On Irony and Honey Boo Boo

One of the many reasons that I love Vermont (or l lovermont) is that billboards are prohibited. You may not have even realized this, but if you live near any type of thruway or freeway that includes billboards you know why this is such a luxury. Last weekend we drove the kids in to the city. I hadn’t been on the West Side Highway in a while and was taken aback by how large and close the billboards are along that one particular stretch. In particular, I was confronted with the face of Honey Boo Boo – that poor child whose character and identity has been exploited by the all of the adults in her life for their own financial gains. It’s sad, really. While there are many child actors and children often featured in reality shows, none seem so obviously created and marketed around the idea of mocking a person’s childhood – on which she has absolutely no control. Even if she says she likes it and continues to reap the rewards from it (which is highly doubtful) it seems horrific to me that adults would allow it go on, and even more frightening that our culture condones it. Enough about that, but if any of what I’m saying interests you, I highly recommend George Saunders’s collectioin of stories Tenth of December.

My real point in thinking about Honey Boo Boo and her gargantuan billboard is that I have two small children who saw it too. Neither of them noticed it or said anything but I started to wonder – how would I answer if one of them asked, who is that? They giggle at the Geico ad whenever we pass it, so they are definitely paying attention.  Would I simply say: “She’s a little Southern girl who stars in a t.v. show?” Like Kiki or Marina, they’d think. At five and three, they’re obviously too young to engage in a conversation about what’s wrong about that image, but it’s coming and when it does, I want to be ready for it. This had me thinking about satire, sarcasm and irony and wondering when they begin to understand all that. I actually have a distinct memory of reading The Gift of the Magi in probably sixth grade, and beginning to understand the idea of (dramatic) irony. I knew more than the characters did. I knew their fates and that they would each get the opposite of what they expected.

Good night

My daughter’s current favorite story to read is Good Night, Little Bear from our Little Golden Book Collection of Sleepytime Tales. The story is about Father Bear who wants to put Little Bear to sleep. When it’s time for Little Bear to crawl in to bed, instead he hops on to his father’s shoulders. Without missing a beat, the father begins to “search” for his son. “Mother,” he asks, “have you seen Little Bear?” “No,” she answers with a wink. He continues to search for Little Bear in each room of the house, always making a big show about it. When he finally looks in a mirror and “sees” that Little Bear is on his shoulders, everyone laughs. At the end of the story when I asked my daughter if she thought that Father Bear knew where Little Bear was the whole time, she answered, “No! He had no idea. That’s why it’s so funny!” This made me Google: “When do kids understand irony?” because I was a little worried at first, but Google assured me that it’s around age 6, so I have about sixth months to go:) (it can be as young as three and as old as the pre-teen years, for those who may be interested). When I read it to her again last night, I tried to emphasize where the author was trying to give us clues, and again asked her if she thought he knew the whole time and she answered emphatically no. So we’re not there yet, and that’s okay. I don’t want her growing up too fast, of course.

art

Over in my son’s room, I realized that irony is also beginning to slowly announce itself. Right now his go-to-book is Patrick McDonnell’s Art. This book is really more about imagination than ironic language, however towards the end, the narration does veer towards hyperbole as when the main character named Art draws “a billion bright stars” and when he “draws and draws till he flops in a heap.” This is definitely the type of language young children are most familiar with – as they love to exaggerate and as we tend to do it too “I can’t even see your floor there are so many toys up there.” But it occurred to me as I was reading this one to him last night that this is where ironic language begins for them. No, it’s not the opposite of what they expect, but it’s also not the truth and this is where they begin to understand that language can be complicated and that everything is not so straightforward. That a billboard of a little chubby girl with her arms akimbo is not meant to just encourage us to tune in and watch her “sassy” ways. No it’s not meant just for that at all…

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