Monday, August 13, 2012


"Be yourself, be unique, be a monster!"

I was at a birthday party for my 11 year old niece last Saturday. While we sat at the park, she and her 8 year old sister told me all about a TV show called Monster High School. The animation is pretty poor, the drawings are Bratz-like caricatures, and the overall quality is low, but its kind of clever.

The concept is this: monsters had kids, and they go to high school. The main characters are all girls, daughters of Dracula, Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, etc. Yes, most of them couldn't breed, and Frankenstein's 'daughter' is just stitched together rather than born, but that's not a very significant point.

The cartoon is pretty typical Mattel cartoon stuff, and it has plenty of merchandizing, like dolls and playsets and games. Because its targeted at girls, there are boyfriends and relationships are pretty focal to the stories.

So that is all kind of clever, and whoever came up with it did a good job finding a new way to market an old idea. And you should know by now that with a fantasy-fiction writing, RPG-playing background I'm hardly hostile to the idea of monsters.

But I have a problem with the show. In fact I have problem with almost all of children's television, but Monster High is a good example to work from.

In the 90s, a rule was implemented requiring all children's television to have educational content. You couldn't just show a story and have things happen, it had to have a moral. Basically it was the same approach as a 50s morality law requiring "uplifting" content, but from a 90s PC perspective.

So shows like Thundarr the Barbarian or the Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour weren't allowed any longer. You couldn't just have a story, it had to have moral content, of sorts. Every kids TV show turned into the After School Special with a moral behind it.

And Monster High's moral is pretty straight forward: be yourself, its okay if you're different, don't be forced to fit in, love yourself for who you are. The motto of the show (the quote at the top) says it all. Each individual show has its particular lesson, of course, but they all turn into the same moral at the end.

For example the episode where Frankie Stein (daughter of Frankenstein, yeah) first gets to high school she relies on teen magazines for all her advice and how to deal with every situation. She learns that she should just be herself instead. Or there's the episode where Cupid (she's a girl and... not a monster, so they're stretching the definition a bit) has a dating advice show, but it doesn't work and in the end everyone learns that they should... be themselves instead. And on it goes.

Now, there's nothing particularly wrong with telling kids they should avoid being shaped into cliques and turned into someone else by peer pressure or fear of being alone. Its good that kids be okay with being themselves.

But that's as far as this advice goes. There's not a push to be better, there's no ambition beyond being you. And Monster High is hardly alone in this theme. Its the shared theme of almost all children's television; they almost all have the same push of 'be yourself its okay whatever' and that's not always good. Maybe you are a lazy slacker. Maybe you have a tendency to want to build a shrine of your enemies' bones. Maybe you're a thief, or a slut, or a liar. Maybe you're so weak willed you have no personality.

And the other themes are politically correct multicultural stuff. Embrace the different, don't criticize people for being who they are, etc. Again, that's not necessarily wrong, but is it the primary lesson kids really need to learn? As sappy and simplistic as the old After School Specials were, at least they tended to have more significant moral lessons behind them.

And what young people need more than anything else is moral guidance that will help shape them into mature, responsible adults. Being yourself and not being mean to other people isn't enough. Doing what is right, having integrity, having virtue is what we need. A society of individuals who are nice to each other means we end up with a stagnant society of no growth, ambition, or achievement. A society of people who strive to do right and are virtuous means a society that will accomplish great things for good reasons.

Now I doubt the makers of these shows are deliberately calculating the end result of their moral message. I think they are trying to check off a box of non-offensive message calculated to appeal to kids. They want a moral that won't upset anyone and that young people will find attractive, so "be yourself" is the lowest common denominator. And they do sort of push some morals like "be honest" but at the same time they show that lying (oh that's a nice outfit) is good too, so the message is a bit diluted, to say the least.

But what's the end result of kids raised to not judge, always accept the different, and be individuals without striving for more? What happens when generation after generation are raised to accept anything no matter what because its mean to ostracize or criticize anyone for their behavior? Where does a society go when the bulk of it is taught to accept their place and be what they are without any ambition or wanting to be better?

Anywhere authorities tell it to go.

So I guess the problem isn't so much just the show, but a society wrapped around it which doesn't teach virtue, ethics, and truth. And that's up to the parents because your kids aren't going to learn any of that from the rest of the world - unless they're at a good church, I suppose.

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