Sexualized Saturdays: Teaching Consent to Kids

Trigger warning: mentions of rape throughout.

We’ve established again and again that pop culture has issues with consent. From that horrible Jaime and Cersei sex scene that the directors insisted wasn’t rape (it was) to almost every siren-related fantasy plot ever, the one thing that’s obvious about understanding consent is apparently that no one does.

That’s kind of terrifying. It’s pretty horrible that adults just don’t get simple concepts like “no means no”, “inability to consent means no”, “the absence of a yes means no”, or “coerced consent is not consent”. And what’s worse is that, when this way of thinking lodges itself in our cultural headspace, it isn’t just adults who are on the receiving end of it. Rather, this mentality creeps its way into children’s media as well, and too often goes entirely unchallenged within that media. Kids aren’t going to go read a blog post about Snow White or Sleeping Beauty’s inability to consent while asleep after watching those movies—there needs to be some kind of message within the film (or book, or show) that shows them why it isn’t kosher. And while there’s a lot of onus on kids’ media to be didactic in some way, a lot of it still falls flat.

One way this failure presents itself is in the appearance of love potions in kids’ or kid-friendly media. We’ve discussed before how frightening the wizarding world’s mentality about love potions is—they’re considered a funny trick rather than what they are, which is a date rape drug. In the sixth book, Romilda Vane actively tries to dose Harry with a love potion, and we learn that Voldemort was conceived while Tom Riddle was under the effects of a love potion and that’s why he can’t experience love. While Half-Blood Prince may be a little too challenging for a beginning reader or—with all its other content (both the dark and the romantic)—a little too grown-up, that isn’t the first time love potions are mentioned or their use is normalized. In Chamber of Secrets, Lockhart jokes (or is serious, who can be sure?) about encouraging students to seek out Snape for a love potion. They’re sold in Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes alongside other silly pranks intended to get you out of class or set off a few fireworks. Throughout the series it’s made clear that dosing someone to be attracted to you is super harmless and at worst an inconvenient trick.

I’ve also taken Gravity Falls to task for what was actually an even worse message. In one episode, Mabel steals love potions from Cupid, who’s visiting the town for a music festival. She screws around with them and eventually tries to solve the awkward dynamic that’s plagued their friend group since Wendy and Robbie broke up by dosing Robbie and Wendy’s friend Tambry with potion instead. Not only does Mabel face no real consequences from overshadowing Robbie and Tambry’s agency in this way, she’s actually rewarded for it in a way, because it works. Robbie and Tambry are a perfect couple, and the day appears to be saved. The show lost out on a really important teachable moment by not censuring Mabel in some way for her meddling.

(via Youtube)

(via Youtube)

Other kids’ media gets close to the subject but doesn’t quite go the distance. For example, in Aladdin, Genie makes it clear that one of the hard-and-fast rules for genie wishes is that you can’t wish for someone to fall in love with you. However, he doesn’t make it clear that this is because mind-controlling someone into loving you is creepy and rapey as hell. Rather, we’re just left to infer it from the fact that the bad guy later does try to do it. The inability to wish Jasmine into loving him is an inconvenience that forces Aladdin to think out of the box and wish to be a prince instead. However, because Genie starts off with these rules, we have no idea if Aladdin would have tried to wish for Jasmine’s love if he’d not known it was forbidden.

One of the few children-oriented things I’ve seen that does implicitly emphasize the importance of consent to kids is Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series. In the first book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, our heroine September meets a shy Marid (a type of magical creature rather similar to a genie) about her age who’s named Saturday. While we aren’t smacked over the head with any kind of romance—it is middle grade, after all, and September is only twelve—we are unsubtly told that the two will end up together when, while traversing a part of Fairyland where time is unstable, they briefly encounter their future daughter.

the-girl-who-chapter-art

(via Goodreads)

In the second book, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, September returns to Fairyland to vanquish her own shadow, who has been stealing magic and the shadows of other beings from Fairyland-Above and hoarding them in Fairyland-Below. These shadows, while made in the image of their casters, are also a bit more feral and unrestrained than their fleshy counterparts. At some point, shadow Saturday grabs September and kisses her without any warning. Rather than being a pleasant surprise, September is horrified and betrayed, and continues to think on how much this action hurt her as the story goes on. And yet at the same time, shadow Saturday can’t understand why she was upset about it. It was all in good fun, after all, and doesn’t she like him?

