Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Don't Watch Me I'm Awesome

I want to know, what do you think about children's programming? Don't answer immediately, because by 'children' I don't just mean all young people, or "young adults". There are some amazing kid's shows, like Gravity Falls, Dragons: Riders of Berk, Looney Tunes, Avatar: The Last Airbender . . . the list goes on. But what about shows for preschool children? Especially educational kid's shows.
Shows designed to entertain as well as educate our youngest. What do you think about them?
Most people seem to think they are a good idea. You can make shows for kids so that they can watch television and have fun like their parents, but because they have educationally hungry young minds, it's good to put learning in there as well, right? Well, I'd like to talk about kid's shows today. Because I think, if you're not careful, children's programming might just be "programming" our children. The Word of the Day is: 'EDUTAINMENT'

Edutainment /edjū'taynmənt/ n. 1. Television programs, movies, books, etc., that are both educational and entertaining, especially those intended primarily for children in the elementary grades.

What on Earth do ‘kids shows’ have to do with Halloween? Well, to begin with, if you ask me the idea of us using television to program our children and “educate” them is a horrifying concept. But the second reason is that this post is inspired by and in response to another horrorshow; if you have the time, I highly recommend you watch Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. Whether you’ve seen the show or not, it’s important to this post, but here’s what you need to know. Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is made to very much look like a children’s television show, it’s colourful, it uses puppetry and soft-foam/rounded props, light and cheery-sounding songs and often features fantastical things that come to talk about a particular topic, in the guise of education. It looks a lot like a kid’s show . . . but it isn’t. Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is a horrorshow, and although the first minute or two of the show might look like something friendly to show your kids, the show quickly devolves into unusual or misleading lessons, disturbing concepts, creepy characters, mean or eccentric behaviours and eventually culminating in a fast-paced crescendo of gore, blood, pain, suffering and/or insanity.
To reinforce just how deceptive those colourful sets and characters can be, each episode often ends with a character, prop or set with something you often wouldn’t see on a kid’s show, as the credits roll, like a set leaking with black paint, a character escaping or a prop being burnt with gasoline.

So, why on Earth would someone make this? Firstly, because it is a parody and in many ways a critique of children’s shows. Secondly, because it is edutainment; but not for kids, for adults. I like to think of it as a “kid’s show for adults”, because this is trying to teach something to adults about kid's shows. What is it trying to teach? Well, if you dig below the surface, there are some deeper meanings that can be garnered from the themes and imagery explored, If you have already seen it (or don’t mind spoilers), you might instead enjoy watching Game Theory’s “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” Theory, Part One & Part Two; or Nightmind’s “DHMIS: Explained” video, both explore the deeper meanings. But an educational show is pointless if you need to analyze it just to understand it. And whilst as a form of entertainment you can look for something more (and I really enjoy those analysis videos), the surface is all we need for today. Just as, by looking at Sesame Street, you can quickly tell that it’s teaching about letters and numbers; just by looking at Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, you can tell that it’s a show that “looks” like it’s for kids, but is definitely not suitable for children.

If you ask me, that’s the lesson here. That a show may “look” like it’s child-friendly, but not be.

I want you to think about that for a moment. Because, that’s the horror that I want to talk about today. Sure, whilst most kids shows don’t suddenly become a crazy bloodied and visceral horrorshow half-way through, I would submit that there do exist children’s shows out there that are just as unsuitable for children (if not worse), but on the surface look like they’re good for kids.
There are six Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared episodes , each covering a different topic of education, but every single one of these topics are themes covered in actual kids shows, and despite wanting to make kids smarter, these shows can teach children in a bad or dangerous way . . . and even make them dumber.

