children's and YA literature, film and culture (and a little bit more)
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"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)
Tuesday, April 09, 2013
my dreadful mixed feelings over reasons my son is crying tumblr
So there's this tumblr called 'reasons my son is crying.' It somehow exploded everywhere, apparently in the last 48 hours, because suddenly it's all over the place. Of course I went and read it, and was delighted and amused and followed it on my tumblr page. And then this morning:
And BAM just like that I suddenly feel less pleased with this tumblr.
I felt/feel a little weird when people use their young children in such
a public way - this kid is too young, really, to consent with full
knowledge of what he’s consenting to, but at least on the internet
there’s a (very thin) layer between the Kid and the Audience. The Kid’s
“performance” (i.e., crying) happens ‘offstage,’ so to speak - there’s
no microphone, no other people intervening or influencing, it’s just the
not-so-much-privacy of his own family and their own camera. but when
you add in things like a live studio audience, a crew, interviewers, a
set - then you’ve created an artificial and highly manipulated and
manipulative arena, and the Kid is On Stage and being used by multiple
adults. It turns a mostly-private emotional reaction into a public performance, and performances aren't about the performer so much as they are about the audience, especially, I think, when the performer is a kid (cf. Shirley Temple, every child on 'Toddlers & Tiaras,' etc).
The premise of ‘reasons my son is crying’ is kind of interesting in addition to being funny - I don’t find it “cute” at all,
but I do like the way it records the incredible frustrations of being
small and quasi-helpless and inexperienced/untutored in the world. To
us, maybe it’s funny that a kid would cry because he can’t run naked
into Times Square, but the Kid presumably doesn’t know why he’s dreaming
the impossible dream there.
I often tell my students that being a little kid is hard -
the world isn’t sized for you, you have very little actual freedom and
autonomy, you can’t pour your own juice or milk, there are monsters under the bed.
You don’t know yet that your hand will get burned if you touch the
stove when it’s on. You learn everything the hard way, or experience a
world of what appear to be irrational restrictions. It’s this sense of
difficulty that ‘reasons my son is crying’ captures that I like.
But I don’t like converting that into a sideshow - it’s already
perilously close to being reproachably exploitative. I mean, would YOU
want someone taking a photo every time you cried or felt frustrated, and
posting it on tumblr for all the world to see? What if you couldn’t say
no? what if you couldn’t say yes, either?
I am always, constantly suspicious of performing/trick children, and
more suspicious of them in the age of “reality” media, where a kid might
not even know or realize he’s being turned into a performer. And so
this tumblr - and its transformation into a viral! media! sensation!
meme! - makes me uncomfortable now.
[And that doesn’t even begin to
address the fact that i suspect you’d see a VERRRRY different public
reaction if the evidently continually crying child wasn’t white.]
I should say that I don't think this Kid's parent(s) are being neglectful or abusive or even truly exploitative. I think the original idea is actually quite clever, and I like that you (or I) can read the "reasons" in multiple registers. I'm not especially concerned that this Kid evidently cries constantly. I do think we as a culture are way too quick to embrace emotion-as-spectacle/entertainment, and I think we absolutely make a hash out of the way we treat child performers. I also think we use children, in our culture, in all kinds of ways that aren't really about the kid, or aren't in the kid's best interest. Even more than that, I think it's really easy to turn your kid into a vehicle for money and/or fame - again, the story of virtually every child star demonstrates this - and in this modern world, I can't think of a better example than the Gosselins, who originally appeared in a one-off TLC show about quintuplets and sextuplets. Easy to see how you could agree to doing this, a kind of documentary, and get paid a bit - with eight kids, who wouldn't need the extra cash? And then the reality show - you think, 'great, we can set up college funds for each of the kids,' and/or 'we'll give it a try,' and/or 'this could be fun.' And then you're on tabloids and having a very ugly very public divorce and running through money like water and oh hey, turns out reality-tv 'star' children aren't protected by the kinds of laws (like Jackie's law) whereby some portion of their earnings have to be banked in trust for them, untouched by their parents.
I'm not saying the Kid who is crying is going down that path. Probably he isn't. Probably he's just a kid, with average-affluent parent(s) who are kind of amused by the whole thing. Probably he'll grow up and be kind of mortified at these crying-kid photos, and not much more.
But in the meantime, the tumblr - and now the national tv appearances - raise some interesting and, I think, important questions/issues about how we view and use children in a variety of kinds of media. There's no Jackie's law for social media, there are no protections (and I am thinking primarily of economic/ financial protections) in place for child "stars" of tumblr or instagram or their parents' blogs or youtube.
There are also - and I do think this is very important - lots of reasons to cry when you're a very small child, and those reasons should be taken seriously by the wider culture when we think about children and childhood, even though in the moment, those reasons might be exasperating or just plain hilarious.
carbon-based life form: thinking, reading and gardening.
New College alum; current grad student writing a dissertation. I specialize in children's literature, media, and culture, and queer/gender studies, with a strong interest in 19th century British literature and culture. I like history, a lot.