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Beauty in simplicity: Children’s television

I had only once seen the 2002 Disney classic, “Lilo & Stitch,” as a child. Although I eagerly watched (and rewatched!) Disney movies as a child, all I could remember of this particular movie was thinking it was adorable. Upon rewatching it as an adult, I expected a lighthearted, feel-good film about a young girl adopting an alien.

Instead, I was greeted by the heart-wrenching story of two sisters rebuilding their lives after the tragic loss of their parents. Like many of the greatest children’s films, “Lilo & Stitch” excels at communicating heavy, adult themes to children while maintaining its entertainment value as a cartoon about a cute alien and his companions. The value of children’s television like “Lilo & Stitch” to people beyond its target audience cannot and should not be overlooked. 

Lilo, 7, and her sister Nani, 19 — struggling financially and emotionally — stumble across trouble with otherworldly authorities when they adopt an alien named Stitch. Lilo, believing Stitch to be an injured dog, buys him from the shelter as a pet. Much of the conflict throughout the movie, on the surface, centers around Lilo and Stitch’s escapades in Hawaii. 

However, many moments in the film allude to heavy emotional conflicts in a way that children would understand, but might not read too much into. For example, at one point Stitch contemplates leaving Lilo and Nani. As she watches him go, Lilo clutches a photo of her sister and parents, saying, “If you want to leave, you can. I’ll remember you, though. I remember everyone that leaves.” 

The message is simple and easy for a child to grasp: Lilo is upset about Stitch leaving, and it reminds her of her parents’ tragedy. The movie goes on, however, and the conflict between the aliens and Stitch recaptures the young audience’s attention. This kind of storytelling makes the movie’s darker themes accessible to younger audiences; scenes like this clearly convey Lilo’s sadness to children, even if they may not fully understand how Stitch represents her grief and fear of abandonment. The movie moves past its emotional conflicts to scenes of Lilo and Stitch goofing off or high stakes physical conflicts with the alien authorities — quickly enough for younger audiences to appreciate the movie for being fun and cute, while still understanding the emotional hurdles the protagonists face.

This is a huge part of what makes children’s television like “Lilo and Stitch” so great. Other major hits like “Avatar: The Last Airbender and “Steven Universe” employ similar tactics to convey real-life problems, like LGBTQ+ issues, ableism and colonialism to children using fantasy elements to metaphorically represent and mirror the problems that many people face both now and in the past.

Simple constructs can convey so much to both children and adults in a way that is entertaining and fun. For example, in “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” a character named Toph is smothered by her parents, unable to leave her home and enjoy the world because she is blind. Toph is also an “earthbender,” a superpower within the show that she uses to control and essentially terraform the ground, rocks and even sand. Unbeknownst to most people, she understands the world around her by feeling the vibrations in the earth, which she refers to as her own way of seeing. 

Her parents believe her to be “fragile” because of her disability; however, it is one of her greatest strengths. Because she has learned how to feel the vibrations in the Earth, she is one of the greatest earthbenders and fully capable of protecting herself. Despite this, many people refuse to acknowledge her talents because she is a blind young girl. Toph’s struggles are the narrative of a girl constantly confronted with ableism and sexism, always proving those who doubt her strength wrong. 

Toph’s story, like “Lilo & Stitch,” is entertaining to both children and adults. But more than that, it’s important to show narratives like this in children’s television especially, both to teach children about real life issues and to empower young members of communities that have been repeatedly discriminated against. 

At a time when LGBTQ+ representation was not prevalent in children’s television, “Steven Universe” creator Rebecca Sugar fought to feature queer and nonbinary characters in the Cartoon Network show. 

“As I’m writing about this, as I’m pitching this, I’m also getting a lot of pushback,” Sugar said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “This was not considered acceptable material for children at the time. … [But] who is speaking to a generation of children about why they deserve to exist? About how they deserve to exist? I wanted to be able to do that.” 

Sugar perfectly describes why representation is so important in children’s television. Media is an integral part of our culture; having role models like the characters in “Steven Universe” is incredibly important to support young children and make them feel accepted into a society in which there is so much conflict about people’s identities. 

Children’s television may not be considered by society to be important to a child’s development or entertaining to adults, yet many works contradict this sentiment. The genre’s ability to convey difficult topics like grief and trauma to a wide range of audiences cannot be ignored, as well as its power as a tool to teach young children about real-world problems. Works that feature underrepresented minorities can be empowering for young children in a society that discriminates against many communities. For these reasons, the value of children’s television cannot be understated.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Caitlin Brannigan

Caitlin is a sophomore from New Jersey studying psychology and English. She will forever defend her young adult novels and is overjoyed to have a platform to rant. She can be reached for comment at cbrannig@nd.edu or @CaitlinBrannig on Twitter.

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