Monday, 15 March 2010

Characters as role models

Here's a really interesting post from Manda on whether character (specifically Disney characters) have a moral responsibility to their audience:
In most of the films that you and I grew up with, no matter how powerful women appear to be, they always need a man to rescue them. When you really analyse Disney films, they come across as inherently misogynistic. But are we reading into them too much? How much have they affected our views of the cold, hard Real World? Do we really aspire to be like these cartoon women?
It's a never-ending debate - do storytellers have any responsibility to portray a good, positive moral message?

I'm always inclined to say no - it's not the job of a writer to lie in order to make the audience feel happy. They do what they need to do to tell a good story. Similarly, a writer has no responsibility to show the world as it is - is it wrong of Tarantino to show Hitler dying the way he does in 'Inglourious Basterds'? Some poor little children might fair their GCSE History afterall:

Q How did Hitler die?
A He was shot in the face a million times by a bunch of American bastards while the cinema burnt down cos of that woman who decided to kill everyone because she's a Jew and her parents were killed in the first scene!

However, when it comes to children's stories, I find it hard come down on the side of "anything goes." Because the truth is - children are impressionable; what they see, hear, learn at age 6 influences their entire lives.

But what goes? What should / should not a child be exposed to? I'm sure there's not one among you who didn't watch a certificate 18 movie before the age of 18. I watched The Terminator when I was 7 and it scared me shitless! Does that mean my parents are bad parents? I'd say no - (a) they had no clue I was watching it and (b) I turned out ok (ain't hindsight a wonderful thing?!) But there are some people out there who would condemn a parent who let their child be exposed to such graphic violence and strong language.
Probably the one thing in these movies that does cause us to be disaffected as we grow older is the realisation that not everyone gets a fairy tale ending. But I don't think that's necessarily Disney's fault; their job is to entertain (and make a profit while doing so)- no child is going to watch a movie where the Prince and Princess go through a messy divorce and argue over who gets to keep the condo in Clearwater, Florida. Unfortunately, while most of us dream of meeting our Prince Charming (our own ideal- the Disney version is always impossibly bland), we know we're not going to get swept off our feet.
Ah fairy tales - now we're entering fun territory! There is this belief that a fairy tale has a happy ending and that it's meant for children. Would you let your child be exposed to fairy tales? You may say no, but most will say yes. Now answer this - would you let your child be exposed to the original fairy tales?

See? Not many people really know what the original fairy tales were like. But you know one thing - they're not going to be the same as the ones we know! First of all, these stories were written in a time of different moral values, class positions and gender expectations. Second, there was no censorship, as they were often told verbally until someone decided to write them down; there are many versions of the same story, varying in content.

Let's take 'Beauty and the Beast' - the Disney version sees a grumpy monster who develops a heart and falls in love with a beautiful woman. He then transforms into a handsome prince and they live happily ever after. In the old version I read, the beast was a little more.....blunt. Every night he asked the beautiful woman if she would sleep with him (we're talking sex here, not cuddles). Every night she told him no (cos he's a beast and whatnot). She soon grew to not only tolerate the beast, but also love him. One night, in the darkness, a man comes into her room and - with no idea who this man is - the woman has sex with him. Only later does she realise it is in fact the beast himself.

Hmm....would you tell your young child that story? Maybe, but you'll probably remove that sex material. What you'll be left with is the Disney version.

Now look at 'Sleeping Beauty' - after pricking her finger on the needle(?) the princess falls asleep. But along comes a handsome prince...........who proceeds to rape the unconscious princess, leaving her pregnant.

Ok........would you tell that story to your ever-so-impressionable child? I bloody doubt it! But why not?
Characters are a way to tell a story- a story that is predominantly meant to entertain. Are they a reflection of society? Not necessarily. Is there a need for females in fiction to be more aspirational? I don't think so. If we are looking for role models, we should be looking in our real lives. However, it's always nice to read about or watch a realistic character you can relate to. This is why I think a book like Pride and Prejudice is loved not only because Elizabeth lands Darcy (the super pretty powerful rich dude from Derbyshire) but also because Elizabeth herself is an awesome figure in literature. She's not the prettiest girl in school (Oh no, Bella Swan disease!) but she's clever, assertive and witty. More importantly, she makes mistakes. She feels vulnerable sometimes.
So what do you think? Should we stop looking to fiction for role models? Should we look to the outside world? What about children? What moral code should children's literature conform to? Afterall, Shrek successfully bitch-slapped the hell out of Disney and it's still popular with the youngsters. But again, the guy saves the girl. Do things need to change? Can you change them?