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It’s at once exhilarating and terrifying.  My kids “know” Elmo.  I don’t mean we’ve been to Sesame Place (we haven’t) or that they watch Sesame Street (they don’t) or that they have three thousand Elmo-emblazoned toys at home (they haven’t).  I mean, they’re at the age where they’re pointing out all the Elmos in the world.  And that furry red monster is a sneaky bastard, lemme tell ya.  Dude is everywhere.  Sure there’s clothes, toys, and games.  Elmo has moved beyond the Tickle Me stage, and has matured into Big Hugs, Forever Friends, Lullaby & Good Night, Steps to School, Guitar Elmo, Potty Time Elmo, Counting, Trains, Soccer, K’nex, Memory, LeapFrog, and, the most disturbing evolution yet of the Tickle Me Elmo, “LOL Elmo”.  In addition to fruit snacks and applesauce with the tempting red furry mug on them, Elmo is now peddling a variety of Earth’s Best organic foods, including crackers, cookies, canned pasta in sauce, frozen waffles, instant oatmeal, squeeze-pouch smoothies, and frozen entrees.

Unlike the happy meal or cereal box that comes with a prize (do they still do that? Or is an iTunes download more enticing?), these products have little to do with the character on them.  Maybe the crackers are shaped like Elmo’s head, but the oatmeal is just oatmeal.  They are simply branded to build loyalty, character recognition, and ring up sales.  My friend who is an expert in mass media is nodding vigorously right about now, and it’s no shocker.  Kids’ characters promote products to families with kids.

PhD please.

My children are just now entering the word-combining phase of their speech development.  We are collecting their gems such as “Mama poop” (a comment) “No, doggy!” (a condemnation)“Mama, off shirt” (a command) and “More oatmeal” (a request).  One of the things that fascinated me as they learned their first words were the semantic features they would use to differentiate between words.  “Cracker” was an early word, and it encompasses all small, crunchy hand-held foods, such as Chex, Cheerios, Ritz, yogurt melts, freeze-dried strawberries and Gerber puffs. My son uses his name to apply to all babies, in person or in pictures.  The children may understand many differentiations for footwear, but only a binary distinction is required expressively.  There are “choos”, and there are “cocks”.  And when they want their Crocs, you’ll know, as they shriek and point “COCK” at the top of their  lungs.  (and don’t ask me about how they pronounce “fork” and “shirt”).  Beyond the thrilling worlds of clothing and food, they’re learning about their environment and the people/animals in it.  Children’s authors receive a dictum that approximately 70% of books must contain farm animals.  I think the library associations are subliminally preparing our children for an agrarian lifestyle.  They’re also learning about furniture, everyday objects, and those big grown-up strollers: cars.  No shocker that “car” was one of their first words, and that “mama car” and “dada car” were two of the earliest two-word phrases.  Taking them shopping was a veritable sensory overload in the parking lot, trying to label and point to all the cars individually.  (There’s a car!  There’s another car! A car!  Look, a car!  Omigosh, another one!  Car over there! Here’s a car!”)

So it follows that I wasn’t the least bit surprised that they were identifying Abby Cadabby and Elmo as we ventured out into the world.  Mind, they’ve never seen the television tuned to any children’s programming.  We have books with these characters, and they occasionally have seen them on their box of crackers or in a Babies ‘R Us circular.  Taking them through Target or the grocery store is getting dangerous.  They’re liable to point out every Abby and Elmo in sight.  And of course, I get excited and proud when they recognize a familiar character or object.  Yes, my sweet little geniuses, that is a dog walking in our neighborhood!  That is an avocado just like we eat at home! But just as I can’t buy every avocado in the supermarket, I’m not going to bring home every Disney Cars toy either.

