For the past six years my TV has been constantly tuned into Nick Jr., Disney Jr., Sprout and Netflix on the Kids setting. I know some people try to limit their children’s exposure to television, but I’m guessing those people don’t work at home trying to write while a tiny hand tugs at your shirt every five minutes asking if one of her elbows looks bigger than the other. Sometimes plopping her on a pew in the Church of the Divine Cartoon Animal Singing About Math and Friendship is the only way the rent gets paid, OK?
I’ve noticed something about children’s programming that’s very different from what I grew up with in the ‘80s. Back then you had your good guys and your bad guys. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fought Shredder, the Autobots beat the Decepticons, G.I. Joe shot at Cobra, and the Valorians Dino-rode the Rulon’s asses. There was good. There was evil. The former vanquished the latter and all was right with the world.
When it comes to the fare my five-year-old daughter enjoys this is no longer the case. The first time I realized it was watching the Bubble Guppies episode “Fishketball”. If you haven’t seen Bubble Guppies it’s about a mermaid daycare run by a giant grouper who teaches kids about the post office, grocery stores, colors and stuff like that.
“Fishketball” was about different sports and teaching Nonny, the nerdy, red-headed, deadpan merboy, how to catch a ball with some additional commentary on why sharing is good. The episode culminates with a giant sports event where the Bubble Guppies play a game that involves throwing a ball through a circle of fish (points to the band nerds who get that joke).
Here’s the thing, though; there’s no opponents. The Bubble Guppies don’t actually play against another team. The goal isn’t to get the ball through the circles more times than someone else a la Space Jam, just to get it through there at all.
It’s the same in another episode, “The Crayon Prix”. That one has a racing competition, but again the goal is for everyone to cross the finish line. There are no losers. In fact, when one of the Guppies has an accident another racer teams up to help complete the course. No one wins, true but then again no one ever has last place.
I can’t really describe how much this annoyed me at first. How are kids supposed to learn how to deal with failure if they never see anyone devastated by their inability to triumph? They’re going to be soft. Soft I tell you, unlike my generation who understood that sometimes you’re a loser.
It’s an attitude you can see in a thousand memes, parents waxing nostalgic for the days when kids weren’t so protected and nobody ever stopped to worry about their feelings and they certainly could learn how to take a beating from neighborhood oafs and… wow, when you put it that way childhood sounds kind of terrible, doesn’t it? It sounds a lot like we’re all just trying to put a positive spin on the fact that we expect kids to deal with bullies with force instead of stopping the bullies ourselves, not to mention relentlessly pushing them to overcome the competition and emerge the sole victor.
“But they need that! That’s preparing them for life!” No, it’s really not.
In fact, for all that the old luchador in my bristles at the lack of a three-count on the mat I have to admit that the modern way cartoons address conflict is much more realistic than the metaphors of ninjas and cyberized dinosaurs. We’ve all had that asshole coworker or manager that tried to make themselves look more attractive for promotion by trashing or sabotaging the other employees. To say nothing of the greedy-guts and grabby-handed folks at the top who have systematically snatched most of the income derived from business out of the hands of their workers. That’s the sort of attitude you have when you assume that every situation must have a winner and a loser.
But there isn’t a winner or a loser. When I turn in a large assignment here at the Houston Press it goes to the editor, who looks it over. A 5,000-word longform cover feature is never going to be perfect on the first try, but she doesn’t throw it back at me and tell me I’ve failed. She tells me how it can be better, or at least more what she wants. I keep working with her on it until it’s right. I’m betting that is how most people with jobs actually function; cooperatively towards a common goal. Losers are for wheelie chair races and Rockets bets. Real winners work together and don’t cheat.
Even something like Dora the Explorer gets the point across. It always irked me that Swiper the Fox would sneak thief things and then the next thing you know he’s forgiven and invited to a birthday party instead of going to jail. Think about it though. If locking people up solved anything America would be pretty solved. We lock up more people than any other free nation in the world, and yet those people do eventually get out. We have to do something with them, just like Dora has to deal with Swiper again and again. The best she seems to do is to positively encourage him whenever he tries to be better, even to the point of going on quests to get him off of Santa’s naughty list.
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It may be easier and more satisfying to just yell “Swiper no Swiping” and get the fox out of our hair, but applied to the real world reaching out to them and trying to give them a few better chances is the safer bet.
Modern kid shows are really starting to make me sit down and wonder what kind of dirty Slytherin I really am and how much a lot of the pop culture I grew up with reinforced that attitude. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve coldly beaten my daughter at checkers or tic tac toe under the delusion that I needed to “teach her how to lose”. That’s the wrong lesson. I should teach her that games are just games, instead, and not to confuse a game with a real-world problem.
The game we play the most these days is called Race to the Treasure. It’s really quite brilliant. Instead of playing against each other you play cooperative turns trying to find a path through a forest before an ogre steals a treasure. She plays a path tile, then I play a path tile. You’re pitted against the game itself, the system, not each other. We win or we lose, together, like the Bubble Guppies.
More games should be like that.