In Part One of this mini-series, I reviewed how the character of Jean-Luc Picard was influential to me in my adolescence. But, when I was a lot younger, I had Optimus Prime.
Optimus Prime (from Generation One) was strong without being brutish. He would fight, but only when necessary. He would take responsibility of his actions and always, always protect the humans. That was a big one: He would always fight the battles when needed and never frivolously, but he would do so to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. That is an amazing message for kids.
(Side note: Kids had amazing messages in 80s cartoons. Seriously, Transformers, He-Man, Teddy Ruxpin… it was a good time to be a kid).
But now, for the details:
“Sometimes, even the wisest of men and machines can be in error.”
(Transformers G1: “SOS Dinobots” @21:40)
Everybody makes mistakes, so admit it, take responsibility, and learn from it.
“We must help Ironhide.”
(Transformers G1: “Autobot Run” @14:40)
You always help when you can. Always, always, always.
“We must have courage, Huffer. We can’t ignore the danger, we must conquer it.”
(Transformers G1: “More Than Meets the Eye, Part 2” @14:30)
Huffer precedes the line with “but we’re not fighters like they are.” Meet the challenge head on. It’s not about having fear, it’s about what you do in spite of it.
And so many others. Wired wrote a post about this back in 2007 when the Transformers movie and they really hit the nail on the head:
…Prime practically step-parented the latchkey kids of the mid-’80s. He was our Allfather at a time when flesh-and-blood role models were increasingly few and far between….So when Prime declared, “One shall stand, one shall fall!” in that seismic, tear-down-this-wall timbre of his (or, more accurately, voice actor Peter Cullen), you believed him….
For two glorious years, Optimus Prime was America’s hero….Then in 1986, the original Prime did something that distinguished him from most other cartoon heroes. He died. He died for freedom, for righteousness, and for shelf space….For nearly two decades…the sons of Prime waited for Papa Bot…
With bated breath and shaken faith we await the return of our Almighty Rig. Because without Prime, we’re stuck with whiney Spider-Boys, metrosexual pirates, and koan-spouting kung-fu Christs in designer sunglasses and unisex clubwear. Because he died protecting us in ’86, and nothing’s ever been the same since. Because these days, the only real men left are giant robots…
Indeed, indeed. The media with which our kids interact affects them greatly both positively and negatively. When kids see Miley Cyrus at the VMAs and don’t react with disgust, that says something about the message. The Canadian Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message” and that resonates with culture’s ever-changing online presence, but we also can’t forget that the media is the message too.
In an age where pop culture is so pervasive (and sometimes insidious), we have to be really mindful about both who the models are and which models the kids are following. It’s fine to have Captain Picard or Optimus Prime on the air, but if no one’s watching, then who cares?
A worse problem is to insert any of these characters into a program that doesn’t match their integrity. For example, I love(d) the Transformers franchise, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (the second movie) was one of the most sexist and racist movies I’d ever seen. And in the midst of this terrifying cultural portrayal of women and minorities is Optimus Prime? Are you serious? Writers, do you even know who you’re writing about?
So who’s left to model for kids? Well, real life adolescents and adults. Brothers, sisters, parents, teachers, law makers, politicians, et cetera. We need to be the good that they so desperately crave and the leaders they so desperately deserve. We need to model kindness, empathy, dialogue, patience, perseverence, and care-giving. Kids need to know that we care about them and will continue to support them even after they leave. I heard a speaker this morning say “they need to know that even when they leave the house, the door is always open and there will always be a light for when they come back” and I thought that was perfect.
Be mindful of your words and actions this week. Who’s watching you and what can you teach them? How can your actions model what you desire so deeply to see in others?
Have a great week,