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Challenge question 9/9/14: the reinvented "good" vs. "bad"

rebeccamec's picture

In our group, Double X, we discussed how children's stories used to take place in the Wild West, with one bad guy, and the good guy would arrive to save the day. Our group wondered: are we making media too complicated for children to understand by showing all the shades of gray in between with contemporary children's characters?



Alexandra Lyon's picture

I do think children's literature today has become more complicated and diverse in a multitude of ways in comparison to older children's literature. In terms of looking at the modernization of what is now "good vs. bad," the detail that is put into conveying a certain message or portraying a character in a distinct way is much more deceitfully done. When you think of older and some original children's literature and/or cartoons such as Tom and Jerry or Spiderman and Batman, the portrayal and understanding of who was deemed "good" or "bad" was seemingly effortless; it was made very clear there was one (or more) "bad guy(s)" going after the "good guy" or hero. Today, the "shades of gray" seen in children's literature encompass side stories and not so simple plot lines that complicate the story. It is not always so obvious who is "good" and who is "bad." We as readers are given so many different lenses into a character's life that it can sometimes become "messy" to unfold themes and characters themselves. The real question is, is this too much for children today? Has it become too hard to follow or is the younger population becoming more prone and exposed to such a society that the children's literature has merely become a reflection of society itself?

abby rose's picture

My initial reaction to this question aligned with Bettelheim's sentiment that the complexities of fictional characters don't effectively differentiate the "good" from the "bad". At the same time, if fictional characters take on more complex roles than good versus evil, then I believe children would have more realistic role models. But how important is it to have the polarization between good and evil at an early age? After further thought, I concluded that the narratives of absolute good versus absolute evil are most effective at very early ages, while characters ought to/may grow more complicated as children grow older and more cognizant of the true nature of good and evil -- that there is no absolute. However, as characters in movies and fairy tales and stories of the like become enter these shades of gray, the "bad" behavior of the protagonists should be emphasized as having negative consequences. That way, children and young people might understand that although bad deeds do not indicate a bad person, the good deed is the better route. Mutlifaceted characters teach children a vital lesson that good people can do bad things. This concept is important for them to accept the mistakes they make and realize they can still be good in spite of their bad decisions. While guilt is an important emotion to guide children early in life, they should not feel as though their actions are unforgivably evil. As children grow older and are able to discern good from evil, I think it is important for children to accept the complexities of fictional characters so that they can better manage the conflicting behaviors of their family members, peers, and role models in the real world. The acceptance of others' flaws (and even one's own) can instill mercy in children and young people. This mercy is particularly valuable as young adulthood approaches and children begin to become disillusioned with their parents/caretakers as they realize that they are not perfect people. 

Hummingbird's picture

I agree. I think it's important to impart to children the idea that there are not bad people-- just bad actions. I remember distinctly a moment at age four when I made up a story about a person I saw with a disability. My teacher reprimanded me and I understood why it was wrong for me to say what I did. I felt extremely guilty for it, and for a long time was convinced I was a bad person, rather than that I had said a bad/insensitive/mean thing. The positive outcome of the experience is that I grew very careful and thoughtful about what I said and whether it might be hurtful to others. Was it necessary to go through a period of immense guilt to learn that lesson? I'm not sure.

Additionally, the lesson that good people may do bad things allows us to think of everyone as having potential to remedy what they've done wrong. Thinking of the present, when I observe a micro-agression it can be easy for me to assume the agressor is a bad and ignorant person, rather than taking the time to educate them about why what they've said or done is harmful. If we absorbed the idea that the action is separate from the person, we can educate and change harmful behaviour. Teaching children this information allows them to become compassionate and active bystanders from an early age.

rb.richx's picture

While I don't think I agree that there are not bad people and only bad actions, I still think that the concept itself here is a great lesson to children: mistakes or doing "bad" things depends on the severity and ability to change, and as children there's often a lot of potential mobility surrounding change for "the better".

