In the past few days, my Facebook friends have been sharing an article called "8 Reasons Children of the 1970s Should All Be Dead," a compendium of the life-threatening conditions under which those of us born in that less-enlightened decade were raised. We rode in cars without seat belts, clambered on burning hot metal jungle gyms with scorched asphalt underfoot, and threw lawn arts that could split open a skull. Thanks to a glass Listerine bottle and a cast-iron radiator, I had 40 stiches in me by the time I was the age my five-year-old daughter now. And yet, most of us survived, a bit battered, perhaps, but basically unharmed.
These days, parenting is a full-contact sport. We shield our kids from PCBs and GMOs, dodge gluten intolerance and nut allergies, and we'd never dream of leaving our kids in the car while we ran a quick errand -- a once-commonplace practice that could actually get you arrested now. There are good reasons for most of these practices, as long as they're kept in check by the constant awareness that the crucial responsibility of fostering a young person's independence is worth a few cuts and bruises. But we're on shakier ground when it comes to protecting our children from ideas, which is what Disney has done by bowdlerizing Steven Sondheim's "Into the Woods" for its forthcoming movie version.
In a New Yorker article earlier this week, Larissa MacFarquhar reported on a confab between Sondheim and a group of high- and middle-school drama teachers, who, as she points out, had spent years staging Sondheim's plays "in the face of administrative protests about immoral messages and lascivious or bloodthirsty content." It must have come as a shock to learn that with "Into the Woods," Sondheim had yielded to the entertainment-conglomerate equivalent of those same forces.
"You will find in the movie that Rapunzel does not get killed, and the prince does not sleep with the baker’s wife," he said.
The teachers gasped, but Sondheim shrugged. "You know, if I were a Disney executive I would probably say the same thing," he said.
A teacher asked what would happen to the song "Any Moment" if the baker's wife remained chaste. "Don’t say the song is cut."
"The song is cut."
The teachers cried out in despair.
As Alyssa Rosenberg points out in the Washington Post, Disney's decision to make "Into the Woods" without actually making "Into the Woods" likely has much to do with Disney's management of its all-powerful brand. (No official explanation has been, or is likely to be, forthcoming.) Disney is, after all, a family company, and while it's been commendably progressive in expanding the definition of "family," it's evidently still mired in an outdated and, frankly, delusional understanding of what "family-friendly" means.
At the end of her essay, Rosenberg sums up the traditional distinction between a "childish" story -- one that tells us "everything will be all right, or even wonderful once certain circumstances have clicked into place" -- and an adult one, which "undoes the very illusions that are so appealing, eating away at our ability to fall under their spell again." But those definitions are rooted in a peculiar definition of childhood that has much more to do with adult fantasies than the inner lives of actual children.
"Into the Woods" may not be a story for children -- I'd say its ideal audience probably begins with sophisticated teens -- but the fairy tales it's based on were, and some of them are as bloody and brutal as "Game of Thrones." Some offer moral instruction -- "Slow and steady wins the race" -- and some, like "Red Riding Hood" or "Hansel and Gretel," exist to teach children that the world can be an ugly and dangerous dangerous place, and you had better watch your back. They frighten children because they're meant to.
In recent movies like "Tangled," with its manipulative and emotionally abusive adoptive parent, and "Frozen," whose plot hinges on a moment of unforeseeable betrayal, Disney has flirted with these kinds of themes, even if they're safely put back in their boxes by the time the credits roll; "Maleficent" has a symbolic rape scene and still manages in the end to be more anodyne than "Sleeping Beauty." That's fine for younger kids. But what about the MPAA's ruling that the frankly realistic depiction of teenage substance abuse in "Boyhood" is not suitable for children under 17? Is there a 16-year-old anywhere in America who, even if they've never sipped a beer or smelled a joint, doesn't know that some of their peers are doing the same? (And, more to the point, if such a teen does exists, is there any chance he or she would be drawn to "Boyhood"?) In slapping "Boyhood" with an R rating, the MPAA is essentially arguing that adolescence is inappropriate for teenagers.
The uncut version of "Into the Woods" is available on Netflix, at least through the end of the month, and any teenage who wants to see "Boyhood" will find a way to do so with or without parental approval. (If Piper Chapman can sneak into "Dazed and Confused," so can you.) Meanwhile, Disney will go on pretending that children don't understand death, even though my daughter is utterly obsessed with the concept, or infidelity, even if there's a better than even chance their parents will be split up by the time they're out of college. And my friends and I will keep showing our kids "My Neighbor Totoro," whose young girls wait out their mother's convalescence from a life-threatening illness, and other movies that decline to lie to children about they world they're already a part of.
Update, June 23: Sondheim now says the New Yorker "misrepresented" the nature of his collaboration on the film, and further that he had only seen a rough cut of the film when he made his comments. "For those who care, as the teachers did, the Prince's dalliance is still in the movie, and so is 'Any Moment.'" Left unexplained in the whirlwind of spin is why Sondheim would, as the New Yorker reported, write a new song to replace one that was never cut from the film, but we may have to wait and see there.