So this occurred last Christmas, but while in the season, I figured I would share some thoughts on what happened…
While picking up a highly coveted Vampirina house playset at a retail store, my wife was approached by another customer who was unable to secure said toy. When my wife mentioned that it was for her 5 year son, the other woman was obviously taken aback and did not hesitate to voice her opinion. Vampirina was, after all, a television show for girls. Why should a little boy be the one getting this pricey playset? Yes, why indeed; but more importantly, why is this any of her business to begin with? My wife told her as much and educated this other customer a bit on gender issues which with she was clearly struggling.
Of all the concerns that one might have with this particular Disney Jr. cartoon, I will begin by saying that gender is the least of my worries. I have no problem with my boy watching shows with girls in them. Cartoons have had male leads for decades so it’s refreshing to see so many with girls at the forefront today. Of course, cartoons are nothing like they were when I was growing up. There were very few life lessons or teachable moments in Tom and Jerry or with Bugs Bunny. Even the first Mickey Mouse cartoons were more slapstick than anything else (not to mention the cruelty to animals portrayed). Now Mickey and the gang teach math and matching and how to share. It’s rare to see a cartoon today aimed at children that does not double as a preschool lesson. But I digress, because it seems that in some circles Vampirina has quite the critics.
While browsing some reviews online, I was surprised to see that some Christian groups are vehemently opposed to this particular portrayal of vampires, ghosts, and other “monsters” as Vampirina herself refers to the mythological creatures to which she belongs. This has included in various episodes: the aforementioned vampires and ghosts, but also gargoyles, witches, Big Foot, ghouls, mummies, dragons, animated skeletons, and werewolves. I’m sure I’m missing a few but you get the idea. I’m not certain if the Munsters or Addams Family ever got the same reaction, but many Christian parents believe that showing these monsters as friendly people just trying to fit in is contrary to their beliefs and harmful to children. Because of course…children should be afraid of the actual vampires and ghosts that they might encounter in their neighborhood and at school, right?
Not quite, but their objection is not far off from this sentiment. There is a particular song that Vampirina and her friends sing called, “Find your Inner Ghoul.” It’s a catchy toon that could easily replace “ghoul” with “girl” or “hero” and have the same meaning. It’s about being yourself and realizing the strength you have inside of you, even if you’re not perceived as strong or don’t quite believe it yourself. But don’t get too caught up in the message because “ghouls” are evil. That’s basically the argument against this show. These cute cartoon characters have subverted words that refer to evil demonic beings. Now I will play devil’s advocate for a moment and say that on the surface, I might be able to understand where this critique could be coming from. As a Christian and particularly as a Catholic, I do believe in devils. I know, I often get strange looks from educated people when I make such a claim but more often than not those same people will not hesitate to tell you that they believe in Angels. Let that sink in for a bit. Now, if the supernatural world is real and has any influence in the world today, it does seem rather odd for believers to celebrate and glorify demonic beings. And if the show was doing this, I might agree with the critics. The problem with that argument when it comes to Vampirina however, is that these characters are far from being demonic in any sense of the word. In fact, when I first saw the show with my son, I actually had a different reaction for this very reason. My gripe with the show was the title character was nothing like a vampire at all. She had blue skin, could go out in the sun, slept at night, and did not need to feed on blood to survive. Of course this is a children’s show so blood drinking would probably be a bad idea but when it comes down to it, the portrayal of the title character’s family is actually where the genius of the show lies. It’s not about monsters at all.
But wait, I’ve seen the characters and heard the songs, of course it’s about monsters! Let’s take a step back and relook at it. To use some video game terminology, the vampires and ghosts are just a skin to provide added immersion, but really do nothing to change what’s going on. The show is about a family from another country that immigrates to the United States and tries to enculturate. This is shown through the eyes of a young, often scared girl, who tries to hide it by finding comfort in the trappings and customs of her homeland. In the opening song, we hear, “I may be blue with pointy teeth…but I’m not so different underneath.” She might as well have been saying, “I may be black with kinky hair, or I may be brown with hand me downs,” but this would not only be insensitive and politically incorrect, it also would not attract a lot of viewers. Disney tried this with Elena of Avalor and well…that’s a topic for another blog. I must have seen every episode of Vampirina more than a couple of times and the theme is very clear. The nice thing is that it’s balanced, sometimes she successfully shares her culture with her friends and neighbors and other times she realizes that not everything translates and that she needs to adopt some new traditions. There is one poignant episode in which her family returns home to Transylvania and she is not accepted there (she has become too human.) Now she feels that she doesn’t fit in anywhere. I have plenty of friends from Mexico who have experienced this very thing after living in the United States for a number of years. It is her friends from both worlds, and her parents who help her make sense of this, the way it should be. So while my boy loves the “monster” theme, he’s getting a good message as well and it’s up to me as a parent to talk about the real monsters when needed.
I’ll end this with a quote from one of my favorite authors who also made extensive use of “monsters” in his writings and I can’t say that I disagree with him. C.S. Lewis writes, “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. . . Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book”. (On Three Ways of Writing for Children)
Of course, sometimes our expectations can be turned and the good guys might look like the bad guys and vice versa. In the end, Vampirina and friends are slaying the dragons of selfishness, bigotry, and loneliness. Not a bad message for girls or boys.