SAMUELS , BENJAMIN
Age: 14, Grade: 9
School Name: Bard High School Early College, New York, NY
Educator: Ursula Embola
Category: Critical Essay
Daniel Tiger’s Tyranny and the Myth of Ethical Television
I’m going to tell you, older than a child in love with childhood and younger than a teenager who’s forgotten and turned against it, what the key is to parenting. It’s not a revelation so much as a reminder of the language that children deeply understand — and of the main, overgrown causeway between children and adults.
Let me start with my brother, Elijah. Elijah is five years old. Growing up, Elijah had acid reflux, a terrible sickness that caused him to vomit up the food he ate, that got his fists and stomach clenched in pain so much that we had to work with him just to regain movement in those areas. A number of problems arising from those early issues, coupled with a handful of other various difficulties, prevented his physical development in a number of areas, notably speech.
A couple months ago, while I was helping my stepmother cook, she suddenly stopped and turned to look at me. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, my brother’s favorite show, was playing loudly in the other room, and we’d gotten to the moral, which was told in song. “Grown-ups come back to you… grown-ups come back to you… Gro-own ups, come back.” Daniel Tiger runs pretty frequently in our house. I recognized the episode. Daniel Tiger was afraid, because he’d been dropped off at school, so his teacher and his friends in the classroom were helping him.
She smiled at me sadly. “What happens if you’re an orphan?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if, actually, your parents won’t come back? Then it’s kind of a horrible song.”
I didn’t really understand. “Okay…”
“I don’t know.” She smiled again and went back to cutting.
It seemed like a fringe case. I don’t know how many orphans would watch that episode and understand it, and it seems like a net positive, all things being equal. But there was something there. My brother didn’t really like many other television shows, so I started listening in on the songs. I watched him listen attentively to Daniel Tiger, telling him how “friends help each other” and I thought about the times that children on the playground or at the museum had glared at him when he meandered over and started to vocalize. I glanced over at him quietly taking in,
“Use your words, use your words | Use your words and say how you feel | Most problems can be solved | When you use your words.”
It’s the muteness of my brother that’s most frustrating. It’s the fact that, whatever qualms he has with this television show, or with the problems of life, he can’t do anything about it. He can’t complain. He can’t tell us if there’s something specific or nuanced that annoys him. And of course, it’s the same with other children. Having lived with Elijah for five years, the truth is that I can understand him pretty well through his tone, his expressions, and his motions. I can see to the extent of his intent, to the limits of what other people could potentially see. And I see the same nucleus in him that I see in my friends’ younger siblings, and I recognize the same core in my younger self, a strange and suspicious core that activates at consistency, that has not disappeared but remains much as it did, ebbing and evolving and only slightly more pronouncable with the benefit of age.
It’s a response to power. The world into which a child is thrown is most foreign in its strange skeleton of power and mediations. There’s a part of you that sends out feelers into the web, and recoils when it hits something. It’s inefficient, but it’s integral.
In our modern age, there is no greater power to which children are drawn to than the blue light of the television. There is no greater source of stimulation and knowledge, all things being equal, than the internet. There is no rival to the customized environments and perfect illusions of truth presented online.
I think there is no need for such a titan in the already contentious balance of power between a parent and their child. But how to absorb a roiling, dangerous, and consistently available power, like a mysterious stepparent, into family life will be one of the greatest questions of the modern age. I do not pretend to answer it.
There are two types of television that fi. Zooming out, there are two types of art, that bleed into each other but retain their identities. There is aesthetic, technique. There are fundamentally complex and intriguing characters, or style. Abstract art, or surrealist poetry that’s truly abstract plays on our feelings, soothing or agitating our minds, impressing us with its power.
Then there are ethical planes, whereby the aesthetics act as a vessel for a message, establishing an ethos and indicating the levels that the message is working on. True ethical planes are riskier and easier, harder to get right.
Those dynamics are at work in ridiculously complex works of philosophy, in simple fiction, and in histories. These dynamics are just as present in cartoons. Of course, there’s less nuance in cartoons, boiled down to a science by executives, so there’s more of a dichotomy there than in realist art. But the same principles are at work.
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is an overtly ethical television show (Daniel Tiger was one of Mister Roger’s puppets who took over the show a few years after Roger’s death — there’s definitely room for a horrofying expose there). The episodes have arcs, ending in morals. The stage is set, the problem is announced, and then the problem is worked at and solved. There’s some uniqueness. The songs are nice. There’s a talking cat. But the episode is defined by the moral, not these little marks of distinction. In contrast, a show like Wonder Pets is more aesthetic. Each episode ends in the saving of an animal, with a loose but consistent emphasis on teamwork through the series. The show is held together by the idea of teamwork, and probably justifies funding through the “If we work together…” scenes, but that’s not the fun or the tension in watching it. The varied adventures are the fun, and the colorful, collage animations are visually pleasing.
The Backyardigans was cancelled in 2010 after six years and four seasons. The fourth season was a little lackluster, as their funding got slashed and the animation grew steadily worse. But the first three seasons are a case study in the ideal kids cartoon, a lush foundation and no more. There are no morals, no preaching. It’s beautiful.
That’s not to say that there is no room for instruction in TV for kids. Mister Roger’s Neighborhood had instructions. Sesame Street is all lessons. But they aren’t definitive, condescending lessons, and they don’t come at the end of tight story arcs. They’re natural. The lessons in Sesame Street are loose, not emphasized, placed around as they arise naturally in the plot, molding themselves around the story rather than the other way around. What you take out of the show is yours entirely. In Backyardigans, each episode is an adventure, into historical worlds and completely fictional worlds, shining exhibits of human creativity. The five characters are intermittently evil, good, and often wrongly characterized either way, depending on the episode. It does not pretend to know answers that children cannot comprehend, or have a path and a destiny that it molds them for. It is not what to think, but rather how to think. The Socratic Cartoon. As every great philosopher has gone out of their way to write about the importance of their art, as the Rationalists and Empiricists have all digressed and footnoted their debates with the importance of thinking philosophically above all else, so too with kids television.
But that’s disappearing, in kids television as in adult culture, which are related because there’s no line to divide them that holds. Why? Because children are not a different species, but simply an earlier stage of development in an unbroken stream, which speeds us and slows down and is impeded. Which makes childhood is the most helpless example of this universal struggle. It is a struggle of free-thinking to destroy modern currents and burgeoning thought that looms darkly and imperiously over all others. It is the struggle of the philosophers manifesting in youth, and the cry of the wild, strange, and brilliant in the mute expressions of a child.
And as the grownups of the world build themselves around often violent convictions and divide themselves firmly into ideological groups, they foist this malady onto the next generation; as Sesame Street loses money, Backyardigans is cut down, and Mister Rogers’ trails into spin-offs, they are trying to manhandle delicate beauty and simple creativity into conforming ethical messages. Because the kids are trusting and mute, they take the punishment with wondering eyes, a terrifying spectacle of exploitation. The articulate grownups are long dead.
It’s a religious conviction. A tempting conviction, unfortunately, to place our faith in an endpoint, and not in the power of the routes we take. A conviction easy to appeal to in order to secure a fifth season. But the wrong one, the one that, within generations, accepts without question that slavery is moral, or fascism just. The only thing we can know is that we know nothing. Plato said we can never learn the nature of eternal forms, and Laozi wrote that we cannot express the Dao in words, in many ways Eastern and Western equivalents of absolute truth. But each believed must spend our lives learning how to find them. For it is in the journey that we find ourselves. It is along these paths that we can guard our sanity. We must raise our children to know this, and equip them with the tools they’ll need to strive for it. Even if we never will.