Friday, 11 February 2011

Help From Harry Potter And Shrek

At the end of 2009 I commented on how when I was brought in to an advise a boy of 8 on how to live his life, I found myself turning to a combination of popular cultural references, a little bit of William Shakespeare and some Percy Sledge:  This month I found myself referencing 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' (2005 - the movie; I have not read the novels; the boy is still too young to have read them) to assist me.  There is such a sharp division between adult and child culture, to some extent these days set by which technologies we use and how, but, also, as always, simply because we keep our culture to define where we are in our lives and keep the other groups out.  Yet, fortunately, there are some things that straddle the ages and act as a decent shorthand or reinforcement for the point you are trying to make.

I do have issues with the Harry Potter series.  I feel it lauds the elite public school system of the UK which already provides such a large percentage of leading people in all sectors of business and public life, and due to the policies of the current government is taking an even tighter grip on the reins of power.  The Potter books teach ordinary children who go to comprehensive schools or even grammar schools and academies, to look up to those who are 'special' enough, magic in fact, and so entitled to attend the elite boarding schools.  Hogwarts has all the trappings of Eton and beyond it Oxford, Cambridge and Durham universities.  Pupils wear gowns, they eat in wood-panelled refectories along long wooden tables, they have houses and common rooms and indulge in life-risking sports.  The one saving grace is that ultimately Harry Potter fights a form of Fascism based on biological racism, but then again, have we really moved on from the writing of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and their 1950s attitudes?  I can enjoy the Narnia, Middle Earth and Hogwarts stories for their drama and adventure.  I am able as an adult with a critical eye to sift out the hidden messages that I disagree with and not let them indoctrinate me in the way I fear the authors intended; though I think Rowling, unlike the other two, was writing what she thought publishers would expect rather than views she held. 

Given my qualms about the Potter stories, why have I cited them as being useful for assisting a nine-year old boy.  Well, it comes down to the less fantastical elements, that Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, despite their old fashioned names and magical abilities, are often pretty much like children of today.  The fact that schools all seem to be embracing public school behaviour, filtered through an American high school lens makes the gap even narrower.  The scenario was that at the nine year old's school they were having a Valentine's disco.  In contrast to in my era when you simply pitched up and hung around with your friends until you got enough courage to ask one girl for a slow 'side-to-side' dance (as Lenny Henry has so well characterised it), he was expected to ask a female partner to attend with him, as if it was the 1950s and it was some real-life version of 'Grease' (1978).  Possibly this would work if he was 13, but at 9 it is really unknown territory.  However, a realm which I fear is going to be very common.  Returning to my sixth form college at the end of the 1990s I found in place of the very informal discos we had had fifteen years before, now there were formal 'proms' very much on the US style.  This trend seems to be extending not just to secondary schools now but also primary schools.  The boy informed me that apparently at his school 'ballroom dancing' with girls was not permitted until you reach Year 6 (aged 10-11).  Perhaps all the ballroom dancing programmes on the television are encouraging this.  Yet, it seems terribly unnatural in the 2010s as if fearing that our 9 year olds will behave like 13 year olds we try to make them into 63-year olds instead!

Anyway, the formality of the process which no longer simply involves him going to the school office to buy a ticket at lunchtime or after school, has thrown open a whole new set of questions for his acting father (me) to answer.  Why when the law says that teenagers do not have the maturity to have sex, do we think they have the maturity to operate in a bewildering social melee.  The poor boy was torn between wanting to do what the teachers encouraged and ask a girl (there is one in a particular he liked anyway) and yet he knew how boys' attitudes can turn so quickly and was fearful that asking a girl would then lead to ridicule from his male peers.  Of course, there is the potential for ridicule from the girl he asks or her friends.  All the stuff about when you ask and what to do if she says no, or something the school in its dated gender role model, seems to have not considered: what happens if a girl asked him, especially if he did not like her?   All of this is tough when you are 13,  four years younger seemed too young.  Boys tend to think even their pseudo-fathers are the ideal men whereas in fact a lot of us, especially those who have taken over where another man has left, were never very good at this stuff in the first place.  So humiliated and bullied in my youth I lacked the courage to ask women out until I was 29 and even then did not have sex until I was 34, so how could I ever be the kind of expert the boy was looking for?

In this circumstance, Harry Potter was my saviour.  'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' features a ball to which the, by now, 14-15-year old male protagonists are expected to ask a female to accompany them to.  Of course, Harry and Ron prevaricate so long that the two girls they would have asked are asked by other people and they upset the twins they invite as their 'substitute' guests too.  With the boy having seen the movie multiple times, I could simply reference at length the interaction between Harry, Ron, Hermione (the one Ron really wants to ask), Cho Chang (the girl Harry asks to the ball too late) and the Patil twins (the two 'substitutes') and very quickly have communicated the pitfalls of such circumstances.  Other movies in the series have been useful in addressing what it feels like to see someone you fancy going out with someone else, as occurs for Hermione in 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' (2009).  I think the school were wrong for staging the event in this old fashioned formal way, especially for children so young.  However, it seems they are prey to our societal trends which want us to go back in time in so much of how our society is run.  Perhaps there are good elements in that, but do not suddenly thrust our 21st century children into the social and gender divisions of the 1950s or 1910s without equipping them first.  Without Harry Potter to help I would have battled to find a way, so quickly to enculturate a young boy into social behaviour which was alien to my youth and was never expected to reappear.

As an afterthought, I was also reminded of how useful the Shrek series of movies has been.  It might seem odd that young people have anything to learn from the story of an ogre.  However, the four movies (2001, 2004, 2007, 2010) are very useful in outlining decent behaviour for young men.  They show how to interact with women, what it feels like to be in love, feeling constrained by a relationship and the daily grind, dealing with in-laws and the challenges for young men of becoming fathers.  There is stuff about getting irritated with your partner, your friends, your children, feeling down about your place in the world.  Shrek is in fact very much an everyman for modern western society.  Amongst all the adventures, jokes and songs, there is actually a lot of decent advice which is hopefully being drip-fed into young male minds to counteract the more insidious distortions of console games, music videos and online pornography.  Much output from Hollywood features 'family values' but too often it is in a perfect vision in which everyone always has more than enough, does not have to work hard, is not exhausted from a day at work, is never sick or just fed up and the children are easily won over.  A lot of such output shows you the vision of family and relationships, but rarely engages with the much harder reality.  It is ironic that a movie about someone in a fantasy world (though often painfully like our own (especially in 'Shrek 2' with its spoofs of California and US real-life police series) actually provides better lessons for children about the challenges of the future in the kinds of life they are going to live.  To some degree they all come down to saying that in this life we cannot really hope for much more than to have love and some good times.

P.P. 14/02/2011: It subsequently transpired that the 'rule' that each boy could only attend the disco if partnered by a girl had been made up by a set of influential Year 4 girls who were keen that one particularly popular boy ask one of them to the dance.  I do not know what concerns me more about this: that given the strange things the school has come out with over the past 5 years that I was quite happy to accept this latest development or that 9-year old girls seem to have learnt how to pull off social plotting like devious teenagers, I imagine from watching some US high school drama.  The boy from my house went to the disco and apparently enjoyed himself right until the end when other boys bullied him.

Setting this incident aside, I still believe that due to the fact that there are not a great deal of cultural aspects that me and the boy share in common ('My Goldfish Is Evil' or 'Trapped: Ever After' anyone?) and certainly ones that have life lessons that are useful and not poured on too thickly, I will be returning to Harry Potter and Shrek to help him resolve social dilemmas in the future.

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