Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How Our Fantasies Help Us


I've been reading Gerard Jones' Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence partly because it seems like comic book and fantasy heroes seem to have taken center stage these days and partly because I wanted to hear someone else's take on what I already felt strongly about.

In fact, I remember way back when I was a tween reading The Baby-sitter's Club books, thinking that Dawn was an idiot for not allowing the kids she sat to play with guns. That kind of over-pacification of playing seemed ridiculous to me, and it still does. So when people freak out about violence on TV and in games affecting kids, I just roll my eyes and wonder why adults are so stupid about kids. Killing Monsters has the same kind of slant, encouraging adults to stop impressing reality on the fantasy world that children use to practice how to live:

The art of life is building a self that serves us well: a weaving together of caution and optimism, toughness and openness, love and boundaries, self-interest and empathy. Aggression has to be part of that self. It can be destructive, but it can also be directed into assertiveness, decisiveness, healthy competition, and altruism. It helps us protect ourselves and what we believe in, inspires us to show off and make the best of ourselves. And as any kid in the middle of a wild X-Men game or an athlete in the moment of triumph or a writer coming out on top of a challenging chapter can attest, there is no joy sweeter and no satisfaction more unassailable than healthy aggression channeled toward a creative end.

We learn to channel it mostly from reality: parents, peers, self-understanding, life experience. But play helps, too. Most of our fundamental learning is in childhood, and play is an important part of any childhood work. A child learning to enjoy and play with his aggression is working toward his or her eventual wholeness. ...

One of the virtues of media entertainment is that it enables young people to play long after the normally sanctioned age of fantasy is past. "Our culture is hard on play," said Lenore Terr. "There always has to be a point, developmentally, where the play principle has to make way for the reality principle. But our culture insists on it earlier and more completely than a lot of cultures and it seems to do it earlier all the time." ...

Entertainment violence embraces far more than the superhero fantasies of early childhood, takes more problematic forms and plays more complex roles. But at heart, it's about the joy of feeling big and strong, the freedom of being able to survive anything and to overcome any obstacle. It's about action, power, and mastering life.
When I was growing up in my crazy Baptist, abusive household, I didn't feel in control of anything in my life. My words, thoughts, actions and body were constantly challenged, denied and denigrated. And it sucked a lot. But when I was pretending to be Scarlett from G.I. Joe, X-Men's Storm, or someone else entirely, I could put aside everything else in my life and loose myself in exploring combat methods or pretend I could control the storms rolling in around me. That time gave me such power and strength and I consider it the reason I turned out way more normal than I should've.

Even now, reading fantasy tales like Harry Potter, His Dark Materials and Brave Story help me to accept with graciousness things in my life I can't control. Reading about kids risking life and limb and loosing their egos in exchange for friendship and strength makes me feel better about everything I've had to lose to make it to where I am now. It takes a lot of humbling to go through life but our fantasies and dreams can sustain us when we have nothing else to hold on to.

Related posts:
Action Movies: You're Doing It Wrong
Harry Potter Is Changing the World

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5 comments:

Joe Pontillo said...

Wonderful! People take it all a little too seriously. How amusing that kids are better than adults at differentiating fantasy from reality.

May said...

I know, right?

Bryan said...

I like this post. Very much.

I don't think I can do any better than that to explain myself...

Mark said...

Interesting thoughts. I agree that children need to be allowed to play and play with abandon. Play in it self is very important and as most of us grow older we lose the ability play without purpose. I do believe that some of children's play is a reflection of what they see as their reality and that this type of play helps them work through that which they may not fully understand. I played with toy guns as a child and I grew up to be an adult that wants nothing to do with guns. Interesting thoughts. Thanks for this post.

May said...

You're very welcome. Thanks for reading!