Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Toy Story 3: Lessons in Race and Gender

I suppose that we are an oddity as a family, because we have one television hooked up to our satellite dish and only two televisions total.  This is a conscious decision on the part of the unhusband and I, because we want the ability to monitor what the children are watching, and actively engage them in critical thinking.  I have spent a great deal of time talking to Destruction, my oldest son, about the repeated tropes in media, so that he will be able to recognize isms, even when they appear in a covert manner.  Much of the conditioning that children receive is through the media, and without an adult to raise the proper questions, they are easily internalized, thus furthering the project of hierarchy in our society.

The Ken doll makes his first appearance in the series, in Toy Story 3.  He is immediately taken with Barbie and shows her his dream house.  He loves clothes and enjoys modeling them for her, while complaining that no one appreciates clothing.  It is clear that Ken feels as though he has been 'othered repeatedly.'

While watching the movie, what really stood out to Destruction, was Ken's rage when it was suggested that he was a girls toy.  Mommy he asked, "is that sexist?"  First, let me say that I was very happy that he could see that something was wrong with Ken's rage, but as I thought about his question, I realized that answering his question would only be another form of indoctrination, even though my response would be equality minded.  I turned to him and asked, "what do you think?"  He paused for a moment and responded with, "I think it is, because there is no such thing as a girls toy or a boys toys and to be upset because he might be a girls toy, means he does not think that boys and girls are the same."

Um yeah, big moment of celebration for me.  Not only did he recognize that something was wrong with Ken's view of gender, he understood that such a position privileged masculinity at the expense of girls/women.  All the toys had owners who were either male or female with no value placed on gender, yet Ken balked when it was suggested that he might be a girls toy. This could perhaps suggest that the other toys saw Ken's concerns as ridiculous, but I believe that based in the fact that they taunted him over this, it was a way of disciplining his performance of masculinity.  Boys aren't supposed to like playing dress up - except that they do.  

As we continued to watch the movie, Destruction went on to comment about the lack of characters of colour.  "No one ever looks like me in these movies," he pointed out. I suspect that the representation of Blackness has really begun to stand out for him, since we began discussing the ways in which Black is often characterized as evil and White as pure and good.  He is learning that sometimes what you don't see, is as important as what you do see.  I explained to him that because we live in a White supremacist society, good representations of people of colour are rare.  I further pointed out that it is always important to look critically at the images we are watching, even if we are enjoying the programming in question.  The moment we shut down our critical censors and say that something is just a movie, or a television show, we are saying that oppression does not matter, or that there instances in which it can be excused, thus ignoring the pain that isms create for marginalized bodies.

I am constantly talking to the children about the media that we consume, because I am very cognizant of the fact that the media is a major agent of socialization.  Some concepts that I have introduced to the kids have taken several explanations to clarify, but it has been well worth the effort, because they have learned that questioning and thinking is a responsibility of all people.  My children will never be anyone's sheep.  Too often, we leave critical thinking until kids are in university, and then attempt to erase a lifetime of indoctrination, in the false belief that critical thinking is something that requires a specific level of maturity. What I have learned, is that even the most confusing concepts can be explained, if one is dedicated to having repeated discussion while using language that is accessible to children.

With my oldest we have now reached the point of asking what he thinks rather rushing to answer his questions to encourage him to believe that his thoughts and ideas are just as important as ours because we have given him the basic building blocks to deconstruct the world around him. This destabilizes the coercive hierarchy that is often present within the nuclear family, as well as teaches him that he is valued for who he is.  As his parents we are simply guides to help on the life process and not dictators.  It much easier to do all the thinking for children and to issue orders but by doing so, we rob them of the ability to think critically and grow with a real understanding of how they are perceived and the true makeup of the world around them.