One of Evie’s current favorite movies is “Finding Nemo,” which she calls “Me-mo” or simply “Fish.” She first watched it on the airplane returning from Europe, watching the whole thing without sound because she didn’t like wearing the headphones or earbuds. Even without the sound she knew pretty well what was going on. During the scene when Marlin (Nemo’s dad) is looking for his wife and all the eggs, Evie tugged on our sleaves and pointed to the screen with a troubled look on her face, saying, “Fish crying! Fish crying!”
We picked her up and snuggled her and agreed that the fish was crying and asked her if she knew why. Her answer was, “Baby fish,” and she snuggled in happily to watch when Marlin found Nemo’s egg. She enjoyed the rest of the movie, especially “Blue fish” (a.k.a. Dory).
She has seen the movie three of four times since then. It has even replaced “Singing in the Rain” as her most asked for movie!
The night before last we all watched it again, this time with Kathleen’s parents, and Kathleen’s mom asked if we didn’t think it was too scary for her, what with the divers and the sharks and the deep water light-fish. To tell the truth the movie has its share of harrowing moments, but we had never thought of it as particularly scary. Evie had never acted scared or nervous while watching it. In fact she watched it all the way through before going to bed and enjoyed it as much as she ever did.
Things got more interesting the next night, (last night) when she requested “Watch fish,” again. We started the movie again, and once again she pointed out that the fish was crying. This time, however, when we got to the scene where the diver comes up behind Nemo and captures him, she jumped and ran to me crying, “Baby Me-mo! Baby Me-mo!” I picked her up and snuggled her and reassured her that Nemo’s daddy was not going to let him go. He was going to keep swimming after him until he caught him again.
She was happier after that, but she was still a little nervous when the sharks showed up, which she never had been before. When the big shark started chasing Marlin and Dory I asked her if she would rather watch Winnie-the-Pooh, and she agreed.
So we switched movies, but as soon as Winnie-the-Pooh was over she wanted to “Watch Fish” again. We didn’t let her because it was bedtime, but this prompted a discussion between Kathleen and I about this.
The thing that struck both of us was that she wasn’t afraid of the diver, she appeared more sad about Baby Nemo. She realized that he was being taken away from his daddy. I can’t think of anything more distressing for an almost-two-year-old. I admit that watching Marlin swim helplessly after the boat is hard even for me.
The odd thing is that she still wants to “Watch Me-mo!” (She is bored with Cinderella and asking to watch “Me-mo” as I type this). We decided that we will let her watch it again as long as she wants to. Not tonight, of course, but some other night.
Of course there are lots of reasons why would not let her watch a movie. For instance anything with sex or nudity, or even movies depicting human-on-human violence are non-starters. Movies that encourage behavior we don’t want her to imitate are off-limits until she is old enough for that discussion. However, Nemo has none of those elements. The movie has some parts that are distressing for her. Some parts may even be frightening. I don’t know whether that is a reason for saying categorically she cannot watch it if she wants to.
In his book, “The Uses of Enchantment,” Bruno Bettelheim discusses Grimm’s fairytales, particularly the frightening elements of them that tend to offend modern sensibilities. He made a compelling argument for folk fairytales as a sort of distillation of generations of collected wisdom and psychological insight. He argued that no matter how you shelter a child you cannot prevent them from experiencing fear.* The point of the fairytales with their black and white moral dilemmas and their obvious, non-nuanced, even inhuman villains and monsters, was to provide children with an imaginary and external focus for their fears. They can project their own fears and insecurities onto the bad-guy and shiver with fear, but also they can enjoy the outcome of the hero overcoming that bad-guy, and vicariously their fears, by courage, cunning, honesty, love or some other virtue.
This is very similar to G. K. Chesterton’s quote about Fairy Tales, ”
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles.
This is why we will continue to let Evie watch Nemo if she wants. She may be afraid, but fear by itself is not a bad thing. It is, in fact, the only thing that makes courage possible. Of course it should go without saying that we would never make her watch a movie that frightened her just to teach her to be brave. That would be phenomenally stupid, and very unlikely to work.
However, we will not deny her an opportunity to face her fear if she wants to, and to reinforce her knowledge that Nemo’s dad (and perhaps by extension her own dad) will never give up, and will always come for his child, no matter what.
*Bettelheim located the origin of this inescapable fear in the Freudian Id. I consider it very consistent with the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin.