I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Monday, December 13, 2010

Role Models, Part One

I was in middle school when reports came in of a child who burned down his family's barn. At face value, this doesn't seem like a story appropriate for national news. But this barn burning was political. It wasn't terrorism. It wasn't the Ku Klux Klan or Al-Qaeda. It wasn't even the Michigan Militia. This crime was much more insidious than all of that. It was committed be a child under the influence of cartoons.

The cartoon in question was Beavis and Butt-head. The story we were fed convinced us that since the teenagers on this show were depicted playing with matches and laughing while saying, "fire, fire, fire," children watching this show had no choice but to become arsonists. By this time in my life, I had already been on my fair share of campouts with my Boy Scout troop in which boys my age were expected to start camp fires. I only had to see two or three of my compatriots melt their windbreakers painfully to their skin only to run back and do it again before I realized that teenage boys have been obsessed with fire since time immemorial. Beavis and Butt-head didn't prescribe our delinquency. They reflected our delinquency.

However enlightened I may have been regarding human nature as a teenager, I was not free from the veritable witch hunt that followed in the 90s under the names of "censorship" and "political correctness." I remember that my brother and I were at a church youth group get-together after school and that we, accompanied by a kid we know named Jake, were trying to do our best impressions of the Beavis and Butt-head laughs. I know that I had never seen Beavis and Butt-head before. I think my brother saw it once or twice at his friend Pat's house. But everyone knew about Beavis and Butt-head back then, even if they had never once seen the show. It was part of the zeitgeist. It was a result of that same magic that granted me knowledge of songs by Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls. We always did impressions of cartoon characters. There was the Bart Simpson: "Don't have a cow, man," the Wolverine growl with the word, "bub" at the end, the Tick's ridiculous exclamations like, "Honk if you love justice!" We never got in trouble for those impressions, but if you were referencing Beavis and Butthead back then you could get in some serious trouble. I remember on this particular occasion I was reprimanded verbally and the guilt was laid on so heavily that I felt like I had just burned down my parents' house with both my parents still inside, and that I had done so with only the power of my words.

It was through the media hype and government focus on my childhood cartoons that I first encountered the discussion of the responsibility of public figures as role models for the children of America. It was also during this conflict that I felt some of my earliest stirrings of authority issues. I had a serious problem with some Senator or Representative telling my parents that I shouldn't watch my favorite television programs. I felt the earliest pangs of righteous indignation with the idea that someone might stand between me and my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

A few years later in 1999, former Mickey Mouse Club child star Britney Spears got a record deal and released the album ...Baby One More Time. As Spears transformed from a girl into a woman she also transformed from the influence of Mickey to Madonna. She was dealing with her awakening sexuality just like any other girl, but unlike any other girl every moment of Spears ascent into adulthood was documented by either MTV, VH1 or the paparazzi. By the time Oops!... I Did It Again came out in 2000, Spears was defined by the lyric, "I'm not that innocent." (If it were up to me, I would define the girl by her overuse of the ellipsis in album titles, but it's not up to me.) Her interviews before this time usually centered around her sudden rise to fame and how grateful Spears was to those who helped her along the way, people like her mom or her friend Justin Timberlake and his band N'Sync. Now her interviews centered around the fact that she was acting as a bad role model for young girls and accusations flew that Britney Spears was responsible for over-sexualizing the day's youth.

I used to try to imagine what it would feel like to take Britney's place. Physiologically and emotionally she was changing into an adult, and sexuality is part of adulthood. (Why else would we put pornographic films in the adult film section?) She was also growing as an artist and doing whatever she could do to keep her dream of singing and dancing alive. In her place I think I would probably feel like there was nothing I could do right. I don't mean to say, "Leave Britney alone!" I'm not trying to excuse anything she's done in the public eye. I mean to say that even with all of the money and recognition Britney Spears racked up during this short period, I would prefer my overweight, zit-faced life with no money and no girlfriend to the life of Britney Spears, because at least I had the option to be myself without the media turning me into the scapegoat for a world full of sins.

Returning to the story of the boy who burned down the barn, I can say that I don't feel any connection with this boy. The two of us liked our cartoons and we liked our MTV, but this kid was known to the nation as the poster child of a poorly spent youth while I was emerging as an example of a well-raised son. I was a Boy Scout. I was engaged in community service. I stayed in school. I respected my parents and credited their teaching for any kindness anyone said to me. I went to college. I went to church. Most importantly, I was never caught burning down any buildings. I sometimes wondered if there weren't more similarities between me and the barn burner. To paraphrase the Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke, perhaps the difference between me and him was as insignificant as one bad day.

Maybe it's just the philosopher in me, but I cannot think about these events without stumbling into a difficult string of questions. Who are the role models that our children look up to? Who ought our children look up to? Who gets to make the choice? What is a role model? How ought a role model to act? How do we understand responsibility in light of the influence of role models in people's lives? How should we respond when we believe that role models are not acting properly? Should we respond at all? Should our government representatives intervene in these matters? What should they do? I know that if I am to listen to the testimony of someone pointing a finger and placing blame on cartoons and pop singers for the corruption of our youth, I'd like them to be able to answer all of these questions for me. I'd really like to be able to answer these questions for myself.

Role Models, Part One can be viewed here.

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