Kids Riding Bicycles: Steven Spielberg and the Empowerment of Children

First published on my Medium page, this article takes an in-depth look at how Steven Spielberg empowers children in his films. I love writing these analytical essays and hope you enjoy it too. (Yes, the name of the essay is the same as the website. What of it? SYNERGY!)

In Sweden in 1982, a seemingly unassuming movie raised the ire of the country’s censors. The film had been released widely elsewhere and found huge success, but Sweden believed its content to be so incendiary that it placed an 11 rating upon it, meaning nobody under that age could watch. The decision proved controversial and provoked protests; not from adults, but children, who took to the streets with placards reading “Away with the 11-year-limit” and “Children’s films are made for children.” The film in question wasn’t Blade Runner or John Carpenter’s The Thing, but Steven Spielberg’s heartwarming E.T., and the Swedish censors’ rationale for keeping it away from youngsters was that it portrayed adults as their enemies.

There’s something faintly ludicrous about this story and it’s gone on to become an urban legend (the legend, of course, making it seem like E.T. was outright banned rather than just restricted). It does, however, highlight something often overlooked about Spielberg’s films: they’re not all sweetness and light. Spielberg’s family-friendly reputation (perpetuated, in part, by E.T.) has glossed over the darker elements of his career, which recur in everything from the bloody horror of Jaws to the saccharine sentimentality of Hook. It’s meant that we tend remember the majesty of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but overlook just how violent and disturbing the T-Rex’s attack on Tim and Lex is. Such tonal complexity doesn’t sit well with culture’s desire to provide simplistic readings of the films we consume.

The narrative has persisted though and it informs the way critics explore Spielberg’s treatment of children. One of only a handful of great directors to tackle the childhood experience in significant depth, Spielberg has nonetheless been criticised for ignoring the more troubling side of growing up in favour of a sentimental portrait of innocence and wonder. “It can prove challenging to throw one’s hat in the arena of Spielbergian delights without feeling a twinge of cinephilic guilt,” Eric Kohn wrote for IndieWire in 2011. “His movies not only frequently center around children but inhabit their perspective, tapping into a juvenile sense of imagination that explains the profound impact his work tends to have on younger viewers.”

Going further, some critics have suggested Spielberg’s focus on children corrodes the audience, giving us a view of the world that’s more comforting than the complex reality we need to live in. Spielberg is guilty of “infantilizing the audience,” writes Peter Biskind in his book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ and “reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection.” Focusing specifically on E.T., Ilsa J Blick adds: “Instead of simply invoking the memories and associations of childhood, Spielberg consistently aims to infantalise the viewer. Thus, if the viewer is not looking through the eyes of Elliot or ET, he/she is looking at Elliot or ET looking up, just as children look to their parents or wonder at the stars.”

Ingrid E. Castro is kinder in her assessment, accepting that in his earlier films, Spielberg’s depiction of childhood was richer and more empowering. However, she also notes in her essay ‘Children, Innocence, and Agency in the Films of Steven Spielberg’ (which is available in the compendium ‘Children in the Films of Steven Spielberg’) that as he’s got older his films have begun to portray children as more innocent and in need of protection. This, she argues, has robbed them of their sense of empowerment. “In Spielberg’s films,” she writes, “the preservation of children’s innocence, a characteristic which is integral to adult redemption and character development/affirmation, transforms childhood into a “protectionist experience” for adults.”

Spielberg undoubtedly sees childhood as a magical state worthy of protection; it’s why Elliott in E.T. and Barry Guiler in Close Encounters of the Third Kind are open to the transcendental alien visitations those films depict. But it’s a magic that needs to be fought for and earned. Elliott is chased by the FBI and has to suffer through the apparent death of his new friend, while Barry undergoes a traumatic kidnapping after opening the door to the aliens. Even in Hook, one of Spielberg’s most maligned and apparently sentimental films, Peter Banning’s children are told the ultimate nightmare by Captain Hook. “Before you were born your parents would stay up all night together just to see the sun rise,” he insists. “Before you were born, they were happier. They were free.” Judging by Banning’s actions during the film, such a damning assessment might just be right.

