Friday, November 1, 2013

Cliches Explained Part Six: Blissful Ignorance

So you’re a parent or a legal guardian, and you’re reasonably sure your kid will at some point have to face the truth: they descend from a line of cyber zombie werewolves and that is going to completely destroy their social life. Do you:

a/ Tell them as soon as they’re old enough to understand and then spend the next few years drilling them about safe fursplosions or,

b/ Keep them in the dark until they’re literally rolling on the floor screaming: “TARGET ACQUIRED BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAINS!”

Admittedly, when I put it like that, it doesn’t seem very fair.

The temptation to keep your children in the dark about the more unpleasant aspects of life is a pretty understandable one. I’m sure many of us look back on our kiddie years and wish we could go back to those good ol’ days when life wasn’t so complicated. But let’s be honest – nostalgia and good-natured well-wishing aren’t the reason why we tell kids that children come from cabbages. No, the reason why we do that is to avoid the awkwardness of having to explain human reproduction to pervy little kids and then watch them play it out with their dolls.

‘sides, it’s much easier to tell someone not to get up to the same stuff you got up to until they’re married, if you can convince them the stork delivered them early.

Moving away from the mental image of your parents doing what you did last Saturday night (watching anime and live-tweeting every vaguely phallic representation they saw), and towards YA, there’s a surprising and inexplicable number of parental units that try to keep their progeny in the dark about whatever dark secret destiny they have. I mean, sure, if you think you left the destiny in your Old Country, that’s reasonable-ish, but I’d still double-check with the local oracle before ordering cake and streamers for your “Safe!” party.
And if you know your son will turn into a werewolf if vampires are nearby, and vampires move in the neighbourhood, some advance warning is only polite. Not only will your kid not hate you for withholding information, but they won’t be completely terrified and surprised when they feel the first pangs of change.
I mean, duh!

Sadly, “New Moon” isn’t the only instance where a parent ignores the paranormal elephant in the room. “The Night Itself”, which I reviewed recently (that post inspired this one,) falls into the category of I’m-totes-hiding-secrets-from-you-and-will-tell-you-about-it-when-you’re-older, as well as its sister variation, let-me-tell-you-all-about-it-as-a-story. Or how about “Daughter of Smoke and Bone”, where Karou is actively and forcefully kept away from the secrets her family hides until everything catches fire?

The excuses for this trope run from the plausible (adults not wanting to acknowledge how badly their society is doing in “Divergent”) to the brain-boggling (Clary’s mother trying to protect her by forcefully blocking her natural abilities, but also teaching her runes on the side, whyyyyyyyyy?) Of course, on a meta-level, the reason why we have this is so that the protagonist can also be the audience surrogate. I mean, we’ve all felt like our parents are patronising us. What better way to relate to the MC than to have their parents lie on a whole larger scale? Not to mention you can have tons and tons of interesting conversations about trust and boundaries and, in the case of Jocelyn, how much control can a parent have over their kid before it crosses the line into abusive territory.

Now, usually I don’t get into whether I agree with the trope or not, although I did point out in my last clichés post that the whole “I hurt people because I have to” is gendered BS that shouldn’t be allowed to exist in the real world. However, in the case of parents deliberately misleading their kids and limiting their responsibility, I firmly subscribe to the trinity of Trust, Education and Experimentation. Sarah Wilson has a very nice blogpost on the topic called “F*ck up and find your own way” where she advocates development outside of your comfort zone.

And, if you want to get out of the subjective and focus on real-world application, consider this passage that basically advocates education as a parent’s best remedy to their child being exposed to pornography on the Internet (and forming the wrong ideas about sex, presumably.)

