Throughout the upbringings of countless children of the 1990s and 2000s, or “millennials” as we’ve been christened, a new outlet to screen time was developed: the video cassette. This allowed children to stay occupied in their homes while parents were away or doing chores. It was very convenient, as it allowed children to watch their programs regardless of what the time or day of the week it was—rewinding was the only pain, but DVDs eventually rescinded that. DVDs, in turn, became portable, though commonly just through private quarters. Cars from Toyota, Honda, or Ford became pre-equipped with backseat DVD players, and eventually, a removable accessory that attaches to the back of the front seat headrest was developed. Then other portable players were handheld, or akin to a laptop. While it was never novel at the time to see children utilizing them, its predecessor is all too common, as it is even more convenient.
As both a consumer and employee at retail chains, it’s worrisome to see children watch videos on their parents’ phone or tablet while they sit in a cart basket or stroller. It brings me back to when I got bored with shopping as a kid. There would be small corners set up at Talbots, Osh Kosh B’gosh, or Sears Portrait Studio where my brother, sister, and I would watch videos among other kids. We weren’t restricted to sitting there, and minimal chatter was allowed, unlike the movie theater, which enabled us to befriend other viewers. If a video ended, we’d find a grownup to rewind it and pop in another one. During these moments, there was opportunity to discuss the film and imagine ourselves as the characters or amongst the settings. Though to be honest, these films were bland and uninspired. Maybe we only enjoyed these films because related media or merchandise within franchises captivated our memory. The 1998 GoodTimes Entertainment picture, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie, wasn’t that great, but it is easy to draw comparisons between it and Rankin/Bass Productions’ 1964 classic of almost the same name, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. So, I enjoyed that aspect, I suppose. Thus, I remained faithful to a character with which I personally connected in the past, despite the fact he may look or act different in another adaption.
Unfortunately, studios capitalize on this. Even in formative years, people have brand loyalty towards licensed characters and merchandise. The studios who own characters or settings may dumb or tone them down. Look at Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, a Disney Jr. series that ran from 2006—2016. As this is a preschooler show, Donald Duck’s hubris isn’t apparent, and Goofy is hardly ever exposed as an irresponsible trainee with the howls of carnage to prove it. However, little-known animators have mastered an art of creating videos across YouTube and elsewhere with licensed characters who may look soft, but there is something much more sinister in their actions.
These pastiches tend to be crossovers between universes that hardly ever touch, the most famous being Spiderman of the eponymous Marvel franchise and Elsa, a protagonist of Disney’s Frozen. In some videos, the pair are young siblings who steal their father’s beer and drive off in his car. Other times they are a couple who panic over Elsa’s unplanned pregnancy (which is somehow only discovered well into the third trimester) and insert a syringe into her stomach as a late-term abortion. Other times she is forced into prostitution. Very often, characters urinate on one another, sometimes consuming the excrement. Because of the widespread appearance of the pair in this genre, such content is dubbed “Spiderman and Elsa videos,” or “Elsagate.”
The genre, of course, also includes videos of similar themes in which the pair do not appear. Other characters defiled in these works include Peppa Pig, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, the Joker, Maleficent, Doc McStuffins, or the cast of My Little Pony: Equestria Girls. While there are countless conspiracy theories as to why this genre exists, the most common conclusion is to make profit. Just as my generation of children would insert any video at all into their VHS player, today’s children will click on any video across the web.
In many ways, the films are an inversion of the direct-to-video media with which my generation was exposed, as they took no risks and were easily forgotten. Elsagate, however, constantly takes risks, as their storytelling medium constantly shifts. Some are Flash animations, others CGI, others clay-animation, others live-action with adults (and occasional children) in cheap costumes aided by mediocre special effects. As with any fan work without copyright protection, plots are constantly stolen, retooled with new characters or in new cinematography forms. Of course, children won’t care, right? It’s just a video to keep them occupied until their parents or guardians can attend to them. They are carefree creatures, so it makes sense for their enrichment media to be carefree as well!
