where the writers are
On the Business of Frightening our Children

Although I wasn't able to attend the full conference on Literature, Media, and the Romance of Childhood: States of Innocence and the Business of Frightening our Children, I think towards the end of the first day, we had all become rather concerned about how desentisized young people have become because of media these days and especially on how it has caused teenagers to become sexualized.

Following Prof. Mabitad's paper rich with quotes from Mary Wolstonnecraft describing the plight of women and children centuries past, we heard about disturbing reports from tabloids on how child rape was reported, with the use of salacious language that may detract from the pity we ought to feel for the young victims. The focus is on the perverted sexual act and not on the unhappy circumstances of the victim.

A discussion followed facilitated by Tarie Sabido with Carlo Vergara, creator of Zsazsa Zaturnnah and Kristine Reynaldo from Flipside, which published my books Alternative Alamat and Woman in a Frame.

The topic was "Children as Audience and Subject" and began with a discussion on appropriate subjects for children and young adults. Vergara mentioned that he worried when people bought his comics for young children as he felt the material was not really for kids given, I suppose that his protagonist is transgender. He didn't intend it to be, anyway, but the public perception in the Philippines is still that superhero comics are for kids. Reynaldo pointed out that children often read material that is not age appropriate and can still enjoy it though not fully understand it. I agree with that and in fact I don't think there's anything wrong with introducing kids of about 8-10 to Vergara's transgender character.  I watched comedies focusing on transgender stars when I was a kid and never had a problem with them, simply accepting them as confused and silly people. Well, maybe that wasn't so good; of course being a child I uncritically swallowed the stereotypes presented. And so Reynaldo is correct in saying that is why it is important to produce more material that is interesting and appropriate for young people.

Vergara said that he was trying to adjust to his audience, subverting the common perception that an artist creates for his own pleasure. "If I create it just for myself, I might just as well smile at it, say 'Wow, I'm good' and put it under the bed. The moment you decide to publish, you're putting it out there, it becomes a dialog between author and reader."

I joined the discussion to take the place of several panelists who were unable to make it (Thanks, Prof. Mabitad, for inviting me). The next question was whether we would produce anything frightening to children. Well, I have, not really with the intention of frightening children, but I do perceive frightening elements in some fairy tales I have written based on sculptures in an exhibit by Canvas.  The stories were deemed too long for the exhibit but one was chosen to be published next year. Anyway, it's no use avoiding frightening elements as there are too many things for children to be frightened about. We can't protect them so we have to present these situations in an appropriate manner to prepare them for it. One way is the fairy tale mode, which distances children while making them face fearsome realities.

Vergara said he isn't sure what frightens kids, pointing out that his little nephew is boldly preparing for zombie attacks--but is afraid to enter a dark room. Which led to the point that the fear of the unknown is the greatest fear for anyone, adult or child. And of course realities now frighten children more because of all the fearsome realities beyond their control that are reported by the media. Reynaldo pointed out that these desentisize children so that some are attracted to watching both real and fictional violence. I think this is more in older kids; younger ones tend to avoid watching these things still or be openly frightened. The desentization develops over a period of time. As for monsters, they are more of a manifestation of the unknown that they fear.

Reynaldo made an interesting point that reading taps more into an individual's fears than visual media, and may therefore be a better way for yong people to learn to face frightening situations. Words tap into the psyche whereas movies show what the creators think is scary and rely on suggestive music and the surprise factor. I think she meant that when you read, you imagine it as you would see it and feel it whereas movies and television don't necessarily represent what is fearful to you personally, so you won't necessarily connect with what you see.

The talk turned to the sexualization of youth with Prof. Mabitad's question: "If Lolita were written from the point of view of the girl, would it be considered YA?" We said yes because it presented the real feelings of teenage girls these days of wanting to be desirable, even as early as nine to ten years old. We had a little debate on whether these girls understand the implications of sexualization. The older ones do, most likely, but they are somewhat desentisized too by seeing so much sexual media and so see nothing wrong with presenting themselves as sexual objects.

I think it is the adults who ended up being frightened for children and teens at the end of the day. But that only emphasizes the importance of producing good books and media that will capture their interest and at the same time uplift their thinking.