After high school one day, I saw a show come on television which I found very confusing, called Boohbah. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this show, but it is about five fat, coloured furry creatures with baby-like faces. They jibber and make raspberry noises when they jump, and when they bounce off one another they make farting and squeaking noises as they dance.
They dance around to accordion and glockenspiel music on a white background and at the end they fly, hum in unison and sleep in spoon-like sleeping pods. It also occasionally shows sketches of mute actors interacting with random props. Why does this show exist? Whilst some people have said the show is good to watch while high on hallucinogens, and I personally find it hilarious to think of a person scripting each episode (the BLUE BOOHBAH jumps, and makes a FART NOISE, the ORANGE BOOHBAH then jumps with it).
But think for a moment about what this does for children. I’ve heard that shows like this, for instance Teletubbies, are designed to “unlock different parts of a child’s mind”, and this show advertises itself as "encouraging children to move" but I can’t buy that. Because the brain isn’t something you unlock, it’s a pattern-seeking engine, and because these baby-monsters are so fat, mostly they just spin around; you can't watch dancing on a screen while you're spinning around. The show’s creators admit “we use colours and sounds to appeal to the short attention span of children one to four years old".
Sure, I get it, perhaps it just exists to occupy their mind, and maybe you want your baby to watch this and be entertained so you don’t have to jangle your keys for a while, I understand that. I also believe that not every show on television (not even every kid’s show) must have dedicated educational content . . . but this is educational content. I know for a fact that every show teaches something. Not things like trigonometry or chemistry, and not even something they were “trying” to teach, but simple things like “paper sounds like this” and “you can wiggle your toes”. I distinctly remember, as a child, that I first learnt about tap-dancing through Play School. They weren’t trying to teach me, it was just a brief segment showing a choreographed routine, but I found it interesting, and remembered it as a result. I learnt about sheep, backpacks, stars, tractors, colour mixing, robots, sarcasm, sharing and thousands more little things which you and I take for granted, because of television. We learn from the experience of what we see, even on television.
Whilst television doesn’t offer interactivity, it can offer lessons about real things, tangentially, and there are several minor things we learn about in the world through television, especially as young children because we are still seeking out patterns of how things work. But Boohbah, and shows like it, are entirely manufactured, nothing in the show is like it is in the real world. So, it actually hinders kids from learning about real things. But more importantly, it teaches them “this is interesting”. They learn to enjoy watching things that do not teach them, things that require no input, interactivity or learning. If children think it’s fun to pay attention to farting, squeaking, colourful, fat, furry baby-monsters, then how will they be able to pay attention to the human teacher wearing a brown jacket, in front of a blackboard every Monday to Friday? Even if they are exciteable and wearing rainbow colours, a teacher can’t make fart-noises when they fall over, fly when they sing or dance just to keep you interested.
Not only do they not teach your children new things, they teach your children to not learn new things, because “real things are boring, compared to TV”.

But that’s just shows that don’t even attempt education. What about ones that do? Things like, for instance, Horrible Histories. I am not referring to the current version of this show, with live action and sketch comedy, but rather the version I saw as a kid. It was a cartoon about two friends that were sent back in time by an all-powerful narrator to see history face to face and learn about it.
I remember this show as a kid, but rewatched it so that I could write about it. Of course, this tries to teach about a period of history in a fun way, but for Horrible Histories, the “fun way” consists of exploring the gross, creepy, deadly or dangerous elements of the past. The problem with this is that history is more multi-faceted than the gross parts, and worse, the way that the show presents these gross facts focuses more on the “horrible” than the “history”, often sidestepping accuracy for the sake of a poop joke, or exaggerating the disgusting or funny facts disproportionately. The show presents outdated information as fact, like Romans using vomitoriums to puke up food; cavemen cooking with fire and wearing loincloths; the Great Wall of China being visible from space & Vikings having horns on their helmets. It also presents things like lawlessness, lack of hygiene, rudeness and ignorance as common practice, even though these are just simplistic ideas about how people actually lived.
In the current version, with live-action and sketch comedy, they have added little foot-note factoids that pop up when something said has been verified historically, so people don’t confuse jokes for facts, but it still keeps the exaggerated scatological aspect.
Also, in order to make the history more “fun and child-friendly”, this show as well as many others of its sort that teach about the past, often reduces the significance of details regarding sex, murder, politics, religion and education, unless they can make a joke about it. Rather than teach history as it is, it just cherry-picks the parts that the creators of the show think kids will find interesting, but in the process often mislead children into having an inaccurate and unrepresentative idea of the past.
That’s the biggest flaw regarding edutainment, that most kid’s shows think that education is boring, so the two come into conflict. Whilst I do think the modern show is better than the one I saw as a child, it still often fails to encourage children to learn for themselves and rather than telling them that they can learn more beyond the show, and although it does try to make history fun, it still prefers to have them watch the show to learn and leave the history books at the library.

