For most families, media—which is to say stories and ideas rendered by and disseminated through movies, radio, television, computer games, CDROMs and the internet—are a major part of everyday life, and a major source of everyday concern. We all know that media can provide wonderful information and entertainment. They can also lead us to real and substantial edification, along with all the deepening and self-improvement that can follow when our eyes are raised and our hearts are stirred.
Unfortunately, as we also know, media culture has many negative elements and many pernicious effects. With every new television or holiday movie season it seems that these negatives are becoming more and more evident, and more and more difficult to avoid. In the debates and discussions that surround media issues, concerns like these are among the most frequently heard, and surely among the most deeply felt.
This is as it should be, and yet in our anxiety, on this subject, we sometimes stumble. There are many misconceptions about media for families, and about media in general. These misconceptions are often based on things that are at least partly true, but it is this very partialness that can sometimes lead to confusing distortions. Our tendency to take a negative part to be the definitive whole can keep us from fully understanding and fully enjoying the many great things that communication media have to offer us.
A major media confusion is related to this notion of parts and wholes. With films particularly we often hear that they are really enjoyable, and really appropriate, except perhaps for the proverbial “one small part.” We are inclined to condemn this kind of statement as a rationalization, as indeed it frequently is. But there is more to this issue than coarse language, explicit sexuality or gratuitous violence. (As our discussion continues it can be assumed that we are united in condemning these.) And rejection, especially when it is intolerant or uninformed, is not always the appropriate course.
Many of literature’s most important lessons are learned precisely through the vivid representation of the unseemly or the inappropriate (think of wicked Iago, or murderous Macbeth). Representation does not always equal advocacy; it is quite possible, and even necessary to portray wrong as we seek to understand and affirm right. The appropriateness of media content depends on its context, or how the content is treated.
This is just as true and just as helpful when right and wrong are not so clear, and when stories cause us to confront some of life’s confounding paradoxes. To cite another semi-Shakespearean text, Timon and Pumba present our hero Simba with a very attractive alternative to the slings and arrows of anxious engagement. Who hasn’t wanted to escape his difficulties? But hakuna matata makes escape a life’s philosophy, and is very inappropriate, in a sins-of-omission sense. And so we reject it, but because we are somewhat implicated—the phrase sounded pretty wonderful to us, too—we avoid sanctimoniousness, and find that our judgment is leavened by compassion.
It is this virtue that helps us, when properly informed and properly moved upon, to consider certain media missteps in the same kind spirit with which we should view one another’s mistakes. Here is one example among many. I admire and enjoy Walt Disney’s Bambi (1942). I also find that it presents some faintly idiotic patterns of male/female relationships that I’m anxious not to have my children follow in their lives. Even worse, the film offers one of the most unhealthy portrayals of (absentee, un-diaper-changing) fatherhood that I can think of, in cinema or in literature. Two “small parts,” both harmful. Do I avoid the film?
Not at all—in our media as well as in our life experiences, an open discussion of difficulty can properly inoculate us against harm. This part of the film is negative, and by simply talking we expose the problem and turn it to our own instruction. And since no harm was meant1 and much merit remains, we can take the whole film in the same way that we hope others will take us, our mediocrities notwithstanding. We can emphasize the good, and forgive the rest.
This notion that error can be turned to truth—and you’ll note how carefully and selectively we’re applying the idea—flies seriously in the face of another common media misconception. This is that we are what we see, that our media diets, especially in our childhood and youth, form our characters. Well, obviously we are affected, and sometimes profoundly, by the things to which we expose ourselves, especially when that exposure is constant. The error lies in the idea that we have no control over the process.
Do representations of violence fill us with sorrow and a sense of life’s sanctity, or do we rewind to watch the blood burst? Do honest portraits of other lives increase our sense of love and gratitude, or do they cause us to become squeamish and sanctimonious? There is clearly an element of personal choice here, and of personal responsibility too. Whether or not media have a positive affect in our lives has much to do with our own preparation and effort. The best program won’t help a passive, self-absorbed viewer very much, while on the other hand an active, intelligent (combining knowledge, light and truth), interrogating reader can turn most all of her careful media choices to happiness.