This interaction is honestly perfect in the way it subtly teaches kid-type readers about consent. It shows that even if you are potentially romantically interested in someone—even if your future child is already out there running around Fairyland, a guarantee that you’ll someday do more than just kiss—they don’t have the right to kiss you if you don’t want them to or are not ready for them to. It shows that the person whose consent was violated is perfectly justified in being angry and hurt with the person who did the violating. It also teaches that, rather than a mysterious villain, it’s often a person close to you who hurts you. In the story, it’s part of the way we’re shown that it’s not all right for the shadows to be separated from their people, because there’s a difference between finding the courage to do something you’ve wanted to do, and taking what you want from someone without their input. While the shadows see behavior like Saturday kissing September as the former, it’s made clear to us that it’s the latter.

Consent and, relatedly, ownership of one’s own body, are often among the “controversial” topics that are considered adults-only. How can you explain to kids what consent is without bringing up sex? Catherynne M. Valente shows us that it’s pretty easy to do so, and even to do so in a way that addresses more complicated (and more common) issues like an acquaintance or loved one forcing themselves on you in some way. And honestly, that’s still even within a romantic framework. Kids need to be taught far younger, before they’re worried about romance, that their bodies belongs to them, and no one else is allowed to touch them if they don’t want them to. Kids’ media needs to step up to the plate and learn from the lesson Valente has so deftly woven into her fantasy story. Then maybe we’ll finally raise a generation who actually gets it when it comes to consent.


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19 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: Teaching Consent to Kids

  1. well as love potions go, yes the idea that forces someone to love you takes away their consent but it can also cause the person who the potion is placed upon to actually commit or attempt the act of rape as seen in the film ‘the craft’. Sarah wanted revenge on that guy for lying to her so she put a spell on him which goes horribly wrong when he tries to rape her in the car. So meddling with someone’s emotions is always wrong no matter if. you have a crush on that person or want revenge – the potion will always backfire.

    what i always took from these love potions being used in movies and books is the fact is that the love isnt real similar to Monster High ‘why do ghouls fall in love’. Valentine is basically the ideal guy, he’s romantic and says all the right things and showers Draculara with gifts but its not real its just a facade. Clawd loves Draculara and granted her doesnt have the money to shower her with gifts or saying romantic things 24/7 because no relationship is like that is gonna have its up and down but her loves her and shows it in ways she may not understand like her made her a study guide to help her past her drivers test.

    As for Aladdin, hes might have wish for Jasmine to love him however the problem was 1. she already like him so them falling in love would have happen naturally and 2. aladdin needed to learn to be himself which Genie was trying to tell him because thats who Jasmine fell for not Prince Ali but Aladdin even though Aladdin in the 3rd film is shown to be a prince – the prince of thieves but still a prince.

  2. also with Snow white and Sleeping Beauty how would they be awoken from their curse? Snow White has no famiily besides the evil queen who wants her dead and sleeping beautys parents are put to sleep by the three good fairies and not to be awaken till their daughter is awoken – so how were they gonna wake up without ‘true loves kiss’

    • Disney’s already taken a lot of liberties in adapting these classic tales for their films – stuff like Frozen’s “act of true love” show that you don’t have to depend on true love’s kiss as a curse-breaking cure-all.

        • I see what you mean but I still think you’re missing my point. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an act of true love that saves them. Say the spindle broke off in Sleeping Beauty’s finger and it had to be removed for her o wake up. Say killing the Evil Queen would end Snow White’s curse. These both end their problems without a kiss and without losing the spirit of the story.

          • okay, lets say that but then you still have the issue of one – the entire kingdom.was put to sleep except 4 the three fairies and the prince. The prince was betrothed to Aurora at birth so that in itself is an thing for another day.

            who will kill the evil queen? the huntsman is day and the prince looks like he lacks any sort of skill with a sword

            • Look, you’re welcome to deal in hypotheticals all you would like to. The point still stands that the kisses didn’t have to be included. If the kingdom’s curse is tied to Aurora’s, then everyone else wakes up when she does, no problem. And it’s awfully judgmental to say that Snow White’s prince doesn’t have any warrior skills based on his looks, but he doesn’t have to be the one who kills the Queen – and, in fact, he doesn’t – he’s totally extraneous to that story because the queen is chased off a cliff by some woodland creatures. If Snow White just woke up when the Queen died, she could just live happily ever after with her dwarf friends forever, no prince necessary.

              • Well snow white is a princess, so yes she would have to marry a prince eventually same for aurora. whether you like it or not they are princess and princess marry princes or men of nobility especially given the era each princess is in, a they would marry a man whether they wanted or not and would need to produce an heir to secure their throne. Thats how it worked back then fairytail or not, its only because we are in modern times that we are putting our ideals on fairytails and and such of the past.

