When it comes to forms of entertainment, I’m not a huge movie person, at least not in the sense of keeping up with new releases or following foreign or independent films. I pretty much never know what movies they’re talking about at the Oscars, give or take a title or two. Don’t get me wrong, if Legally Blonde or Sixteen Candles or some other mindless but beloved movie is on television, it won’t matter that I’ve seen it 21,927 times. I will get distracted by it and watch it again. And again. My husband is amused by this habit. But then I remind him about his equal commitment to Major League and he pipes down.
But I generally don’t seek out the new (or better) stuff. The fact that we just watched Moneyball and Iron Man 2 during the past quarter is groundbreaking. Netflix surely must buy another copy of whatever movie they’ve sent us in our queue just because they know it will be parked in our mail pile for months. Every time we actually go to a movie theater—which has generally been limited to the releases in the Lord of the Rings series—the ticket price is usually $4 more than the previous outing. I’m guessing I will need a mortgage for The Hobbit?
So we’re not movie people, generally speaking.
I also did not grow up with too many Disney movies in my own childhood, except I do remember seeing Jungle Book in the movie theater in Ohio when I was little. Of course access to movies was a lot different then in the pre-VCR/DVD/Blu-Ray/Netflix/Red Box/streaming days, but I certainly missed out on some of the classics nonetheless.
This is all, in part, probably why we didn’t expose M to movies until a few months before she turned 4 last summer. In fact, she saw her first DVD movie (Little Mermaid) and movie theater movie (Winnie the Pooh) last summer on vacation. Then she watched Cinderella in the fall, followed by A Bug’s Life last month. And yesterday we watched Jungle Book, four months after receiving it from me for Christmas. That’s it. She’s seen five movies.
Correction: Five and a half movies. She got through half of The Fox and the Hound before she realized that something might go awry in the fox-dog friend dynamic. Then she asked us to turn it off. So we did.
I am fairly certain this list of movies is FAR less than most other 4.5 year olds.
But it isn’t for lack of us allowing or offering them. Not that we’re pushing movies on her like a drug dealer—though I fully admit to suggesting it more often on long, rainy days when we’ve got cabin fever and I just need a mental break—but we certainly have offered more over the past year to have “movie nights” or watch any of the several borrowed Disney titles from M’s aunt. Almost without exception, she declines. Nope. She’d rather play.
And I’m not talking about rejecting mundane movies that fit into our social values or that no one would want to sit through. I’m talking about Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Movies that I am not a huge personal fan of, but I know are among K-Prep pop culture. We offered to let her watch some of those just to see if it was the type of movie she was rejecting, rather than movies as entire genre.
Considering her interest and intrigue in the princess culture (not to mention how little we let her watch TV to begin with), I have to admit this rejection had me very confused. Here we were offering her full access to the very movies that the wands, dress up clothes, tiaras, toothbrushes and every other marketable item are predicated on (and which she is strongly attracted to), and yet she does not want to watch them. Hmmm….
It’s not that we think she needs to see movies in the sense that she will not be a complete person. I may not do as well at Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy because I’ve seen a microscopic fraction of the movies ever made, but I don’t feel like less of a person. I get my kicks in other ways, that’s all. But as M grows closer to five and beyond, I know there are just some movies that for nostalgic or pop culture reasons—not to mention vague social currency—she’s close to the right age to see some of them now and might actually enjoy them.
Admittedly, it also gives me a slight pang when I see the unintended results of her short movie resume, particularly when her friends want to reenact movies that they have seen but she has not. She wants to play with princesses or whatever with them, but takes her own view of what the characters might do. I love, love, love seeing her like this as an independent thinker. I love that she isn’t confined by the movie’s parameters, simply because she doesn’t know them. But then I see her peers not really engaging with her when she does that because she’s not clued in and following the “script”, much less aware of some of the tenor of dialogue presented in these movies. My sense is that they feel like she isn’t as worldly as they are and she is somewhat marginalized because of it. How much she is aware that it’s happening, I’m not sure. In my mind, what you’ve seen on TV or in the movies shouldn’t be the price of admission for play, but the sad reality is that it often is in today’s media obsessed culture. I know she’s young and that over time she’ll find friends more like her and none of this will really matter, but when you see your kid being considered “square” on some level by her friends at such a young age all because of what she’s not seen on TV or in the movies, you feel for her.
No doubt, it’s got me to wondering why she doesn’t seem interested in movies, even the “eye candy” type that are typical girl fare. And then yesterday while we were watching Jungle Book—I thought she might like it because it is nostalgic to me being the one movie I do remember seeing as a kid, at her current age no less—it became clear to me what the problem is.
