Those huge LEGO sets I always drooled at on the top shelves of the toy aisle? They came home with us. Nerf guns, ditto. No toy was too big or too expensive or too awesome for John and me.
I’m that dad, I admit it. I’m the dad where the moment I found out my newborn was a boy, a huge and rusty abacus in the back of my head started ticking off all of the things I told myself I’d do if I ever had a son. Being more the creative/imaginative type of kid myself when I was little, most of these things involved spaceships and dragons and fearless adventuring, and, by some kind twist of fate, as my son’s personality began to show itself I discovered that he was very much that same kind of kid. The ledger of “when I’m a grown up, I’ll do ____” started kicking into overdrive. Those huge LEGO sets I always drooled at on the top shelves of the toy aisle? They came home with us. Nerf guns, ditto. No toy was too big or too expensive or too awesome for John and me. And at some point after having savagely satisfied this cathartic urge several times to the tune of several hundred dollars, I took a breath and came to the realization that all of this was going to take far more time than I had initially thought. John, who was maybe two and a half at the time, and of course too young to truly play with the thousand-piece LEGO castle in the way its creators intended, was nevertheless confident that his dad knew awesome toys when he saw them, my crazy funhouse concept of age-appropriateness notwithstanding.
So for a while we slowed down with the toys. I dialed back the glee of fathering a clever, sincere little clone of myself, and tried instead to be patient. There’d be time for building entire medieval villages or for dressing up like padded foam Terminators and shooting suction-cup darts at each other across the no-man’s-land of my living room. For the time being I settled for Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Duplo, and Fisher Price, as ploddingly simplistic and insipidly educational as they insisted on being. Eventually we’d hit the age for Transformers and ninjas and knights and space adventurers, and then it would be on, as they say, similarly to Donkey Kong.
Well, that time has come, sort of. John is four and a half now, and very much into a few of my old friends from boyhood. Optimus Prime of course is a favorite, as are ninjas and knights and any kind of play involving guns or swords, but there was still something essential that was different or missing that I couldn’t quite put a finger on. I caught a glimpse of this when my parents brought us a large box of my old Transformer toys from the 80’s that they had saved. Even though they were dusty and old and the plastic was brittle in comparison to the new unbreakable ABS that most kids toys are currently made of, John looked when I presented him with these relics as though I had just given him Excalibur. These broken, chewed-on, half-metal friends from my childhood instantly became his favorite toys. He slept with them grasped tightly in each hand, took them to school and showed them off proudly to his pre-school teacher, proclaiming that these were the “real” Transformers from “the olden days.” Aside from the incredible déjà vu whiplash I incurred from watching my son take the same Laserbeak toy to show-and-tell that I tucked in my own coat pocket when I was four or five, it was stunning to me how even at four and a half he could easily discern some qualitative difference between these old toys and their new somehow disappointing counterparts.
All of this became much clearer when, about two months ago, I discovered that the original animated Voltron and Thundercats are now available on Netflix Streaming. The life of a boy like John is non-stop action, and even when he sits down to rest and take a breath, he likes his TV shows full of action, too. Since we’d watched all of the shows on our DVR at least twice, I said “hey, John, check this out”, and I played him the first episode of Voltron. I don’t remember exactly how many he watched, but we got to at least episode 6 or 7 before we had to stop for dinner. My son was riveted, and I mean riveted, to the screen. I was proud of myself that I’d managed to come up with something he was interested in and enjoyed, and I started to wonder what exactly about Voltron was so much better than what he has on TV now. The show, on an adult re-watch, is every bit as formulaic and repetitive as the new ones he watches. The dialogue is just as simplistic. I mean, “flying robotic lions piloted by five space explorers that merge into a gigantic robot hero with a sword” is going to pass any boyhood litmus test of awesomeness you can come up with, but is that premise really that much better than Rescue Heroes or Dora the Explorer? And then it hit me: it’s the story.
