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Empowering Children To Confront Disney and Despair

I’m feeling protective of my children. Perhaps it’s the fact that my baby, Rockerchik, turned 10 last week, that Girlchik is 11 going on 15, and that my eldest will be 17 this week. Now that his college applications are all in, I’m acutely aware that he will soon be leaving home. And I am very much aware of preparing each of them, as best I can, for the next chapters in their lives.

One of the things I am conscious of trying to give them is something I wasn’t aware even existed until I was much older than they are: a sense of their own agency. I want them to be conscious of the power that each has to make change in their lives and in the lives of others. Two stories in the New York Times this week got me thinking about that empowerment.

The first piece shows how vulnerable we are to marketing and merchandising behemoths, such as Disney, which is trying to reach the only segment of the childhood market that they haven’t yet vanquished: newborns. Now they’re targeting mothers who are still in the hospital immediately after giving birth with freebie onesies, festooned, of course, with Disney characters, to try and get them hooked.

The story states:

Disney estimates the North American baby market, including staples like formula, to be worth $36.3 billion annually. Its executives talk about tapping into that jackpot as if they were waging a war. “Apparel is only a beachhead,” said Andy Mooney, chairman of Disney Consumer Products.

As such, the company does not intend to stop with bodysuits, which are playfully adorned with Disney characters like Simba from “The Lion King.” Also planned are bath items, strollers, baby food and an abundance of other products — all pushed with so much marketing muscle that Disney Baby may actually dent operating margins in Mr. Mooney’s division in the near term. But this is a long-term play, and it could have its greatest value far beyond the crib. Disney Baby is also intended to draw mothers into the company’s broader web of products and experiences.

The story shows us how much work it takes to protect our children from being sucked into the endless vortex of consumerist need that is so much a part of American life.

To be sure, we are all consumers — of resources both natural and man-made, and of culture and media. And I am no Walden-esque eschewer of the pleasures of the marketplace. I like a little retail therapy as much as the next person.

But it does seem clear that we need to teach our kids how to be smart consumers. Helping them develop the ability to refute the marketing onslaught is a form of empowerment.

Then I turned to this article about the latest project from Jewish playwright-activist Eve Ensler.

She has built a “City of Hope” in one of the most hopeless places in the world for women, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rape is a frequent tool of violence against women.

The story states that “hundreds of thousands of women have been raped, many quite sadistically, by the various armed groups who haunt the hills of eastern Congo.”

Ensler, and those who support the City of Hope and the women it will educate for leadership, is providing them with more than physical refuge. She is giving them a place where they can learn to have their own sense of agency and, hopefully, grow into being leaders of their community.

Is the issue of repelling a deluge of Disney marketing anything like the horrifying issue of rape in the Congo? Of course not. But there is one subtle aspect of standing up in the face of both: teaching girls and women to be empowered.

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