Even though the inane commentary about the latest trends, video games or whatever teen idol is enchanting your child may suggest otherwise, kids are actually not as dumb as you think they are.
They are surprisingly perceptive and they know a lot more than they will let on. We have the best intentions at heart when we try to shield them from the harshness that tries to poison the sugarcoated wonderland that we try to tell them that life is all the time, but all that shielding is only going to lead to culture shock that could spell out some dire consequences if not handled correctly.
And there's no place that does this more ridiculously than the avenue of children's television and entertainment. While there are some exceptions to the rule, most of the time it tends to be either over-thought or sugarcoated to the point that you find out years later what happened and are flat out horrified. Punches are pulled far too often and it's kind of sad to see. TV is a great tool for teaching, but all I see is the same old crap over and over again. Well, for the most part.
Oddly enough, it’s an exception to the punch pulling that got me thinking about this. It was the season finale of The Legend of Korra, the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which takes place 70 years later in a 1920s steampunk setting.
In it, Korra is The Avatar, who is pretty much a god-like character blessed with the power to bend all four of the elements of nature (earth, fire, air, water), and she is the one destined to unite the world and restore balance. In the previous series it was Aang, but now it's Korra's turn.
Anyway, that's just the briefest of explanations because if I went into detail about the show it would take the entire article. I recommend that and Avatar to anybody regardless of age. They're both fabulously deep full of fantastic characters and great storytelling.
The main plot in Korra is that a non-bender uprising known as The Equalists are banding together to try to stop the benders (the ones who can control the elements) from their unfair advantage in life since they were kind of in control of everything. The main villain is a guy named Amon who has a power to remove the bending from benders (I won't spoil exactly how he has this power) and he leads the Equalists uprising over the city. And Korra is a Water Tribe girl who finds herself in the middle of the entire thing, trying to learn airbending (the only element she didn't know) and trying to keep the peace. Needless to say, things get real in pretty much every episode.
To say that this series is dark is an understatement. There's been allusions to a ton of heavy things from terrorist attacks, public executions, Communism, classism, McCarthyism, and the capper is what inspired me to write this article. The thing about the show is that nobody is really in the right or in the wrong. Both sides have legitimate points and it really opens a lot of questioning not only from the people in the show, but also
This capper is between the main villain Amon (who has been unmasked and exposed) and his younger brother Tarrlok (who was a bit of an antagonist in a few episodes) escaping the city. They're on this boat and finally reunited. Amon was lamenting on a fresh start with his brother, who just sort of sits there stoically. Tarrlok eyes the electrical weapons Amon had in the boat and grabs one of the gloves and puts it on. He unscrews the gas cap and puts his hand down on it, in a moment that evoked imagery of Of Mice and Men.
"It'll be just like old times" he says calmly
The next thing we see is a wide shot of a mushroom cloud out in the ocean. There was no bones about it -- this was a murder/suicide that was shown on the show. Keep in mind that this is between 11am-12pm and on Nickelodeon. And somehow, the network still let it air. I have to say that I'm actually very impressed at the guts that must've taken and I think that more shows shouldn't be afraid to take risks like that.
Keep in mind that when I say this, I mean it in the context of storytelling. I'm not asking for every show to become darker and grittier or for shows to just suddenly start becoming super scary. We need those lighthearted goofy shows sometimes. However, if it's in the name of the story, then I don't think that things should be sugarcoated as much. Well, within reason of course. I'm pretty sure the type of stuff you see on Law and Order: SVU isn't a very good idea to show.
I'm more talking about things that should be talked about that are kind of heavy -- war, social issues, and even death. It may not be easy to talk about and there will be a cornucopia of questions that will come your way from the kids who aren't sure what they just saw and want to make sense of it, but it shouldn't be avoided. It should be discussed and it should be explained. And even if you can't explain it, that's alright. Sometimes kids need to know that things aren't as black and white as they appear to be and that we don't have the correct answers.
Some of the best shows that were intended for children weren't afraid to take these heavy topics head on. In Sesame Street, we all remember hearing about Mr. Hooper and his death. While a lesser show may treat it like he just moved away -- they tackled it and didn't sugarcoat anything. You saw the adults cry, you saw the sadness with everybody, but you learned something. You learned about how some people (and Muppets) deal with these tragedies. And they were smart about it too -- they played the episode around Thanksgiving so that there could be a dialogue opened between parents and children. I remember Mister Rogers Neighborhood (though this was before I was born) dedicated a week of what happens when a lack of information could turn into war, a reaction storyline from the showing of the TV movie The Day After. Now THAT is some gutsy childrens TV to say the least. I also remember seeing an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures that basically had the members of teh show drinking a beer(only one) and getting into drunken shenanigans. No, really I think it's on Youtube somewhere. It was only shown once, however, but it was pretty cool that it was not only made but also shown. The lesson was that drugs and alcohol are bad for kids and they did it the best way they knew how.
This is something I immensely respect the hell out of the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra for. The two of them (RISD alumni Bryan Konietzko and Micheal DiMartino) aren't afraid of not only tackling these things, but displaying the several upon several shades of gray that surround the situations. Other than probably Fire Lord Ozai in Avatar, the antagonists were either not really that evil or they were very sympathetic. Like Azula, the daughter of Ozai was very cold and calculating, but beneath all of that bravado was a scared and insecure little girl. In fact, you can't help but feel sorry for her during the finale as she goes through a mental breakdown which stemmed from an earlier episode when her two best friends betrayed her. They show that each side has their reasonings and that there's a very humanistic element to war and that it's merely more than just two sides hating each other. It's kind of refreshing to see that.
They also, well with one exception, weren't afraid to show death or talk about death on the show. In the first season finale of Avatar, you see the love interest of one of the characters give up her own life in order to become the new moon spirit (it makes sense in context). And in the following season, you then hear the heartbreaking story of the wise old man Iroh and how he went from being a general of the Fire Nation (the enemy) to the way he is in the show mostly stemming from losing his only child during the war. The only exception being one character who was killed in battled during the second season, but it wasn't made that clear in the show (it was later confirmed by the creators that the character did die). They dealt with death with a certain dignity about it -- it wasn't just a throwaway line, it was a truly terrible and sad experience and you feel for the people involved. I'll admit I cried a couple times during the show. Then again, I cry at a lot of ridiculous things (you even mention the song "Baby Mine" around me and my eyes just suddenly start raining for no reason).
I could go on for centuries about these two fantastic shows, but I want to keep it down and get back to what I was trying to make a point about -- not pulling punches on heavy stuff with kid's shows. If you feel like you want to talk about it and you know that you can do it with the right amount of sensitivity, respect, and honesty then I see no reason why you can't do something with it. However, only if it pertains to the plot.
I know that sometimes it seems like kids can't handle anything. There's a lot of times when they can act like such insolent brats...as someone who deals with customers at Subway that range from respectful and awesome to insanely bratting and whiny, I know. Despite that, kids aren't really that dumb. They can handle it and parents should realize that. Just be sure to keep an open dialogue and lighten up a little.
Then again, that murder/suicide scene on Legend of Korra really didn't get many people up in arms about scarring children for life, so perhaps people are actually listening after all.