Beware the Wrecking of a Child’s Soul

For some years now I’ve been reflecting on a maxim I’ve derived from constantly teaching young people: If you change the stories a people tell, you necessarily change the identity and character of the people.

We frequently remind our girls on the one day a week they usually watch movies to watch out for messages of “Follow Your Heart.”

In this connection, having some time ago watched Wreck It Ralph 2, I decided to watch the first one with my girls. This was the first time they had seen it, so watching it with them, with my critical faculties on and ready to discuss the film with them afterwards, I almost immediately noticed a total difference of message between the two.

In the first Wreck film, Ralph starts out by following his heart because he doesn’t want to be what everyone thinks he is. In the process of trying to show who he “really” is he winds up wrecking many things, even to the point of almost destroying another video game. Trying to prove that he’s not what everyone thinks he is, he ironically only seems to prove they are right.

Ralph’s little friend, Vanellope, meanwhile, who is also following her heart to become what she seemingly isn’t, a racer, turns out to actually be a racer whose code the bad guy has corrupted so that she is something she’s not by nature meant to be. Ralph’s friendship with her ends up restoring her proper nature, and even though he makes some significant blunders in the process, his friendship shines through precisely in his desire to keep her from the harm that he thinks will befall her if she follows her heart.

Flash forward to Wreck-It Ralph 2. While it is an extremely clever movie in its portrayal of the internet and the various foibles of people on it, the moral message is exactly the opposite.

For in this one, Vanellope again decides to follow her heart, but this time her heart takes her out of her natural place in order to make her into something she is not meant to be, a rough-and-tumble racer in a very violent video game. At the high point of the film corresponding to the first one when she gets very angry at Ralph, she tells him that a true friend would let her do whatever her heart desires, and that’s why he’s a bad friend because he’s trying to talk her out of what she wants but is not actually meant to be.

I find this reversal of moral message fascinating, especially in terms of its portrayal of friendship. Clearly the two movies were written by and for two different mindsets, and

How many in our world today believe that true friendship consists in allowing one’s friend to do whatever they want to do – and supporting them (“validating” their choice) while they’re doing it – rather than pointing out to them things that will harm them and trying to dissuade them? Have we really lost the old idea and practice that being a friend means helping our friend seek what is actually True and Good and Beautiful, not just what they happen to feel (with ever-and-always-changing emotions) is right at the moment?

I’ve thought for some years now as a teacher that we adults should never underestimate the catechetical (teaching) power of pop culture. These things are not “just movies” any more than all the old immoral and sophistical myths about the gods were just entertaining bedtime stories. Many of the modes of seemingly “harmless” entertainment to which we allow our children to be exposed on a regular basis possess the power to fundamentally rewrite their moral imaginations – sometimes significantly enough to cause them ultimately to reject the truths we as parents have tried so hard to pass on to them.

As a classics teacher this brings to my mind that it’s no wonder Plato wanted to banish the poets from his ideal society. Stories are incredibly powerful, especially in the fantastically dopamine-stimulating modes (“cool” music, “awesome” movies, “fun” video games) that our current technology wraps them up in.

A jingle I heard growing up: “Oh be careful little eyes what you see.” We who are parents, charged with the nurture and admonition of the next generation, really must take more care to observe the entertainments to which our children are attracted. And we really must take the time to sit and talk with them about that newest action-packed CGI-stuffed superhero movie and that latest trendy video they’ve seen on the Internet.

It’s pretty ominous to realize that these things may eventually, through constant and uncritical exposure, have even more formative power over their minds and hearts than anything we ourselves could ever say or model in their presence.