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Why we do the things we do

Was Glee "Inappropriate" Last Night? Never Forget Context...

It's only inappropriate if you know what it means..

Almost Famous
Does Kate Hudson in Almost Famous Use Inappropriate Terms for an 11 Year Old?

I had the experience of being mistaken for a sardine recently on a very long flight.  This, I understand, is the nature of flying on a commercial airline "these days." In fact, if one more person tells me that flying "just isn't what it used to be," I will remind them of other earth shattering observations, such as the fact that the absence of sun-block without the proper SPF protection is fraught with risk.  Flying like a sardine for those of us sitting in coach is after all pretty much as typical as finding sand in the desert.

I suppose I am, luckily, a smallish sardine, so I wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as the assorted larger fish crammed onto the plane.  There were wheezing Tunas, rotund swordfish, and even creatures with so many appendages that they must have been more related to cephalopods (octopi, for example, or squid) than your typical aquatic beasts.

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Nonetheless, we were all treated like sardines, backed against one another, our greasy oils comingling in the confined and dry space of the airline cabin, and on this particular flight, I was seated, again lucky for me, next to my 11 year old daughter. Not only did I have more room as she happens to be an even a smaller sardine than me, but she is also a gifted and delightful conversationalist.  We chatted about life, about school, about zombies (yes, zombies come up often in our house given my avocation and are in fact part of the subject of this post, believe it or not) and then after a bit of a lull, the plane fighting like a tired ox against a westerly headwind, I pulled out my laptop from under the seat in front of me and thought she and I might enjoy one of my favorite movies - Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous.

"It's on my list of comfort movies," I explained to her.  "Like mashed potatoes, or chicken pot pie."

She was game, and the movie began.  For those of you who haven't enjoyed the film, it tells the semi-fictional account of a teenage boy who is hired to write first by the famous music critic Lester Bangs and then later by Rolling Stone magazine as he follows a mid-70's  rock band around the country.

Kate Hudson is stunning as one of the groupies, though her character adamantly disavows the term "groupie" and favors instead the more altruistic designation "band-aid."  At that point she explains to the wide eyed male teenage journalist that band-aids don't sleep with the musicians, they just do, um, other things. Things that are highly charged.  Things that were discussed as a matter of fact on Glee last night.  Things described by terms that I thought were perhaps inappropriate for my child to hear.

So, I slapped my hand to the space bar and froze the movie, my fingers moving rather like nervous nellies, and I therefore failed to display the calm demeanor that I always hoped would accompany the unexpected entrance of adult terminology into my child's life. 

My daughter looked at me and reassuringly smiled. 

"Smooth, dad," she mused.  Then she paused, perhaps sensing my growing discomfort and added one of those wonderfully wise statements that often emanate from the mouths of children

"You know, it's only inappropriate if I know what it means."

And she's right.

Hell, she knows what zombies are, for example, and she's seen all manner of things in the preparation of my first novel. Dissected sheep brains, gory drawings, even an anonymously mailed painting to me of Benjamin Franklin as a well preserved zombie.  But she knows, more importantly, that "inappropriate" doesn't just happen.  That which is inappropriate involves context and affect and attached emotional valence. 

C'mon.  I've written a zombie novel about the putative end of humanity and one man's desperate struggle to save it.  The protagonist even drops the "F bomb" a few times, which seems reasonable given that the world is now populated by the lurching undead, and my kid has seen a good deal of the manuscript.  So, do I want my daughter using the "F bomb?" Nope.  Do I want her knowing that particular sexual term that Kate Hudson used in Almost Famous?  Not yet.  But do I want her to appreciate that there is a time and place, both developmentally and in the context of a story for that which is shocking to add appropriate and powerful punch to any narrative.  Absolutely.

Life is all about stories, and what we make of these stories changes every time we tell them or hear them.  Inappropriate doesn't exist in a vacuum. Inappropriate deserves more respect than that.

 

 

 

 

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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