Confusing Message Kids See On Screens About Gender And Unwanted Attention

 

The corn-cob kiss up the arm…

 

The slick stretch-turned-put-your-arm-around-a-girl move…

 

These scenes are portrayed as cute and comedic in family-friendly shows, but are they actually laying the groundwork for our boys to think that harassment is okay? And our girls to think its inevitable?

 

The #metoo movement took an unexpected turn last week when feminist website Babe.net published an expose on comedian Aziz Ansari. The article consisted of one woman’s account of a date-gone-bad with Ansari, where she felt her “verbal and nonverbal cues” went ignored as he pursued and pressured her to have sex with him. The article caused a stir, namely around the questions of what does and does not constitute sexual assault.

 

For anyone interested, the original article, Aziz’s statement and apology and Bari Weiss’ op ed in the New York Times are all interesting reads that dissect some of the complicated, nuanced details intertwined in this situation.

 

Whenever situations arise that, at their core, are about humanity and respect, I wonder what it means for parents. How do we raise children to respect others? How can we help them understand how to avoid entanglements with people who may hurt them?

 

Step one may involve having more conversations with our kids when we see anything that resembles harassment portrayed as entertainment.

 

In cartoons, movies and t.v. shows, there are dozens of examples where male characters repeatedly bother female characters. Gaston, Jafar, Zach Morris, Pepe Le Pew, Puss In Boots, Bluto (from Popeye) and most of the cast from Family Guy are frequently seen making unwanted advances, rude comments and wolf-whistling toward females.

 

And most of the time, the female characters do not say anything.

 

(Now, I fully acknowledge that Family Guy is not a kids’ show. And today’s kids probably aren’t watching Saved By The Bell or Popeye, but the point is that children and teens often see boys hit on girls, get rejected and then keep hitting on them) on screen.

 

It is possible that the entertainment industry may cut these situations from their plots in light of our culture’s recent wake-up call to gender, power and harassment issues.

 

But maybe having an entertainment landscape scrubbed clean of anything that could be offensive is not the answer. I am not calling out Disney, Nickelodeon or Seth MacFarlane to be more mindful of their content.

 

I am asking us, as parents, to have more conversations with our kids when we see things on the screen that would not go over well in the real world. We still can watch and enjoy shows, but let’s circle around to that uncomfortable scene later on. We can tell our children “That part looked funny, but it would not be okay in real life.” Depending on the age of the child, we can start to have conversations about gender, respect and consent.

 

I have been a teacher for almost 20 years, and I parent for 7. Over time, I have learned to be cautious when joking around in front of children, and even in front of teens. Humor – particularly around sensitive topics such as gender, race and power – can be a quagmire.

 

(Yes, that was a Family Guy reference.)

 

The entertainment industry may likely pay more attention to these situations in the future. But in case they don’t, let’s be ready to talk to children about what they see in entertainment and what behavior is most helpful in reality.

 

 

 

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