In “Unlearning the Myths That Bind Us” (from Rethinking Our Classrooms) Linda Christensen discusses the ways in which children’s stories, be they in the form of cartoons; fairy-tales; or films; work to, somewhat insidiously, pass on society’s dominant ideologies. She also describes the way in which her classes have dealt with the idea of children’s stories as a way to teach children how to behave in-line with societal expectations. There was nothing surprising in this reading for me, as I’ve been pretty aware of the ways in which our media, whether directed at adults or children, works to try and create conformists of us all. However, it was refreshing to read the ways in which Christensen’s students attempted to take direct action against this “secret education” (126).
One of Christensen’s students noted that “when we read children’s books, we aren’t just reading cute little stories; we are discovering the tools with which a young society is manipulated” (126). Omar hits the nail right on the head; taking a critical eye to stories and media aimed at children can prove to be very enlightening (and disheartening). Take, for example, one of the morals that Perrault offers for the classic fairy tale Little Red Ridinghood (the story, as well as the entire Norton collection of The Classic Fairy Tales can be found here):
From this story one learns that children,
Especially young girls,
pretty, well-bred, and genteel,
Are wrong to listen to just anyone,
And it’s not at all strange,
If a wolf ends up eating them.
I say a wolf, but not all wolves
Are exactly the same.
Some are perfectly charming,
Not Loud, brutal, or angry,
But tame, pleasant, and gentle,
Following young ladies,
Right into their homes, into their chambers,
But watch out if you haven’t learned that tame wolves
Are the most dangerous of all.
Perrault’s version of Little Red Riding is an incredibly common, and still told, version of the fairy-tale. This moral, a moral told to young children at the tail-end of a story meant to soothe them to sleep, not only perpetuates the idea that women must constantly be ever vigilant of men lest they get ‘eaten’ (also known as raped. Or, perhaps, even simply sexed before marriage) but it also highlights one of the (many) ways in which patriarchy is harmful to men as well as women. It depicts all men as being beholden to their carnal nature; it makes it sound like men are unable to control themselves and that they are inherently animalistic so all women just need to beware. This is a harmful idea to disperse not only because it feeds directly into our modern rape culture but also because it’s an incredibly insulting (and untrue) portrayal of men. It makes it seem as if all men are potential rapists (wolves) because they just cannot help themselves. Now Little Red doesn't seem all that much like a “cute little story” does it? And it didn't even take the most critical eye to see the problem with this moral, it just took a mind open to questioning things that we've been taught to be comfortable with.
Christensen spends some time addressing stereotypes, their prevalence in children’s stories, and the ways in which they are harmful. She states that “the stereotypes and worldview embedded in the stories become accepted knowledge” (127). This idea, coupled with her earlier quote from Beverly Tatum (“cartoon images…were cited by the children…as their number one source of information”) is particularly troubling when we take a look at many of the cartoons that our society’s children are watching. There’s no getting away from the racism and sexism that is prevalent in children’s media. Jafar, from Aladdin, a somewhat recent Disney film, is portrayed as far darker and more “ethnic” looking than the ‘good’ characters from the film. Whether or not that is a coincidence (which is doubtful), the message it sends is that ethnic=bad (as well as ugly and old=bad, which we also get from Ursula in The Little Mermaid, the crone from Snow White, the list could go on).
The stereotypes don’t stop once the images are no longer being targeted at children. Media is constantly pushing the dominant ideology on its consumers, whether the consumer is 3 or 33. This serves to ensure that the values that have been subliminally taken in stick with us. We have to be constantly bombarded with these problematic images otherwise we are more likely to hit that pane of glass in the river (for those that missed class on Thursday this reference may be indiscernible, shoot me a message and I’ll clarify for you!). Let’s use the past Black female Academy Award winners for example. All of these women were in films for adults. And they all portrayed common stereotypes of Black women. Halle Berry, the only Black woman to have won an Oscar, won for Monster’s Ball in 2001 for playing Leticia Musgrove, a character that very much fits the common Black trope of the “Jezebel”. Five Black women have won Academy Awards for supporting roles. The first was Hattie McDaniel for playing the quintessential Mammy (known as…Mammy) in Gone with the Wind. Whoopi Goldberg won her Oscar for playing a Magical Nigress in Ghost. Jennifer Hudson was the overweight Black Diva in Dreamgirls (arguably the least offensive trope to have won an Oscar). Mo’Nique won her Oscar for her portrayal of Mary Lee Johnston in Precious; Mary Lee was an abusive, “welfare queen” who was a parasite not just on the system but also her daughter. And lastly to bookend the list we have the most recent Black Academy Award winner: Octavia Spencer for her role as
Jackson in The Help. All of these films are for adults. All of these films
continue the “secret education” that we received as youths. The secret education
starts early and it never stops, this is why we must be always be critical
In class next week (or perhaps in the comment section of this post) I would like to find out what stories/shows/movies my peers once loved (or still love) that, upon critical analysis, they see as being incredibly problematic and simply stories that are acting as mediums for the dominant society’s message. Me first: I love Mulan, but unfortunately there is plenty of sexism and problematic racial portrayals in that film. I still will break out in song anytime someone says "Let's get down to business", but I no longer love that film unquestioningly. Furthermore, I’d like to talk about ways in which people feel like we can take direct action and work to counteract the messages that are being forced down our children’s throats. Christensen’s class did some interesting work, I’d like to see how we can further build upon what we've read in the text.
Christensen, Linda. "Unlearning the Myths That Bind Us." Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for
Equity and Justice / [editors ... Bill Bigelow ... Et Al.]. By Bill Bigelow, Linda Christensen, and Stan Karp. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 2007. 126-37. Print.