What do I mean by that title? It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but not something I have mentioned, because while it may not be controversial, it is definitely something that ruffles people’s feathers.
“Prejudice is taught at home, usually by learning behaviors from family members that spend the most time with the children.” This statement is the usual answer to how prejudice is taught or how it is learned. I’m not arguing with that. It’s definitely a huge factor, but it is not the only one. There is a much often overlooked method that you may not have even realized was doing its damage insidiously, like a poison. To make matters worse, because I did the same thing that everyone else did in employing this method, and have invited discussion from my daughter on the things she sees that she now knows are not right.
To get my point across most simply, I want you to think about the programming and movies geared towards children, ‘tweens, and teens. Don’t look at the most obvious message, such as the story or plot. I want you to look beyond the superficial trappings, as I do on many things I have watched. I’ve been told that I see things that aren’t there, but they are there, or I wouldn’t see them.
Primarily, I want you to think about the “good guys” and “bad guys” in material geared towards children. Do you notice a pattern? The “good” people are almost always attractive, and the “bad” are usually unattractive. What does that teach our children from an early age? To always be afraid of people who are unattractive, or different from the norm, because they are bad people. In truth, some very pretty people have very ugly hearts and intentions, but those are overlooked because of the early teachings. After all, they’re pretty or handsome, therefore they can’t be bad. Ugly people are always portrayed as bad people, and therefore all people who are not pretty are automatically bad. History has shown all of us just how wrong those assumptions are, yet it perseveres.
Perhaps the best way to combat this prejudice is to do something old-fashioned: have discussions with your children about the material they are watching, books they are reading, games they are playing, the comics they love. Invite questions and discussions.
I also think this is the root of young girls’ and boys’ negative body image. You see or hear stories about elementary school children worried about being fat or ugly, and parents cannot find a reason for it, because they don’t talk to their children about those issues. How many of them have ever thought about their DVD cabinet or what their children watch? The viewing material is considered harmless, but maybe it really isn’t. Really look at this material next time your children watch it. Look at the unattainable bodies of the characters: the super skinny women, the overly muscled men. Look at the amount of people in real life trying to attain that image, but only if they think they are attractive enough. How many people look in the mirror and say they will never look that way, and don’t try, and go the extreme opposite direction?
Self-image and self-esteem are swirled into the mix. If you feel like you are not attractive enough to be like your favorite hero or heroine, you’re also likely to not feel good about yourself in other areas. Lack of self-confidence can go a long way toward eroding a person’s potential. The potential may never be reached, because the person feels it won’t make a difference, and they aren’t good enough anyway, so why bother.
I’ve mentioned that “ugly” people are “bad,” but where does prejudice come in? Well, when you see the lack of diversity in programming, that sends a message. If you see a race of people as always one thing, usually a stereotype that is often negative, you get an idea in the back of your mind that all people of that race are that way. Along with that is the lack of portrayal of people with disabilities or deformities in the mainstream. People seem to interact with each other in person less and less these days, and have lost the art of employing empathy and compassion. The younger generation is unsure how to deal with people who are different from they are, and the older generations are forgetting or not teaching their children. There’s very little representation of the disabled or how to treat them or deal with them portrayed, so the younger generation has no frame of reference for proper actions or manners. In that absence, they default to the “good is pretty” and “bad is ugly” stereotypes, and lump the disabled and deformed with the “bad.” Some children display outright fear when confronted by someone who is different from them in any way.
How about the stuff geared towards the older children, beyond the “prince” and “princess thing?” What is the message the teens are getting? So many of the movies featuring teenagers, which are now played by people 18+ because of child labor laws in the movie industry, show teenagers doing things that we as parents don’t want them doing: smoking, drinking, dressing inappropriately, having sex like rabid bunnies. Children’s brains are sponges, and they absorb these messages much more quickly than what they see in their own lives, because of the entertainment value. The message I have seen from a lot of movies geared towards teenagers seems to be centered around the formation of cliques; the bullying of anyone different or not in a clique; the assumption that everyone is supposed to have sex before graduating from high school or college; the use of cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol is normal and almost mandatory if you are going to be anything close to cool.
