Charlie Brown is watching football on television. During one of the honey shots, he spots a young girl and is instantly smitten. He enlists the help of his friend Linus in finding this young girl and meeting her. They trek across the neighborhood, the city, and even out into the country until they finally find her. Because Charlie Brown is too lily-livered to speak to her himself, he sends Linus to approach her instead. His cowardice winds up back-firing on him, and the young girl falls for Linus instead. It's a charming story, but there is one question that might pop up for some more concerned viewers: "Where are these kids' parents?"
No responsible parent in their right mind would allow two small boys to trek across the city and out into the country entirely by themselves knocking on the doors of complete strangers to find some random girl that they happened to see on television. This seems to be the norm for the world of Charles Schulz's Peanuts. In all of his stories, adults are either thoroughly marginalized or completely absent. Even when they do appear, they're not exactly shown in the most ideal light. While the children are respectful to them, the writers certainly are not. In the animated specials, with maybe one or two exceptions, the adults are never seen onscreen, and they are not even treated with enough dignity to be allowed to speak in human tongue. In the comic strips, they might as well not even exist at all.
Schulz was once approached by an interviewer about why adults were so removed from his stories, which was unusual for cartoonists of his day. His answer was simple, stark, and unwavering, almost like he was reciting an axiom: "Adults just aren't funny." He was making it clear that his main objective in writing these stories was to obey the laws of comedic drama, not the laws of practical safety. For Schulz, removing the role of the parent from his stories was not a moral or idealistic decision, but a creative one. From his artistic assessment, the involvement of parental supervision in his child-centered adventures either (a) added nothing to the story, (b) detracted from the story, or (c) both. If parental responsibility had been ideally applied to the above-mentioned narrative (Someday You'll find her, Charlie Brown), the story would have been completely obliterated.
This axiomatic statement of Schulz seemed to carry on to many other cartoonists and still casts its long shadow on youth-centered storytellers today, including the directors of highly rated animated and live action sitcoms found on the Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and the Disney Channel. The main difference is that now, while the adult characters are more involved, they are typically far too impaired to be anything reliable as a supervising authority figure. While I'm not certain of this, there is a very possible explanation as to how this depiction trend came about.
Schulz's belief of not only how un-humorous but how damaging to humor adult characters generally are obviously carried on to many more subsequent directors, and child characters were kept at the center stage without the adult supervisors being given any significant mention. Soon, however, some folks began to be bothered by the huge gap in the narrative that was left by seeing only children at large in the stories. It cried out for an explanation. But what can one do with the problem addressed by Schulz? Adults aren't funny. Children are funny. So how can we include adults and have them add to the humor? The answer they seemed to draw was probably the most logical one that could have been offered: have them act like children.
It's no secret now that the typical depiction of parents and adults in child-oriented comedies and dramas such as ICarly, Victorious, The Fairly Oddparents, The Amazing World of Gumball, Ant Farm, and Shake it Up! are dominated by ignorance, incompetence, absence, or any combination of the three. Because of this, many parents have complained that such programming teaches children that all adults and authority figures are incompetent or foolish and are undeserving of heed or respect. While I do think the concern to be valid, I think the contention is inaccurate and the response unhelpful. To say that such programming "teaches" such ideas is to say that the programming at the very least makes deliberate truth claims from which it rationally follows that such thoughts are true. But, of course, this cannot be said of works of creative storytelling such as these programs.
In his book "Amusing Ourselves to Death", the late media ethicist and expert Neil Postman informs us that in dramatic scenes, no claims are made aside from whatever the viewer either projects onto them or infers from them. A creative story is not a lecture. Delivering a fictional narrative and teaching a lesson are two very different practices, and it is not at all uncommon to do one without doing the other. Fictional stories, by their very nature, are disengaged from reality and thus not only do not, but cannot make any claims about the real state of affairs at all. They lack the contextual framework to make such statements. To say that these programs "teach" viewers that all adults are practically impaired is akin to claiming that characters like Batman and Spiderman teach readers that it's alright to repeatedly break the law so long as you deem it necessary and dress up nice (which many parents and groups have actually claimed). One can like or dislike drama, but they cannot refute it. This is not because the claims that drama makes are so irrefutably strong, but rather because it makes no claims to be refuted.