If all this is the case—and I submit that it is—there’s a last cliché to put to rest. That is that there is no, or at least not much good, wholesome, uplifting material for families out there. Not true. There’s more good media than you’ll ever have time to get to, even if you never get off the couch.
So what do we do now? How can we find some of these good things? And how can we apply all of these principles so as to make better use of our media? I recommend two simple courses.
First, turn off your TV, at least for now. Some of us have some negative patterns of media choice and consumption. If we are to effect media reform in our homes then we need to tune out long enough to think about some better alternatives, to relearn some fundamentals. In the arts, which is to say in our living and in our seeking to understand our lives, this relates to something older and deeper than mere technological bells and whistles. The fact is that technology, media (screens or pages or canvases) are simply means to an end. The first thing is story.2
Now this may seem strange to those who are inclined to think of stories, or the arts in general as mere recreations, or luxuries, or as vehicles for escape. Within the confines of that argument, they have a point; consumer art, or art consumed, might as well be left alone, as the media naysayers suggest. But art as proxy, which tells us about real things and helps us pass abundantly through them, is practically a necessity.
We need narratives, and the perspective that they bring. So, a good second step on the road to media reform is to dust off your library card and reintroduce yourself to books, and to the world of children’s literature in particular. As you enter this world you may find a number of surprising things.
One is that your children will be delighted with your company there, or, if they’re not quite readers yet, that they will follow your example when the time comes. Another is that you won’t just be dutifully feigning interest in childish things that you’d long since put away. The open-minded, open-hearted adult will soon find herself fully engaged in this marvelous, practically inexhaustible material. As you read you’ll find that dews will distill, and that you will become sensitive to those nuances of part and whole, of content and context, of the responsibility and power of active reading that we have been discussing. And then finally, as you boot back up and plug back in, you may discover something that has even escaped many of those educators, writers and illustrators who have made children’s literature such a bracing and substantial place.
Literature and media—books, films, TV programs, discs, sites—are the same.3 They’re good, or bad, or in between. They encourage active reading and edification, or they sap and smother. And the difference is up to us, the choice between positive and negative experiences all our own.
Normally this would be the time to start presenting lists of worthy programs for families to explore. But tastes, needs and family circumstances vary, and individual titles are not as important as the concepts that enable us to make good use of them. Once the ideas are in place, proper application, through trial and error, will come naturally.
Still, general principle doesn’t always help us with the nuts and bolts. So to conclude, here are some specific and practical ideas that will help us in establishing effective, responsible, joyful media policies in your home.
I’ve suggested that there are near infinities of appropriate media for your family, and yet sometimes we feel like we can’t see around the bad stuff. There is a solution. Clean house. Upgrade your own habits. Then, as far as it is in your power, do not allow your children to be exposed to anything that you have not seen or tested or approved. (This is particularly true of the little ones; the young men and women, having been taught correct principles, should gradually be left to govern themselves.) All of this supervising obviously requires a great deal of time and vigilance, but the benefits are similar to the ones appertaining to children’s literature. It’s fun!
As Playstation addicts and their children know, it’s easy to get carried away with media. Resist. Keep surfing to a bare minimum. Have some purpose or objective when you turn on that machine. Having accomplished said purpose, turn the machine off. Think—do you really need TVs in kitchens and bedrooms, on weeknights or Sabbath days? If our media don’t add to our sense of connection and community, then they’ve ceased to serve us.
What is children’s media? Some literaturists suggest that the key to a children’s or young person’s book is that the main character be a child or a young person. Based on my experience I would confirm in part, and then expand that definition. Children’s media is media that children and parents (guardians and grandparents, aunts and uncles, older friends) enjoy together.
