By now, I’m sure many of us have experienced it. You’re channel surfing and you happen to stop on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. You pause for a few moments to briefly relive your childhood, but instead you find yourself shaking your head in disappointment and mild disgust thinking, “What in the world is this?” as some preteens, teens, and early 20-somethings trying to pass, trade far less than mediocre punchlines while wearing too much make-up.
And you ask yourself a profound question…”What ever happened to “Hey Arnold”?
Children’s television has gone the way of television in general: it’s been “realized.” Cartoons about a fourth grader with a head shaped like a football and the slightly deranged and overbearing girl who has a secret crush on him have been replaced with miniature versions of reality television, with “real life” dilemmas and stock character types to boot. Of course, no one is using profane language or getting into cat-fights, but the imagination is gone.
By imagination, I don’t mean new ideas. Teenagers who pose as rock stars by night, live in hotels, and run their own businesses are definitely new developments, at least on television. I mean the fantastic element, the these-people-aren’t-real element, the I-know-this-could-never-happen-in-real-life (and that makes it intriguing) element, the this-is-so-ridiculous-I-just-have-to-laugh element. Instead, according to the New York Times, characters on modern-day programming all have to be relatable and someone who kids will want to aspire to be; yet, there is seldom anything inspirational about the images that they present.
What ever happened to teaching children to aspire to be the best of themselves, instead of buying them Hannah Montana wigs? What ever happened to teaching them to think for themselves and to visualize the impossible, whether they can relate to it or not: aardvarks that talk and go to school (like you knew what an aardvark was before Arthur came on) and “Repair MAN, MAN, MAN, MAN, MAN!!!” (80s, 90s babies, where y’all at?)
Instead, the home page of the New York Times has a story about the grooming of Disney Channel’s newest star in the making, China Anne McClain, formerly of “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.” While I’m a big fan of China’s (I loved her on “House of Payne” and in Daddy’s Little Girls) and I wish her much success, the article describes Nickelodeon and Disney Channel’s extensive search for young stars.
The search includes everything from looks, presence, musical talent, and marketability to different ethnic groups, including the potential to sell out movies theaters and music tours. (Remember when it was a big deal just to have “Rugrats” on a screen bigger than the one in your living room?) It all eerily resembles an upcoming episode of “Made: So You Wanna Be a Tween Star?”
The article also expresses hope that China Anne does not go the scandalous route of so many other ex-Disney Channel stars as they build her and so many other stars into a child-friendly brand. The only problem with that is that kids don’t stay young, and when the appeal wears off, desperation often sets in.
Am I the only one who has a problem with our children being treated like such commodities, both the ones on-screen and the ones watching? The thought of them being bought and sold at such impressionable ages sincerely disturbs me. Children’s programming with spirit, humor, and educational and moral lessons, whether overt or implied, seems to be going the way of public television.
So, I hope that both the fans and the actors alike have someone to explain the discrepancy between the “reality” on TV and the reality of the world because, unfortunately, “Hey Arnold” is gone. When they look back to find that their season is over, they won’t be in the fourth grade anymore.