This is not to say that these less-than-ideal depictions of parents and adults are of no moral consequence or concern at all, but it is to say that such depictions are not inherently or necessarily morally unsound. It is also noteworthy that the directors and producers of these programs are not at all ignorant of these trends. I find that many concerned parents in the viewer base constantly fail to realize or appreciate that the sweeping majority of these writers are parents themselves, and they recognize the issues that could arise from a fallacious approach to their work. In particular, I would direct anyone who is interested in the subject to a viewing of "Channel Chasers", an hour-long special of Butch Hartman's The Fairly Oddparents that directly engages this trend in children's entertainment. Through this special, Hartman brings to light quite a few thoughts that many folks who are less knowledgeable in their understanding of cartooning and creative storytelling might have missed.
Ten-year-old Timmy Turner (Tara Strong) is fed up. Both his parents work and his babysitter Vicky (Grey DeLisle) is unconscionably abusive. Because of this, Timmy has been deemed miserable enough to deserve fairy godparents by the powers that be, granting any number of wishes to make his life easier. One of Timmy's means of enjoyment, like most children, is television. After a major falling out with his parents, Timmy wishes himself into television in order to rid himself of any hint of adult or parental supervision. Timmy and his fairies travel through several parodies of children's entertainment programs where adults are either largely absent or impaired in their supervising skills. Creator Butch Hartman himself an unabashedly outspoken Christian and a father of two who is knocking on fifty makes his stance on the matter pretty clear through this informative fable. Some points that I noticed are as follows:
1. This trend is nothing new or recent.
One would expect that the programs that Timmy explores would be restricted to recent programs such as Phineas and Ferb, Jimmy Two Shoes, or Fanboy and Chum Chum. And, yes, some of the addressed programs are fairly recent (Rugrats, The Simpsons), but the majority of the programs Hartman takes in hand are not even ones that I grew up on (Dexter's Laboratory, Ed Edd n' Eddy, etc.), but ones from his own childhood. When arriving in the programs, Timmy's fairy godmother Wanda (Susanne Blakeslee) raises concerns that a rigorist parent would raise. When in a parody of Space Ghost, Wanda asks, "Is this another show where kids are given dangerous weapons and vehicles to use?" This charge is also brought up in a spoof of Jonny Quest. When the group comes to a caricature of Scooby Doo, Wanda asks, "Are those kids even old enough to drive?" Timmy responds, "Nope!" Other shows that are acknowledged for depicting largely absent or impaired parental figures include Fat Albert, Speed Racer, and the aforementioned Peanuts.
If these rigorist parents and viewers were to campaign against all stories and programs in which the youth are the heroes and the adult overseers are merely ineffectual, it's fairly safe to say that now is rather late. In fact, a large number of foundational and pivotal works in Western literature would make it onto this list of forbidden readings. Works that would be banned under this principle include but are not limited to L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Lewis Carol's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh, and C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. This approach, from what I've assessed, ends up being far more destructive than constructive, committing the loathsome crime of "throwing out the baby with the bathwater".
In fact, the "babies" that would be thrown out by this ordinance are far more valuable than one would think at first, for even the Holy Scriptures are peppered with tales featuring bouts between competent youth and incompetent elders. At the tail-end of the book of Job (which scholars have recognized as the oldest of the biblical canon), we are given a rustling exampling of this. Of all of Job's friends who came to speak to him in his dire situation, it was only the youngest of them, Elihu, who had anything of meaning or substance to say. The far older ones either spoke nonsense or just condemned Job. It was through this that Elihu discovered and imparted that "age is no guarantee of wisdom and understanding." (Job 32:9)
Consider also the famed story of Jesus' youth found in Luke's gospel. After Passover in Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph left Jesus behind, thinking he'd left with another group. It wasn't until three days later that they found him again. This speaks a little on Mary's and Joseph's aptitude as parents (how do you lose your only child for three days?) but what's more is that when they chastised Jesus, he explained that he was actually in the right to be away from them. One might rightly be compelled to make a special exception with Jesus being divinity incarnate and all , but does it take much imagination to think of the strange answers that a child could come to after reading this story and asking "What would Jesus do?" in regards to whether or not they should adhere to parental regulation?
