[4 November 2010]
Kids are great. You can teach them to hate what you hate.
— Homer Simpson
My daughter has told me twice this year that she doesn’t believe in God. Two years ago, she insisted on more than one occasion that our entire reality is a mysterious façade of some sort; “This is all a dream,” she’d insist, politely but assertively. More disturbing still, but with the same quiet confidence: “None of this is real. We’re all dead.”
My daughter is six-years-old.
I am a staunch atheist myself, but I decided when my wife was pregnant that I would never impose my political, social or theological philosophies on my daughter, and thus far I like to think that I have kept that promise; all I’ve ever said to Maitea on the subject of God is that some people believe He exists and others do not, and that she should feel free to believe whatever she chooses. (I’ve been similarly ambivalent about the whole are-we-or-aren’t-we-all-secretly-dead issue; none of the parenting books seem to address this topic.)
My daughter is an atheist at the age of six, and while I might be secretly pleased, this is not my fault—it could and probably will change at any time, whatever the case. My daughter also wants to marry either Raphael the ninja turtle or Dove, the spandex-clad pacifist from Justice League Unlimited’s handsomest duo, Hawk and Dove. This is totally my fault.
I have deliberately suppressed the temptation to influence Maitea’s approach to religious faith, but when it comes to popular culture, my sweet little angel never stood a chance.
It started out innocently enough. A friend had burned for me a mix CD filled to bursting with theme songs from the dopey cartoons of my ‘80s youth. I’d play this CD on occasion during the long ride home from Maitea’s daycare provider’s house. Soon, Maitea was singing along with the themes from such cultural touchstones as The Muppet Babies and Ducktales, and it occurred to me that, gee, perhaps she might like the shows as much as she likes the songs.
My long-suffering wife is the real victim, here. After nearly a decade of marriage, she had mostly learned to tune me out when I’d wax nostalgic about Duke Igthorn or Randy Savage or Destro or Launchpad McQuack for the hundredth time, but now the poor woman endures a double-barrel blast of this nonsensical bullshit every day.
“Daddy,” Maitea asked me last year. “What does the song say about Raphael?”
This was in reference to the theme from the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, which ascribes a succinct roll-call bio to each of the titular mutants: “Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines… Michelangelo is a party dude.”
Raphael is described as “cool, but crude” or perhaps “cool, but rude”; I could never tell. I explained to Maitea that this means, for example, that Raphael might belch and neglect to excuse himself.
Perhaps inevitably, the special features on our Ninja Turtles DVD include an episode wherein Raphael does in fact burp, after which he offers a hasty apology.
The other night at dinner, apropos of nothing, Maitea turned to my wife, who has long struggled to appreciate the complexity and intrigue of the Ninja Turtles mythos, and marveled aloud to her, “Can you believe Raphael said ‘excuse me’?!?”
I should note, though, that it hasn’t all been fun or pleasant for me, either. I’ve always tried to subtly nudge my daughter’s cartoon intake in something of a feminist direction, but I was mistaken to take for granted that her perception of a given character or story would mirror my own. When she developed the inevitable obsession with Disney Princesses, I made sure to introduce her not to Cinderella or Briar Rose, but instead to Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, a self-assured bookworm who cannot be bothered to give that blowhard Gaston the time of day.
What I’d never been particularly struck by in my 15- or 20 (pre-Maitea) viewings of Beauty and the Beast is the ugly dynamic that permeates the beginnings of Belle and the Beast’s courtship. I knew Beast was a dick, sure, but the disturbing implications of Belle’s martyr-like insistence that she take her father’s place in the Beast’s dungeon never really made themselves evident to me, and while Belle stands up for herself repeatedly—even angrily—the fact remains that she chooses to keep house with an abusive monster.
This all became clear to me, at long last, when Maitea, four-years-old at the time—this was right around the time she assured me that we’re all dead—responded to my lecture about Belle’s strength and independence with an insight of her own, regarding Beast’s decision to remove Belle from the dungeon and imprison her instead in a nice bedroom: “The Beast gave Belle a room. Isn’t that kind?”
Maitea Williams as Boba Fett
Crap. This wasn’t working out at all like I’d planned. I’d hoped to raise a little vampire slayer, or at least a “princess of power” in the vein of He-Man’s sister, She-Ra. Instead, my daughter seemed destined to seek out abusive romantic partners. Really hairy ones.
