Saturday, June 09, 2012

On “Wimpy” Role Models

Lately, my kid has been reading the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. Because I was curious about the pop culture he consumes, I looked at them myself, and I wasn’t impressed. Setting aside the writing style, which is pitched squarely to kids, there’s just not a whole lot to these things.

What’s more, I worry that these books may be sending a negative message to him about how to live his life. Basically, the book’s “hero,” Greg Heffley, is a kid who disrespects his parents, treats his friends like crap, and more or less sees people in terms of how they can benefit or amuse him. Of course, Greg doesn’t have a whole lot of friends and gets in trouble, but he only sees his problems through the prism of his own experience- in other words, thinking that others treat him unfairly rather than seeing the way others treat him as the consequences of his behavior.

Now, I don’t want to discount the tradition of the self-centered jerk as a comic antihero. I mean, I’m a longtime fan of W.C. Fields, who did as much as anyone to advance and perfect the type. But Fields didn’t intend to make his characters heroic or worthy of emulation, and when bad things happened to him onscreen the movies usually acknowledged that, yeah, he probably deserved it.

By contrast, Wimpy author Jeff Kinney clearly wants the reader to think that Greg’s antics are not just hilarious but cute. For example, when Greg decides to give a friend of his the silent treatment for several days, he doesn’t just do it for his own amusement but also involves others in the class until the other kid has finally had enough. Middle or school or not, that’s an asshole thing to do, especially when the kid you’re doing it to is supposedly a friend. Making matters worse is that Greg never really gets called out on it, and there are never any real consequences for his actions.

Normally, I wouldn’t bother saying anything about a book like this. After all, most pop culture aimed at kids (and adults, for that matter) is pretty junky and full of suspect messages. But after talking with the offspring about the books, it was apparent that he saw Greg as a kind of role model, striking back against clueless parents, mean fellow students, and other people who would keep him from doing what he wants.

Not to sound like an old fogey or one of those alarmist “parenting experts” who mostly talks about how different things are from what they were young, but is it too much to hope for that my son have a role model that’s actually, you know, positive? Someone who can make him want to be his best, instead of making him think that being egotistical is funny and cool?

If I had a pop culture role model as a kid, it was Indiana Jones. To me, Indy was better than other action heroes because he wasn’t just a globe-trotting adventurer who wielded a whip. No, I really liked Indy because he was smart, and the reason he got to do the things he did was because people respected him and wanted his help, which was largely because he was so intelligent and educated.

Or look at Harry Potter. In many ways, Potter is a fairly regular teenager, albeit one burdened by prophecies and circumstances set in motion long before he even knew what was happening. But while Harry isn’t the best student or the most powerful wizard at Hogwarts, he nonetheless has a strong sense of morality and a hunger to do what is right and just, even if it means running afoul of the establishment. Consider the way he spearheads Dumbledore’s Army in Order of the Phoenix when Dolores Umbridge takes over Hogwarts. When he breaks the rules, it’s not because he disrespects authority, but because the authorities have become corrupted.

Compared to these, Wimpy Kid is pretty feeble. Greg’s major ambition in life is to spend all his time playing video games and avoiding unnecessary contact with others. As a role model, Greg is pretty terrible, but he’s also attractive to a lot of kids because, compared to Indy and Harry, his ambitions require almost no effort, especially if, like Greg, your mother is an abject, mouth-breathing idiot (let it not be said that Kinney doesn’t flatter his audience). It’s easy to aspire to be Greg since there’s really nothing to aspire to, and you especially don’t have to change or improve anything about yourself to get there, since if it’s never your fault, why should you have to change?

Granted, I don’t expect my son to read Wimpy Kid books forever. But as he gets older, he’s going to start having to make ever more difficult choices, mostly because the difference between what is right and what is fun and/or easy will become much more pronounced. And with the non-values of unworthy role models like Greg firmly instilled in him, I fear that his ability to choose wisely will be underdeveloped, and that the consequences of these choices and that lessons he’ll have to learn will be particularly hard on him. And if he’s anything like Greg, he’ll wonder what he did to deserve it.

As a parent, it’s my duty to prevent this from happening, and to make sure he’s equipped not just to make responsible choices but also to truly learn from his mistakes. As such, I feel like I should function for my son as a kind of gate-keeper to popular culture by steering him toward books (and movies and television) that will keep him entertained without the unpleasant worldview and dubious messages of stuff like Wimpy Kid. To that end, I’m not going to take away his Wimpy Kid books- because nothing whets a kid’s appetite for a book more than being told it’s objectionable-, but I’m also not going to encourage him to read it either. I mean, yeah, it’s good to see him reading and all. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the books he read broaden his mind at least a little bit, do you?