Even as he’s got older and associated less with the child and more with the adult, Spielberg’s tenacious kids remain. In The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm’s daughter Kelly gleefully battles Raptors using her talents in gymnastics. In A.I., David refuses to give up in pursuit of the Blue Fairy despite the odds being against him. In The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, the eponymous boy reporter is steadfast in his pursuit of the story. And in The BFG, Sophie refuses to be intimidated by the mean giants who make her friend’s life a misery. Spielberg’s children are all fighters and they have to be considering the odds against them. “I would not want to be a child in a Spielberg film,” James Kendrick, author of Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg, has noted. “They are constantly being abducted, enslaved and traumatized.”

Where does this come from? Like a lot of Spielberg’s cinema, it’s partly autobiographical. Spielberg was an anxious child who found fear everywhere and he’s hung on to that as he’s got older. “I use my childhood in all my pictures, and all the time,” he’s said. “I go back there to find ideas and stories. My childhood was the most fruitful part of my entire life. All those horrible, traumatic years I spent as a kid became what I do for a living today, or what I draw from creatively today.” Horrible? Traumatic? Surely not saccharine sweet Spielberg? But it’s true. “I was terrified by the tree. It was a huge tree,” Spielberg’s explained of a tree outside the window of his childhood bedroom (which almost certainly inspired the one that snatches Robbie in Poltergeist). “Every single night my imagination would find something else to fear. There was just something about bigness that scared me when I was a kid.

Indeed, such ‘bigness’ recurs in many of Spielberg’s most significant films. The truck in Duel, the shark in Jaws, the Mothership in Close Encounters, the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, the Tripods in War of the Worlds and the mean giants in The BFG are obvious examples, but others can be seen elsewhere, particularly in geographic locations. The wood the alien ship lands in E.T. is vast and intimidating, the temple in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is an endless labyrinth of hellish pits and broken tunnels, the sunken New York of A.I. is a vast and desolate ocean, the forests of Always are infernos that humble and challenge the characters, and the airport in The Terminal seems to engulf Viktor and make connection with others impossible. Bigness lurks over everyone and that bigness is always a source of awe and wonder, fear and danger. It’s the thing that Spielberg’s characters have to counter, and it’s even more significant for his child characters, whose smallness it’s sharply juxtaposed with.

Adults are undoubtedly one example of the “bigness” that Spielberg feared and to understand his depiction of childhood, it’s important to understand how he portrays adulthood. Though his attitude to his adult characters has softened over the years (think of the kind father figures played by Tom Hanks in Catch Me If You Can and Bridge of Spies, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Mark Rylance in The BFG) he’s remained consistent in portraying adult characters with deep flaws and vulnerabilities. Spielbergian adults are weak (Martin Brody, David Mann), wild (Lou-Jean Poplin), morally dubious (Oskar Schindler, Keys), cowardly (Alan Grant), irresponsible (Roy Neary, Pete Sandich), ineffective (Jim Graham’s father), mercenary (Basie), destructive (John Anderton, Ray Ferrier) or selfish (Peter Banning). They’re rarely evil, but they do prove those Swedish censors right: they’re the enemies of children and throw down obstacles our youthful heroes must counter to get what they seek.

The subversion of social norms is how Spielberg’s children fight these monstrous adults. Think, for example, of Elliott breaking the formality of the dinner table by screaming obscenities (“penis breath!”) at his brother and friends in E.T, or Short Round showing disrespect for Indy by cheating in their card game during Temple of Doom. These are childish moments, and intentionally so. Spielberg isn’t interested in patronising his child characters by talking down to them, or elevating them to the point that they’re little more than miniature adults. That’d undermine the point. Instead he wants his child characters to revel in their childhood — their immaturity, their low status in society — and to show how those things make them more mature than the so-called mature grown-ups around them. When Sophie proudly describes herself as “an untrustworthy child” in The BFG, it’s a rallying cry for all Spielberg’s children. Being dismissed in such terms is a badge of honour.

