Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Kira Manning and the Myth of the Sainted Child (Orphan Black)

While I normally reserve Tuesdays for talking about children's media, I thought it might be nice to take a quick break from that and talk about something a little different but still in the same ballpark: representations of children in the media. Specifically media for adults, because, I don't know if you've noticed this, most kids on TV and in the movies are pretty horribly inaccurate representations of childhood.

The kids you see in movies or shows for kids are usually pretty spot-on. But that only makes sense. Kids will actually know the difference. Grownups? Not so much. Because somewhere along the line, unless you spend a lot of time with children (either yours or someone else's), you start to forget what it's really like to be a kid. And apparently nearly all Hollywood writers have gone through this, because it's pretty dang hard to find a kid in a movie for adults that doesn't sound...weird.

I personally think of this as Haley Joel Osment Syndrome. As you may recall, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Mr. Osment starred as a child actor in a string of movies, not a one of which really made any sense when you think about what kids really are. The Sixth Sense, Pay It Forward, A.I., they're all movies that center around Haley Joel Osment as some kind of simultaneously precocious and precious child with an uncanny understanding of the world around him and yet also a moral character that makes Mother Theresa look like a murderous thug.

Real children are almost never, ever, ever like this. I say almost only because I figure it's hypothetically possible that there is a child like that somewhere in the history of the earth (Jesus was a child once, so there), but I would like to stress how not like this pretty much everyone else is.

I spend a lot of time with children. It's kind of my thing, you know, what I do all day every day with my life. And let me tell you, one adult to another, most kids are complete psychos.

I'm really not kidding about this (heh). Most of the children I've ever met, and I have met a lot, are in some way completely and utterly psychotic. I've met ten year olds who know more about combat and the injuries sustained by a particular type of hand grenade than most field medics just because they think it's interesting, and I've also had staring contests with a two year old who had just resolutely pooped on the floor right in front of me.

Kids are nuts. They're rude and dirty and snotty and absolutely refuse to take anything you say at face value. The kid asks if they can go outside. You say maybe, because the answer is dependent on them doing a couple of things first. They ask if, when they get outside, they can go bike riding. You remind them that they might not get to go outside. They ask if they can go outside. You say maybe. They ask something else. Finally you point out to them that if they had done what you wanted in the first place they could have been playing outside for twenty minutes by now. They call you a jerk.

Don't get me wrong, I actually love kids. If I didn't, I would be very definitely in the wrong line of work. But I love kids not because they're children, but because they're people. And, for my money, kids are really just people with all the crap stripped away. They say and do all the same things we adults would say and do if we didn't know all the social conventions that tell us not to. Like whine and lie (badly) and try to cheat and burst into tears when they find out they have to drink regular milk instead of chocolate milk and refuse to eat the banana with two brown spots because it's "dirty".

Children are just miniature people. I'm not sure why most grownups seem intent on forgetting that, but they totally do.

That's the problem with most representations of children in the media. The writers have forgotten to write that child as a person, not just a small extension of the parent's psyche. They've forgotten what it was like when they were kids. I hate to say this, because I love the show truly and deeply (a little madly too), but Orphan Black is one of the bigger culprits of this right now.

It's a damn shame because the show does pretty much everything else perfectly. Spectacular, mind-bending science fiction? Check. Amazing array of complex female characters? Check there too. Shockingly well realized and acted male characters? Checkity check. Acting talent that makes most other shows look like bad dinner theater? Check and a half. You get the point. The show is awesome.

Unfortunately, while the child actors on the show are pretty good, the children characters really, well, aren't. They aren't very good at all. They kind of make no sense, and it breaks my little heart.

The three main children we see represented on the show are Kira Manning (Skyler Wexler), Gemma Hendrix (Millie Davis), and Oscar Hendrix (Drew Davis). We'll start with Kira, since she's one of the main characters on the show. 

Off the top of my head, the biggest problem with Kira is her age. When Kira first appeared on screen, I figured she was about four. And when she opened her mouth, I doubled down on that. She is a four year old with a four year old's vocabulary and understanding of the world. Right on. I actually thought she was a very good and nuanced portrayal of a four year old, come to think of it. She was complex and a little ahead of her age level in reading. Nice.

Except Kira's not supposed to be four. She's supposed to be eight. Kira does not look eight. Kira does not act eight. And as soon as I found that out, I got really uncomfortable, because every single scene Kira was in became a question in my mind of whether or not the characters were intentionally ignoring her raging developmental problems. She talks like a little kid, but she's supposed to be entering the third grade? Sure, this does explain why she was even capable of reading The Island of Dr. Moreau, but it makes everything else much weirder.

It's not just her age, though. Kira is presented with an emotional simplicity that, again, makes more sense in a younger child, but also is kind of ridiculous when you think about it. Nearly every other character on the show gets the chance to really inhabit their lives and have honest and full emotional responses to what happens. Not Kira. Kira is instead weirdly copacetic with the crazy happening around her. She never once freaks out or rages or even cries loudly. She's just fine. No matter what happens, she's fine.

That is not true to life at all. Today I had to comfort a child who was screaming crying because I told him we wouldn't go to the park until he put on shoes. Kira Manning has been kidnapped repeatedly, seen people murdered in front of her, magically met her until then unknown father and then been left with him for over a week, abandoned, experimented on, and generally made miserable. And the kid has not even given one shred of an indication that she's not perfectly okay with all of it.

