The internet is a truly magnificent thing – a massive data network that collects all of human knowledge and ideas. In many ways, we’re learning to use the internet in very exciting ways and ways that can really advance society – like Khan Academy, Wikipedia, and the “internet of things” that allows us to tap into this resource to inform and power household objects in new ways. But oftentimes, we’ll come across a missed opportunity.
YouTube is a very popular site that people use to watch videos of cats and obnoxious bloggers. But a friend showed me a site that made me realize just how much of a missed opportunity YouTube really is. It showed me what, I believe, YouTube should be. Astronaut.io is a constant stream of seldom-watched YouTube videos that are titled something like DSC or IMG with a random number sequence afterwards. Essentially, they’re the forgotten videos that people uploaded but never bothered to share on social media or even title – moments from kids’ birthday parties, high school basketball games, impromptu personal interviews, dancing practice, babies’ first moments, someone seeing snow for the first time. They’re extremely personal moments that were never really intended to be watched by anyone else, and it’s beautiful. I feel like this is what YouTube should have been: something more personal than the doctored-up videos of people trying to impress the world or the bootlegged TV shows and sensationalized news segments. YouTube is just becoming a bad version of television with even louder commercials when it could have been something more. It could have been something more human.
Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit formed after the terrible Sandy Hook Massacre that is dedicated to preventing gun violence, recently funded a video title “Evan.” The video encourages viewers to try to prevent gun violence by “looking for signs.” It follows a romantic short story of the boy-meets-girl type, but each scene stages a boy in the background who is plotting mass violence.
I also believe that violence can be prevented, but I think that this video, although well-intended, is largely misguided. The video implies that we should all be on the lookout for that one person who might be scheming to do something hurtful to lots of people. It doesn’t even give any guidance as to how to spot that person; instead, it’s more akin to a horror film, telling you that the killer could be right behind you at any moment. This video mainly succeeds in perpetuating the idea that someone with a violent mind is possibly lurking in the corner somewhere. It encourages us to be aware, fearful, and always on guard.
But the reality is that a person with violent potential could be much closer to you – a real person who is somebody’s friend, somebody’s student, somebody’s neighbor. And furthermore, a person who acts violently might not necessarily be carefully plotting out a scheme over the course of several days; many acts of violence are not premeditated. What this video does succeed in doing is casting feelings of guilt and fear to the general public – that we must constantly be vigilant for even the slightest clues or we’ve failed our part in preventing a mass tragedy. This is a message that is far less helpful than it can be.
It’s unreasonable for me to expect you to catch the character in the background, but it is reasonable for me to expect you to notice disturbing behavior of a friend or your mailman or you student. I think that’s a far more reasonable expectation for everyone, and it encourages kindness and compassion instead of fear and scrutiny. The truth is that anyone can act out at any time. It’s our responsibility, as humans, to show compassion and concern for those who we interact with on a daily basis. It’s the casual dismissive attitude that we often adopt that is responsible for letting people go down a dark path – even those closest to us. I don’t believe we need to live in fear if everyone would extend some love and paid attention to the people with whom they have actual (and potentially more meaningful) interactions.
My sister pointed out to me that most Disney and Pixar protagonists have one parent (if any at all). The other parent is either killed off, lost, or completely absent during the entire film. Any film that you come up with off the top of your head (with only one exception that I’ll let you ponder about) lacks the model two-parent setup: Jasmine only has the Sultan as her Dad, Snow White has an absent father and an evil queen stepmother, Belle only has her father, Ariel only has King Triton as her dad, and Toy Story’s Andy has a single mom. According to what my sister’s read, Walt Disney himself started this trend in Disney’s earliest films: Snow White, Cindarella, even Bambi. Disney apparently felt that no one really has a perfect family life, so having both parents present in a story represented an unrealistic and idealistic image with which his audience would have trouble relating. This may be true and even noble in its own respect; in a time where the American family was a particularly hyper-idealized image of a smiling couple with two kids and a dog, Disney sought to portray different types of families. You could say that it broke down that idealized image. It also showed that an “imperfect” family is something that is acceptable and normal. It also addresses the pain Bambi felt when he lost his mother (and the horror that the rest of us felt) as something that can be overcome.
But I think there is something more important that we gain from Disney’s decision to consistently present us with single parents: it is much easier to digest the relationship between a child and one parent than it is to digest the relationship a child might have with a pair of parents. Let’s take a look at this recent animated short, for example. This 6 minute short film features a little bird and its mother bird during a pivotal time in its development; the film has no dialogue.
There’s a lot to examine in even this short, 6-minute clip. You can acknowledge immediately that Piper has just one parent (and somehow through the magic of Disney animation we understand that it’s a mother). The relationship between Piper and mother is very specific. There is a moment at around 5:15 where the mother smiles lovingly at Piper playing on the shore. There’s a bond there and a deep connection between two characters. We aren’t distracted by a couple reacting here but instead just one character reacting to another. And that simplicity does a lot. Imagine two parents here; we’re already forced to question the relationship between those two parents before we can even begin to think about the relationship of the two individuals to Piper or the collective pair to Piper. On top of all that, our own personal biases come into play – some might begin to compare and create judgments based on personal experiences with family life (which may or may not include two parents). By eliminating all of that and keeping it to just one parent, Disney keeps the storytelling simple and straightforward. It allows us to focus on that relationship – that loving bond that Piper has with mom. All of the pretense and the overanalyzing fades away because it’s really more about this one relationship which was expertly conveyed by Pixar. Perhaps there’s a better reason or maybe my sister’s original understanding of Walt Disney’s preference for the single parenting trend is accurate. But there’s no denying that this element does, in fact, simplify and improve the storytelling.