One thing that comes to mind about evil characters in children's movies that builds on your point: evil/bad characters are portrayed as wholly bad, and thus all their character traits or identifyers are marred also. So, for example, we see Ursula in The Little Mermaid portrayed as fat - because she is evil and has no redeeming quality, her fatness is then also seen as part of her badness. The same goes for a ton of other examples surrounding people of color, gender non-conformity and/or queerness, and other forms of identity minorities.

In terms of the LGBTQIA+ community, I have seen many people express that they actually identify with evil characters of their childhoods, even the ones that aren't as recent and are portrayed as still wholly evil. The argument I've heard for this is (paraphrased and summarized), "This character and I are similar in our traits [note: since queerness is not always explicitly mentioned, it might be like an androgynous character for example]. I feel evil and bad sometimes, but I identify with that because of some of the messages I recieve from society."

So even though people often have completely legitimate reasons to identify with a character, they now have this internalized idea from childhood that the trait makes them evil/bad. Expressing complex characters and character dynamics allows for children to still odentofu woth a character who might be the antagonist without internalizing that their identity makes them evil/bad.

smalina's picture

I have also noticed the recent complexity in children's media characters, and that there are no longer so many examples of the polarized "good" and "bad." However, I don't think this is a dangerous phenomenon if the complexity of the characterization matches the age and mental development of its viewers. Like Bettelheim, I see the benefits of exposing very young viewers/readers to completely dichotomized characterizations, as it seems reasonable to expect that their mental development would demand such simple examples of morality. However, there is a great benefit to children both as students and as people when they begin to learn that people are complex, and are often driven to take the actions they take because they believe that what they are doing is right. Unlike the bad guys on tv shows (and especially superhero cartoons), most people who commit crimes don't do so simply because they "love evil"--rather, they commit crimes because they need money or food to survive, or for any number of reasons. Still, this concept can't be introduced as soon as a child is old enough to be read to, or to watch tv. Children should gradually learn to grasp the complexity of characterization (and humanity), and therefore it seems reasonable that media designed for a slightly older child should begin to show more complexity in character. Perhaps such shifts in media over time reflect a more open-minded society--one that is more willing to sympathize with those who are not "right" by everyone's standards.

bridgetmartha's picture

I can only answer this to an extent, as I don’t have any children and thus can’t relate to how one raises children in this modern era. But what I can say, however, is that for whatever confusion might be caused by the complex and dynamic characters of the modern fairytale, it is balanced by the lack thereof in traditional ones. One the one hand, older-style tales continue to provide this rudimentary education, while, on the other, more complex plots are introducing children to more developed (and more realistic storylines) at a younger age, giving them stories they relate to on a subconscious level accompanied by those they either directly relate to or, moreover, those that they will come to appreciate on an even deeper level in years to come.

On the first level, I would say that it’s reasonably safe to assume that children being raised now, born in the last ten years, are still watching the “classics.” I certainly did—I watched Cinderella regularly, and Sleeping Beauty was one of my favorites, even though they came out 44 and 35 years, respectively, before I was born. Time seems not to be a barrier, and given the continued popularity of the more classic films, it is probable that children are still exposed to the characters that lack the confounding shades of grey. With that being said, new films may be too much younger audiences to grasp. The plots are more intricate and creative, sometimes to a fault, involving more (and often complex) characters and rejecting previously established tropes and relationships. Many lack an obvious hero or villain—rather, the antagonist remains a set of ideas which the protagonist must face but they are now no longer manifested in a concrete (human or otherwise) form. But I honestly can’t say; I may very well be underestimating the intellect of a child.

