Cranky Old Fuddy-Duddy Alert

by sawamix

If you don’t want to read the rantings of a cranky old person, don’t bother reading this post. I may have sidestepped the Parent’s Revenge of “When you have children…”, but at least I can give my mother the satisfaction of sounding like her for one blog post.

Is there really such a dearth of imagination in this country that animation studios and toymakers can’t come up with new and marketable characters that resonate with today’s children? In a world that’s seen Pixar rake in money, do you mean to tell me that toy companies have to not only commit the sacrilege of “updating” the venerable Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, but also updating characters that should have been tossed in the sketch artists’ circular file when they first appeared? Did Warner Bros. learn nothing from “Loonatics”? Character makeovers are nothing new; look how Nancy Drew has been updated over the years, and worse, look how her “tomboyish” friend George Fayne was feminized. Nancy Drew survived because the character started out as being anachronistically more “modern” and independent than the many time periods in which girls read the stories in which she and her friends figured. Here was an adventurous girl who tended to bring her girlfriends, not her boyfriend, on her sleuthing expeditions.

But what’s happening with many of these updates is a reflection on a society in which there are parents who think dressing a four-year-old like a hooker is cute and in which little girls’ birthday parties are now “Diva Spa Party Makeovers”.

This is the reimagining of “Strawberry Shortcake”, a ridiculous character that was dorky in the 1980’s:

Aside from the fact that the original Strawberry Shortcake was a flagrant Raggedy Ann ripoff that it’s hard to imagine resonating among kids who were born during the Disco Years, this character has been more than updated — she’s been slimmed down significantly. She’s no longer a little girl with baby fat — now she’s a Tween who’s ready for her close-up, Ms. Liebowitz.

The New York Times on this phenomenon:

Strawberry Shortcake, part of a line of scented dolls, now prefers fresh fruit to gumdrops, appears to wear just a dab of lipstick (but no rouge), and spends her time chatting on a cellphone instead of brushing her calico cat, Custard. Her new look was unveiled Tuesday, along with plans for a new line of toys from Hasbro.

She is not the only aging fictional star to get a facelift. An unusually large number of classic characters for children are being freshened up and reintroduced — on store shelves, on the Internet and on television screens — as their corporate owners try to cater to parents’ nostalgia and children’s YouTube-era sensibilities. Adding momentum is a retail sector hoping to find refuge from a rough economy in the tried and true.

Warner Brothers hopes to “reinvigorate and reimagine” Bugs Bunny and Scooby-Doo through a new virtual world on the Internet, where people will be able to dress up the characters pretty much any way they want. American Greetings is dusting off another of its lines, the Care Bears, which will return with a fresh look this fall (less belly fat, longer eyelashes).

And 4Kids Entertainment, which licenses the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, will revive them next year in new video games, where they will have more muscles and less attitude.

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Reinventing these beloved characters without inflicting indelible damage is one of the entertainment industry’s trickiest maneuvers.

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If the classic characters look less stodgy, the companies hope, they will appeal not only to parents who remember them fondly, but also to children who might automatically be suspicious of toys their parents played with. For parents, nostalgia is considered a bigger sales hook than ever because of the increasingly violent and hyper-sexualized media landscape.

So what the hell do these parents think they’re getting with Ninja Turtles who are as buff as the steroid-era Schwarzenegger and nymphet Strawberry Shortcakes? If you’ll click through to the article, you’ll see a picture of another 1980’s character, Angelina Ballerina, a dancing mouse who in her original incarnation was a little girl mouse complete with baby fat, and has now been “reimagined” as a long, lean, leggy mouse worthy of George Balanchine’s American Ballet Theatre.

I realize that it’s fashionable to have the vapors over the so-called “childhood obesity epidemic” (which interestingly, seems to have levelled off coinciding with the reduction in the use of trans fats in commercially-prepared foods). But is “reimagining” characters geared toward small children by primarily making them thinner and sexing them up the way to do it?

A study released in the fall of 2000 found that chldren’s television viewing habits have marked effect on body image (emphases mine):

In a new study to appear this fall in the journal Communication Research, Harrison surveyed about 300 students, aged 6 to 8 years, at 2 mostly white elementary schools in the Midwest about the amount of television they watch, their favorite television characters, and their beliefs about the ideal body shape and fat stereotyping.

She also measured the students’ disordered eating symptoms by using the Children’s Eating Attitudes Test, an empirical scale containing more than 2 dozen cognitive and behavioral self-report items. Sample items include “I stay away from foods with sugar in them” and “I think a lot about having fat on my body.”

Even after controlling for the fact that some children with eating problems specifically seek out body-related information on television, Harrison found that television viewing, in general, predicts eating disorder symptoms for both boys and girls.

“The fact that the correlation remained suggests that even for children who have little or no interest in fitness and dieting television content, increased television exposure is still linked to increased disordered eating,” she says.

However, while children’s television viewing may indicate the development of eating disorders, Harrison did not find that children necessarily favor thin body-shape standards. This suggests that children may begin modeling the dieting and exercising behaviors they see on television even before they actually begin to internalize the thin-body ideal.

In fact, the girls in the study who watched the most television chose a heavier figure as representing the ideal body size for adult women and a thinner figure as representing their own. This is opposite the pattern one might expect, in which television viewing would predict the overestimation of one’s own body size and the choice of unrealistically thin standards for the ideal size of females in general, Harrison says.

“Girls who were interpersonally attracted to average-weight female characters reported the healthiest (or normal) body-size choices and believed thinness to be relatively unimportant,” she says. “This suggests that adopting normal-weight role models on television could be beneficial for girls.”

In contrast, those girls attracted to thin female television characters are more likely to view their own bodies as heavier, while boys attracted to thin male characters favor a thinner ideal-body size for males, the study shows.

So if all you’re going to put out there are “thinner” female television characters, guess what you’re going to get?