The hell?

And then we have the Hendrix kids. While these kids actually get a lot less screentime (often to the point of it not making sense for the story that they're not there), they illustrated another problem most writers have in creating compelling child characters. Oscar and Gemma Hendrix are children of two of the most uptight and secretive people on the planet (Donnie and Alison Hendrix), who have loud arguments, big fights, and who spent a couple episodes hiding a body in their garage.

Yet their children are portrayed as being totally fine and definitely not needing therapy. More than that, the kids come off as being completely unaware of what's going on with their parents. Blissfully ignorant of all the crap stewing under the surface of their perfect suburban facade.

Real children are not that oblivious. Not by a long shot. And if you have kids, and think they don't know what's really going on, you are in for a big shock, and probably some expensive therapy bills down the line.

When I was a little kid, I wasn't just aware of any tension in my family, I was hyper-aware of it. My bedroom had a weird acoustic thing where I could hear anyone talking in any part of the house. More than that, though, my father's desk was always directly under my room, and that's where he sat to pay the bills. I am a light sleeper. So any fight or argument or tension my parents had while paying the bills late at night, I not only knew about, but obsessed over.

That's not an indictment of my parents, it's just a truth. I always knew. And I know I'm not alone in this. Kids always know stuff like that, even when they pretend not to. People say things like, "out of the mouths of babes" when a child points out a very obvious truth, but the fact is that kids are people too. People notice things. It's really that simple. 

I don't mean for any of this to diminish the awesome work that the writers of Orphan Black have done on the show, nor do I mean for it to make you weirdly paranoid of your children. But I do think it's worth talking about. Kids are, as much as we seem determined to deny it, people. Little, unsocialized human beings who are still learning about the world. If we want them to grow up reasonable and good, we have to start seeing them as people and not as extensions of ourselves.

Media is a big part of that. How we see things and people portrayed in the media very concretely affects how we view those things and people in life. We all like to pretend we're not so easily swayed but, well, we are. So it matters that shows like Orphan Black take the time to properly characterize their child characters. If we don't view children as people now, then we run a grave risk of not seeing them as people later on.

And that will have devastating consequences.

It's cute, but also so sinister...


  1. Kira is instead weirdly copacetic with the crazy happening around her. She never once freaks out or rages or even cries loudly.

    That *could* be presented as evidence of damage to her psyche. She doesn't react to all this in a big way, because living with the secretive and paranoid Mrs S - and sometimes with Sarah (whose response to pretty much any problem during most of Kira's upbringing was to run away from it - even Kira herself) - means she hides within herself rather than acting out. But as an interpretation, that makes more sense for season 1 - the way the stakes escalate in season 2, that interpretation would need to be more actively supported.

    I think I'd rather have had season 2 without Cal, Kira being one of the reasons. I mean in the middle of the season, Sarah has to leave Kira with someone when she investigates Dyad* and roadtrips with Helena - and she doesn't trust Mrs S any more. The only other person she could turn to who Dyad doesn't already know is an associate of hers is Art, which would really drive home how few options the clones have. But Mrs S has always been the one to filled the void when Sarah's left before, so it would totally make sense for Kira to not get that for once the quarrel between Sarah and Mrs S is Srs S's fault - and leaving her with a stranger would only exacerbate that. Cal kind of seemed like he was there to make it less painful all round, even though I'm not sure he should have, given he was a stranger too.

    Sarah's life has become so burdensome that she really *doesn't* have good options when it comes to being a mother to Kira. Which is sad and intense and topical, but would hit even harder if Kira was more visibly scarred by it, and wishing someone besides Sarah was her mom. And if there wasn't a seemingly perfect dad in the picture now - unless they plan to use him for a similar purpose, and/or make him a bad guy of some sort.

    * Am I the only person who assumed Dyad was an acronym, DYAD, until seeing it in subtitles?

    P.S. Mind you I think we'll get to see Kira lose it at least one next season: Mrs S might be ready for Sarah's anger over selling Helena out, but I suspect she's not even slightly ready for how Kira will react.

    1. I think that would be a really compelling way to go with things, if Kira were just so numb to everything. Also, if they explained her developmental delay as a result of her constantly getting moved around as a child and her weird relationship with her mother figures/the lack of stability in her life, that would be really interesting.

      I would like them to do that. That would be good.

    2. Mm, you could make a pretty good argument that the safest thing for Kira - for her psyche as well as her physical safety - would be to send her far away from all this, and far away from Sarah. Which is a kinda horrible thought, but one I'd quite like to see Sarah wrestling with.

      Kira's missed several weeks of school as well, now, so they must be wondering what's up. (One thing I liked about Angela's role this season was to see the regular world still messing with the clones - while leaving their tormentors mostly alone - it's one of the things that brings home the patriarchy, rather than general bioethics, vibe. And Kira's school would be a logical example of this).

    3. I actually hadn't even thought about that - yeah, Kira has missed a LOT of school, and it's clearly not because they're off for the summer. Hmm. Season three includes a plotline where Mrs. S (still Kira's legal guardian) is pursued by a truant officer, a la Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

      Good times. She'd shoot the guy.