News outlets were cloaked in black during a week of turmoil and mourning at home and abroad. A small, colorful story stood out. The cartoon Peppa Pig, now a modern British institution, will, we are told, feature its first lesbian couple.
Display diversity is a dominant concern in contemporary children’s entertainment, both on screen and in books. And for a good reason. We live in an increasingly heterogeneous society. Fair representation of minority groups is crucial to promoting inclusion and cohesion.
For some time now, it has been Disney Corporation that is leading the charge – Doc McStuffins plays a black girl who is an aspiring doctor; duck stories shows a gay couple; and last The Owl House has a non-binary character, Raine.
But Peppa Pig’s announcement has garnered particular attention, partly because of the show’s wide reach, but also because it’s unexpected. No wonder Boris Johnson is a Peppa fan. Because the Pig family – Daddy Pig, Mummy Pig, Peppa and George and their plum-voiced grandparents – are easily coded as Tories.
Her life is a fable of traditional, strictly bourgeois and pastoral life. While Papa Pig commutes to the office for work and then comes home to read the newspaper, Mommy Pig’s role is mainly filled with baking cookies and serving juice to the kids, although in a modern nod, she sometimes takes the kids shooed away so she can do “very important work” on her computer.
So the addition of a polar bear character, Penny, who introduces Peppa to her two mummies, is a significant step toward programming that positively reflects a diverse world. Or at least represents what we desperately hope, for the sake of our children, that a diverse world could look like. A world where everyone is upwardly mobile and warmly accepted by their community and raised in a loving home of prosperity without worrying about how to pay the gas bill.
Many children’s programs today seem to be a projection of parental wishful thinking. The most popular stories aimed at children – such as Peppa Pig, Bluish, Daniel Tiger’s neighborhood, much of Netflix’s production, as well as modern classics from the likes of Julia Donaldson – shy away from any depiction of the world that isn’t essentially happy and benign. The dramas they contain focus instead on bringing to the fore the children’s own inner emotional dramas, such as jealousy, friendship problems, and sibling rivalry.
This is the result of our rush to promote laudable values of social justice in storytelling, combined with a modern reflex to shield children from real concerns. And it’s potentially problematic. There is a danger that literature and films for children today will fail or forget to prepare them for adversity.
It’s a tough time for children who face the big problems of the real world: financial struggle, family strife, breakup, grief. They are no more spared than adults from the dark realities of human experience such as grief, poverty, insanity and suffering. They are concerned and affected by the same concerns that concern adults. So why do the stories we tell them put a sugary smile on the world and insist that everything is great despite what they can see around them?
My own children are six and almost three. Until recently, they’d grown up on a carefully selected, upbeat, and upbeat diet of modern classics loaded with positive messages: authors like Dr. Seuss, Oliver Jeffers, and Donaldson. A fictional universe of petty mishaps and minor mishaps that are usually reliably resolved with the help of one of the many benevolent adults.
The television shows children enjoy may aim to teach valuable lessons about inclusion and encourage emotional regulation, but they are an appeal to happy, nuclear families who are fully shielded from real hardships.
Compare this to the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales that we have begun to read, which are full of death, abandonment, hardship and abuse. Where adults are untrustworthy and even malicious, and where the endings aren’t always happy: The Tin Soldier falls in love but dies in the kitchen fireplace, leaving nothing but a glowing red ember heart. The little mermaid watches her dreams unravel before her eyes before gliding back into the sea. These stories recognize the world as a dark and troubled place, yet allow children to understand this imaginatively.
We recently came across Michael Rosen sad book. Published in 2004, it is a raw and candid exploration of the writer’s grief at the loss of his young son to meningitis. It is illustrated by Quentin Blake and is aimed at children. Reading it felt radical and a bit transgressive. I hesitated for a second before presenting my children with such a barefaced version of life. At the end of the book there is no redemption or happy ending, but a timid offering of the small but meaningful consolations the world offers to those who suffer. (“I love birthdays, not just mine, but other people’s too. Happy birthday and all. And candles. There have to be candles.”) But my six-year-old was utterly intrigued. He wanted to read it again and again. I realized that children have a radar for the truth.
Escapism is good – it can be a coping strategy in itself. But I think a lot of contemporary children’s stories are an act of collective denial that even children can see through.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/children-arent-put-off-if-characters-in-a-story-dont-all-live-happily-ever-after-41979356.html Children are not put off if the characters in a story don’t all live happily ever after