However, I think the transition in plots is beneficial even if these movies are indeed too much for young children. They open up children’s minds at a young age to tropes beyond naïve concepts related to good versus bad, hero versus villain (and of course, often rewarded by true love), revealing that such a divide rarely exists in life. On a more subconscious level, these may be more comprehendible, but new ones are more relatable and relevant. And as a child gets older, they will come to understand the major themes of their favorite movie even more; on this level, I feel that there is an even greater reward as you become conscious of your perception of a movie changing and how you relate to the characters and plot shifting as you mature.

sowk13's picture

I think that we are definitely seeing more shades of grey in contemporary children's characters and I find this to be an exciting development within our culture. These characters are more complex and reflective of reality. I think it is important that children learn that there is a lot of grey area in the world and it is not always as simple as "good" and "evil". Presenting children with more complex characters challenges them to consider the complexities of life and human interaction, rather them providing them with a model of looking at situations in life as being "right" or "wrong". It is positive for children to be presented with characters and situations that are not so clear cut. This requires them to think about the characters that they are presented with in a more multi-dimensional way and although this may be challenging for them I think it is positive.

Sunshine's picture

Good vs Bad.



When I took Psychology in high school, I learned about Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. This theory stated that before a certain point of their development children are incapable of rational choices. So if a 5 year old child is throwing a tantrum in a grocery store, it is fruitless to reason with the child why the tantrum is inappropriate. the child won’t understand that throwing a tantrum is disrupting the other shoppers and making their parent’s life a bit harder. 


My father’s reaction to hearing about this theory was to say that it doesn’t matter if children can understand you or not. If you want to say something complex to a child, say it. The child may not understand at that moment, but it’s possible that they will remember your wise message later, and will be able to use it in their life once their brain actually understands the meaning. 


On pg 9 of "The Uses of Enchantment” Bettlheim pointed out that beauty is often used to distinguish between good and evil when characters are not complex. Good people are pretty and bad people are ugly. The first thought that went through my head when I read this was, do we really want to tell our children that ‘ugly’ people are bad? (Or even continue to perpetuate the idea of ugliness?) Stories will also often make the bad characters darker than the good characters. I think that we should make stories for children more complex. This way when the children are older their perception of good and evil is just as complex, and they don’t just remember the ugly or darker people being bad. 

abradycole's picture

After our class discussion about the significance of lessons and good and evil in children's literature, I started to think about the stories I loved as a child. My group, The Grand Canyon, talked a little bit about playng pretend and the developmental purpose it serves in children's lives. The stories I was obsessed with as a child were centered around strongly independent girls. My favorites were Little Orphan Annie, The Little Mermaid, and most importantly, The Wizard of Oz. In each story the main character is seperated from her parents and is either forced or decides to live on her own and have her own adventures. I struggled with seperation anxiety, and from the age of four to around 11, I was in my pretend world for much of my waking life. I especially connected to the character Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and wore my costume every chance I got. When we talked in class about children wanting to be the characters they connected with so that they could use the characters' situations and strategies to work out their own struggles, I realized that that was exactly what I was doing when I pretended to be Dorothy. It's interesting to me that looking back on my own childhood I can see from personal experience that even if kids don't consciously understand the complexities of literature and stories at the time, they do benefit from their metaphorical meanings. I think the question we're asking ourselves should be less about if children understand in the same way adults understand and process metaphorical meaning, and more about what aspects of stories are most effective in helping children with emotional and psychological development.

nbarker's picture

I find it incredibly heartening that childrens' stories now include more and more complicated characters. I have to agree with smalina on this one--stories will almost always need to be less complex for children of younger ages, yet there is incredible value to showing stories of people with complicated motivations to young children, even if they don't understand the complexities, like abradleycole mentions. 

One of the stories that's stuck with me the longest is called The Voyage of the Basset. In later years I've learned that this book was written as an almost-parody of Darwin's voyages to the Galapagos, instead being a story of a father and his two daughters going on a voyage with a crew of dwarfs to discover the biology of fairytale creatures. They journey through incredibly diverse lands and meet characters from many mythologies around the world (though mostly focusing on Western mythologies). At first, my mother read the story to me, as it is a fairly long and dense book for a young child, but it is one of the most richly illustrated books you'll ever see, which allowed me a way into the story in addition. I've reread the story myriad times since then, catching new details of complexities each time. 

