THOSE MEDDLING KIDS!
Before Katniss Everdeen volunteered as tribute, before Tris Prior began to diverge, and before Marvel’s Runaways even thought of running away, there was a little boy. It was June of 1997 when Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone first hit bookshelves in the United Kingdom, when the way the world looked at young heroes and heroines fundamentally changed forever. Harry Potter—The Boy Who Lived—would reach the top of the New York Times’ best sellers list within two years and the seven-book series would go on to sell more than 500 million copies, with translations in 80 languages, a harbinger of the potent strength that a series defined by a child’s rebellion, loyalty, and self-reliance would have on the generation that literally learned how to walk on its own two feet in the wake of Y2K.
As Ruby Scalera explores in her new piece, "the change, the ripple effect started by a boy wizard, followed by a girl archer, and many others who have become symbols of hope, opportunity, and rebellion is not limited to the media in which they exist. These stories, in book, movie, and television form, portrayals of dystopian societies brought to ruin by adults in power and ultimately saved by children and young adults from humble, unremarkable backgrounds, have raised new generations of young adults to believe they are not only capable of changing a broken system, but that it is both their duty and their due."
Teens and children today live in a fishbowl of fear, and not just of the future, but of the here and now. Practicing active shooter drills instead of multiplication tables, they are at a higher risk of being shot and killed in their own school than deployed members of the military still fighting a war that plays on loop in the background. Twenty years after the Columbine High School shooting that staggered a nation, the suicide of survivors proves that thoughts and prayers do nothing in the face of wafer-thin gun regulation. America’s obsession with the Second Amendment and the term ‘lone gunman’ grows more aggressive with each passing day. Read more here.
These stories used to be set in the deep, dark world of outer space, or the forbidden jungles of imagined worlds. But armies of the dead, alien invaders, witches, warlocks, and wizards are no threat at all in comparison to mass inflation on life-saving medications, blistering temperatures, and the rise of white supremacy in a country that is not yet old enough to forget its role in World War II. There is little wonder, then, why the villians in these books are not manic individuals desperately seeking legendhood, but the systems and powers in place that allow them to rise. The Capitol in The Hunger Games is a mirror of our own halls of justice, while American society is turning out be our very own District 1. We do not need wild beasts or mystical lore or hidden magic to spread fear in fiction. We need only to look at what’s going on in our lives at this very moment.
“It is a little of a bit of a joke at the moment, but the whole sense that the Baby Boomers have abandoned us is real!' says 17 year old high school senior Ben Lipkin. "Youth rebellion against adults and ‘adult values’ is not a new concept…” Tales of “those meddling kids” have been inspiring teenagers of every generation, “…but because this was fiction we were reading when we were a little bit younger, and because it’s now something we very much see in real life, being told that we can’t do things or have things—for instance, the Green New Deal—there’s definitely a parallel between that fiction and our reality in terms of adults posing a barrier [to] justice.”
Oftentimes, positive change comes at the necessary cost of dismantling the current system, be it the political system, the social or cultural system, or defining traditions that leave most of the disenfranchised populations vulnerable. And if our child heroes and heroines have become recognizable in these stories, so too have the adult maintainers of these institutions, villains either by intent or neglect, that have had an undeniable impact on the way young adults view the society around them. In times of demagogy, in times of political strife, when power abuses run rampant and dissenters are silenced, it becomes not only a possibility but a responsibility to take up the torch of rebellion and fight back against a broken system. Just like Miles Morales and Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen, anyone can be a hero. Everyone should be a hero. And the one who helps promote justice, kindness, and a better world for all might just look a little bit like you. Now that’s a story worth telling.
To anyone who ever felt weak or poor, constrained by their role at home or in the world around them, unpretty or unimportant or frustrated by their inability to prevent injustices, the freckly-faced, pig-tailed Pippi Longstocking became the obvious and ultimate antidote. She was, at once, a kind, smiling soul, open to new friendships and new adventures, and a vigilante in her own right, stepping into the way of cruelty, misuse and violence time and again, without ever using her own impossible strength--unlike many of history’s greatest characters that possessed the same.
