Some time ago, I taught English Literature to a class of 10 year olds in Sydney, at a tutoring college. It was a group of about 15 kids, and they opted to study ‘Fairy Tales’. One of the most memorable classes we had was a discussion of a story by Oscar Wilde, called ‘The Birthday Of The Infanta’. In this story, the young Infanta (a Spanish princess) is about to have a birthday party. She is a spoiled young woman, who has had everything her own way all her life, courtiers bowing to her wherever she goes. On this, her Special Day, of course the Palace organises birthday celebrations. We are all familiar with these from the numerous children’s parties our kids attend these days. You know what I mean! Jumping Castles, merry-go-rounds, magicians, face painters, people making fairy floss, etc. Well, for the Infanta, a giant tea party is held, and the children are entertained by a group of acrobats, and comical tumblers. Amongst these is a dwarf. And he performs so well, that the Infanta throws him the beautiful flower which she is wearing as a decoration in her hair. Then she retires with her little ladies in waiting for her afternoon siesta (this story is of course set in Spain). But the little dwarf has fallen in love with her. He thinks, because she has thrown him the flower, that she likes him too. And all afternoon, while she is having her siesta, he dreams of their future life together. If only he could see her again! Filled with excitement, he returns to the Palace to find his lady and declare his love. But he cannot find her. As he wanders the vast and numerous rooms, looking for her, he comes into a room where the walls are entirely lined with mirrors. He enters this mirrored room, and sees an ugly and fierce little creature. He does not recognise that it is himself. He has never seen himself before. And when he realises that ‘It’ is ‘Me’ (Himself), the shock hits him with the force of a physical blow: His ‘Lady’ had not loved him! She had just been amused and entertained by his performance at her party!It is too much for him to bear. His disproportionally large heart breaks. He collapses in shock. At this moment, the Infanta, all beautiful and glowing from a day of being the centre of everyone’s attention, surrounded by her little friends, comes into the mirror room and finds her admirer on the floor. She does not understand. She thinks he is performing again. But, after a few minutes, he is still.
She wants him to stop acting dead and get up and do his acrobatics and tumbling, again. And when she is told that his heart has stopped, what does she say? ‘Let all who come to play with me in future have no hearts’.
So – this is not your usual Disney tale of Princesses, right? I asked the kids in the class what they thought the ‘Moral’ of this story was. Kids are used to everything having a moral! I thought: surely they will see – it is a portrayal of narcissism, of the effects of too much parental & societal indulgence and what happens when a child has no-one to model healthy emotional boundaries for them…
But one girl said: ‘It’s so obvious! It means that UGLY people should not EXPECT to be loved!’ And the rest of the class agreed with her! In the discussion that followed, they told me that they did not really believe in happy endings. They saw – to some extent – how ‘messed up’ the real world was, and knew that what was offered to them as ‘advice from their elders’ was in many ways often based on a fairy tale view of the world. As one kid said ‘They tell us what they WISH the world was like. What they WANT it to be’. I wondered what would happen to this younger generation. They clearly saw things that mine did not have the courage to see. They had outgrown Disneyland, years before schedule. They were very vulnerable in their innocence (and annoying in their arrogant ignorance, at times) and yet in many ways, also admirably free.
The insight that teaching experience gave me has been confirmed many times over, as the years unfolded. Those kids in that class are now in their mid-twenties! And over the years I have found much compelling evidence that they were indeed voicing a radical scepticism that is clearly held by many as a default position, in their generation.
And they have good reason to be sceptical!
A case study: A young woman who ‘shot to fame’ while still a teenager (one of the ways we set the younger generation up to fall is by calling them ‘Unstoppable’, when they are below the age of consent) by starting her own Personal Style blog, was interviewed by a reporter, who confronted her with a ‘hating’ comment made by some random hater which mocked her early style choices and criticised her for being – you know, vapid and inconsequential. Who did she think she was, to set herself up as an oracle at such a young age, or think she had anything to offer the world which could be of any value? Etc.
Many adults indeed have their eye on the younger ‘up & coming’ generation, these days. Youth is seen as a promise of hope, of freshness, vitality and renewal. Springtime. The Tabula Rasa. We project a lot of sentiment and expectations and fantasies onto young people: we see them through a filter which is often distorted by many not-so-pretty feelings: envy, regret, and various forms of longing. They are appealing to all because they seem untouched, undefiled – but not (unfortunately, in this world of human predators) untouchable. Young Adults are the fastest-growing market in the literary and cinematic world. They are the most vulnerable and most impressionable and most savvy and most desirable, most manipulated target for every brand-driven globalised manufacturer who wants access to their piggy banks. They are the apple of our eye, and the paradoxically eroded centre of everything. They are so often Seen, but not often Heard.
That phrase I just put in upper case, do you see that? I did that because that was a phrase that expressed the idealised parenting mantra of previous generations: ‘Children should be seen & not heard’. They should be respectful, and obedient. And – here in Sri Lanka – they should worship their parents by daily prostrating themselves in front of them, to show their absolute veneration for those that raised them. Children who do this are not usually aware enough to know that the people held up to them as worthy of worship & respect are not only flawed, and frail, but (all too often) fake.
Yet many of the young people I am speaking of manifestly know that they are being looked at and observed, and commented on and targeted. They are being ‘Liked’ and ‘Disliked’, ‘Friended’ and ‘Unfriended’, ‘Tagged’ and ‘Poked’ – sometimes on an hourly basis! And some of them have evolved, to play that game themselves: to play up to that attention. It is fascinating to observe, how self-aware and self-conscious they are. And how – paradoxically – transparent.