One of the characters who really stuck with me from the story is the portrayal of Medusa. The myth of Medusa has taken on many forms, many of them with the history of patriarchy inscribed into the very fabric of how the story has morphed over time. Most portrayals of her are villainous, yet this book re-formed her personality to that of a woman who was a victim of circumstance, and did her best to avoid hurting others, even as she tried to come out of her shell of forcible loneliness. Her isolating power even ended up becoming a critical asset during the conflict with the main villain--though her accidental turning-to-stone of the ship's navigator ended up being one of the main forces driving the plot. 

So, as a way of synthesizing my example, telling these stories of complex morality shows respect for people that you're both willing to believe in their ability to tackle things, and also that you have enough respect to be patient with their limitations. Young children will later be able to reflect on these complexities and understand them better in the contexts of other stories and "real life". 

sconstant's picture

I also believe that the idea of a grey area between good and evil is not a bad thing. Children need to learn that there is much more than the two extremes in the world. I also think this idea is an important concpet for them to understand, as many time in their life they will face others who think a belief or action is bad or "evil", when they had infact been taught that this is a good thing. For example, some indivudlas are raised in a home where self expression and acceptance of others is a good and promoted idea. If this said child were to encounter someone who was raised in a home where self expresson and identity was a thing to keep private, this particular individual may see the other as being bad or evil for being proud of who they are or for showing others this side of themselves. Nothing can be just black and white. Every aspect of society is often portrayed as black or white, when in reality everything is actually just a shade of grey depending on who it pertains to. I feel that the media showing more of these complexities of grey will actually be beneficial to children, as it shows the reality of how our society views things on a more realistic basis. Also sorry for the late post. I am really trying to figure out this Serendip thing!

scupo's picture

I like the direction that children’s stories are moving in; with the addition of more complex characters and storylines, I feel like children get a more accurate picture of the world. According to developmental psychology, babies are hardwired with a dichotomist view of good and evil and the mixing of the two causes conflict within the child that can only be worked out as the child grows up and develops a higher level of cognition. With that being said, younger children may not truly understand the complexities of new stories if they are being read to them at such a young age but that does not mean they cannot appreciate a story’s true meaning as they grow up.  I personally love re-reading books and re-watching shows/movies from my childhood because as an adult I find new meaning in them.

I also like what Sunshine said about how stories would make the bad guy dark and ugly and the good guy bright and beautiful. This is not a realistic view of the world at all and the emphasis on physical characteristics blurs the picture even more. Good people can appear to be dark just as bad people can appear to be all sunshine and rainbows. The world is black and white and everything in between. The sooner our children grasp this concept, the better off they will be.

csami8's picture

I like to believe that I come from a persepctive that values all people for their qualities - no matter their background or offense. I like to believe that people are inhertly and innately good. Therefore, I feel that the media today, representing more complex characters that can be both bad and good is a healthy thing. People are not binary, they are not fixed and media respresenting characters in such a dichotomy is problematic. What if a child finds themself identifying with the "bad" character or villian - the message is then, that the identifying child is also bad. Further, children can often come from very mixed and blended backgrounds and by seeing complex characters in the media who carry good and bad qualities or backgrounds allows the child or viewer to hopefully, better accept their own blended histories and most importantly, not feel shame if they make a mistake, do something bad, etc. Additionally, working in a trauma setting that also provides theraputic services for sexual offenders makes me think about this topic of all good and all bad characters. In the traditional media setting, those clients would be hopeless or unable to work with and that they are best off in jail. But as research and psychodynamic theories show us, people are far complex and dynamic than their offense. Therefore, I fully support and feel excitment that media provides children with the opportunity to identify and learn from characters who are more representative of what the human expereince is really like which is - all good and all bad at the same time.