I think that tends to be a running theme with educational kids shows, “good intentions”. They try to teach, but in so doing, might teach kids the wrong way. I almost feel bad, but to me that brings to mind Bibleman. I don’t care about your religious beliefs, because even if you are Christian and want to teach your children about your beliefs with a show like Bibleman or even Kids Praise! with Psalty the Singing Psalm Book, you are doing the wrong thing. Not just because of the religious indoctrination, although that could be a whole issue unto itself, but just as bad are the ways that the show creates and solves problems.
Because of the conservative views of the show, they don’t like addressing direct problems or dealing with real world issues without a magical additive. So, even if they want to talk about something serious like depression, lying or anger issues, it never actually says that some people get angry, it shows that the problem is caused by some devilish villain with an “anger gun”, “lying gas” or a “sadness juice” or some other such stupid prop. Then, in order to defeat it, Bibleman pulls out a clearly copyright infringing yellow lightsaber and fights the villain to destroy their evil device, then reads bible verses at them and children.
Or in shows like Psalty, the solution to their problems is almost always prayer. Again, I don’t care if you’re Christian but it’s been conclusively proven that prayer doesn’t work, and can even make things worse.
Even if you don’t expect your kids to pray, these shows do and teach children either that all of their problems happen for a good reason, or that they can’t solve these problems themselves, so must appeal to something greater to step in and help. Problems don’t come from stupid props or strange men in makeup, and problems aren’t solved by fighting them with swords, prayer or song and dance routines. By implying that they do, this show teaches children that they are not capable of helping themselves, that they are inferior and must do as authority tells them and most upsettingly that their worth is only made valid by someone else’s judgement.
As they say, the road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions.

One show that I find very troubling is Dora the Explorer. This show also has good “intent”, it is actually trying to teach Spanish as well as some basics about not stealing and riddle-solving. For the most part, it does it well, however, the show has a disturbing habit of constantly turning to the viewer and asking questions.
Now, asking questions to your audience isn’t bad, I did that at the very start of this post after all. But what I didn’t do was expect you to answer. It was a rhetorical question. Because I know that you can’t actually answer me, unless you choose to scroll down to the comments section.
However, Dora the Explorer doesn’t teach that to children, and neither does its spinoff Go Diego Go!, for some reason, both of these shows constantly have the cartoon characters look at the screen and ask the viewer to respond, and actually expect an answer.
I watched the first episode of Dora the Explorer for the sake of this blog post. After the title sequence, the very first thing that happens is Dora looks at the camera and says. “Hi, I’m Dora, what’s your name?” and stares blankly at the viewer, waiting for an answer. Then she asks “How old are you?” and again, stares blankly, before saying “Wow, that’s big!” She then asks the viewer to help point at her big red storybook, to help her find it.
This was even more disturbing, because I am an adult and I decided to not answer Dora, so she stared at me in dead-eyed, cold silence for two seconds, so Dora doesn’t care what I am going to say, knowing my response is not relevant to her method of conversation.
The conceit of the show is that it is a lot like a computer game, often having a cursor on the screen and the opening title sequence showing us enter a computer, but this is not a computer game, it’s a scripted, animated show. It would be fantastic as a computer game and interacting with children, but as it is this show and its spin-off are both teaching children to talk to their televisions,
Why are we teaching children something that is wrong, i.e. that televisions can interact with us? This show disturbs me greatly. Do they believe that Dora can hear them? Do they know it’s fake?
This has the potential of hindering the way they learn about conversation. If children are watching this show and talking to themselves, this could teach them that interactivity is unimportant to conversation. I don’t know what’s worse, children talking to their televisions, or the idea that some of the fanbase of Dora the Explorer are watching the TV in silence, as Dora keeps talking to them, and blankly staring, expecting an answer.
Or perhaps this could even teach children that their television, a box in the corner plugged into the wall which cannot respond to them, is their "friend", since it talks to them and smiles. I don't know about you, but that disturbs me.

