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How Children’s Entertainment Became an Ideological Battleground

Hollywood is coming for our kids.” That refrain, or some variation of it, has become an increasingly popular rallying cry in recent years. Whereas entertainment aimed toward children was perhaps once viewed as a diverting babysitter, these movies and TV shows now seem motivated to educate and disseminate ideologies.

Many parents explain the current undesirable state of children’s entertainment with the simple assertion, “Hollywood is run by a bunch of perverts who want to corrupt kids.” In one sense, Hollywood has always been obsessed with sex. The entertainment industry has historically pushed boundaries, probing current and potential social norms. But it hits differently when children are involved. The question is, why now? Why does it seem like children’s entertainment has become a battleground?

There are rarely simple answers to complicated questions. Perhaps the issue here is less about a group of shady perverts playing cards in a smoke-filled room and brainstorming how to sexualize children and more of a reflection of our shifting concept of entertainment audiences. Children’s entertainment is becoming an ideological battleground because the very concept of children’s entertainment is rapidly vanishing.

The Disappearance of Childhood

In a recent interview, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said, “I always say that once our fans and audiences put their kids to bed at night after watching Pinocchio or Dumbo or The Little Mermaid, they are probably not gonna tune into another animated movie. They want something for them.”

The quote sparked instant backlash and widespread scorn across social media. The prevailing objection can be summed up by esteemed director Guillermo del Toro, “Animation is not a genre for kids; it’s a medium. Animation is film. Animation is art. And it can tell stories that are gorgeous and complex that feel handmade by humans for humans.” Although commenting on a specific situation, del Toro’s response reflects the fading boundaries of demographically divided audiences. 

In 1982, cultural prophet Neil Postman published an insightful book called The Disappearance of Childhood. In it, he argued that the innovation of television would inevitably erode the traditional distinctions between adulthood and childhood. Unlike books, which have the built-in gatekeeping mechanism of required literacy, the visual medium of television is accessible to all ages. Postman’s insights have proven correct. Additionally, the internet has accelerated the demographic dissolve by making visual entertainment instantly accessible. The same streaming platform that offers “kid-friendly” animated films also houses mature “adult” content, which contains violent, sexual material.

Adult Themes for Children

The blurring of demographic lines, mixed with the increased commercialization of entertainment, has had a trickle-down effect on content creation. Gone is the Loony Tunes era when cartoon characters amused kids by dropping an anvil on an anthropomorphic coyote. Part of this shift can be called the “Pixar Effect.” Previously, children’s films sought to appeal to adults by simply tossing in a handful of crude innuendos that went over children’s heads. In contrast, Pixar Studios sought to make animated films that adults could enjoy unironically. UP (2009) is a fun, emotionally satisfying film whether you are 6 or 60. In del Toro’s words, it is a film aimed at humans, not just kids. 

The inherent problem with telling universal human stories rather than age-specific ones, however, is that not all material is appropriate for all ages. One of the most controversial films of the year is Pixar’s Turning Red. The story deals primarily with puberty and menstruation. Animation may not be solely for children, but a colorful animated film about a fluffy red panda is likely to appeal most to an audience that won’t experience puberty for years. Thus, while potentially helping parents and older children/teens navigate the universal human rite of puberty, it also gives younger children answers to questions they likely didn’t even know to ask. It introduces sexuality to non-sexual beings and then teaches them how to navigate it, creating a demand to supply.    

The complication also flows in the other direction. It’s not just that “children’s entertainment” is aiming higher but also that adult entertainment is aiming lower. For example, adults and children alike enjoy the superhero genre. This mutual fandom sets the stage for some equally thorny storytelling decisions.

Jessica Gao, creator of the Disney+ original show She-Hulk, recently made headlines for declaring her intention to make a “sex-positive” show that appeals to children: “We wanted to make it realistic, and about a woman navigating sex, but also make it something that everybody can enjoy, including children, because there is an element of the show that is really fun for young people.” Commercial interests have pushed movie studios to desire the widest possible audience (including children) for their blockbuster properties, while creative interests have pushed storytellers to explore adult themes and experiences.

Marvel’s The Eternals was heralded for featuring the first on-screen sex scene in the MCU. The film’s director, Chloé Zhao, explained, “To have a sex scene that will be seen by a lot of people that shows their love and compassion and gentleness — I think it’s a really beautiful thing.” The simultaneous desires to push the boundaries and to invite the largest possible audience are on an inevitable collision course.   

The New Normal

If there is a problem, it is not necessarily that Hollywood storytellers want to explore sex or other adult themes. Christians are wise to filter these stories through a biblical worldview, but the experiences and themes themselves are valid material for cinematic exploration. Not every story needs to be “family friendly.” It is appropriate for adults to have stories that explore adult experiences, just as it is useful for children to have entertainment that presents childhood experiences. The bigger issue is that the entertainment industry is losing its traditional audience distinctions, making it difficult to know which is which. Also, once adult themes have become the norm in animated films, the doors are open for creators to push agendas that would previously have been impossible.

The solution is not necessarily to return to the days when children’s entertainment was a mere sugar rush of loud diversion that made parents pull their hair out. Kids can handle more than that, and there are universal stories that can indeed be enjoyed across demographics. But the days when parents could basically trust every animated film to restrict itself to children’s themes and material is long gone. Parents need to be aware and stay educated.

Part of that awareness is understanding that the issue goes deeper than a group of sexually motivated storytellers with an agenda. Hollywood creatives did not just wake up one morning with the sudden desire to go after the hearts and minds of children. Rather, the ideological battleground of children’s entertainment is the byproduct of an entertainment industry that has been slowly shifting for decades.

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