Technology—in the form of fences around pools, pool alarms, and locks—can help protect children from drowning in swimming pools. However, teaching a child to swim—and when to avoid pools—is a far safer approach than relying on locks, fences, and alarms to prevent him or her from drowning. Does this mean that parents should not buy fences, alarms, or locks? Of course not—because they do provide some benefit. But parents cannot rely exclusively on those devices to keep their children safe from drowning, and most parents recognize that a child who knows how to swim is less likely to be harmed than one who does not. Furthermore, teaching a child to swim and to exercise good judgment about bodies of water to avoid has applicability and relevance far beyond swimming pools—as any parent who takes a child to the beach can testify. (p. 224)

“Youth, Pornography and the Internet”, 2002, National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, as quoted by Thierer in 

Am I being naïve in thinking that we can trust children’s judgement if we give them the guidelines and the information they need? Certainly installing a parental control on your laptop will stop your kids from going on porn sites, but it won’t make the porn sites – or skewered societal attitudes towards sex - go away (nor will it stop your kid from cracking your password and seeing what the fuss is about.) Likewise, Jocelyn could certainly stop her daughter from seeing the paranormal for a while, but the paranormal was still there, and it could still hurt both of the, as evidenced by every Mortal Instruments book to date (I think.) 

In my own, personal experience, the times where I've gotten the most personal fulfillment were the ones when I was pushed out of my comfort zone, and learned to cope with it. At the same time, I was never pushed out without some kind of safety net or support structure within my reach. Though for most of it, I was on my own, there was always the assumption that I would get help if I needed it, which I think was what gave me confidence I would make it - the fact that somebody had considered the worst-case scenario and provided for it.

I mean, it’s good to be an optimist. Maybe Jacob would never have to turn into a werewolf. Maybe no-one would ever release the sword’s power. Maybe the forces of darkness would never find Clary. But there’s a boundary between reasonable optimism and forced ignorance. The former is understandable and relatable. The latter is a sign of an author who lost track of their continuity somewhere along the way. So where is the line?

#1 Context, context, context! In “The Night Itself,” Mio was never meant to go waving the sword around before her 16th birthday. Her grandfather intended to tell her everything, but was stopped by his son, who either doesn’t know about the mystical mumbo-jumbo, or refuses to believe it’s real. Which is fair enough. In the case of that book, the incident and subsequent story are caused by a combination of bad luck, terrible timing, and a nice heaping of personal flaws. By contrast, in “City of Bones”, Jocelyn has no idea how long she can hide and she’s certainly been informed that the mind-block wouldn’t work on Clary as Clary gets older. By all means, wouldn’t it be smarter to tell the girl what she is and what she should expect, rather than have her find out when she’s literally being attacked? (Unless Jocelyn planned Clary to be rescued by sexy Shadowhunters all along, in which case, she’s a really terrible person.)

#2 Continuity! If the parental figures make the conscious decision to keep their kids in the dark because they want their kids away from all those dangerous things, they should not, in later books, have their whole survival plan hinge on those kids disobeying them (Brimstone, I’m looking at you!) Likewise, they should not dress up the truth as some legend and then act all offended when the kids don’t believe them (Billy Black could have found a way to convince Jacob early on that the old myths were true. The reason he didn’t was because Stephenie Meyer decided her magical brown people would be impractical for drama’s sake.)

The Exception: Unavailability on the part of a knowledgeable adult.

This applies both for changeling-type stories (see: “Fever Crumb”) and for stories where the adult is literally rendered incapable of divulging the truth (in Lee Weatherly’s “Angel”, Willow’s mother was made mentally ill by her interactions with the angel Raziel, which made it impossible for her to tell anything to her daughter.) 

However, if your knowledgeable adults are staying away for the sake of the child’s normal life, you need to take into account the plausible consequences of that action. If your protagonist has superpowers that have a violent manifestation (cyborg zombie werewolf!) or even a not-so-violent one (occasional desire to chase cars or howl at the moon) how would the parent or guardian provide for that? Drop a warning? Put a chip in the kid’s head? Come on over and act mysterious?

It’s all in the details, peeps. It’s all in the details.

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