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Are “Space Jam”, “Luca” and “Paw Patrol” sending the right messages to children?


The new movie “Space Jam” debuts on July 16 with a familiar cast of Looney Tunes characters except one. Pepe Le Pew was cut from the film in light of heightened watch behavior due to the #MeToo movement.

The Amorous Skunk, introduced in a 1945 cartoon titled “Odor-Able Kitty,” has been criticized as a sexual stalker for its aggressive pursuit of a black and white cat. A New York Times columnist said the character “has normalized the culture of rape.”

Pepe Le Pew was in the first “Space Jam,” which featured basketball star Michael Jordan teaming up with characters from Looney Tunes for a basketball game against aliens to save civilization. By leaving the skunk out of the new film, which stars Los Angeles Laker LeBron James, the filmmakers are avoiding controversy, but they are also sending a moral message to families that the skunk’s behavior has failed. what to laugh about.

Hollywood delving deep into moral issues is not unusual. We all do it in the most ordinary actions. “We are constantly paying attention to moral information, giving ourselves moral messages in our daily lives,” said Steve Guglielmo, professor of psychology at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

For most of us, these messages appear in the words we choose in our conversations or in what we choose to share on social media. For filmmakers, they end up in movie theaters or on our televisions, and the message is magnified accordingly. But oddly enough, America’s full-fledged culture war rarely makes it to the big screen.

Granted, there are skirmishes – people may disagree as to whether the actions of a cartoon skunk can reach the level of sexual harassment and whether a sleeping Snow White was raped when Prince Charming. kissed her. But beloved children’s films like “Toy Story” and “The Lion King” are generally loved by all Americans; not liked by Republicans or Democrats.

A study published in March suggests that this surprising community of values ​​gives cause for hope in a rigidly partisan society. But with the summer movie season, the moral message in children’s films is something parents should pay close attention to, says an academic who has studied Disney films.

Is Buzz Lightyear a Liberal?

Guglielmo, along with Rachel Gehman and David C. Schwebel, examined moral messages in 42 children’s films in two studies, the results of which were published in March in the journal PLOS One. They used an academic concept called Moral Foundations Theory to assess whether the values ​​depicted in the films were most treasured by conservatives or liberals, then looked at people’s responses to hypothetical resolutions to the moral dilemmas raised in the films.

Researchers often group these values ​​into two broad categories. “Individualizing” values ​​reflect a concern for minimizing the experience of others in matters of prejudice and injustice, while “binding” values ​​reflect a concern for obeying authority figures and being loyal to one’s group. social. Liberals tend to favor individualizing values, while conservatives place more emphasis on binding ones, sociologists say.

The film industry has long been viewed as a bastion of liberal values, so it was perhaps not surprising that when researchers looked at heroes and villains in popular films, heroes were more likely to play as characters. individualizing values, such as minimizing suffering and correcting injustice. ; the bad guys represented binding values, such as respect for authority, the researchers said.

Citing examples from “Monsters, Inc.” and “Beauty and the Beast,” the authors wrote, “In individualistic cultures it is admirable to” speak the truth to power “and to fight for your beliefs, in especially when these beliefs contradict current norms or the precepts of authority. “

In general, people who identified as conservatives preferred moral lessons expressing compelling values, while liberals preferred those expressing individual values. But there was more agreement between the two groups that the messages of individualization were good. This might help explain why there isn’t a bitter partisan divide over the results of the “Toy Story” films, even though Woody and Buzz Lightyear display values ​​that researchers say are more important to Liberals.

The researchers concluded: “Despite the political polarization in the United States, children’s films can be a commonplace, where moral concerns of care and fairness are celebrated by both liberals and conservatives. They note, however, that filmmakers often remove moral nuances from children’s films, creating clearly good or bad characters.

It means no worries

In her 2002 book “Mouse Morality, the Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film”, researcher Annalee R. Ward examined the role of The Walt Disney Company as a moral educator of American children and stated that “in trying to appeal to the general public, ”the company sends inconsistent moral messages.

For example, some films teach that women can be happy and empowered but still unsatisfied without a man. Others say our inner beauty matters more than outer appearance, while showing the opposite on screen. “After all, Quasimodo never had the girl,” Ward said in an interview, referring to the hero in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.

While presenting itself as a company with family values, Disney is changing with the culture and seeming to respond to criticism, Ward said. As such, its moral message is evolving and will continue to do so.

“You see some really nice turns in current films,” she said. “Take the ‘Frozen’ megahit – that was a different message. While Elsa still looked like a Barbie doll, Anna was more of a little girl.

But Ward says she was troubled by a common moral message from the ’90s Disney films, which was’ follow your heart’, a valuing of individual knowledge at the expense of the collective, and a repudiation of another historical value, responsibility. . But the “follow your heart” value seems to be changing. “They are now offering messages that following your heart might not just be the thing you need,” she said.

While Ward says the ultimate message Disney is trying to get across is ‘go buy’ its merchandise, she believes the company is sincerely trying to convey good values, although the values ​​kids and their parents get from movies can’t be. -be not the same thing, especially if the children watch the movies several times.

“As a parent, you can always walk with the obvious message, and your kids will understand it. But if you’re a parent with a video and let your kids watch it over and over again, kids will start to choose which posts to walk away with.

“‘The Lion King’ was a fabulous movie, but if the kids are in control they will watch ‘Hakuna Matata’ over and over again. Will they come away with the message that sometimes you have to go through tough times and take responsibility, or will they walk away with “no worries, no responsibilities, ‘Hakuna Matata?”

Parents need to expose their children to a variety of stories and films, have conversations about them, and model the values ​​they want their children to adopt, she said.

LeBron James stands next to Bugs Bunny in the upcoming Warner Bros. movie. Pictures “Space Jam: A New Legacy”.
Photos of Warner Bros.

Whose values?

After a limited supply in the year of COVID-19, Hollywood is looking to bounce back with summer films for families that will both be in theaters and go straight to streaming. The sequel to “Space Jam,” for example, opens in theaters and will air on HBO Max starting July 16.

Other family movies that are expected to be popular this summer include “Luca,” a Disney Plus movie about a boy who’s actually a sea monster; “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway”, “Hotel Transylvania 4” and “Paw Patrol: The Movie”.

As for the moral message of “Space Jam,” as Ward noted, the message in the movies is often mixed.

The second trailer for the Warner Brothers film shows an array of morally questionable Looney Tunes characters, including violence-loving Wile E. Coyote and gunslinger Yosemite Sam. There’s no Pepe Le Pew to see, but the grandmother who owns the Tweety bird drinks a margarita at halftime of the otherworldly basketball game. “Haters are going to hate it,” she said.

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