Planning their birthday party last year – I should say overplanning­ — I was lost for a “theme”.  Diving into the depths of Pinterest I saw all manner of one-year-old themes, from Eric Carle, to Dr. Seuss, to “You are my Sunshine”, to Mickey Mouse, to trucks.  I know the party is for the parents, to celebrate having survived the hardest year of their lives, have kept the defenseless slug-like child alive long enough to actually enjoy it, but I was perplexed by the themes.  Visits to the overachieving parents’ blogs would reveal, “Little Bisquick is so into The Very Hungry Caterpillar, we carved a butter sculpture with naturally-derived dyes in the shape of a chrysalis”.  Or “Rubella is so into Cookie Monster we turned the house into a Sesame Street backdrop for photo ops”. I wondered if there was something wrong with my kids that they hadn’t expressed preferences yet.  Should they be “into” princesses or hippos or farm equipment by now?  Sure there are books we read over and over and over again until we know them from memory, but my kids’ demanding to hear “Moo Baa Lalala” for the 47th time doesn’t make me want to run out and buy all the Sandra Boynton paper plates and napkins in the world.  I know they need repetition to learn language and concepts.  That’s why Blue’s Clues airs the same show five days a week.  It’s not so parents want to drive ice picks through their ears; kids actually learn that way.  (Learning from television itself, now that’s a separate story)

Once they started pointing out all the Elmos in the world, they also started pointing out more mundane things.  Cars, for one, but also doors.  My kids love to knock on doors, especially if their parents are behind said doors, trying to use the bathroom.  (I may have taught them this game, but I may have been influenced by a college roommate. I’m not naming names.  It’s funny if you’re 1 or 21, that’s all I’m saying.) So when we go to the children’s museum, they get excited by seeing the plastic bananas in the supermarket, riding the boat in the fairytale-themed exhibit, and knocking on the doors to the maintenance rooms.  Are they “into” doors?  Are they “into” bananas?

No, because outside of the sexy world of energy efficiency, Pella hasn’t figured out how to make doors fun and exciting to parents.  Chiquita hasn’t been working on cultivating the 3-and-under set to demand banana appliqués on their onesies.  There’s no commercial market place for unbranded products.  And no birthday theme packs, either.

I suppose that parents are so excited to see their kids recognize an object or character, that they project their own schema of interest, and that supplants the baby’s intent to just say, “Hey, mom, that’s a dog”.  Identifying the object (or pointing to every car in the parking lot) is the purpose of the interaction.  I know we want to support their growth, so we look for their interests.  We buy them all the Elmo drek, we fill their playrooms with vehicles and princess paraphernalia.  I think that gender roles and gender norms creep deviously into our minds and our parenting styles much more subtly than we think.  It’s not just the glittery pink Stride Rite shoes versus Star Wars action sneakers.  It’s also caregivers seeing a boy identify “car”, inferring that he’s into cars, and jumping on the boys-love-vehicles bandwagon.  They might ignore when their daughter does the same, or at least not praise it with as much overt enthusiasm.  You don’t have to explicitly tell a boy that dolls are for girls, but you might not perceive a boy as nurturing if you don’t recognize the times he pretends to feed his baby doll.

Have the marketers and ad agencies figured this out, too?  You betcha.  Put a character on a box of cereal or a carton of ice cream, and the kid will identify it, which the parent will interpret as “want”.  Even better, put it on a healthy, natural product (Princess carrots.  Have you seen these?), and the parent will coalesce the kid’s “interest” with their own desire to choose nutritious foods.  Once the kid does get old enough that the “interest” has been nurtured and funded, it’s only a matter of time until you overhear, “Mommy, I want Dora ice cream” and “But I NEED the Thomas backpack!”

That Dora cake at her first birthday?  That was all for you.  That carton of purple ice cream (or, technically, “frozen dairy dessert”) when she’s 5?  That’s to get you out of ACME without a major meltdown.

That reads “Disney Squared”  for all those not accustomed to writing math terminology on a QWERTY keyboard.  Ahem.

A while back, I was at a daycare center of some sort, and a child approached me with a book.  This is not uncommon.  I am often barraged by joyous children as I walk in the doorways of their classrooms.   As a sometimes-itinerant speech language pathologist, I have similar status to a grandmother. 

Wait, that came out wrong.  Hear me out. 