Clearly, I am being facetious. Our society falls too much into this philosophy, but it’s untrue. Kids being babysat by a computer, VCR, or DVD induces passiveness, no matter how many interactive fourth-wall breaks with perfectly timed silence a program has. Not only this, but it teaches children to be agreeable, which is undoubtedly a necessary skill, but can kill motivations or passions. My sister and I, for one, enjoyed the first few Land Before Time films, so we convinced our parents to rent us the next six-dozen sequels over the years since we enjoyed the first one, two, or three at best. The slew of sequels was safe, passable, and forgettable. We didn’t really like them but kept them playing because our parents made a nice effort picking out a movie.
Still, imagination is a more worthwhile occupancy of time than consumption. Indeed, consumption can segue to imagination, as explained through countless novel-length fan derivatives on Fanfiction.net or Wattpad. Our Spiderman and Elsa videos may often be ten-minutes long, but hold no cohesive movements like the comics, novels, plays, art, and other transformative work housed on Tumblr, Deviantart, or Reddit. There’s a reason shows like Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, or My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic have such a dedicated adult following, or why novels like The Secret Garden, Coraline, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn garner so much attention in academia. Children’s media is worth something.
Children deserve entertainment media that’s developed with effort and passion, just as adults do. Critics and audiences in America constantly bemoan that cable television is too stupid, littered with semi-scripted reality shows about morbid obesity, vapid behavior in beachside districts, or inept wealthy families. Imagine how tiresome watching videos like “Frozen Elsa Baby & Snow white baby magic door w/ Dinosaurs” must get. The nonsensical titles are utilized because these creators know children aren’t reading them, so they simply utilize them to best be equipped for search engine optimization, which engages viewership, and with that following is the possibility of ad revenue.
Journalist/artist James Bridle has explained this phenomena at length in a piece published by Medium this past November entitled “Something is wrong on the internet.” Bridle continued the conversation at a TED conference in April with his presentation “The nightmare videos of children’s YouTube—and what’s wrong with the internet today.” “What concerns me is that [Elsagate] is just one aspect of a kind of infrastructural violence being done to all of us, all of the time, and we’re still struggling to find a way to even talk about it, to describe its mechanisms and its actions and its effects,” he concludes in Medium. He is more direct in his resolutions for the TED audience: “This stuff really, really does affect small children. Parents report their children being traumatized, becoming afraid of the dark, becoming afraid of their favorite cartoon characters. If you take one thing away from this, it’s that if you have small children, keep them the hell away from YouTube.” The crowd applauded at his assertion.
Parents of children who have not submitted to the atrocities in this genre may see Bridle or those who concur with him, like myself, as concerning themselves in matters that aren’t theirs, or providing unwarranted parenting advice. Instinctual pathos triumphs over disrupting logos. Admittedly, I am not a parent. I am, however, an older sister, colleague, tutor, babysitter, and fellow “digital native”—the digital world has been present through the entirety of my life, just as it has for toddlers and grade-schoolers of today. We’ve seen the uncouth aspects of the internet. Terrifying hoaxes about madmen injecting HIV strands into chocolate bars, ghastly pornography at the slight mistype of a web address, or what was thought to be a snippet of a tune from a pop star’s upcoming album turns out to be corrupted static or the screams of a banshee alongside cryptic imagery. The internet is no territory to navigate without proper guidance.
Please don’t let YouTube or sites like it be a child’s first exposure to the web. Start with the official websites of the children’s favorite franchises. Books and their publishers, television stations and their programs, as well as various magazines and comics for youth audiences have tie-in materials across the web. Some of my own favorites were pbskidsgo.org, nick.com, cartoonnetwork.com, americangirl.com, disneychannel.com, scholastic.com, and kids.nationalgeographic.com.
Finally, please be open to discussion regarding the unsettling things children may see on the web and discuss it frankly. A little empathy goes a long way.