During the summer of 2008, my wife waited in line for an hour with Maitea at Disneyland’s Princess Pavilion. I abandoned them to their fate in favor of a quick go at Splash Mountain, but returned just in time to not-so-subtly steer Maitea towards the most admirable Princess present: badass warrior Mulan. Predictably, if also depressingly, Maitea was completely indifferent to Mulan, and could barely be bothered to make small talk with the unfortunate young woman saddled with the role of Disney’s least popular diva; none of the little girls at the Pavilion that day cared about Mulan. They were all there to see Cinderella. Maitea was no exception.
I was bitterly disappointed in my daughter’s poor taste, not least because she has never even seen Cinderella; her friends from preschool had unanimously declared Cinderella the greatest of the princesses, and my kid, who I’d trained to think for herself and follow her own path, folded like a conformist accordion to the idiotic whims of her fellow booger-eaters.
Looking back, I can concede that what really unsettled me was that someone other than Daddy had proven adept at swaying my daughter’s taste in cartoons.
But let us focus on the triumphs. For instance, I have successfully turned my daughter into a Wizard of OZ fan. My love of the legendary film starring Judy Garland cannot be overestimated; as was the case with Beauty and the Beast, I’d seen Wizard of Oz easily a couple-dozen times before my daughter was even born. (I’m not quite so fond of L. Frank Baum’s novel, though I’m currently reading it with my twelfth graders, and creating writing prompts based on Dorothy and her three pals has probably been the most fun I’ve ever had as an educator.)
Maitea loves the movie and she loves the songs and she loves Toto. There was, however, a false start along the way. I first introduced my daughter to the wonders of MGM’s 1939 classic when she was only two-years-old. We got about 20-minutes into the film; as soon as Margaret Hamilton made her first appearance as the Wicked Witch of the West, my daughter made it clear that our impromptu film festival was over. Without raising her voice, but with an uncompromising hardness in her eyes, Maitea kept repeating a simple but insistent denial: “No… No. No. No…” (She got over her terror of the Wicked Witch eventually, but she still fears the wolf in The Neverending Story and the undead in Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island and, strangest of all, the automated security alarm posing as a jungle bird in The Incredibles.)
I have introduced my daughter to the six Star Wars films; it was only through watching them with her that I learned to enjoy the films myself. Thanks to me (if “thanks” is the appropriate term), Maitea is a fan of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe—both the vintage and 2002 series. Her love of Batman quite probably dwarfs even my own, thanks to her marathon viewings of Batman Brave and the Bold. I’ve made a ceremony of showing her each Pixar film for the first time—except A Bug’s Life, the company’s only misstep, which she has yet to see.
I wrote about the triumphant Transformers Animated for PopMatters a couple years ago (“Metabots and Deconstructicons: Transformers Goes Postmodern”); Maitea watched every episode with me. I also dedicated an installment of Lowbrow Literati to Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears (“Footnotes in the Great Book of Gummi”), and Maitea was there every step of the way for that series, too. The only series I’ve shown Maitea that she immediately dismissed as being unworthy of her critical scrutiny was G.I. Joe A Real American Hero. I suppose I can’t blame her. (See “G.I. Joe’s Future Hangs on the Unbalanced”)
I wonder sometimes whether my decision to force the animated tough guys and manly men of my long-gone childhood on my daughter might stem from some tiny seed of disappointment at having no son. I worry that my daughter will soon come to dismiss me as a stunted clown; I’ve told my wife more than once that much of my mania for my shared TV time with Maitea stems from the certainty that she’ll outgrow these stories long before I ever will.
I worry, too, that I am raising my unsuspecting daughter to be an outcast; most adults of my generation are so stunted that we can only relate to one another through shared, shallow memories of Optimus Prime’s death or Gargamel’s thwarted quests for Smurf meat or Adora’s glittery transformation into She-Ra; will Maitea’s generation be similar, and if so, how will she feel when her friends greet her in 2030 with an enthusiastic shout-out to Hannah Montana or SpongeBob SquarePants? How will she feel when she can only reply to such greetings with, “All I remember from back then is Bebop and Rocksteady and the Gentleman Ghost and Gyro Gearloose”?
These doubts are always fleeting, however, soon replaced with fresh revelations for every year my daughter ages: soon I can show her Kim Possible! Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure! The Powerpuff Girls! Bionic Six! Some distant, magical day, I will even have the glorious opportunity to sit my daughter down and set in motion her initiation into the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe.
I don’t know what Maitea will make of my approach to father-daughter bonding when she looks back in a couple-few decades—or even just a couple-few years—but I just interrupted her anarchic playground romping during her first grade lunch break to ask her, “Maitea, what do you think of the fact that I watch cartoons with you?”
For now, at least, this is her answer: “I wanna keep doing it.”