There aren’t very many children’s programs on television that just deal with healthy eating. Sure, some may occasionally have an episode or two where they say “cookies are a sometimes food” and “fruit and vegetables are good for you”, but very few actually talk about food in every episode.
I do know of one that I saw several years ago, but I can’t remember that much about it. It’s called Planet Cook. Apparently it’s still popular in the UK, but this show takes place on “Planet Cook Island” (I don’t know why it’s called planet when it's just set on an island, but whatever). It stars a celebrity chef who calls himself Captain Cook who lives on this island with a magical yeti, called Bouma, and is tasked by a computer called Roxy to create a delicious dish out of the day’s chosen theme and ingredients before the Info-Bites in the hourglass run out. So they zap three randomly chosen kids to the island via a special slide and help to cook the dish, and speed up the cooking and other time-consuming processes by having the “magic yeti” power the machines through various means, and then by putting the finished meal in the telepad, sent the Taste Transmission around the world and save it from . . . something? I am under the impression that if they didn’t send the dish in time something dreadful would happen, but I can’t remember what or why. Is this the planet’s only source of nutrition? Also, apparently the Roxy computer would teach kids other fun facts about where ingredients come from and the natural world.
I am quite a fan of cooking, and this was an interesting show which I watched a few times. Do you know what I learned from this show? Fuck all.
Magic yetis? Rock AI? Info-bites? I don’t even know why they were cooking, let alone what they were cooking. I saw a promotional ad online that insists the show promotes healthy cooking and I've read online that nutritionists approved all of the recipes, but I honestly don’t remember the meals being healthy at all. But the part I can never understand is that this show was made in the hopes of getting kids interested in cooking; yet, they forgot to make the cooking interesting. They throw time limits and audience participation and magic yetis and computer animation in there to try to make the show interesting, but just make a confusing mess. But one thing I do know is that at the end of the show, they don’t eat the food!
They stick it in a machine and spread the “taste transmission” around the world, but they themselves never eat it.
So, this show is a lie. It’s entirely a lie. It pretends to teach healthy eating and cooking skills. But even though I watched this at a kid, what I remember most was the yeti, because why the fuck was there a magical yeti on a cooking show?
It’s just another example of a show that looks like it’s good for kids, but at the end of the day it was just another set of flashing lights on the idiot box, that kids could zone out in front of at the end of the day. But in regards to cooking, this show (and several other formats of kid’s cooking show) takes the format of a competition. These kids are racing against the clock, and Captain Cook needs their help. It just makes cooking seem difficult. In my experience, cooking is very easy, and the more skills you develop, the easier it becomes to do more interesting meals. But this show presents cooking as a race against the clock, a challenge to be overcome . . . it’s no wonder I found it easier to just sit back and watch rather than try to learn the recipes. I could never cook the recipes they have on the show. After all, I don’t have an artificially intelligent rock computer, or a magic yeti, so why bother?

