Surprise! It’s Activist!: Children’s Entertainment Increasingly Takes a Stand
I hereby declare today’s post the spiritual antithesis of my post Surprise! It’s Racist! posted lo these many years ago (was it really six?!). That old piece (which I now think I would write in a mighty different fashion today) talked about the experience of encountering blatant racism (rather than the everyday kind) in children’s literature. With that in mind, let’s take that idea and turn it entirely on its head. What is the opposite of the appearance of racism? That would have to be the appearance of anti-racism, wouldn’t you say? Or, put another way, surprise activism. Here’s how I’d define that:
Surprise Activism: That moment when entertainment for kids, which could easily be fluffy nothingness, takes a brave stand.
With my kids now nine and six, I’ve become fascinated with the entertainment created for them at this specific moment in time. This isn’t particularly new. Heck, I’ve gone so far as to dedicate entire posts here to the weirdness of Daniel Tiger, for crying out loud. What makes today’s post different is more to do with the fact that entertainment is slowly slowly getting bolder. Now first and foremost, I want to make it clear that there are lots and lots of great books for kids being published every day that talk about activism, being an activist, and how to make a difference in the world. That is not the focus of my thoughts today. Because, while these are necessary texts and works, they will not reach all the children out there. It’s entertainment that looks like fluff but hides an activist core that really captures my attention.
Now there are probably more think pieces out there about the new animated She–Ra show than there are fishies in the sea. Today, I’m more interested in the implications of She-Ra‘s success. If you are unfamiliar with this old standbye of the 1980s, She-Ra was a cartoon/line of action figures (which I owned copious numbers of once upon a time) updated by Noelle Stevenson (who made the comic Nimona) to become, at its heart, a love story between two women. Now we’ve seen plenty of rebooted 1980s characters, but the idea of taking something familiar and actually making it good and interesting is fairly novel.
I cannot say with certainty whether or not the new Babysitter’s Club show on Netflix owes its current incarnation to She-Ra, but as they are both rebooted 80s/90s products on Netflix, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility. When BSC premiered, my Twitter feed essentially became party of large swaths of women my age talking about how great it was. And since I was into the books well past the ones written by Ann M. Martin back in the day AND my eldest is 9, I thought we could give ’em a whirl.
So here is a pretty darn good example of Surprise! It’s Activist! at work. My kid and I had already plowed through all of Scholastic’s BSC graphic novels. We’d done the first four by Raina Telgemeier and the rest by Gale Galligan, so I was pretty caught up. The show, if you haven’t heard other folks talking about it, balances right between plots that make it interesting to kids and fashions straight out of the original covers. It’s this fascinating mishmash of contemporary (cell phones n’ such) and 80s/early 90s fashion (why have we all been talking about the Knives Out sweater and not the one Kristy wears?). But the the writers have not only condensed full books (sometimes more than one) into single episodes but also given the series real issues to talk about. Now MaryAnne (who is bi-racial on the show and absolutely perfect) is standing up for a transgender child while Dawn is organizing a protest at summer camp focused on income inequalities (the camp makes kids pay to do some of the more fun activities). I did not expect to have a conversation with my kids about Japanese internment camps after watching the episode about Mimi’s stroke, but this show made it easy.
Like I say, we came to the series through the graphic novel adaptations, but those books were never as bold as this show. For bold comics for kids, you need only turn to Go With the Flow. Like BSC, the story concerns four close girls. A new kid comes to town and is saved from bullies by her new friends. Fairly standard stuff, until you realize that these friends have saved the girl from a very public and very embarrassing display of white pants and menstrual blood. For those of us for whom periods never got more graphic than what you’d find in Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, this can come as a bit of a shock, but creators Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann are just getting started. When one of the girls realizes that the school will not provide free menstrual supplies and won’t even keep the tampon/tampax machines in the girls’ bathrooms filled and working, she takes it upon herself to fight for period parity.
When I reviewed Flow back in January I said this:
In the back of this book is information on “How to be a Period Activist.” To a large extent Go With the Flow aims to remove the stigma surrounding periods, but I recall middle and high school really well. The girls who read this book and take it upon themselves to follow in its wake are honestly going to be extraordinary humans. Kids are less afraid these days to speak out and pursue various forms of activism, but this takes it to a whole other level. It opens you up to a new kind of personal shame and embarrassment hitherto unexplored. To those girls that read this book, embrace this book, learn from this book, and use this book, I salute you.
I stand by that. And now, seven months later, I’m hoping that this book and BSC and She-Ra and all the other forms of entertainment for kids out there (Steven Universe being the most obvious example, but that’s a different talk for a different day) continue to be unafraid to surprise us with their guts to do what’s right. I’m trying to imagine any of these existing when I was a kid. This is not to say that back in the 80s we didn’t have some pretty amazing stuff. Can you imagine any children’s show right now talking about breastfeeding the way Cree activist and singer Buffy St. Marie did on Sesame Street?
Heck, imagine HBO Sesame Street or Elmo’s new late night show doing this. As such, I’ll take my surprise jolts of activism wherever I can find them, and hope that we’re seeing the beginning of something permanent rather than what executives and publishers view as a novel trend.
Finally, I am reminded of a recent tweet by Kyle Lukoff about the Babysitters Club book Keep Out, Claudia:
Season Two? You have your premiere.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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