Objects play a key role in this rebellion as well. Sometimes it’s just for mischief: the children in Jaws, for example, raise a false alarm on Amity’s beaches when they use a fake fin to convince beach-goers that a shark is lurking by the shore. At others, it’s more serious. In A.I., David’s toy Teddy helps guide him on his path to the Blue Fairy, offering the sort of comfort and acceptance he lacks from his parents. Meanwhile in Schindler’s List, The Girl in the Red Coat’s jacket helps her stand out in the chaos of the Holocaust and force Oskar Schindler into action. These are all childish items: toys or objects so small only a kid could own them. But Spielberg weaponises them by using them as tools of transformation and imagination. This is most apparent in Hook, where Peter Banning taps into his childhood by imagining an empty table is filled with colourful food that he and the Lost Boys use in a food fight. Another moment where the adult and childhood worlds clash. Another moment where social norms are undone by childish immaturity.

It’s telling that Spielberg owns two key objects himself. In 1982, after the success of E.T., he won the Rosebud sled from Citizen Kane at auction, while in his Amblin office at Universal, he’s hung Norman Rockwell’s famous ‘Boy on a High Dive’, which pictures a small child peering over the edge of a tall diving board with fear and excitement etched across his face. For Spielberg, these objects are sources of inspiration and in that way they’re similar to props in a film (literally in the case of the Rosebud sled): items that encourage him in his endeavours. He sees the objects he gives to his children in a similar way. They’re playthings designed to ignite the imagination, totems that are to be used to inspire a wider narrative that’s deeply childish in nature. After all, what else is the sight of E.T. and Elliott flying across the face of the moon on their bike but an updated version of the nursery rhymes of old. Just like the cow, the alien and his human friend jumped over the moon.

It’s another autobiographical trait of Spielberg’s film-making that connects him back to his own youth. A prankster always looking for attention, young Spielberg would use practical jokes (a form of comedic storytelling) and associated props to win power. In one incident, he applied tomato ketchup to his face to convince people he’d been brutally beaten in a fight with another child, while during another he concocted a terrible blend of foods to act as fake vomit that he dispatched at a cinema in an incident that would be immortalised through Chunk in The Goonies. Not even his family could escape his inventive wrath. At home, he once used a fishbowl to recreate a character from a science fiction film his sisters found scary, and later cut the head off a doll and presented it to his sister Anne on a silver platter surrounded by a bed of lettuce. A lone boy among three sisters who struggled to fit in at school, Spielberg found strength his ability to use imagination to reclaim strength.

Most significantly, this also stretched to his interest in film. A bully had been tormenting the young Spielberg for months, but when putting together his latest amateur effort, the budding director saw a chance to win the boy over. Noticing that he bore a striking resemblance to Clint Eastwood, Spielberg asked him to join the cast of a war movie he was making, and suddenly their dynamic changed.

“Even when he was in one of my movies I was afraid of him. But I was able to bring him over to a place where I felt safer: in front of my camera. I didn’t use words. I used a camera, and I discovered what a tool and a weapon, what an instrument of self-inspection and self- expression it is…I had learned that film was power.”

Now he’s older, Spielberg recognises the need to pass the gift of storytelling on to this generation of kids. Speaking to Tom Shone during promotion for The BFG, he discussed the stories he tells his grandchildren and how he aims to empower them:

“They’re all stories of empowerment, and being magical or able to read your mom and dad’s mind, or your best friend being a Tyrannosaurus Rex that only you know about and he lives in your backyard. Only one time, you got on his back and he took you to school, and he scared all the kids, but when you brought him in for show-and-tell, they realised that he was a nice T-Rex. They all sat around and listened to his stories. It’s all about making kids feel like they can do anything. That nothing’s impossible.”

By granting his young characters objects and a language that only they can understand, Spielberg imbues them with power. It’s a power that means they’re able to craft their own lives and forge their own identities: ultimately taking back control of who they are. So those Swedish censors back in 1982 only understood half of the equation. Yes, adults are an enemy, but what makes Spielberg’s films truly inspiring and truly empowering is that his children, and by extension the children watching, are quite capable of taking them on. They’re untrustworthy children, one and all, and they’re not scared.

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