Helping Kids to Think About Powerful Assholes
The villains I remember most from childhood came from The Lion King, Aladdin, and Home Alone—extremely popular early 90s kid’s films that the daycare I went to showed over and over. I couldn’t have escaped these films if I tried. I bet I saw them fifty times each. I think kids can learn a lot from villains but I don't think those villains taught me much that was beneficial. I wish I was exposed more to better villains.
The evil dudes from The Lion King and Aladdin, Scar and Jafar, weren’t that different from each other. Their voices both sounded like they slowly smoothly flowed from the bottom of a haunted well and their entire motivation pretty much mirrored each other. They both wanted the role, or the power, the hero was set to obtain. Scar wanted to be king but he knew Simba was set to inherent that role, so he did his best to get rid of Simba. Jafar wanted as much power as he could get and he knew that Aladdin was set to become sultan through the help of a genie in a magical lamp. So Jafar did his best to both get rid of Aladdin and take his magic lamp. The Wet Bandits (aka the bad guys in Home Alone) had similar motivations. They wanted to take wealth from Kevin McCallister’s family’s home, wealth that, we can assume, Kevin would eventually inherent from his rich family. Bad guys are bad, these movies say, because they want what good guys have (or what good guys should have, or are entitled to have) and they stop at nothing to get it.
Ultimately, briefly, the villains in all these films obtain what the heroes have, sort of. But then they lose it. Scar takes over the role Simba is supposed to have when he becomes king, but Simba defeats him and takes back the throne. Jafar gets the magical lamp from Aladdin, but Aladdin tricks Jafar into turning himself into a genie before Jafar realizes that means he’ll be trapped powerless inside a magical lamp. So Aladdin seizes the throne. The Wet Bandits make it inside Kevin’s family’s house, close enough to touch their possessions, but they don’t end up keeping anything. Kevin tricks them into chasing him around into booby traps that torture them. Then he leads them to the police. These movies say villains can’t handle what heroes have, that the bad guys fuck it up, because, ultimately, the good guys are more powerful. Simba is a better warrior. Aladdin is more clever. Kevin is smarter and has strong connections to the police since his family is rich. The good guys win.
When I was a kid my parents taught me Bill Clinton was good. I believed them. He’d defeated the bad guy my parents hated: George HW Bush. When republicans attacked Clinton, they wanted what he had, his power, but they couldn’t have it. They couldn’t beat him in the elections and they couldn’t impeach him. He was a guy who my parents said was good who maintained his power just like the good guys in the movies I saw. I remember getting defensive when my friend M, who’s family was way poorer than mine, complained about Clinton by saying his policies harmed poor people. When M said this, I didn’t think about the effects of Clinton’s harsh crime and drug policies or his drastic cuts to welfare. This doesn’t surprise me since I was only fifteen or sixteen at the time. What does surprise me is that I just totally blew M off. I couldn't consider the possibility that just like the republicans who were trying to take his power, Clinton could be a bad guy too. Maybe I would have been able to see that, and maybe I’d have become politically radicalized sooner if I’d been exposed more to a different type of villain, and if someone had talked to me more about powerful assholes.
I think my favorite children’s picture book right now is Under the Cherry Blossom Tree. It’s an old Japanese folktale retold and illustrated by Allen Say. One thing that excites me about the book is that it’s centered around a powerful asshole villain that Say refers to simply as the landlord. The good guys are common villagers who slyly take advantage of him and/or laugh at his misfortune. Unlike Scar, Jafar, and The Wet Bandits, The Landlord is more powerful than his enemy, the villagers. Scar, Jafar and The Wet Bandits all want something from Simba, Aladdin, and Kevin. But The Landlord doesn’t want anything from the villagers that he isn’t already taking.