There aren’t many shows about literally dreaming either, since anything that can happen in a dream can also happen in a television show so that's kind of redundant. But, there is one show which, to me, is not only entirely about dreams, but also should not be shown to children.
That would be Harold and the Purple Crayon. Each show takes place at night, after a long day, and by using his special crayon, Harold creates entire worlds all with the power of his imagination, and in quite a few it ends with Harold waking up in bed. Whether it is literally a dream or we’re meant to imagine a magical crayon, each episode is quite surreal. In the first one, which is most directly based off of the book that inspired the series, he goes for a walk, then draws a river, then jumps over the river, then after a trippy song sequence draws a glass of milk and blows bubbles until the path ahead is filled with bubbles. Then he draws a porcupine to help pop the bubbles, and to thank it for its help, draws a picnic full of pies. But there’s too much pie, so Harold draws a hungry moose to help, but because he draws the poor thing as emaciated, it gets so hungry that it eats the whole drawing . . .
There is a reason most shows don’t deal with dreams. This whole world runs on dream logic, and nothing is beyond Harold, his imagination is limitless, so there’s nothing he can’t do. At least, that’s what this show would have you believe . . . but it’s not true. Harold always imagines animals and recognizable things, and it’s always drawn in a playful, friendly style. Also, everything he draws is instantly recognizable, because it’s designed to have children understand it. So, it’s not boundless, it doesn’t help foster creativity, So what is the point of this show? The problem with this show is that it doesn’t understand the book.
The book of this show is a bedtime story. It’s meant to be something you read as children are going to sleep, so they can see how imagination is amazing, and you shouldn’t be worried about going to bed. But the show isn’t made to be simple and imaginative. As I said, Harold draws entire worlds and characters to populate them. So, as it is, this show is basically about a kid with godlike powers and how he uses his godlike powers to make problems and then solve them. And, in one of the episodes called “I Remember Goldie” after his goldfish dies, Harold goes on an adventure to find his goldfish. Harold doesn’t understand what “dying” means, so tries to entice her back with toys and food, until a mermaid tells him that dying means “Goldie’s body had stopped living and breathing and moving”, and that death is natural like “being born, growing old or learning how to dance” . . . this is a surreal show about dreaming, but slips an “everything dies” message in there. I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach kids about death, we definitely should, but who expects something like this, which had other episodes about birthdays and rain, to suddenly drop that in your lap?
The premise of this episode is to help kids understand mortality, but not only does it have a lot of “floating off into the sky” imagery (which bothers me), but it also assumes that kids will understand, and also won’t make the connection of “wait, I’m part of everything. I’m gonna die”, which in my experience is something that can be very scary for a little kid to come to terms with. This wasn’t even something that the original books covered, as I understand it.
This is something which, were my child to learn it, I would want to be there and help answer their questions. If this were read as a book, there would be a parent there reading the story to their child, and after the end, kissing them goodnight and tucking them in. If they had any questions or worries, they would be there for them. That’s the main problem with this.

In fact, that’s the main problem with all of these shows. There are much better shows on television for kids: Curious George, Sesame Street, What’s the Big Idea? & My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic are some shows that I think you should definitely consider for your young kids. But I am not saying “don’t ever ever let your kid watch any of these shows”, and I’m not even saying “only let your kids watch these other good shows that I like”.
The point is, there are many parents that just sit kids in front of the TV, and leave them there to watch whatever kid's show is on at the time. I’ve gone into friend’s homes, and seen parents cooking in the kitchen whilst their kids are sitting in the lounge watching Peppa Pig. I didn’t cover it in this, because it’s not “horrifying”, but Peppa Pig is the worst kid’s show on television. None of the episodes have a point, and it just seems to have an agenda of basically teaching children “snort and giggle, it’s funny” and “learn to enjoy being middle class” (I might cover that in a later blog post, but that’s not a joke. In one episode, they taught how much “fun” it is to ride the bus); it is an utter waste of time. Or, even worse, YouTube kid shows: They are basically just nursery rhymes or bouncing characters for hours at a time. I’ve seen these shows, I can’t stand them.
You shouldn’t just put on a kid’s show and wish for the best. You should be able to watch shows with your kids. If you think “Oh, but that’s boring, I don’t want to watch that” - why are you letting your kids watch it? Children aren’t stupid. They don’t “know” things yet, but they’re not another species, they have the same brain. The only reason they find colourful shows interesting, and you don’t, is because they haven’t experienced as many things as you. If you think something is stupid or boring, why would you put your kid in front of it to learn? Or, if you don’t let them watch television to learn, then put on a show you enjoy. They’ll learn just as much if not more from “Grand Designs”, “The Walking Dead” or “Big Bang Theory” as they will from The Wiggles.
I’m not telling you to always watch television with your kids, I know that you may be busy, but kid’s shows are very short and you can read synopses online pretty quick; I'm saying, watch at least one episode, and read up on the series before your kid sees it. The reason Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is titled the way it is is because it is referencing absentee parents, if you put a kid in front of that show, they would be scared, but they couldn’t get emotional support such as a hug.

I honestly think that a kid could learn more by watching Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared than any of these other shows. I don’t suggest you do that, but at least fear teaches you something. I’d rather have my kid be scared, than stupid. Because, to me, that’s much more horrifying than rolling a raw heart in glitter, or your skin melting off . . . it's having a child with wasted potential. I’m the Absurd Word Nerd and please don’t hug me, I'm scared.

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