I was on the phone with my mom a couple of weeks ago. The kids were downstairs watching Wild Kratts, a PBS cartoon show we have on DVD because we can’t even get in PBS stations with our antenna out here in the sticks. (Okay, we’re not out in the sticks, but that’s exactly what makes it so frustrating. But I digress.)
Suddenly, I heard a cry from downstairs, and hear my daughter crying and stumbling up the steps.
“Mommy! Oh, Mommy! This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me! This is the worst thing in my life!” she clung to me, crying and sobbing, as I tried to see if there was any blood on her.
As it turns out, both children were fine, there was no blood and no broken bones. The worst thing that had ever happened to my daughter was that a cartoon whale had been separated from her cartoon calf.
My daughter can watch documentaries. We can read sad books together, like Charlotte’s Web, Anne of Green Gables, Bambi: A Life in the Woods, and she cries, but she’s not hysterical. There’s something about the way some movies are put together that’s just too much for her. We took her to a 3D film about bugs at the planetarium one time. Within about ten minutes, we had to take her 3D glasses away from her because she was crouched in her seat yelling, “Oh, no! What’s that? Does that eat people? It’s getting close! Does it EAT PEOPLE?!”
My mother, whose opinion I got right away since she was on the phone with me during the Wild Kratts episode, thinks my daughter is too sensitive and that I should work to try and desensitize her. But then, this is the woman who let me watch The Amityville Horror on TV when I was four. The only thing my parents ever censored was The Dukes of Hazzard TV show. Everyone assumes it’s because of Daisy’s short-shorts, but no. It was because the show was “stupid.” While I can’t argue with that assessment, I do find my parents’ criteria for appropriate television viewing to be a little off.
Besides, I disagree with my mom’s conclusion that my daughter’s too sensitive. I think she is what she is. I like that she feels things so strongly, and I don’t want to dampen that. I’d like to help her learn to cope with it a little better, but I don’t think a horror film immersion is the best way to accomplish this.
What I wonder, when I watch my daughter’s intense reactions, is what’s happening in my own body and mind when I watch dramatic or suspenseful films. I don’t (usually) freak out outwardly, but that doesn’t mean I’m not having intense emotional and physical reactions that I’ve just learned to ignore.
There’s an idea that the books we read and the movies we watch become a part of who we are in the same way that the food we eat becomes the very substance of our bodies. I have friends who avoid violent images in books and films for this very reason. I used to think it was kind of goody-two-shoes to avoid R-rated films, but now I’m not so sure.
I’ve always loved horror films, but when I became pregnant with my daughter, I found I couldn’t handle them anymore. Even films outside the horror genre that were especially violent were too much for me. Things dealing with children are especially tough on me. I broke down in choking sobs and had to stop the DVD at the scene in City of God where a drug dealer is trying to force one child to shoot another. So, I avoid movies about the slums of Rio de Janeiro and about child prostitutes in India.
In a way I feel wrong for avoiding these films. As a middle class white woman in a suburban neighborhood, I feel like it’s my responsibility to experience these bad things at least through movies and books so that I can have some kind of understanding of the world. I mean, City of God was a brilliant film and there was so much more to it than just those violent images. I had no idea what the drug war in Brazil looked like, never even gave a thought to it before I saw the film. If I avoided it for the violence, I’d be avoiding everything else, too.
On the other hand, a film or a book is a creative work, and even nonfiction is just one person’s perspective on a given situation. Am I really gaining a valuable insight about myself or the world when I traumatize myself with disturbing images? How am I being changed when I take in those images? And is it worth it?