Then there's the ever famous story of David and Goliath. Young David the youngest of eight, no less is sent to the battlefield to bring food and supplies to his older brothers and he finally catches sight of the Philistines and Goliath. David makes it his determination to rid Israel of this oppressor, but does he first send an envoy or message to his father Jesse explaining his intentions and asking permission to do so? Not for a moment as far as Scripture informs us. In fact, the only form of adult instruction that David has during this bout comes from King Saul, a man who reveals himself to be completely oblivious to David's abilities and wholly incompetent in preparing David for the upcoming battle. At this point, David comes to terms with the fact that only the Lord is capable in helping him with his current trial, and thus carries out this task on his own terms. In fact this trend seemed to carry on throughout David's childhood. Even when he became friends with Jonathan, all sense of adult involvement seemed rendered null and void. David's source of parental guidance was all but removed; Jonathan's had become corrupt and blighted. All they could rely upon was the Lord and each other. Are we going to deem these biblical passages as morally unsound simply because of depictions of less-than-ideal adult authority figures?
2. This is not what the stories are about.
I have found it a bit of a challenge to point out what the true focus of certain programs and films are to those who are rather uninitiated with regards to film criticism and analysis. Mind you, I'm not exactly an expert in the field, but it's fairly clear to me that those who charge these programs as being wholly unsound on the basis of their depictions of adults are simply "missing the point". Because of creative license, writers make a lot of choices in their stories that are completely impractical with respect actual life, but are made to better serve the drama. I've taken to calling this principle the Gilligan Excuse (Why did the good captain never build anything that could get him off the island? Because it would end the series, that's why). In the opening example of Someday You'll Find Her, Charlie Brown it should be obvious that had any parent acted ideally with regards to Charlie Brown's decision, the entire narrative would have been destroyed, and there would have been no story to tell. After the enlightening fable that Hartman presents, he almost seems to excuse the whole issue at the end. While Timmy is traveling home from meeting his future self during his escapades in television, he becomes rather contemplative, saying "Did you see what a great adult I'll become? But I only became that way because my parents raised me right. In all these shows, the adults were either complete morons or never around!" His fairy godfather Cosmo retorts by saying, "Yeah! Your parents are always one or the other never both!" It's a bit of a shot in the face, but it's clear where the concern lies: the story.
Such is the nature with adventure and drama stories in which children are the stars. An intrinsic element to adventure and drama is danger and conflict, and it is the responsibility of a parent to keep their children out of unnecessary danger and conflict. If every hazard that child characters came across were to be always dealt with in the most principle and efficient manner, the epic would suffer for it. In fact some of the most truly inspiring and wholesome stories for youngsters are of this nature. I call to mind films like the Coen brothers' adaptation of True Grit, the Academy-nominated Winter's Bone, and Suzanne Collins' ever popular dystopian series The Hunger Games in which the absent or impaired state of the adults serves as a catalyst for the child to take up prodigious responsibilities and even spur the adults into action. But even in these cases, the actual role of parents is not a topic that the stories address, rather they simply put the topic aside. Charles Schulz never made his ambition to argue against the importance of adults, but for the sake of the story, he simply ignored it to the point of annihilation. The issue is simply neither here nor there with regards to his narratives.
And such is the case with virtually all of these programs. Their main focus throughout the stories has nothing to do with what children ought to do or believe about their actual parents. In fact, they can't even legitimately say anything about that subject matter at all. There is no modicum of logic that one can use to deduce or plausibly infer that because these fictional characters' parents are absent or impaired, therefore one's actual parents or adult authorities are just as impaired, and thus undeserving of heed. It simply does not follow, especially when the true focal point of the story does not lie there.