Not the actual storyline, plot, subplots, etc, but more the fact that it had a story at all. Voltron, for all its overused stock-footage and repetitiveness, has a fully-formed story to it. There’s plot continuity. There’s internal logic. There’s (gasp!) antagonists! There’s conflict. A show like Dora the Explorer or the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse has none of these things. I say this fully understanding that today kids’ shows are much more targeted to specific ages than 20-25 years ago, so let’s look at something comparable like the Smurfs. The Smurfs had a very clear, traditional antagonist (Gargamel) and his comical cat henchman (Azreal, which incidentally is one name for the Angel of Death), and they lived in a stereotypical evil lair (Gargamel’s broken-down old wizard house), and their primary goal was to catch the Smurfs with the intention of either eating them, or using them to conjure gold. I guess you could count Swiper or Pete as the antagonists of Dora and Mickey, if you were willing to accept the feasibility of your heroes being forever relatively close friends with your primary antagonists, and the crisis in each episode involving mostly selecting which protagonist gets the task of awkwardly confronting these characters to say “come on, you’re being a douchebag again, stop it.” (Swiper no swiping!) The primary conflict of the show, then, is basically reduced to nothing but a thinly-veiled polemic on the dynamics of positive peer-pressure. Which the Smurfs had too, don’t get me wrong, but that wasn’t all they had.
In the Rescue Heroes, no one ever does anything negative deliberately. There are cops that respond to nothing but kittens stuck in trees, and firefighters that respond to volcanoes instead of arson. The “antagonist” is a character’s own flaws or fears that need to be overcome. Which is all fine and good until you realize the deeply flawed logic of a show specifically about people who do daring, dangerous jobs and yet appear to be a complete pack of sissy-pants-es.
For shows with branded characters with their own backstories, sidekicks, and pets that recur from episode to episode, it surprises me that they make so little effort at continuity. Hot Wheels Battle Force 5, Special Agent Oso, and Jake and the Neverland Pirates ooze potential for thrilling, boy-friendly, epic fun, and even though there are some colorful baddies in there from time to time, they lack a running storyline. Each episode stands on its own as a puzzling sort of narrative island, as if the producers had decided that since no one seemed to notice that Pokemon and Bakugan have no discernable plot that it was okay to do this with other types of shows as well. When they’re not having a talky, pluckily passive-aggressive exercise in getting each other to do what the whole group wants, the characters onscreen are breaking the fourth wall, staring directly at the child watching the show, and waiting for the child to respond like some sort of creepy call-and-answer litany. Is it any big surprise, then, that Sven, Lance, Hunk, Pidge, and Princess Allura are endlessly more entertaining to a kid than this strange mishmash of broken storytelling and cerebral psychosocial conditioning?
Since realizing this, I’ve started applying my own set of standards to the sorts of things John watches. “Does this story have, if not a ‘bad guy’ at least a logical antagonistic character?” Because really, if there isn’t, then how can this show ever effectively evoke classic storytelling tropes that are valuable to kids? Mickey telling Pete to stop playing his tuba while Donald is napping is a nice exercise in getting along with mostly-good people you have a momentary strong negative reaction to, but what about those people you just can’t get along with? What then?
Now that he’s in the last year of preschool before kindergarten, we received a strict edict of “no weapons and no superheroes” for show-and-tell. No weapons I was prepared for. It seems like the same sort of anti-conflict directive that we’ve all been swallowing begrudgingly as correct for the last twenty years or so, despite it being one of those distinctly “boy things” that makes us feel like we’re saying “don’t be a boy” to our boy children, but why no superheroes? I never received an answer from the people at the top, but it makes a sort of sense. Where go superheroes also go villains, and that seems to be an interesting and connected message to the cartoons. There is no need for superheroes or weapons because there is no such thing as antagonists.
Never mind that the show-and-tell ban on weapons and superheroes puts boys at a startling wrongness simply by virtue of one sort of narrative being more appealing than another to them, but who are we as adults to lie to our children and tell them that their lives are going to be full of only rational, understanding people, and conflicts that can be resolved in half an hour with conversation and teamwork, and that taking a stand for what they feel is right is anti-social? I don’t need much more than my son’s instant and strong reaction to the older style of storytelling to know that while times change, stories—true, realistic, logical stories—don’t. Sometimes in life you need Mouse-ke-tools to solve problems, but there are other times when you’ll be glad you brought your nunchucks.
Mark R. Brand is a Chicago-based science-fiction author and the online short fiction editor of Silverthought Press. He is the author of two novels, Life After Sleep (2011), and Red Ivy Afternoon (2006), and he is the editor of the collection Thank You Death Robot (2009), named a Chicago Author favorite by the Chicago Tribune and recipient of the Silver medal 2009 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) in the category of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He has published numerous short stories and essays, an exhaustive list of which can be found at http://www.markrbrand.com. He lives in Evanston, IL with his wife and son.