While I was in high school, I noticed the influence of various movies on my fellow teenagers, but I think the one that made the biggest impact was “Boyz In The Hood,” because after that became available on video for everyone to watch, pseudo-gangs formed up as the teens sought to emulate the movie. That was a shock to me, and very much beyond imitating other movies, because people outgrew the desire to be a superhero rather quickly when it was evident that it couldn’t be done, but gangs were a real thing, and now they have apparently become a real thing, even in a rural town far from anything to gang over. When they see people who look the same way they do as something negative, what consequences do you expect? Also, when something that should be negative is instead shown as something to be emulated is it any surprise that so many viewers opt to do just that?
One of my pet peeves is the “damsel in distress” image and the “hero to the rescue” that goes along with it. I am actually glad of the current trend towards showing girls that women can rescue themselves (and others) in movies lately. It also take some of the pressure off of the boys, who have long been taught that girls are delicate things that cannot do anything for themselves without the assistance of a big, strong man. Yes, there are some things on which men and women need to work together, as equal partners, but it is not an all or nothing proposition anymore, or it is no longer supposed to be.
Another pet peeve is the portrayal of love and relationships at all levels of entertainment. Love is portrayed as all or nothing, love at first sight, and sex by the end of the first or second meeting. I know in my experience, it never happened that way to me or anyone else I know. In fact, real life love is not anywhere close to what is in books and movies, and I think that the myth skews the reality so much, that it causes the current misconception prevalent in society that if you are not 100% besotted (read: obsessed) with your current mate, that you do not really love that person and need to part ways. Romeo and Juliet’s story is held up to a high romantic standard, when it is one of the worst examples of love that you can learn from; I believe it is a satirical portrayal of love that has been lost in translation, if you will, even though the play itself is in English. So many people fail to think for themselves anymore, to read, to understand satire, and a large portion of Shakespeare’s writings are satire, poking fun at the society, especially the nobility and political figures, of his time. When you look at how love really happens, it is nowhere close to what is portrayed in popular romantic comedies, and because real life often does not imitate art, people think it is not the real thing when they do see it. Real love is something I have seen in older couples, but not so much in younger ones, because of the maladjusted view of what love should be. Perhaps this is the reason many relationships and marriages fail. Young people grow up with these misconceptions, and form their relationships to match the examples of relationships to match what they have seen, too often fail to form a real and lasting union, and the cycle begins again.
So how do we as parents or as society as a whole break the prejudice and stereotype patterns? It’s as old-fashioned as a person-to-person, heart-to-heart discussion with your children or teens about what they see or hear around them. Don’t allow your children’s entertainment to raise your children for you. I know we’re all so busy now, and think our children can practically raise themselves, but that could not be farther from the truth. Plus, if you don’t have discussion about something that seems unimportant or superficial, how do you expect your children to feel comfortable enough to talk to you when they need help with a more serious issue? They will think they have to do it all themselves, or turn to what they have seen in a movie or TV show to figure out the solution to their problems, and that almost never works out too well.
We tell our children they can come to us and tell us anything, to talk about anything that concerns them, but do we ever really practice it? What kind of example do we set for our children in our lives and what we do with them? If we don’t seem to care enough to discuss their favorite things with our children, how can we expect them to feel that we will care enough when a real issue arrives that they feel the need to talk to an adult? Why is it that the therapists have so many clients and make so much money now? It is because everyone is so disconnected from everyone around them emotionally that it’s easier to talk to a stranger than to talk to someone who is supposed to actually care about you; easier to talk to someone who shows a small amount of care or compassion in a clinical setting than to expose your true thoughts and feelings to someone who is supposed to really be your confidante. We’re all more connected, but only in shallow ways, and become more and more fearful of revealing our true thoughts and selves to others without a vow of confidentiality rather than risk embarrassing ourselves in front of people that we don’t care about or who care about us.
Perhaps if we start now, today, we can change the direction that our young people are going, and repair society as a whole. “Somebody needs to do something!” everyone says, but fail to realize that they are somebody that can do something and should start the trend. “Somebody” is you. Do something. Don’t wait around for someone else to do your part for you.