Pop & Circumstance
Anyone who’s had a conversation with me lasting longer than five minutes can conclude that I have no small level of fascination with pop culture. Be it film, books, video games, comics, I have always been a keen observer of how these outlets not only entertain us, not even just how they teach us, but how they shape the very way we think. I even still enjoy children’s cartoons at the ripe old age of 33. This isn’t just for the sake of nostalgia or entertainment, though I’d be lying if I claimed those didn’t play a part. I pay attention to these for perspective and hope.
Imagine, for example, your average kid today. What do you think is the largest window that kid has to learn about cultures, societal norms, and how people generally function and interact with each other in civil society? It’s mass media. There’s an argument to be made for the parents, but that’s only if our hypothetical kid is lucky enough to have a functional pair that don’t need to work themselves halfway to exhaustion to survive. Besides, a large part of parenting is cultivating, policing, and contextualizing what mass media their kid is exposed to. School is another strong candidate for this title, but the social interaction there is more of a proving ground and exchange of ideas and paradigms picked up from elsewhere and the teachers are all too often too overworked and underpaid to be bothered to impart any wisdom beyond how to game a standardized test. Sure they’ll gain some knowledge in the classroom, but as far as building a framework for what constitutes decent behavior and how we should treat one another and improve ourselves? Most of the building blocks we get for that are delivered through a screen.
That may be an alarming thought, but consider this. Last night, Zootopia took home the Academy Award for best animated feature, which I was very much happy about. Even though in terms of narrative, visuals, music, and acting it was hardly, in my humble opinion, the best animated film among the nominees (that would have to be Moana and in a close second, Kubo and the Two Strings).
I remember seeing Zootopia near the end of its theatrical run and was for the most part unimpressed with it as a film. The part of me that loved it and was excited it was the third highest grossing film of 2016 recognized its value not just as a film, but a fable. This movie was basically an instruction manual to show kids how dangerously easy it is to become intolerant and close one’s mind. It showed how, whichever side of an argument you come from, taking the road of exclusion and prejudice hurts us all.
If millions of kids are seeing this and internalizing those ideas, even if they don’t fully understand them at the time, then maybe as those seeds take root and as they grow up, we’ve got a better shot at getting closer to that ideal level of inclusion. Maybe we’ll stop reacting out of misinformation and fear in ways that needlessly and callously shut out our fellow human beings from being able to contribute to the prosperity of our shared future. Seeing this cartoon that didn’t even particularly challenge or entertain me, managed to give me some hope.
Thanks for listening,