The continually successful Phineas and Ferb has always put as its focal point the celebration and encouragement of activity and creativity among youth. Creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff Marsh have stated in interviews that when writing the series, they simply imagine themselves as nine-year-old boys and think what they would build if they were not encumbered by the laws of reality and physics any good cartoonist thinks more or less this way. Dan added that "We just don't put anything in that we wouldn't want kids to see or hear." Of course, their idea of what kids are allowed to see or hear will differ very much from that of another parent, but obviously this is what the apostle Paul would regard as a "disputable matter of personal conviction", and you cannot please, serve, and satisfy everyone.
The two titular characters are wildly imaginative and bewilderingly resourceful engineers who find their cure for summer vacation boredom doing just about anything that they put their minds to. They are innocent, friendly and honest in all they do, but as with A.A. Milne's denizens of the 100-acre Wood, none of these characters do these things with the purpose of exploring some moral value or teaching a lesson, but simply because it's the Thing to Do. As with how they relate to their parents, the relationship actually couldn't be healthier, with nothing of malice or disrespect to be found in it. However, there is a colossal misunderstanding between the parties. Whenever the two eponymous stepbrothers engage in a new project, they usually deliberately tell their mother (the father works) what it is they intend to do; and if they don't, their overbearing sister Candace will. However, their mother never believes them, thinking that they're simply playing out their boyhood fantasies, completely unaware that her two sons are much more true to their word than she thinks.
I really cannot discern anything inherently problematic from this recurring scenario, for the boys make no efforts whatsoever to hide their projects it would be too difficult to do so most of the time, and they're simply too innocent to consider such things. Any and all traces of their work is completely erased before they can be exposed to their parents by the end of the airing, usually because of the side effects of the James Bond-style espionage subplots between Perry the Platypus and Dr. Doofenshmirtz. On one occasion when their mother finally did catch sight of one of the boy's schemes, she was shocked and appalled and began to scold them. Phineas is equally shocked by her outburst and responds, "But we do stuff like this every day! Didn't you know?" Thanks to the Gilligan Excuse, the episode ended with Perry's organization wiping everyone's memories of the events, so that the series could continue soundly.
The fairly popular teen drama sitcoms that air on these channels such as ICarly, Victorious, Shake it Up!, and Ant Farm really amount to little more than celebratory depictions of youth culture and young talent, and an encouragement for tweens and teens to pursue their goals without giving up. While I do think that there are some moral drawbacks to these programs worthy of note (and I may write on that in the future), the less-than-ideal depictions of adults is the least of them in my view. Throughout every episode, we see light-hearted dramas centered on the young taking advantage of every good thing their culture and generation has to offer, and in doing so, they encourage their audience to follow suit as best they can. Schneider's ICarly is centered on a group of teens who have become famous online celebrities through a self-published web show. This opportunity is very real and wasn't even something available to me as a teenager and I'm only 23! Some teens have already taken advantage of this opportunity through venues like YouTube. Shows like Ant Farm and Shake It Up!, which are best summarized as female buddy comedies with musical stage performances as a garnish, make their mark as veritable showcases of youth culture and talent, honoring and encouraging the youth to find and exhibit their own talents in a constructive and meaningful way. Having such valuable assets of adolescence exhibited within a dramatic comedy with relatable and charming characters can be of great benefit to viewers of all ages. Things that tend to plague our adolescent youth such as drugs, alcohol, violence, premarital sex, teen pregnancy, and (so far) homosexuality, are not to be found here a notable exception being the highly controversial Degrassi franchise. Watered down lessons on subjects like the importance of friendship, trust, honesty, and loyalty can be found as well; but it's rather apparent that these topics are not included because the writers have anything profound or meaningful to say about them, but simply because such subject matter provides a justifying context for these fun and entertaining comedies. I honestly submit that the more one focuses on the portrayal of adults in these programs, the further away they get from the actual central themes of the stories.
