Christopher Swetala penned a thoughtful op-ed for the New York Times about his 3-year-old son’s obsession with Princess Elsa from the film Frozen. His son watched the film twice during an 11-hour flight and was hooked. He wanted and was given an Elsa doll. His mother even ordered an Elsa dress for him to wear to the Broadway show. Swetala felt conflicted by all of this girly behavior. The subtext of his “it’s no big deal” attitude was clear: Princess movies are for girls. Dresses are definitely for girls. But, I guess in this culture I have to just live with it. Not wanting to be the “villain” in his son’s imaginary fantasy, Swetala concludes: “I now see the power of Elsa, too. To my son, the imaginary world of “Frozen” is as real and normal as, well, him wearing a dress. I envy him for that.”
Swetala should envy his son’s imaginative skills. If he had any, he’d understand that no one, let alone a 3-year-old, is associating gender-bending ideology with a fictional fascination. Yet, this is what we are expected to glean from his editorial: My son is gender-queer (or whatever term is currently en vogue) because he likes a “girl” movie, and I just have to learn to accept it. Please, can this gender obsession’s 15 minutes be over with already? We’re so lost in little boys wearing dresses that we’re missing the much bigger, much more important point when it comes to children and media: It’s the medium that fascinates them, not the message.
Put anything, anything on television and your child will be enthralled regardless of gender. Screen media, whether it’s on your phone or in a movie theater, is fascinating. Why do you think we’ve been hooked as a culture for over 100 years? Television viewers are often referred to as “couch potatoes” for a reason: Screens are addicting. The medium itself is what draws the child in. The message is something they’re often absorbing without even realizing it.
Adults trained in critical theory (namely anyone graduating with a liberal arts degree these days, like Swetala and his wife, an editor at the Times) have been so overeducated to study the message behind the medium that they forget the power of the medium itself. Papers are disposable; no one needs cable anymore; you can watch it first on Netflix. We know this as adults, but our children do not. Anything new is exciting and anything physical is permanent. The pictures on the screen may change, but the tablet is always there. And it does magical things with one simple touch!
When we acknowledge the magic of the medium we begin to realize how important it is to screen what our children watch very carefully. The blind faith they put into the medium transfers over to the message. What they watch is truth to them. And imaginative truths run wild, that is, as wild as a parent permits. Swetala’s wife lets his son wear makeup and high heels. She buys him an Elsa dress, too. His son may be enthralled by the magic of the movies, but it is his wife who is buying into the idea that her little boy can become her little girl.
Disney may have produced the film, but mom and dad are the ones letting their son wear a dress. Despite his discomfort, Swetala ultimately gives into his wife’s feminization of his son writing, “I don’t want to kill who this child is.” Contrary to popular belief, children are not “born this way.” Rather, the adults they become are a direct result of their influences. Parents, not tablets nor the movies on them, are the primary influencers. Parents are also the gatekeepers, controlling access to both medium and message. After reading Swetala’s piece I can’t help but question what is more villainous: To take away his son’s Elsa dress now, or to watch his son potentially face a lifetime of trauma in the years to come?