She’s afraid something “bad” is going to happen. You can see it in her body language and the way she demands that we sit next to each other with no room between us. And she asks a hundred questions throughout the entire movie, the predominate one being “Is something bad going to happen?”
She’s worried about seeing or hearing someone get hurt, not just physically hurt but emotionally as well. I think I’ve said before that she has some highly sensitive traits. She teared up the first time she watched Cinderella when the two step-sisters were talking unkindly to Cinderella. She covered her ears when the music got loud in A Bug’s Life. Her focus on the first half of Jungle Book was what happened to Mowgli’s mother, as in did she drown or why did she give him up as a baby? She was truly concerned about this aspect of the story.
Yet, any story worth its salt has conflict. That’s what makes it a story. In kid films, most of these conflicts are subtle and resolved, usually without gore and violence. You often get to take away a lesson from the story, or, at the very least, the idea that notwithstanding whatever conflict is at hand, people can still survive and move forward. They can pick up the pieces and make it through the tough times. Good versus evil. All metaphors about life, amped up with colorful animation and an Alan Menken or Randy Newman soundtrack that gets stuck in your head for weeks.
Which makes answering her question hard on a few levels. Of course I know the plots of and endings to these stories. Yes, something “bad” is going to happen, but being a Disney or children’s movie in general, it usually will get resolved in due course. Does this mean I should I give them away just so she can watch the movie at ease? Is it fair to give a spoiler, because what, then, is the point of watching the movie in the first place? Do I set her up for disappointment or distrust if these stories, which do usually have a happy ending, do not mirror life now or later on? What if there is something bad that happens? Is that a reason not to watch a movie? Isn’t this the point of books and movies to some degree, to expose us to these kinds of conflicts in a secure environment where we can process it with consideration so that we can be a little better armed “out there”? When do we start to take our fingers out of the holes in the bubble that our young children start out in? Should we lead the way or follow their lead?
I am struggling a bit with the answers to these questions.
Needless to say, going forward we’ll just let her come to her own conclusions of what movies she would like to see and when, if at all. If borrowing Thomas the Train DVDs from the library is her cup of tea right now, so be it. Is “something bad going to happen” if she doesn’t watch the full contingent of G movies out there before she gets to Kindergarten? My guess is no, so long as she has the bare necessities from her dad and me.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz.
About a month after M turned 4, we decided that she was old enough to now occasionally indulge in watching some movies, age-appropriate of course. Up until that point, she had seen a grand total of two movies: The Little Mermaid and Winnie the Pooh while on vacation earlier this summer. Wait, make that three movies — she had also seen a Shirley Temple movie this summer as I was testing out our streaming Netflix options. But that one was definitely more for me than her! I admit it – I got sucked in by those bouncy curls.
Our plan was to allow her to watch one movie every other Sunday. A family movie day if you will. It felt like the right time given her age, the selection of movies that (we feel) are appropriate for her to now watch, and, as a practical matter, because the long, cold winter months are now upon us and she has not yet fully embraced the idea of learning how to snowshoe as a family this year, so I expect there will still be a lot of indoor moments on weekends when the weather is particularly brutal.
And I’ll admit it: there’s certainly also a small part of peer pressure playing into this, because it has become quite clear that she is one of the last kids in her group to have not seen a lot of movies that several of the kids often talk about. I sense that she is somewhat being left out, or at least less than informed, about some of the dramatic play that her peers engage in, if only because she does not know some of the story lines yet. When we can, we’ve read some of the books (at least the ones I can tolerate), but sometimes the movie really IS better than the book.
I did a little research and came up with a decent list of about 20 or so titles that we could explore over time, movies that seemed (at least based on the descriptions and reviews) to be age-appropriate, had good storytelling (rather than just fodder for buying related toys) and that didn’t wade too deeply into themes that we did not want to expose her to just yet. Some of the movies on the list are Disney movies, but most are not. I really just wanted to find a good balance of movies for her to come to love over time. I think it’s harder to find non-Disney movies for preschoolers, but they do seem to exist.
With our list in hand, we figured there would be movies that we could borrow from the library or stream from Netflix, and occasionally buy outright if it was a particularly cherished and oft-watched flick. Oh how naive we were! Our library’s offerings in movies is paltry at best, if you can even get your hands on them. Netflix does not stream that many movies geared towards M’s age, and virtually none of the ones I had on my list. And just to show you how uncool M’s dad and I are when it comes to this kind of thing, we did not know that you can’t just go out and buy a Disney movie if the moment strikes (thanks a lot, Disney, for making me scramble last minute because we could not buy M a copy of The Little Mermaid for her mermaid themed birthday!). All of these forces together almost made me miss the video store.
