Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The hat/elephant problem

This will be about teh behbies. I know you're, like, so tired of my thoughts on teh behbies. It will only get worse though. This is a warning.

There is a tradition within children's literature exemplified by writers like Roald Dahl* and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that is based on the idea that the worlds of childhood and adulthood are diametrically opposed and unable to comprehend one another. Unlike the realist writers, these writers view growing up not as a process of imbibing ("confronting") the adult world bit by bit, but as a moment in which the child betrays the secrets and customs of the child world in order to enter the adult world, thereby closing it off from an entire worldview forever. For example, he looks at the picture of the elephant inside a boa and sees in its place a hat. These books usually revolve around the persistent, usually despotic efforts of adults to superimpose the rules and restrictions of their world onto children. We call this raising them, but the authors insist that children already have a complete (and implicitly better) kind of understanding of the world, it's just not one that adults can appreciate or live by because it involves things like evading witches who turn children into mice.

(Interestingly, these books also suggest that leaving the world of childhood by growing up is neither necessary nor inevitable--a topic for another discussion, perhaps. As is the way that this group of writers sets itself up as allies of children against other adults--usually the child's parents--who it says want to oppress children with their burdensome realities, whereas realist writers demonize parents by suggesting that their failing lies in not telling children enough about reality.)

This tradition is often fascinating, sometimes evil, and, in certain situations, an accurate portrayal of disconnect between childhood and adulthood. Take the internet, for example. Adults are concerned with the possible ill-effects of internet social media on children. But what are those ill-effects? As I've said before, adults focus on the prospect of the "online predator" who will disguise his appearance to lure unsuspecting children away from home and do horrible things to them. But this actually happens so rarely that it barely registers for children, though the few sensational incidents when it did happen understandably instill a burning terror in adults about the possibility. Of course, it doesn't hurt to be wary of these things, but to become pre-occupied by them is to miss what children are really doing on the internet, which is not primarily accepting IMs from strangers asking if they are h0rny2nite.

The same error of mistaking the elephant-in-boa for a hat seems to afflict this view of school violence:
So lesson number one: remind your children that everything online is serious. Threats made not online are serious too. To quote the signs at the airports nowadays, “if you see something, say something.”
This would seem like a really clear bright line if it were enforceable. Unfortunately, not everything online and off is actually serious. (In fact, the chat room conversation was later found to be a hoax.) Children make these threats all the time. Reporting them all would be impossible, and, if possible, would become meaningless. My students threaten each other with violence constantly, and even the impeccably scrupulous Miss Self-Important, who we know has always made such excellent judgments about what does and does not belong on teh internets, once had her and her friend's online "hit lists" discovered by their high school teachers. Needless to say, they were not serious.

Again, you might say that being wary of possible seriousness in such threats can't hurt, and that's true, but Belkin's post suggests a kind of easy, rule of thumb solution to the complicated problem of school shootings. Since we know that in many such instances, the child previously mentioned his plans to someone else, we should just instruct our children to report every such mention they overhear, and this way, we will keep the killing under control. But this is a solution from hindsight--the only thing it will ever help us do is implicate some hapless child who failed to report what he assumed was a joke after it turns out that it was not. Because, again, every child hears this all the time. Adults can try to root out these modes of speech among children (in the same way that people advocate restricting violent video games because they supposedly make children violent), but unless the mode of speech is itself the impetus for the violence, banning the phrase "I'm gonna kill you" is unlikely to prevent it.

Neither does the opposite view--that children who commit such acts of violence are obvious psychopaths whose behavior is organically deranged--work except in hindsight. There are many strange and disturbing children out there (remember? there were at least three in every grade) who, after they kill someone, seem like exactly the kind of person who would obviously have killed someone, but before then, are equally likely to be non-violently crazy or turn out just fine after a period of bizarreness. Here too, adults prefer to see a hat--an uncomplicated type of person who just needs to be identified early (and can be, presumably, since he is clearly deranged)--where children see the elephant-in-boa--a more complicated mix of he-said, she-saids and wrong looks and social errors that sets off violence (including mundane kinds of violence like hallway fights) or keeps it at bay.

The point is not that the elephant is actually the more accurate view of things--certainly in adult social relations, the hat prevails--death threats and fist fights are more infrequent and more alarming events, and people get arrested for them. The point is that there is a hat/elephant problem, and according to the people who describe hat/elephant problems, the nature of the hat/elephant problem is that truthful communication across the hat/elephant divide is impossible, so we are doomed to tell children vapid things like, "Tell me if you ever hear a death threat!" and go unheeded.**

*Ok, I know you are all groaning that it is ridiculous to expend effort contemplating the deeper meaning of Dr. Seuss or whatever, and this is probably true, but I will defend at least Roald Dahl as a serious writer, and also the second-best autobiographer I have ever read. (But then, I have not read very many.)

