Childish Things

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There is a CS Lewis quote I hate. It is one I see plastered across pictures of inspirational landscapes, or atop men in crisp looking business suits, or people discarding their comic collections, or any other number of meme-fodder backdrops. It comes from one of his 1952 essays, and it goes a little something like this:

“When I became a man I put away childish things”

Pretty simple, eh? Straightforward and to the point. A verbal cudgel designed to bludgeon some infantile manchild into throwing out the objects of their carefree youth and focusing on big, important, adult things. Taxes, bills, marriage, work, the stuff that actually matters in the day to day world, way more than whatever errant fantasies filled your head before adolescence kicked in.

Kind of a weird quote coming from a man who made his way in the world writing books for children and teenagers.

Oh, wait, that’s because it’s a fragment of a quote usually taken out of context to serve the inverse of what he meant it to. The original statement is much longer and came from a very good essay on how to write for children and adults alike. The actual text, if you go back to that particular document, is actually:

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

Emphasis mine.

I feel incredibly blessed to have grown up in a generation where the lines of entertainment and age groups have really begun to blur. Many of the cartoons and comics and whatnot of my childhood haven’t aged particularly well (if you have anything disparaging to say about Darkwing Duck or the works of Don Rosa we’re going to have to fight) but I’m envious of what kids are growing up on today and I absolutely refuse to feel bad about enjoying it myself.

This kind of came up because I was selling some shows to a friend of mine, around my age. “Kid” shows, cartoons. Neither of us really cared about that aspect of it, and it was nice. It’s an entirely different animal from trying to convince someone of an earlier generation to try something marketed toward a young age range. There’s a lot of dismissing it out of hand as being too kiddy. I don’t mean to sound ageist here because I do know people older than me, my parents’ age, who will happily watch or read young adult and kid stuff, but they feel like the exception rather than the rule.

The main show I was talking about with said friend was Gravity Falls. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a show that started on Disney a few years back and ran for two seasons of sporadic broadcasts and the kind of waits that make you think the channel is trying to sabotage the product. It deals with a couple of preteens spending the summer with their grand uncle in the sleepy northwestern town of Gravity Falls. They discover a book of weird symbols and find themselves embroiled in a series of old conspiracies and mythical creatures that surround the town. It’s very good. I would have devoured it as a kid and I am totally unashamed of loving it as an adult. It’s full of references to things like Twin Peaks, the X-Files, John Carpenter, Cronenberg, Kubrick. It’s definitely a kids’ show but in such a way that recognizes how fucking smart kids are and doesn’t attempt to pander to them. The show is intelligent and it has a wicked edge to it, it’s the only children’s show you’re going to find where they tackle the topic of how stressful male puberty is by having the male protagonist seek guidance from a clan of underground Manotaurs who spend their days lifting weights, insulting each other and getting in fistfights with their chests (because their nipples are clenched fists). It deals with women being encouraged to put down other women to appeal to male authority figures, and shamed for not fitting into certain molds. When one character reveals that another’s boyfriend is a scumbag and it looks like he might be “rewarded” with her seeking comfort in his arms, she rightly calls him a selfish prick for thinking about himself when she’s heartbroken over the other guy betraying her. It subverts all expectations and it does so while maintaining a great, spooky overarching plot about the supernatural stuff happening in the town. It’s exactly the kind of show I’d want my hypothetical kids to watch and learn from.

There’s a wealth of other stuff like that too, and that’s awesome. The Last Airbender is straight up one of my favorite shows in recent history, it’s a mixture of wuxia and mysticism that works great, and it does it all without featuring any stereotypically western settings. Elements of various Chinese dynasties are blended with elements of Tibet, Korea, Inuit culture, Pacific Islanders, Mayans, groups that don’t get a whole lot of focus outside of blatant orientalism and exotic filler. Beyond that it spends multiple seasons building one group up as the evil empire only to completely demolish that when the characters enter that empire and find that the people living there are really no different from anywhere else, they’re just under the iron grip of a tyrannical government that tells them they’re doing a good thing by colonizing the other regions and advancing their technology and culture. The sequel series jumps forward in time and takes many of these elements but focuses on stuff like class warfare and xenophobia, and how basically any kind of movement can be hijacked and used for evil against otherized “outsiders” – through four seasons it cycles through a populist uprising, theocracy, nihilism-tinged anarchy and then lands back on the kind of fascist regime that the original series started out with. It’s a kids’ show where a character will go on a minutes-long rant about the evils of imprisonment without due process, or point out how indefinite detention is used to stifle dissidents rather than protect the population. It carries a message of cooperation and multicultural acceptance where characters learn to work together while maintaining the things that make them different, and it does so in a non-corny way. In a very literal sense they each bring an element to the table and their weaknesses are covered by each other’s strengths.

Those two are the tip of the iceberg. You’ve got stuff like How to Train Your Dragon and the sequel, talking about how you should seek to understand your enemy instead of immediately lashing out at him, and then examining how you deal with an enemy who simply won’t be reasoned with. Disney’s Big Hero Six does this too, the heroes only make progress when they try to find out why the villain is doing what he’s doing and trying to learn rather than blow stuff up immediately.

I love things like that. They resonate with me, probably because I am kind of a big kid. I’m 30 and a fully functional adult who can take care of himself, work, stay on top of bills and some tricky medical conditions that genetics dealt out to me, take plenty of interest in adult media… but not because they’re adult, because I enjoy them on their own. I know people who will straight up force themselves to read or watch something because it’s somehow expected of them to like it as an adult. Fuck that. To me, maturity is just learning to deal with situations with more grace than you did in high school. Your personality and a lot of your core settings are locked in by then and the biggest advances you can make are heightening your self-awareness and critical thinking. Reading a bunch of, say, classical Russian literature or watching The Wire isn’t going to magically change you for the better unless you have the skills in place to learn from them. I almost find it better to approach things in the way a child would, constantly questioning it. I’m totally okay with that part of my persona and I indulge it without an iota of shame. I truly, genuinely think it keeps my creativity sharp and allows me to come up with story ideas easier, because kids do not need everything to feel as “realistic” as adults do in their stories. There’s a bit of freedom to lay at least the groundwork which can be built up later for a more adult audience.

All this said, things in moderation. I recognize that if you completely immerse yourself in kids’ media without developing any of those critical thinking skills I mentioned, you’re just going to stunt your proverbial growth and miss out on a lot of great stuff. Just enjoy both and don’t feel bad for liking either.

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