It’s an hilarious book. We start out by learning that the landlord, who owns all the property in the village, is a miser who keeps raising the villagers rent, making them poor. One day when the landlord is eating cherries, he swallows a pit. A cherry tree starts to grow out of his head the next day. He’s too miserly to see a doctor or a tree trimmer, so he leaves it. It seems like, in his mind, giving some of his money to a tree trimmer or a doctor would mean giving away some of his power. The villagers make fun of him. “What beautiful blossoms!” one says. “What does he use to make it grow?” asks another. “Money, probably” responds another. The landlord gets pissed at the villagers’ taunts. He uproots the tree from his head and swings it at them. But he misses and they run home. Now the landlord has a bowl shaped indentation in his head where the roots used to be. It rains. Water fills the bowl shape in his head. Fish start swimming in his head which delights him as he no longer has to buy fish. He goes to extreme measures to protect his property, money, and power. He starts sleeping sitting up as he doesn’t want to get his bed wet or lose any fish. This allows some village boys to start fishing in his head. Eventually the poles disturb him. He wakes up and starts chasing the boys, trips on a rock and flips over. His feet enter the puddle in his head and he turns into a pond. The landlord disappears and the pond becomes the happiest place in the area.
I like how the bad guy in Under the Cherry Blossom Tree was more powerful than the good guys and that he’s not defeated by them. He's defeated by fortuitous magical happenstance. I wish I had been more critical and suspicious of those who were in power when I was a child and I’d like to help the kids I work with to think that way too. I love that the bad guy in the book is a landlord. I talk with kids about powerful assholes when I read them this book. Most of the kid’s parents who I work with rent from a landlord and most of the kids know what “rent” means. Many know what a landlord is. Some don’t. I ask them: Do you know what a landlord is? Do you think it’s fair that rich people can buy all the homes that poor people live in and raise their rent like the landlord does in the story? Do you think it’s fair that your parents have to pay money to a landlord every month? Do you think it was fair for the village boys to try to take fish from the landlord’s head? Why? Why not? I want to get them thinking about how power is not necessarily good, how those who have the most are often the bad guys.
I think my second favorite children’s picture book right now is The Old Woman and The Eagle. It was written by Idres Shah and illustrated by Natasha Delmar. This book also features a villain who is far more powerful than the protagonists, a villain that doesn’t really want anything from the protagonists that she isn’t already taking. When an eagle lands in an old woman’s garden, she refuses to believe he’s an eagle and tells him he’s a funny looking pigeon. The old woman had never seen an eagle so she insists that the bird must be a bird she’s used to seeing. The eagle claims he’s an eagle but she doesn’t believe him. She’s disturbed at the “funny looking pigeon” and it’s not long before we see how much more powerful than him she is. Since she’s much bigger she overpowers the eagle, grabs him, and hurts him physically and psychologically. She bends his beak, clips his talons, brushes down the tufts of feathers on his head to make them flat. She does everything she can to make him look like a pigeon.
Eventually the eagle finds another eagle friend who helps him look and feel like himself again. They agree that they “must stay away from that silly old woman and people like her.” It’s maybe not the best ending. If powerful beings harm us should we just avoid them? Imperfect ending aside, I think the The Old Woman and The Eagle does a good job of introducing us to a villain that is harmful because she has much more power than the protagonists. She wants the world to continue to appear the way she’s used to it appearing so badly that she uses her power to literally reshape a less powerful character.
I’m thinking about how maleficent power is working in 2018. I was born in 1983 and I don't ever remember a time where it’s been more clear that those who harm us most have the most power. I don’t mean to underestimate the power of the people. I think political organizing is crucial and we, the people, collectively, have more power than say, Trump. Also tho, let’s be honest, none of the people reading this essay have more political power than him individually. Kids need to learn to question and critique power so they need stories who have villains who are bad in the same way villains in real life are bad. They need to know that those who don’t have often are the good guys and those that do have often are the bad guys. They need to know that those who harm us most have more power than us, so we need to work together.
July 26th, 2018
Thanks to jamie divina erickson for helping me edit this essay.
Thanks to dylan grayson for encouraging me as I wrote it.