But luckily, we serendipitously discovered that M’s Auntie MJ has quite a large collection of children’s movies. She graciously let us borrow several movies from her collection.
And, of course, despite the wide range of choices before her, the first one that M wanted to see was Disney’s Cinderella. By now, she had already read at least three different versions of the Cinderella story, one of which was Disney’s. She had been to Storyland in Glen, NH and met Cinderella herself–three times! All of M’s friends had seen it, or at least talked about it a lot and had the clothes and gear to back up their devotion. So it was no big surprise that this was going to be the premiere for our Sunday matinee that would kick off “family movie day”.
Cinderella screening, take one!
M lasted only about 10 minutes into the film before she said she didn’t want to watch it anymore and came up the stairs to tell me (she had been watching it with her dad since I was just getting back from an outing with her Gramma) that she was scared because Lucifer (the cat) was chasing the mice. It upset her. This scene was absent in all versions of the book, so it undoubtedly took her by surprise.
Cinderella screening, take two!
Much to my surprise, M requested another go at Cinderella. She made it through the whole movie this time, but she was certainly visibly upset during the cat-mouse chase scene again, and even more so when the stepsisters tore away at Cinderella’s dress. She also asked me why, unlike one of the non-Disney versions she had read over the summer, Cinderella did not invite the stepsisters to live with her in the castle and marry other sons of the king. That version in particular struck a chord with M because the message was that despite the way the stepsisters had treated Cinderella while growing up, she offered forgiveness and welcomed them to live with her in royalty. We can argue the merits of whether that Cinderella was acting like a doormat or not, but if nothing else I was happy that we had taken the time to read different interpretations of the same story because it at least gives M some room to choose what kinds of stories she wants to read and watch going forward, rather than be forced to adopt the version that mainstream media tells and sells.
Cinderella screening, take three!
Just like books, it seems, preschoolers have a tendency toward repetition with movies too. M definitely appeared more confident about how this story will ultimately shake out now that she knows what to expect and when. She started to ask many questions throughout the movie to confirm whether her hunches were true about the “character” of the characters. It was then that I noticed the shift from ingesting to digesting the themes of the story and this movie, all of which have now surfaced during her pretend play, whether it’s alone with her dolls or when she’s making her dad or me be the “mean stepsisters”.
To my surprise, it wasn’t the prince/Cinderella dynamic that she focused on, at least not these first few go ’rounds. That was the theme that I was actually worried about–this whole idea that a man needs to come in and save you, or that you can fall in love based on a fleeting moment and looks alone. I know, I know, it’s just a story…but this message is undeniably pervasive in some of the media marketed toward girls, and so I am sensitive to how much of it I want M to see at just four years old.
Instead, it was the dynamic between Cinderella and her two not so nice siblings that was the takeaway theme for M. Victim vs. aggressor. Interesting. And what surprised me even more is how M chooses to be the more demure Cinderella when we’re playing with her, yet she will quite adequately portray the harshness of the stepsisters if playing alone. It’s like she doesn’t want to test out that position of power in a real mano a mano scenario, even though it is with someone safe like her parents. Even more interesting. Perhaps she will change the roles and get more comfortable as time goes on, but my gut tells me that there is something about mild-mannered, well-behaved Cinderella that M identifies with more and so she will likely be choosing to play that role more than any other, even though to me it would seem like it would be more fun to play something you’re not.
Considering some minor issues that have been happening recently with one of her fellow (slightly aggressive) classmates at preschool, it is also not surprising to me that she is looking toward this movie for some answers on how to manage always being the “good girl” despite the continued bad behavior that, in her eyes, seems to be tolerated by others. At least the story of Cinderella does a good job of showing that even though you may have to wait patiently a bit, eventually (and hopefully) good will trump evil somewhere down the line. Though it would be nice if Disney could throw in a scene for their next release (which I WILL be ready for!) where Cinderella kicks Drizella and Anastasia’s butts. Just a little bit.
My guess is that she will keep choosing Cinderella as her bi-weekly matinee until she gets bored with it. If she starts gazing out her bedroom window looking for Prince Charming, perhaps we’ll return the movie to Auntie MJ. But for right now, this movie, and the glass slipper, seem to be the right fit for M.
Copyright (c) 2011-2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved.
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