What I mean is, I am allowed to come into a classroom or home, stay for an hour, and leave behind whatever ruckus or mess happens while I’m there.  While I do support teachers and parents in ways to improve their children’s undesired behavior, I largely don’t have to deal with consequences of promises to have a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party, bribes for eating healthy lunches, and crashes of overly sugared children.  I also do not have to deal with classroom “housekeeping”, both literal and figurative.  While it may sound strange, I did actually see one perk of becoming an SLP as not having to change diapers for work.  Don’t get me wrong: I”ve mopped up pee puddles, iced split lips, been boogered, sneezed, and coughed on, and had paint lavishly applied to my clothing, face, and hair, but I have not yet changed a diaper on the clock.  In my itinerant work, I come in, pay attention to children, play with them, and then leave, as mysteriously (to the kids) as I came.  They always ask where I’m going. 

“To eat my lunch,” as I leave them to their meals and naps.

“To go home,” as they watch me get in my car at the end of the day.

“To go play with Jeremiah,” as I walk next door to see another child at the center.

“To wash off all the bodily secretions you’ve just lathered on my person in the hottest water available,” as I jet for the nearest sink.

One day, as I was saying, I was approached with a book, in a classroom which did not have many books to choose from.  I was pleased to find this Little Golden Book wasn’t missing any pages (a rarity in this classroom of 2-3 year-olds) and was only minorly torn.  “101 Dalmatians”. 

I’m frequently amused at book adaptations from familiar Disney movies.  They try to keep in the key “plot” elements, often condensing character development into an anecdote the children will remember from the movie. 

I read “101 Dalmatians”.  I remember this movie thrilling and scaring me.  Cruella DeVil was just the embodiment of evil in a “Crazy Lady Driver“, unceasing in her attempts to get the friggin’ dalmatian puppies.  For some reason, she needs 99 to make a dog-skin coat.  Dog-skin coat.  That’s a line I remember from the movie.  Because of course she’s fur-obsessed.  Anyone can see that in her sumptuous characteristic coat and matching hair-do.  Anyone can see her coat and know those puppies are destined to become her summer wardrobe.  So you can imagine how shocked I was to read that, according to this Disney-licensed (no NYC street-vendor knockoff beach towel) book, she wanted to sell them to the circus.

Let that sink in for a moment. 

Take a breath.  Ready to continue?   Because Dalmatians are so exotic and rare?  Because they’re so eminently trainable (which, as a breed, they’re actually not)?  Because in her heart, Cruella is just an enterpreneur and wants to jump in on the market for dog circuses?

No, because Disney, famous for woosifying such classics as the Little Mermaid (newsflash: Ariel dies at the end of the Grimm Bros. tale), Cinderella (the evil stepsisters cut off her toe & heel to try to fit into the slipper), Snow White (Evil Queen actually wants Snow White’s lungs and liver, to eat, as proof that SnowWhite  is dead), and Pocahontas (don’t even get me started), just bastardized their own story.  Usually, the Disneyfication (patent pending) is to make them have happy endings, to decrease bloodshed, to introduce more sidekicks and related best-selling songs, or to sell more merchandise.  This time it was to…?  Apologize for making an evil character have evil intentions?  Appeal to PETA?  Reneg on their own movie?  Make the character of Cruella have no villianous integrity whatsoever? 

Is animal cruety so taboo we can’t even have villians scheming and plotting, even if they’re thwarted at the end, as they always are? 

If the movie wasn’t too scary for children, then the book shouldn’t be either.  That’s my point.  And if they’re suddenly becoming PC, then Disney has a lot of work to do with Peter Pan.  The “what makes a red man red” song always rubbed me wrong, and I’ve since childhood preferred the Mary Martin live action version on Betamax.  You just can’t beat it. 

My point is this: if I’m going to indulge in a little Disney, give me dog-skinning, cigarette-smoking, peroxide-abusing Cruella DeVil over her regentrified dog-circus ringmaster iteration anyday .

The curl of her lips
The ice in her stare
All innocent children
Had better beware
She’s like a spider waiting
For the kill
Look out for Cruella De Vil

Cruella DeVil
Cruella DeVil
If she doesnt scare you
No evil thing will
to see her is to
take a sudden chill
Cruella,Cruella DeVil

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November 2020