A memory popped into my head: squirming in the creaky elementary school auditorium seats, feeling the humidity of the rainy day. A movie projector behind me click-click-clicking a film onto the big screen, instead of the normal Bugs Bunny cartoons. A fit of unstoppable giggles at these weird characters who randomly broke into song and dance when they weren’t fighting. And what was with all the snapping?
Not having seen West Side Story since…well, probably since then, I figured it would be fun to introduce my kids. Mostly because they love musicals, they too are in elementary school now (sniff), and I’ve had America stuck in my head for the last five years or so.
I found it, DVR’d it, and we watched.
While it was hard enough explaining why the heck everyone keeps snapping (little has changed in that respect), I found myself fielding questions about why those boys were always fighting and why those other boys were wearing orange makeup, and where their parents were if they were teenagers, and why they were being mean to the police officer, and why Tony was lying down with Maria without a shirt on and…
Let’s just say I spent a lot of time saying, “wow! Look at the great dancing! Isn’t that great dancing? Should we skip to the next part with dancing?”
I started thinking about how sensitive we’ve gotten about so many things. 30-something years ago, it wasn’t a big deal to show West Side Story in an elementary school setting. Let alone Bugs Bunny, the sociopathic cross-dressing rabbit. Today, I can only imagine the hand-wringing letter-writing and pitchfork-and-torch-wielding that would ensue. Something tells me it would be more controversial than even a star chart.
Now of course, I’d argue much of our increased sensitivity is for the best; the idea of casting Nathalie Wood as a Latina lead today would earn a Hollywood boycott, not 10 Oscars. (Wow, was she cute. And wow, was that accent bad.)
But improved cultural sensitivities aside, have we gone too far in the other direction in terms of kids’ media? It’s like we don’t want our kids exposed to any dark themes at all. No fighting, no dying, no conflict, no hating, no teasing. Definitely no guns. No gangs. And no Bugs Bunny.
We fast forward through the opening scenes of Finding Nemo and Bambi. We mumble through the pig-killing descriptions in Charlotte’s Web. I know parents who have even avoided the Wizard of Oz altogether for fear the Flying Monkeys would scare their kids. And these are parents of five and six year-olds.
(Thalia used to tell everyone as a toddler that the Flying Monkeys were her favorite part. I always thought it was kind of cool that my twirling little ballerina had a dark streak.)
It’s something that’s been on my mind heavily since I posted about reading Ozma of Oz to my girls and readers offered their own wonderful suggestions of childhood books. A few mentioned that they realized upon rereading the Little House on the Prairie books or the CS Lewis Narnia books, that they came across some uncomfortable themes that they hadn’t remembered as kids. It was a fascinating point.
I tend to go back and forth on it all. Should I skip the dark parts? And if so, am I inclined to skip past the dark parts because I don’t want my kids to see it, or because I’m worried about having to explain it?
Do I edit the more sexist aspects of Land of Oz as I read aloud? Or do I read it as written, as a way to discuss how differently people used to think of girls 100 years ago, and how far we’ve come since then?
And above all, are we depriving our kids of some psychological benefits that they reap through dark themes that are becoming increasingly scarce? Maybe a chance to grapple with their fears through storytelling, and work through them so they can grow?
I’m not sure.
In the case of West Side Story, we watched the movie without fast-forwarding, I la-la’ed through most of Officer Krupke, I answered their questions about why people sometimes fight, and I overemphasized the importance of the dancing. And the love story.
It seems to have worked. All week, the girls have been playing Maria and Tony now (Sage being Tony), which involves dancing the Mambo and pretending to hug on a fire escape.
I’ll consider that a win.
Have you encountered uncomfortable themes with your kids? How have you handled them?