COLUMN: Animated children’s programming, a dissertation

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, July 10, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Animated children’s programming, a dissertation
By Aaron J. Brown

Some among you don’t have children. Some among you have older children you raised some decades ago. Some among you have children, but don’t watch much television because you are so dang busy making homemade granola bars and teaching them to speak Cantonese without a discernible accent.

If any of these describe you, what I’m about to say might not make much sense. I don’t care. I am a college educated adult with a love of knowledge who is writing these very words while watching Gordon pull the Express into Knapford Station on my TV. The twin four-year-olds are sprawled out in a labyrinth of tracks, tendrils reaching every free space in the living room. You see, Gordon is getting too big for his britches. He’s showing off so much that he didn’t see the ice on the tracks. What do you think will happen?

The answer, of course, is another undocumented railway accident on the Island of Sodor, where everyday commerce challenges natural limits to machines governing their own operation. If the trains want to engage in dangerous activities why do their drivers’ allow it? Are they incompetent? Are we incompetent? Are we really in control? Is there such a thing as free will?

I’m not complaining about the shows the boys like. I once subjected my parents to great amounts of He-Man and Mr. Rogers. The issue, rather, is the intellectual bubble created for us adults in the house. We notice higher concepts buried in these kids’ shows, but who do we rush out to tell? If we do, does it matter?

Maybe you know the Count from “Sesame Street.” We are led to believe that, like the stereotypical Romanian vampires from which his character is derived, the Count holds hereditary land and title. The other day on Sesame Street the Count introduced himself. He said that he is the Count because he likes to count. In other words his castle, fine vestments, and the elevated respect he appears to be granted by other residents of the Muppet/Sesame Street world were owed not to the Count’s fortuitous birth, but by his own unmitigated love of numbers.

What would happen if this applied to all of us? No one doubts the Count’s claim on being a count because his dedication to counting is unquestionable. If he were to start botching fours or sevens his paper kingdom would collapse. What if we lived in a true meritocracy? What if we simply adopted our titles from a proper combination of action and passion? What if we already live in such a place, but forget the power we do have?

This all comes along with difficult questions about the ways that creators of children’s shows deal with the reproduction and family structure of their characters. Let’s talk about anthropomorphic vehicles, shall we?

In the aforementioned Thomas the Friends stories, the trains coexist with humans and do not sexually reproduce. Trains are “born” when they are manufactured in factories. Trains “die” when they are scrapped or smelted. This seems reasonable. But in “Cars” and “Cars 2” we are confronted with a world in which vehicles with human characteristics live independently. In the first movie we are presented with cars capable of friendship and business arrangements. It is also implied that male cars would be attracted to female cars, but we’re never sure to what end. (Two points).

In the second movie, we learn that Italian race car and Lightning McQueen rival Francesco Bernoulli has a mother and that Luigi the taxi has an uncle. All of this implies a traditional family structure and some form of biological reproduction. Is it because they’re Italian? Is it because of the metric system? Why is this so confusing? And alarming?

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. If I didn’t have boys who liked watching Thomas the Tank Engine, Curious George or Word World, would I be diving head first into an abyss of great philosophical writing and heady literature? Perhaps, but more likely I’d be finding base distractions. If anything these deep thoughts shed light on one truth. From the simple, rises the complicated. The complicated may sometimes only be unwound by the simple.

A good engine should never cause confusion and delay.

Aaron J. Brown is the author of the blog and the book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.” He teaches communication at Hibbing Community College.

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