"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

From Darth Vader to Pirates: The Glorification of Bad Guys

When my son turned three, it seemed as though some special switch turned on in his mind, making him obsessed with heroes and "bad guys." He loves wearing his superhero costume with cape, or, when that's in the laundry, he wears his knight costume, which has a nifty sword holder, perfect for his little plush Haba dagger. I try to give him a vote of confidence by letting him know that I'm counting on him to defend the house from dragons.

Recently, though, his focus has been all about Star Wars. Maybe it's genetic because his dad was really into Star Wars as a child, and indeed, we still have Dad's plush Paploo and Wicket ewoks... as well as Dad's lingering enthusiasm for Star Wars.

Just a few days ago, in fact, while Patrick was waiting upstairs for me to find a book that we'd left downstairs, he was attacked by Stormtroopers, but they were apparently driven away by my guardian angel, his guardian angel, St. Michael the Archangel and St. Patrick. At least, that was the account I received. Of course, I was glad that no one got hurt by the Stormtrooper attack.

It did, however, remind me of something that I find problematic today in terms of merchandising that targets young boys, such as my sons. There often seems to be a particular focus on the "bad guys" that makes them seem cool and hence role models to imitate. I'm sure there are debates as to whether Darth Vader is really bad or just kinda bad or perhaps even remorseful. But I think it's pretty clear that overall he's supposed to be a bad guy. And when I was growing up, I don't remember much rooting for the bad guy. In terms of playing with little figures, I suppose bad guys are needed to play an antagonistic sort of role in the made-up stories of children, but the heroes are the heroes, and they should be the ones that get the attention and the glory.
<em>Star Wars</em>™ Darth Vader™ Backpacks

I get a little worried these days when bad guys like Darth Vader are overly popular. For instance, check out Pottery Barn Kids' extensive Darth Vader product line, from backpacks to quilts. And don't think that I'm simply targeting PBK. I spotted a 36" Darth Vader figure at both Costco and Target within the last year. My son even asked for one! Apparently Darth Vader's "coolness" outweighs his being on the dark side, at least for some.

<em>Star Wars</em>™ Darth Vader™ and Stormtrooper™ Quilted Bedding

And now that you know how I feel about Darth Vader, it will probably not be surprising that I'm not a big fan of pirates. My kids and I have had numerous discussions regarding my dislike of pirates. Piracy, by definition, involves taking things that don't belong to you, making a profession out of stealing things (usually violently) from others who are having goods transported. Reading some Robert Louis Stevenson novels only reinforced my negative view of piracy. Akin to my comments on Vader, I'm not saying that all pirates are completely evil, but I think it's fairly uncontroversial that pirates intentionally practice piracy. From my perspective, that's not good. That's why I'm always negative if my kids mention dressing up as pirates or playing pirates or whatever.

It seems to me problematic when the "bad guys," who play such a role in the imagination of young children, also become cool. Personally, I don't want my children aspiring to be as cool as Darth Vader or pirates. There are much better imaginative role models for them.

Am I the only one who objects?


Ramon Luzarraga said...

Hello Maria,

I think part of the problem is that kids (and too many adults) do not know the true history of the bad guys they glorify.

I'll use your pirate example, in conjunction with a particular glorified and commercialized pirate character: Captain Morgan.

Most "pirates of the Caribbean" were, in reality, privateers. Most were English, and carried Letters of Marque by the Governor of Jamaica or another British official to hunt down and capture Spanish treasure ships. Henry Morgan was among the most successful of these privateers. Real pirates, outlaws to every nation, did not last long; hunted down by other pirates, the European powers anxious to keep Caribbean trade open and develop new colonies (e.g. the Bahamas), or the pirates themselves saw the need to settle and develop a better society than the chaos and mayhem of pirate life (e.g., Belize).

Morgan himself was a tough character and gave little quarter to his seaborne prey. What finally ended privateering and piracy in the Caribbean was when something less dangerous and far more profitable than raiding Spanish Galleons came to the fore: the cultivation of sugar and the slave trade that supported it. Morgan died a prosperous plantation owner notorious (as with much of the plantocracy on Jamaica and Barbados) for his cruel treatment of enslaved human beings. The violence became subsumed under a facade of gentility.

So, why are these bad people glorified? I think among adults it is because they are rebels against a social and political system that those who glorify them wish they could rebel against. We project onto them a misplaced wish for power, power over our own individual lives, instead of directing that energy to build communities of character to ensure justice and peace for us all.

As to why kids glorify them? Hmmm.

Ramon Luzarraga

Katherine said...

Nope, it bothers me too. I don’t think the problem is as prevelent with girls (they haven’t asked for a Darth Vader anything and like being rescued) but the Disney Junior Jake and the Neverland Pirates always annoys me. I just think it gives a wrong understanding about what a pirate actually is. I would add though that my great irritation with turning “bad guys” into stars bothers me much more when talking about real things. Pirates are real. They were real and they are now. Vampires… not appropriate for kids, but you can play with if you like. Darth Vader is a bit tricky because he can be viewed very differently if you’ve seen episodes 1-3 vs. if you’ve only seen 4-6. But I don’t understand any sense in which he would be elevated to a shining star. He is to be pitied, but not imitated. So, while he is a bad guy, he also becomes a good guy. The problem is that all that merchandise doesn’t show his return to the good side. My favorite musical of all time is Phantom of the Opera. The Phantom is, in many ways, a “bad guy” for most of the show, but it is his redemption I love the most. I think there is a difference between selling a shirt with the phantom’s mask and one with the phantom’s lasso just like having stormtroopers behind Darth Vader relays only his time on the dark side. And, as an adult, it is disturbing, but for kids, it is dangerous, IMHO. :)

Katherine said...

I also wanted to mention that I nominated you for an internet award - come on over and join the fun. :)