                Do you think snow white could have become and stayed queen without a king and heir? not everyone can be Queen Elizabeth

                • First, that’s not what we’re talking about or what this post is about. We’re just talking about consent, and the fact that kissing someone who can’t consent to it shouldn’t be romanticized.

                  Although it’s also putting your own prejudices into an imaginary world to say that a fantasy world has to be heteronormative and misogynistic. Why can’t everyone be queen Elizabeth? Why does sexism and the necessity of rule by primogeniture *have* to exist in a world where fairies or a cursed apple can curse you to sleep for years?

                  If you want it to be that way, it’s fine. But it’s not necessary to the storytelling, and it’s certainly problematic to insist it is.

                • Alot things shouldn’t be romanticized yet it is. these fairytales have already been written and again as i have said before you want to basically how the princess are portrayed because essentially you don’t like it because it doesn’t have basic modern principles of feminism and sexually equality.

                  Homosexual was something during those times where gays and lesbian could be free like they are today. why do you think many of them married the opposite sex yet had a essential a side piece that no one knew about? Majority of the fairytales had happy ending, where the it ended in marriage and thus for many societies back then that was when sex was acceptable wven though there were whore houses and men fathering bastard children.

                  Whether you like it or not, that is history and that was life back then. Consent was not a thing, you got married you were expected to have sex and bare children – that was life.

                • This is my last word on the matter because I’m clearly not going to change your mind. But I think you’re operating from a point of confusion, because fairytales aren’t real. Snow White is not nonfiction. I know that the Middle Ages were a terrible place for women and that consent was rarely taken into account. But it isn’t necessary to apply that frame to a fairytale because fairy tales don’t have to be bound by the terribleness of the real world.

                  I realize that a lot of things that shouldn’t be romanticized are. But that doesn’t mean I have to sit quietly and accept it. I’d appreciate it if you stopped asking me to.

  3. also Once upon a time has taken liberties with certain characters. Snow still needed a kiss to awaken and vice versa for when charming needed to woke. red hiding hood and dorthy from the wizard of oz are a lesbian couple, mulan apparently also is a lesbian, merida sis still merida, anna and elsa are still the same except anna is now married. belle got knocked up by rumplestiltskin , aurora and cinderella are both married to their princes and each bore a child. so some fairytails they have kept the same while taken liberties with others but in terms of the animated films, unless Disney plans are making a live action version of snow white that version still stands. on maleficent awakes sleeping beauty because of motherly love but it still doesnt mean aurora wont marry a prince one day.

    the best you can hope for is future disney princess being more modern, i guess but majority of kids really dont let this bother them are shape them in anyway because its just a story at the end of the day.

    • I think you’re underestimating the role that stories play in terms of shaping people’s opinions – there have been studies that show, for example, how the portrayal of only white heroes negatively affects children of color, or the way a lack of science-minded female heroines influences fewer girls to go into STEM fields. The push for more LGBTQ stories for kids and teens has in large part been due to the fact that underrepresented kids felt there must be something wrong with them since none of the heroes they looked up to experienced attraction the way they did. You’re welcome to dismiss the power of stories, but I wouldn’t speak for every kid in doing so.

      • but does every story need to diverse or force to be diverse? if i were to write a novel would i be force to include lbgtq characters because my novel lacked them?

        There is a reason why some films, book etc is not for everyone and with this current state of everything needs to be diverse or people becoming upset because their favorite movie or tv show isn’t representing them is ridiculous and usually result in a rush storyline to appease people.

        • No one’s forcing anything to be diverse. People are just asking creators to realize that LGBTQ people have always existed, in the same way the people of color or people with disabilities or mental illness have always existed. It’s the creator’s decision whether to include that, but I’ve found that stories that do tend to be richer and more believable. I’m glad for you that you’ve never felt like you weren’t represented in media.

          • its the creators descision but if people start campaigns and hashtag movements then the creator is then pressure to include something that wasnt in their storyline in the first place and why are you trying to change my mind?

  4. There’s a lame dodge that some of the “love potion” stories have often tried to use in the past: the potion doesn’t make people fall in love/lust/etc., it just reveals the person’s “true feelings” and then “frees” them to act on them (or, as often as not, be acted upon). Isn’t it interesting in even trying to take the non-consent involved in such things and turn it around, it’s still non-consent in the end? Ugh…

  5. When I was a kid, I thought Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were SO VERY ROMANTIC. I never even thought about issues of consent. I think this is the danger of Disney putting these types of stories out there. One doesn’t even realize that there is an issue at hand.

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