The most strategic and successful of these self-created wannabe icons construct themselves in words & images, on their social media pages. They manufacture a DIY identikit version of themselves, and endlessly, obsessively, fashion and update and pluck and tweak it. And they have the tools to do it, right in the palm of their hands: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. They amplify their CVs and emote on cue in interviews. It must be like a pin-ball game, to them, the modern world: hit the right buttons & play it right & the world lights up for you, in brighter-than-bright primary colours! Future happiness, almost fully guaranteed. A personalised hero’s journey, with mentors and monsters and foes and frenemies.
Today, however, our young people know that there are real monsters in the real world, disguised as those who wish them well: exploiters, abusers, emotionally neglectful parents and carers, narcissists like the ‘Mother’ in the wonderful film ‘Tangled’ singing ‘Mother Knows Best’. A bitter, greedy, hungry old woman literally drawing nourishment from her daughter, at the expense of her daughter’s freedom.
I have heard from friends of students who, when they were old enough to learn to drive, were asked to collect their fathers from casinos where they had passed out from drinking the night before, and others whose ‘Yummy Mummies’ started drinking red wine from over-sized goblets in the middle of the afternoon, and still like to watch re-runs of ‘Not Without My Daughter’ through misty eyes.
And – even in the best homes – young people are acutely aware when their parents are competing with other parents, comparing homes and holidays and cars and clothes and treating their children as extensions of themselves, comparing their academic results against those of their peers, and urging them on, in vying for visibility in beauty pageants. Like ‘Flower’ in ‘Tangled’, we know when we are being used, to further someone else’s ego or hunger for life, survival, attention.
It’s clearly not easy being full of Youth Dew these days! Everyone wants to sell you something, or is trying to get you to win something, or prove something – so we can all believe that something new and fresh and good can emerge from the serried sequences of torment that WAS life, for older people in the late 20th Century, when we ourselves were young.
But it really is no laughing matter. The Kardashians’ mother made them into everything they are today. She made them and she sold them, and now they are selling themselves. And imprinting their artificially enhanced images on the minds of their impressionable Followers, who think that all that glitters is gold, and (because they are relatively inexperienced in the ways of the world) fail to see the brazenness beneath. In London in the 18th Century, a woman would be called a ‘bawd’, if she was openly selling her own daughters into prostitution. And it was a felony. Today she is called a ‘Matriarch’ and an ‘Entrepreneur’. And profits by it: although she actually loses by every transaction, in every measure of value but the material. She knowingly contrives and constructs an image and sells her children as embodiments of it. So much for motherly love, and words to a daughter!
What do we love about young people? Their potential. The hope they offer: of as yet unfulfilled and budding promise. Theirs? Not so much! Often, what adults see in youth is their own lost or forgotten selves – before they were tainted and twisted and traumatised and tempted and tarnished by the world. Young people, finding their voice, speaking up and speaking out and dreaming the impossible dreams which are at the absolute core of our romantic illusions, can ‘go where we dare not follow.’ However, it may be really hard for them to find their ‘voice’, they are so busy showing us what they think and imagine we want to see.
But they are not voiceless. They are just seldom heard. Personally, I blame the Romantic poet William Wordsworth for this. On the Eve of the French Revolution, he wrote ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven’. Can you see what he did there? By using the conjunction ‘But’, [which is a ‘Discourse Marker’ btw, which differentiates what comes before from what comes after, and privileges what comes after], he glorified youth as a superlative and exalted state, the most desired era of our existence. This same understandable delusion was described this way to me quite recently: ‘Everyone wants to be young… and to experience pleasure in every facet’.
Youthful people are seen as FULL of life!But this idea describes our IMAGINED youth! In fact, in reality, it is hardly ever like that. For many young people, it is a time of confusion, panic, anxiety, and even shame. They see the targets that are held up for them, and fear that they will fail to reach them: and fail not just in a small way, but in an ‘EPIC’ way, viewed by everyone they imagine is looking at them. Because everything is and must be a superlative, they are told: You must be the ‘Biggest, Best, Most Beautiful, Most Successful, Brightest, Tallest, Loveliest’ and – of course – the ultimate accolade, in our youth-obsessed world: ‘Youngest’, which carries with it all that aforementioned super-charged sense of unfolding excitement!
We should really teach our young people to be careful – to be sceptical of cliches and sentimental truisms, so often uttered by our so-called authority figures, which, under their smooth and deceptive surfaces, conceal a tangled mass of delusion and hypocrisy and often emptiness where a heart should be. Oh, and ABOVE ALL: we should warn them to be careful of those who use superlatives and high modal utterances – which people today habitually use to describe and present themselves: the relentless series of FB posts in which all the curated images of their lives are inflated and airbrushed and washed with irridescence: where everything is ‘wonderful’, and ‘fabulous’ and amped up, in this consumer-driven world of hyper-reality, where they must surely think – from all visible evidence – that every single person in their ambient awareness is striving competitively for visibility and celebrity.
We should say to them: Be Real. Keep It Real. And we should model that authenticity for them. And then, you see, when we listen to them, they will hear us. And we them. (But not want to BE them.)
The generational divide these days is like a clash of mirrored misapprehensions. While we project our opinions onto them, young people have dreams and fantasies of their own. I dedicate this article to all who believe that children are our future.