Friday, February 24, 2012


Pam and I are raising this granddaughter, who's now closing in fast on her second birthday. That makes us full time inhabitants of interlocking corporate toy, book and multimedia universes presided over by avatars named Elmo, Barney, Raffi, Biscuit the Dog, Bunny-as-in-Pat-the-Bunny, something called Yo Gabba Gabba with its cast of nicey-nice creatures, and scores more.

It is a strange place to find yourself at age 65, patronized, plied with false cheer, congratulated for hitting a touch screen on cue and invited to believe in a world of good faith, good will, and innocent fun where there is no evil, only misunderstanding, and there's plenty of everything to go around, all sung in major keys and painted in primary colors.

It is cloying beyond description, and some of it is really creepy. Barney, for one, should be arrested and his cadre of zombie children set free as soon as their souls have been located.

Disney has turned Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck into a pair of plastic goodie-two-shoes. I sometimes troll YouTube for the old cartoons from the 30s and 40s. My favorite is Moving Day in which Donald and Mickey can't pay the rent and get evicted by a burly sheriff who bitch-slaps Donald. A close second is Orphans Picnic, which Donald and Mickey go to the park with a truckload of unruly foundlings, all clad in identical smocks and caps like little prison inmates.

I suppose I understand why Disney takes a different approach these days. But still, I know we could make things more real for little people, and now and then I run across evidence that smart people are trying. The other day I found episodes of a UK show called Mr. Maker. Each is a workshop on how to use ordinary household materials to do art projects. In the one I watched, Mr. Maker used a paper cup, a powder puff, glue stick and some construction paper to make a funny dog nose with a floppy tongue in one minute flat. That's a useful skill; we might do that ourselves sometime.

Actually, though, Baby E prefers the colorful drivel, which drives out or covers up the better stuff just like processed cheese and flavored sugar water would run off the vegetables and natural fruit juice if we handed her the keys to the refrigerator. It seems we condition little kids to believe that the world is a sweet, friendly, easygoing place where everyone is respected and treated fairly, because we can tell they love hearing it.

Why wouldn't they? We'd like to believe it ourselves. We know in our hearts that our toddlers aren't the sweetie pies they'd like us to think they are. Every one of them carries the full package of human malignancy that makes the world that's really waiting for them a far cry from Sesame Street.

But then we look in their adorable little faces, our hearts melt, and we can't help wanting to pretend that this bunch will be different and if we just keep replaying Elmo's song it might make it so.

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