Since this is the case, the possibilities yawn before us. So as not to get lost in all the choices, we should learn about media categories and then, in the spirit of balanced diets and a full representation of all requisite food groups, moderately pursue them all. There are games and stories of adventure and escape, sermons and fables as well as anarchic romps, folk and fairy tales4, scientific and historical and informational media, pictorials, realistic fiction and material about (and not necessarily for) children, representations of family life in general.5 There’s enough in this ensemble of approaches and subjects to fill all the years we have with our children, and to occupy all the grandchildren as well.
Seeing loud movies in dark theatres may be fun, but the popcorn chomping passivity that these settings tend to encourage is not generally conducive to education, especially if we’re not mature viewers. Acknowledging that there are trade-offs, I’m convinced that the best place to watch and read and talk media is in the home, where classroom curiosity and discussion can be encouraged. So if you can manage—and there’s a very wide range of options—build your own media centre, pop your own popcorn, and get going.
Until they reach a certain age, children are not usually allowed in theatres (where plays are produced), lest they disturb their neighbours with their questions. Talking out loud is, quite properly, discouraged at the movies. But let’s think—while giving politeness its due, is this natural, or appropriate? In theatre for young audiences, for instance, we find no shushing; relevant disturbance is not only expected, it is encouraged. How else will the child learn and understand?
TV programs and films should be read aloud, like a picture book. Parents should essentially provide both play-by-play and colour commentaries. They should talk about story and character, theme and meaning, image and sound, text and the world it connects us to. They should rewind and repeat and ask leading questions, they should provide multiple and possibly contradictory answers. This approach makes impossible the open-mouthed, empty-eyed gaping usually associated with TV babysitting. And in modeling this kind of active reading, we insure that our children will become informed and literate, and as vocal and opinionated as we are.
The logical end to proxy experiences is that we return to our lives, instructed and invigorated, ready to try harder and to do better. We should always remember that books and media are means to that end. Even the best of films, at least of the standard feature length variety, will consume half of an afternoon and most of an evening. Discussion and application are inhibited when we don’t have the time, when the time is right, to effect them. However, the problem has a simple solution. For your media intake consider installments, shorter programs, and the following best and most basic of teaching ideas.
This idea relates to the media moguls’ concept of ancillary, which is to say that we not only have the game or movie or TV show, but we also get products, toys, novelizations, underwear. This idea, so dangerous in the marketplace, is really native to the classroom, and it belongs in the family room. It means that you never just read a book, since that last page is just the start of a process. After the movie, read a story, and a scripture, build a model, play a game, write a letter, make a visit. It is this combination and accumulation of activities that make active, informed, edified media consumers. More important, these activity clusters mean that, in part through media, we’re constantly learning together and enjoying one another. Through such activities parents and children become bound by common (fun!) experience, common principles, common strivings and mutual accomplishments.
Yes, there is much that is inappropriate and even dangerous in media, including our habit of keying on the negative and ignoring everything else. That everything else is that the new technologies, as well as the old truths that are presented so vividly thereon, are heaven-sent, boons and blessings, sources for joy and causes for gratitude. If you are not convinced by this assertion, then the means are within your reach. Give it a try.
1. In this way we can get past what is often an excessive, obsessive preoccupation with an author’s intent. As we will see (cf. Joseph Smith History 1: 63-65/Isaiah 29: 9-11), intent isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be; the reader can be as informed and authoritative as the writer.
2. Another first principle, which is at least as important in the visual arts as story, is image. Pictures are capable of standing independent of narrative, simply speaking for the beauty of the earth, or calling for correction therein. But that is a subject for a whole different discussion.
3. Actually, I’m sort of saying this for rhetorical effect. Obviously books’ pages and media’s screens, literature’s stasis and media’s movement, literature’s narration and media’s enactment are all sorts of different. But you get my point.
4. The nature of these means that a cartoon version is never definitive, and only serves its purpose when it sends us searching for variants and originals.
5. In addition to these categories think of sampling some of the bounties of the silent film era, or of Hollywood’s golden age, of American independent or international cinemas, of documentary and informational media, quality broadcast news, on-line newspapers, and on and on.
Recommended Chapter Books