No such limitation exists in "Bad News Bears." Not only does Coach Buttermaker feel free to use all manner of vulgarities around the children, he willingly accepts as normal their using profanity toward him – and they do it with stunning regularity. The only thing that separates the coach from the kids is his brief tenure in the major leagues. Beyond that, he treats them as little adults, and (if such adolescent behavior is what is identified as "adult language" these days) they act like it.
Sexuality. In addition to keeping no language secrets, Coach Buttermaker does not see any need to hide adult sexuality from the children. He engages a strip club to sponsor the team, so each child wears the name of the sponsor – along with the graphic design logo -- on the back of his or her jersey. Workers from the strip club come to the games and cheer on the kids. At the games, Buttermaker uses sexually-laced metaphors. After-game debriefings are held at Hooters – a restaurant known primarily for its scantily-clad waitresses, who gather to dance around with the kids so that they can all sing a rousing chorus of Eric Clapton's hit song, "Cocaine." Buttermaker approaches his fast-pitching 12-year-old estranged step-daughter, Amanda, to coax her onto his baseball team – and she announces that all she is interested in is "nice hips and C-cups." When she freely speaks of male private parts, she tells Buttermaker, "I have the Internet; I'm not stupid." He is even willing to use his daughter as bait to try to lure a male player to the team.
The Conviction of Innocence
Postman argues that the hallmark of childhood is innocence, which is endangered by too-early corruption by uncontrolled exposure to adult information. A distinction needs to be drawn between information that is untimely – good information that will be presented later as the circumstances warrant – and behaviors that are sinful. Innocence and corruption are not opposites, they are conditions. The innocence of children shames and convicts us – and that is why some want their corruption as soon as possible.
When people watch films about children they are being subtly shaped to accept certain behaviors between adults and kids. As rhetorical critic Rod Hart notes, people are most easily persuaded when they are having a good time. Movies designed to get audiences to laugh at vulgar coaches and profane children should bother us. They represent an attack on innocence. Even if we find a ring of truth in the depiction – we all know vulgar adults and profane kids – our response should be sadness rather than laughter.
Conversely, when films depict childhood as a time to be nourished and protected, we can applaud the effort even if our own childhoods fell short of that mark. At the very least such films can inspire people to be better parents, or grandparents, to their own children. Why should the lowest conceivable denominator be the standard we embrace? Give me a hundred "Winn-Dixies" any day, and spare me the "Bears."
Marc T. Newman, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president of MovieMinistry.com – an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.
© 2005 AgapePress. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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