The beauty of Pippi Longstocking lies at the apex of that power and how she chooses to wield it. She is, according to the text, literally the strongest girl in the world, accented by the benefits that come from her family’s wealth. But her wild spirit and joy at subverting social constraints, intentionally or merely because she is not yet cynical of the world around her, is the ultimate story Pippi has to tell. Author Astrid Lindgren, who penned the stories in the 1940s for her daughter Karin, then confined to her sick bed, was once quoted as saying, "Pippi represents my own childish longing for a person who has power but does not abuse it. And pay attention to the fact that Pippi never does that.”
In fact, Pippi actively works to subvert the powers that be in creative and non-violent ways, most especially when those in power try to push her into a more socially acceptable mold. So while it would give most adults today apoplexy to imagine a nine-year-old girl living in an oversized, run-down house with a monkey and a horse for guardianship, Pippi proves, in fact, that she is not only capable of taking care of herself, but better off without those meddling adults. She spins fanciful tales, gets into trouble, and generally wrecks the havoc today’s nine-year-olds can only dream of, but there is more truth to her stories than meets the eye and Pippi continues to come out unscathed and better for each adventure she takes.
There is no dearth of adults as villains in literature, but Pippi Longstocking perfected the art of subverting traditional social roles and thriving. She is contrasted against Tommy and Annika, the sweet children from next door, who “do have both a mother and father”, as well as a much-lamented bedtime of seven o’clock. While they occasionally try to help Pippi fit better into the world around her, be it in learning how to write or attending the local school, Lindgren crafts the characters so the reader understands that they often parrot the lines their parents tell them. In fact, Tommy and Annika are just as willing to get stranded on desert islands, buy thirty-six pounds of candy, and have tea parties in trees.
Where the classic orphan character is often a tale of overcoming odds, triumphing against adversity and finding love despite a childhood of neglect, Pippi is, by her own account, gleefully better off without adult supervision or guardianship. She happily stumbles through daily tasks, such as cooking dinner and spends most of her days exploring the joy the world has to offer, all with a dash of good-hearted mischief.
It is little wonder then, why Pippi has spoken to generations of young mischief makers and dreamers. More than seventy years after Lindgren first told her daughter Karin the tale of a little girl who could lift a horse with one hand, Pippi has appeared in a myriad of books, television shows, and movies. Her antics have been translated into more than sixty languages, and the name Villa Villekulla manages to stir nostalgic longings in this writer’s heart, though I cannot say for certain the first time I picked up a Pippi story or the last time I put one down. To me, Pippi was simply always a part of life.
For all of time, children have been forced to live in a world of adversity that is not their making. They have felt powerless and frustrated, confined to their stations and left to the mercy of adults in power, whose choices rarely align with justice or goodness for all. Charlie Brown hears the warbling of adults who never listen. Evil queens lock young princesses in towers. Mary Lennox and Colin Craven find the Secret Garden and the mysteries of health and happiness, despite neglect and hovering from their respective parents. Whether in the era of World War Two, the age of Civil Rights, or today’s own dystopian political landscape, Pippi Longstocking turns those punishing roles into something to be celebrated. Not only can we do it without them—she tells her readers of the policemen and businessmen, the teachers and parents—but we can do it better.
Where Lord of the Flies reflects the adult fear of chaos, of crabs in a barrel fighting for dominance at the expense of others, Pippi proves an anathema to that cynical view. Give the children the power and they will wield it for good. At the very least, it cannot be worse than what the adults in power keep doing with it. Sometimes our heroes wear capes. Sometimes they wear pantsuits. Sometimes they come as heads of state or as writers or detractors. And sometimes, once every hundred years or so, a timeless heroine comes around, a little wide-smiled redhead who’s proud of her freckles, sitting beside her monkey on a pile of money, smoking a cigar and showing all who are watching, reading, and remembering that we don’t need them. We can do it better.