**I don't actually think this. Mass school shootings are a relatively recent phenomenon, although school violence is not. I suspect the latter is probably a permanent fixture of childhood, though the former is the result of more mutable aspects of culture.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"The facts of life are all about you, you-oo-oo"

Ok, so, bad news, Mary Tyler Moore is actually kind of a boring show. I think I just can't get into adult TV. I liked The Wire, and I prefer movies to be be adult (but not, you know, adult), but TV is itself something I stopped being that excited about after about the age of 16, and perhaps my sensibilities are still attuned to that age. I'm with Phoebe on this:
But in general, my favorite shows are the ones set in real American high schools, ones with universally-recognized popular kids (who are also the rich kids, as well as the ones wearing visibly expensive clothing, because any other way would require too much explanation), sports teams, parking lots, and house parties held in actual, detached houses, in parts of the country where 16-year-olds actually have trouble obtaining liquor. Thanks to glorious American cultural hegemony, young people the world over grow up with a shared experience of suburban American high school. The lockers, the cheerleaders, the prom, we've all been there, even if we haven't. Perhaps for this reason, the more interesting the high school show ("Freaks and Geeks" and "Strangers With Candy" come to mind), the more generic and clichéd the school environment.
I think this is right, though it's not specifically suburbia that's so appealing, but the generic--and therefore primarily social--experience of American school. Urban schools can work, and I think more often than not, representations of suburbs bleed into small towns in terms of their self-containment and isolation more than they would in reality (for example, no one leaves Sunnydale in Buffy and goes to LA, although it should be nearby, and when Buffy runs away to LA, it's so distant that no one goes after her).

So, in my search for vintage sitcom depictions of school life, I found The Facts of Life. Actually, I've seen it before at some point, but never in an entire-season-in-one-sitting kind of way (probably a good thing). And it is great! But also awful! Most importantly, it is totally a product of the Judy Blume phenomenon.

What is weird and interesting about the Facts of Life (and Judy Blume, and the entire genre of young adult entertainment that starts in the late '60s) is the depiction of 'growing up' as a series of 'issues' to be confronted. There is the first period, the loss of virginity, homosexuality, alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, racism, divorce, child abuse, teen pregnancy, rape, crime, gangs, and so on and on. These are portrayed as the pathologies of the "real world" that all children must come to know as a pre-requisite for passage into adulthood. In reality, most of these "issues" are restricted entirely to childhood (for example, teen pregnancy: pretty normal once you're no longer a teenager), and a more nuanced analysis would examine the issue-ization of universal pubertal events like menstruation and sexual awakening separately from actual pathologies like date rape.

The impulse for constructing adolescence this way comes, I think, from an idea that Judy Blume helped to create--that the experience of pathology is the authentic and "real" content of coming of age, and all the more so because adults are hesitant to discuss it. Parental prudery--the unwillingness to be "frank" about sex and violence, primarily--condemns children to isolation, ignorance, and shame. In swoops the YA author (with the school librarian in tow) to rescue the benighted child from its misguided parents, and to help it, as Judy Blume often said in interviews, feel less alone and find role models with whom to identify. (This view is extremely weird when applied to an issue like menstruation, which is neither a pathology nor a scourge of modernity, and there is no obvious reason it needs to be an "issue" or a major social turning point in a girl's life, but recall that Are You There God? It's Me Margaret was Judy Blume's first great success and probably the first such YA book.)

Compare this view of coming of age to the view promulgated by girls' books like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. They may have been insipid in their own ways (which is part of what made the Judy Blume variation so popular), but they took growing up to be a process of character formation rather than encounter with external phenomena. The major development in Anne of Green Gables is the project of civilizing the impetuous, irreligious, proud, and vain Anne into what we might consider virtue, or a kind of Puritan sensibility about what makes virtue. Jo March has a very similar character arc. In the end, both characters are asked to sacrifice--Anne gives up her secondary education to stay home with her aunt, and Jo cuts off her hair to help her mother visit her father (which, objectively, does sound kind of absurd)--but the story is about what they do to become adults, not what happens to them. The YA configuration features characters who must learn to cope with the cruel and arbitrary pathologies of "reality" and to accept other people's drama.

The Facts of Life is like the Cliff's Notes of Judy Blume, or maybe just a glorified series of after-school specials connected only by the convenience of a constant cast. Once you account for the roughly 25 percent of the episodes that are about the girl's literature standbys--love, friendship, and gossip--what you have left is episode after episode of issue confrontation. I thought Seventh Heaven was egregious in this regard, but at least it had 40 minutes to develop each crisis. In The Facts of Life, a character lapses into and out of alcoholism in about 20 minutes, and the span of two TV-time days. With this, we are to conclude that the issue has been faced and conquered, and the girls have reached an important development milestone.

