Postpartum Aesthetic Depression

Our Totoro Fan Art

I don’t like cartoons.

When people tell me that I have to see The Incredibles or Toy Story or Inside Out, I have to reveal my Grinch nature. I don’t like animated films, I’ll tell them. Oh, but this one is really good, they’ll say. Good good or good for a cartoon? I ask. Oh, good good. Inevitably, it turns out they are lying.

Before children, I always joked that when we had kids, my husband would take them to see whatever farting donkey movie was out and I’d be at the grown-up movie next door.

I am, to be sure, a snob. When I was a kid myself, I was an aspiring snob: I always liked the idea of being older and more sophisticated. And then I made a job for myself consuming, teaching and writing about film and literature.  

You could say that this has ruined lots of “fun” culture for me. For example, while I love a good thriller, I read A.J. Finn’s  The Woman in the Window charged with great resentment. And there are certain first-person narrated novels that I can’t wade in past the first chapter. Reading and teaching truly fabulous novels day in and day out has spoiled certain mediocre books for me. It’s hard to be really engaged by a shitty unreliable narrator after spending time with Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, and lazy writing true crime writing is made all the shabbier when held against Truman Capote’s gorgeous and terrifying In Cold Blood. The late Michelle McNamara’s I’ll be Gone in the Dark holds up—really chilling and with the same eye for scene setting that made Capote’s book sing.And others not. To be fair, part of what I hated about Finn’s novel was how pretentious and cynical it was. He signaled his consumption of classic thrillers through the very cheapest of references to Hitchcock, all the while writing a pretty terrible novel with a real cheater of a twist at the end.

But if you said this, that I’ve been ruined for fun by my training, you’d be wrong. As someone who spends much of her time immersed in art, I get to read and watch “TRUE CLASSICS” (whatever that means) and genuinely like them, and I also find value in lots of other works that might traditionally be snubbed. Indeed, a guiding principle for me as a teacher and scholar is to expand our sense of what we can call a classic.

And, when consuming very poppy pop culture, like the fizzy new horror film Ready or Not, for example, it’s fun to have a palette of reference for what it is up to. I liked thinking about this film as kindred in some ways to the Katharine Hepburn film Holiday (Cukor 1938)in the way it looks at the bizarre behavior of the very wealthy and is only lightly attached to any particular romantic arrangement.

In other words, for me, having expertise in an area of art actually means opening up worlds of pleasure. When I read novels or go to the movies, I can find joy in the “art film” or “literary fiction” as well as genre flicks and mass market novels. But, I am somewhat sensitive to the bad, the pandering, and the lazy. I suspect this is also true for dancers, for musicians, for chefs, for visual artists, as well as the critics and scholars who have devoted themselves to the study of these arts.

Which is why I have often said “I don’t like cartoons.” Very often, kid culture, rather than just meeting children where they are, panders to them. This is the farting donkey variety of kid culture. Or, god help me, chipmunksmusic. If you think Baby Shark”is annoying, just know that you can find (as my daughter has) the Alvin, Simon, and Theodor performing “Party Rock Anthem.”

It’s a bit dramatic, perhaps, but I think bad kid culture can give parents something like aesthetic depression or anxiety. And it comes on fast, so maybe we can call it postpartum aesthetic depression. Suddenly, a parent, who has spent a life time thinking about and enjoying good art finds herself thrust into a frankly hideous new sensory world.

It’s not something I’ve seen described in any What to Expect manual, but I’ve occasionally felt its toll when my daughter embraces something wildly ugly—a Madagascar movie, Troll anything, chipmunk songs, or the super sexist Minnie and Daisy duck characters, who, in addition to being terrible role models, are wearing incredibly ugly pumps. Or when it’s been a long day of assault by the sounds, colors, terrible lyrics and so on that characterize the worst of three-year-old culture.

But here’s the thing, it’s not totally my daughter’s fault. Nor is it totally mine, snob though I am. We’re at very different places in relationship to culture. Whereas I have been in the world for 38 years, slowly developing my taste for some things and distaste for others, she is beginning this journey and just starting to make her own judgments. And she does have some. For example, despite the power of the Disney princess culture, which she is way into, she finds Frozen a bit boring. On the other hand, she is very committed to The Wizard of Oz. She likes the sound of women singing, men less so (chipmunks excluded).

As parent and child, we’re having to find a way to move between our two cultures. Sometimes that means bringing her along into mine when appropriate. We have board books about Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe and go together to the art museum on the free day. As well, I tend to insist on grown up music, but have focused on kid-pleasing musicals and female signer songwriters—Eloise has pretty much memorized the songs on Jasmin Kaset’s  Hell and Half of Jordan and requests “Oh What a Day” by name.

As well, in navigating kid culture, I’m determined to find a way that works for both of us. On the one hand, we both have to be allowed our own things (in quiet time, she looks at her books, and I mine). But, on the other, just because I have a kid doesn’t mean that I have to embrace the very worst of cultural objects for the under-five set. As with adult culture, hers is populated by better and worse artworks. For example, last weekend, our local megaplex was playing My Neighbor Totoro. If you and your kids haven’t seen it yet, man. are you missing out. Although a film so widely beloved doesn’t need my endorsement, I’ll just note that as a cartoon hater, it works for me.  It scratches both adult and kid itches. There’s plenty that’s cute and kooky for my daughter in the film—she’s particularly obsessed by the cat bus and we’ve made our first fan art as a result—and for me, there’s much more beautiful animation and a poignant story about the central family.   

Perhaps it’s possible that spending time with kids’ cultural objects doesn’t have to be aesthetically painful? Maybe it can even be a little inspiring.

Because I am a person who thinks art matters, it turns out that I have to think kid art matters. Even cartoons. Perhaps this always should have been clear, but it has taken having my own little culture consumers to really notice. Because my daughters will go forward to, if not make, at least consume art and culture, then even the cartoons and board books they consume as very little kiddos are part of the readers and audience members they will grow up to be. They will eventually be the people whose demands shape the cultural objects that populate our world. This means that as a mom I’m interested in pursuing two goals a bit tricky to keep in balance: I want them to enjoy the arts and I want them to stretch a bit, for their own sakes and for my sanity.

As always, if you are a mother (interpret how you like) who works professionally in a creative field (interpret how you like), please reach out to be featured on the blog.

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