While I'm not a parent myself, I firmly believe as a creative person that uncultured or poorly cultured youth is just as problematic as uneducated and poorly educated youth. While I'm not a Catholic, I agree with my fellow Christians in that denomination in saying that healthy, well-rounded, and thoughtful cultural and artistic exposure are things that people young people especially need and that such things are a great benefit to humanity as a whole. And while I strongly disagree with the notion that all stories and narrative productions in which parents and adult authorities are depicted in a less-than-ideal manner ought to be deemed as wholly un-worthwhile, I accept the decisions of those who think that way though I challenge those who hold this ideology to seriously consider the full ramifications of their stance and make certain that the decisions they make are based on a thorough understanding of what it is they are criticizing. Also, I encourage them to consider the fact that whether or not a work is wholesome or unwholesome and whether or not it is appropriate for a particular viewer are two very different issues. A lot of factors play into what affect a work has on an audience factors that I doubt even the most seasoned psychoanalyst would be able to completely ascertain. It is not at all uncommon or unsuitable for even two biblically minded persons to be in complete disagreement over what insights or lessons can or ought to be inferred from any particular work, and the visual arts are a hot bed of grey areas and disputable matters in this regard.
I've often heard it put forth that visual artists and storytellers should not make the jobs of parents any harder. I wholeheartedly agree with that, but an immediate problem arises from this notion: "Which parents?" As stated before, we cannot satisfy everyone, and a narrative that may be wholly beneficial to parent/child A may be quite problematic to parent/child B. Are we to deny the service of parent/child A just to avoid disservice to parent/child B? Not to mention the satisfaction and enrichment that the writer gets from producing such narratives is stymied by the complete removal of the work. To request that such works not even be done at all because they are problematic for some is like requesting that all food products that contain nut oils be removed from the market because of those who are allergic to such ingredients.
There's also the issue of the challenge that such works "make a parent's job harder". I take this to mean that the work presents the parents with challenges and responsibilities that they do not already have and would not have were it not for the release of the work. I do not think such issues apply here. The only thing needed to ward off any pernicious thoughts that could be inferred from programs of this nature is a simple dose of realism and rational thought. All the viewer needs to do is recognize fiction as fiction, myth as myth, drama as drama, and comedy as comedy. The basic skill of "recognizing things as they are" a virtue that the bible calls "discernment" and a skill that applies especially to the visual arts is what parents should be teaching anyway; it is a responsibility that they already possess. And, however more difficult or easier the task may become from exposure to programs like this varies so drastically in scope and severity between one person to another that to offer a universally fitting answer of restraint and balance to all is logistically impossible. In the famous words of King Lear, "That way lies madness." So long as the material is seen in the proper light, and no one makes the attempt to extrapolate the content or subject matter beyond its preset contextual boundaries, no problematic thoughts should arise at all.
Furthermore, I've found that when the line between fiction and reality is only slightly blurred, it can be just as much an opportunity for good as for detriment. Such cracks in the wall can oftentimes be food for thought on the part of the viewer and encourage them to examine their real life issues in a deeper manner or from a different and more appropriate angle. I recall reading from a mother whose five-year-old daughter raised some very thoughtful questions about racial prejudice and bigotry while they were reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets together. I myself have found rather insightful theological understandings from a simple viewing of Looney Tunes. But even if such negative thoughts were to arise in the child's mind from one type of viewing or another, perhaps it can be a call to action for parents to address an issue that had been hitherto neglected, and be an opportunity for understanding and growth for both the parent and the child. I'm particularly reminded of a scene in the masterful Disney/Pixar film Finding Nemo. Clownfish Marlin and his son Nemo are tragically separated from each other after a major quarrel. It is during their separation that Nemo acquires newfound strength and maturity, and Marlin comes to terms with some profound realizations. While riding in the mouth of a whale, Marlin laments that he has failed in his parental duties. He promised long ago that he would never allow anything to happen to Nemo, and since then has been rather overprotective which is understandable considering what transpired over the first five minutes of the film. Regardless, Marlin's travelling companion, Dory a Pacific Blue Tang with short-term memory loss finds this to be a rather odd thing to promise, imparting that "You can't not let ANYTHING happen to him, then nothing would EVER happen to him! Not much fun for little Harpo, is it?" Not much fun, not much of a life, and much of a story either.