Looks deceive in PBS fairy tale Review: If you want your children to watch William J. Bennett's new programming, watch with them -- and keep your antennae up for cultural static.

September 02, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Adventures From the Book of Virtues" might look like a simple and innocent little animated series of fairy tales and stories for kids, but, as one of tonight's tales teaches, looks can be deceiving.

This new prime-time PBS series from William J. Bennett, former secretary of education for Presidents Reagan and Bush, is chock-full of the very complicated and controversial, values-laden stuff over which cultural wars are fought.

If you let your children watch, view the program with them and crank your cultural antennae up to their full height and finest tuning for messages about gender and beauty, for example, which may not be nearly as "universal" or "commonly agreed-upon" as Bennett claims.

Tonight's first program, which airs at 8 on PBS, starts with the concept of honesty when one of the animated characters -- an 11-year-old boy, Zach, who lives in the idyllic small town of Spring Valley -- tells his father a lie. After the incident, Zach visits a special place he and his friend, Annie, have found outside of town, which features a rushing stream, cascading waterfall and a hidden cave.

Living in the cave and presiding over this enchanted spot in the forest is Plato, a wise buffalo. There is also a bobcat named Socrates, a prairie dog named Aristotle and Aurora, the hawk.

Plato questions Zach about his actions and then tells three stories in hope of offering moral guidance. One is about George Washington and the cherry tree (from the Parson Weems collection of hagiography). The second is "The Frog Prince." The third is a Native American folk tale, according to the producers.

After the stories, Zach and Annie join the animal-philosophers in a discussion.

Or, as the press release puts it: "This engaging group joins together to discuss the stories in Plato's collection, raising questions for others to ponder and helping each other understand and interpret the profound 'moral' meaning of various stories."

This is where things start to get tricky and highly political -- with the words "interpret" and "moral." Interpretations are culturally constructed, which means they can and do often vary depending on the gender, age, race, social class, sexual orientation, political orientation, education, etc., of the person doing the interpreting.

Rush Limbaugh, for example, has a very different interpretation of Hillary Clinton's performance as first lady than does, say, Donna Shalala. There is no one interpretation of these stories.

Carl Jung, for example, interprets "The Frog Prince" as a tale telling us that we must risk the perilous journey into the depths of our personal and collective unconsciousness if we want to achieve an integrated, healthy adult personality. That's what the business of the princess' golden ball falling into the well is all about -- the scary trip into the depths of the unconscious.

Freudians, meanwhile, have been known to achieve rapture in their interpretations of the frog being placed on "the softest pillow on the princess' bed" and being magically transformed into a handsome prince with the private kiss.

Male bias and honesty

Bennett interprets the story in terms of honesty and keeping promises. From his point of view, maybe. But it is only his point of view, not the universal truth he proclaims it to be in press conferences and interviews.

The problem is that Bennett either doesn't understand or will not admit how culture-bound his interpretation of these stories is. He is a white, affluent male with an advanced university education in philosophy (B.A., Williams College; Ph.D., University of Texas), and those are among the facts that determine his interpretation.

The most obvious effect of his personal culture on the program is in the selection of characters like Plato (which Bennett acknowledges is based on his friends calling him a buffalo), with its message that men (generally white, European ones who wear togas) hold the keys to wisdom.

Despite the presence of Annie, the male bias holds throughout the honesty parables told in tonight's episode: The princess' reward for honoring her promise is the handsome prince. The Indian maiden's reward for telling the truth is marriage to a handsome brave. George Washington's reward is the approval of his father (shown by a manly placing of the hands on the boy's shoulders).

Furthermore, the person who cursed the prince by first turning him into a frog is an ugly crone, while the beautiful princess transforms him back to princehood with her kiss.

I don't think any woman with a social conscience would have as blithely risked passing on such stereotypes of physical beauty/unattractiveness and goodness/evil to the millions of kids who will watch "The Book of Virtues" tonight on PBS.

Bennett understands the power of fairy tales in what he describes as "transmitting the best of a culture from generation to generation." He also understands that television has to some extent replaced parents as the tellers and interperters of those tales for children.

I would urge Bennett to return to the cave, review tonight's tape on honesty and try to be just a bit more straightforward about what he is up to with American children.

Despite the token inclusion of a few Native American and African-American folk tales, he is trying to use PBS (which, by the way, he has said should not receive federal funding) to teach white, male, European-based values as the one, true set of values long after any mainstream consensus on those values has passed.

Viewing the series

"Adventures From the Book of Virtues" will air tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday nights at 8 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).

Pub Date: 9/02/96

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