Which is all too bad, because the show has such potential. The actors all look like normal human beings who are the age of their characters and re-wear their clothes. (Phoebe disagrees, but I think the fat girl is a surprisingly likable and natural character. Especially for a show that clearly wants to make an issue out of everything, it has done well by not making an issue out of Natalie's weight, or at least not in the episodes I've seen.) Edna Garrett is awesome. The school is recognizable enough to be all-American, and exotic enough (boarding school!) to be compelling (if only they would ever leave its dining room). It could've been a great show if it weren't so intent on teaching lessons about so-called real life. Not that this has stopped me from watching the available season on Hulu and all the minisodes, too.

Why? Because the pathology stuff (later variants have been named "bleak lit" but Facts of Life is too optimistic and the bleakness too external to the main characters to qualify, though it's clearly on the same road) is incredibly appealing to adolescent girls. Weirdly, both the Victorian/Edwardian Little Women and Anne of Green Gables virtue stories and the Judy Blume and Melvin Burgess issue confrontation work on girls, and contemporary girls, at least those who read, have almost all read both. Why is that? Both are, notably, kinds of morality tales. Children discriminate less between high and low literature, but I'm not sure that explains the appeal of what appear to me to be two radically different approaches to the question of how to become an adult.

Plus, it has a great theme song. (Not the first season version.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

First world problems deconstructed in one sentence

Let us take, for today's meditation, this single line from the Sunday Styles:
Don’t make me look like a jerk,” she told a reporter, “but I cannot bring myself to buy my children’s clothes at Wal-Mart.”
Perhaps you saw this line? Perhaps it made you pause too?

Here we have what appears to be an epic first world problem: pampered rich women who can't handle their husbands' coup de grace(s?). They ooze so much entitlement that they become puddles of self-pity under the slightest pressure--“My job was to run the household and the children’s lives. His job is to provide us with a nice lifestyle...I’m still doing my job.” Now the nice lifestyle is threatened, and the poor darlings cannot bring themselves to shop the discount chains along with the Great Unwashed, those benighted many who wear Jeans with Elastic Waistbands. This article, with its insinuations of divorce for money and marriage as a "risk-management strategy," even borders on the sordid. Aren't we so morally upright compared to such conceited, scheming twits? Down to earth, unprepossessing, middle-class readers of the NY Times who, ok, maybe don't exactly shop at Wal-Mart (because there isn't one in the city! seriously, that's why!), but we get a few things from Target now and then, unite!

For some time now, I have been telling anyone who will listen that the entire Styles section is a set-up. Not a conspiracy or anything, mind you, but a running gag for the reporters. My completely speculative history of the section goes as follows: Styles exists because the paper wasn't generating enough ad revenue from its traditional reporting, so it decided to add a luxury lifestyles component which seems to have worked for Conde Nast, who is keeping The New Yorker afloat by selling 80 bazillion copies of each issue of Glamour and Golf Digest. But while Conde Nast could afford to maintain a stable of writers as vapid as the people they write about (primarily by hiring disproportionately from among those people's offsping), the NY Times had to send their own reporters to write about the Great Espresso Machine Placement Crisis of 2007.

This presents a problem because the reporters themselves, who are merely decently affluent and extremely resentful but not extremely rich, cannot "relate" to the problems of the extremely rich on as personal a level as Conde Nast's writers, and so tend to find these people exasperating and ridiculous. But what to do? The paper's "real" reporting depends on the ad-generating fluff of the Styles section, so it becomes necessary to take one for the team, so to speak. But the tedium of such reporting is surely understandable, and so they came up with a game to make the time go by faster--corner the subjects into complaining about the most absurd possible thing on the record--the First World Problem--and then print it. The tactic made the extremely rich as ridiculous to the reader as the assignment was to the reporter, while flying just under the radar of the class it portrayed, who apparently saw in it only the sincere airing of their very serious grievances about the quality of the first grade art classes in Westchester County. And, let's admit it, it was pretty clever. One has to admire the social deftness required to extract such winning lines.

So the whole game of First World Problems hinges on the obliviousness of the whiner to the rest of the world's desire to have his problems--to which elite private school should I send my child?--instead of theirs--where can I get clean water today? Of course, it relies on some posturing on the part of the reporter and reader too, since they must pretend to "know" and care deeply about the suffering of starving Ugandans or persecuted Hmong fishermen or whomever in order to cast themselves against the oblivious rich. This is kind of hard, since they're mostly people like me--college-educated professionals who can afford to rent a nice house in Arlington and who are more centrally interested in staking a moral claim against the rich than in feeding Ugandans. But what if the havers of First World Problems actually are not oblivious to this game? What if they say, as this week's victim did, "Don't make me look like a jerk?" because they know that's what the Styles section is about--making the people we envy look like jerks so that we might pat ourselves on the back for being the salt of the earth? If they're just as knowing as us, and wealthier on top of it, what have we got left? Maybe we have to acknowledge that we no different from them and actually sympathize?

In short, doesn't this quote basically tear down the entire Styles section?