Under Childhood is a monthly column on children’s cinema—movies about and for kids.
Today the terrain of self-presentation is built upon digitally mediated hypervisibility. At any given moment, you are (or should) strive to be noticed and recognized, whether on your Instagram or your secret Instagram, on your Stan Twitter account or your YouTube channel. We could think of social media as a democracy that enables self-expression, but there is an artistic process through which the voices of the masses are altered. The most popular of these curated individual brands (or individuals as brands, or “online influencers”) present themselves to the public through video blogging. But considering the films of Sadie Benning (who herself was a teenager when she filmed herself in her bedroom, speaking into a small camera), Naomi Kawase, Jonas Mekas, and so on, vlogging is a continuation of a filmmaking tradition.
And just as a film festival or an art gallery screening a work by Mekas or Benning might profit from ticket sales and marketing campaigns, the vlog is entangled in the embrace of art and economy. Within these online spaces, the link between the young artist—if not just a filmmaker, the young vlogger is also a makeup artist, skincare aficionado, aspiring musician, or other hobbyist—and their anonymous audience is much more intimately felt because engagement is immediately calculated and often monetized. The appeal of the medium (technically speaking, a camera placed in front of a speaking person) is its promise of something real. Among American children, YouTube stars are more popular than Hollywood stars, with teens admiring their more “candid” disposition and “lack of filter,” despite the hefty endorsement deals that sponsor these videos.
It is not that the vlog corrodes the child’s true self with multiple online personas, or that the artificiality of the form prevents children from being authentic. The self is already a constructed being that contains multiplicities. But as a commodity, the vlog functions as a prop in the performance of authenticity for authenticity’s sake. The recent public spat between “YouTubers” Tati Westbrook, James Charles, and Jeffree Star, for example, consisted of all parties posting screenshots and videos of one another’s private encounters, each attempting to beat the others by the sheer amount of raw honesty they can offer. And when “being real” is the only end goal, self-love becomes a shallow act of accepting this “real” self as it is in the present moment—this is just who I am and how I feel, deal with it—rather than as an instrument for moving forward. What is obscured is self-efficacy, defined by psychologist Albert Bandura as one’s belief in “their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance” established as goals, whether as specific tasks or behavioral shifts. In and of itself, self-love facilitates self-evaluation without requiring any commitment to change. Self-efficacy, however, pairs self-evaluation with a consideration of external structures and events as they continue into the future. By looking beyond yourself, you learn to love not only who you are today, but also who you can and will become tomorrow.
A short clip precedes Kelly Asbury’s UglyDolls in which musician Pitbull (who voices a dog named Ugly Dog in the film) praises the film’s ambition to reassure children that life is more than just “likes” and “followers.” He mentions that to do so, UglyDolls has redefined the term “ugly” as an affirming acronym: U Gotta Love Yourself. The four-word phrase implies a rewriting of vocabulary, but the execution of the sentiment in the film is riddled with compromises that aim to please and not to challenge viewers (frequently, in children’s cinema, the two are considered mutually exclusive by an underestimation of young people’s intelligence) by disrupting any preconceptions.
UglyDolls begins in Uglyville, where all defective plush dolls are discarded—literally thrown out of a pipe—by a Draconian toy factory (its owners are unknown). The inhabitants refer to themselves as Ugly Dolls, but do not know of the pejorative origins of their namesake. One of these chipper critters, Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), believes that one day she will find her place in a child’s home, unaware that she has already been deemed a botched product. What could be an opportune segue to introduce the meaninglessness of beauty standards and the possibility of a self-love unchained to the physical body is disrupted by the contradictory conclusion that actually, being ugly is okay, and that the title should be a source of pride. The lesson of UglyDolls is not that these rules of beauty are false, or even that true beauty can be found elsewhere—in the mind, for instance. Moxy and her friends leave Uglyville in search of a better life, but their path leads the group to the Institute of Perfection, a training center where dolls prepare to be purchased by children. As implied in the film’s opening sequence, which depicts multiple assembly lines where dolls are either packaged or sent to the furnace, the “perfect” dolls of the Institute are who the “ugly” dolls could and should have been if not for machine error.
Though they are taunted and mocked by their pretty counterparts, the Ugly Dolls work hard to prove that a child can still love an ugly doll. They, of course, win; their victory is predictable only because every toy, whether “pretty” or “ugly,” is still a product of the same factory. The toys of Uglyville together declare their “flaws”—glasses, freckles, blemishes, nothing that a child should be taught is innately wrong—make them special. But to agree with the factory that deemed them defective is already an act of compromise. The other option would be to develop an alternate standard of identification altogether; instead, the Ugly Dolls hold to being ugly until the very end, when the dolls all make peace and rename their unified state “Imperfection” (a diluted synonym for “ugly”). But again, does naming a group after the very word used to classify their lower status do anything to re-write the glossary? Oddly enough, the suggestion that the toys must toil in a gymnasium to earn the love of their human overlords is also never questioned. Though the toys are agents tasked with discovering their innate value as thinking beings, their journey is weighed down by the over-emphasized authority figures that they are eager to impress. They have the agency to choose to compete to be the best toy a child has ever had, but not enough to exit the factory.
If Asbury’s intention was self-critique, then the film overwhelmingly succeeds; it paints with broad strokes a method of shaming (very young) victims into owning the falsehoods waged against them and names this procedure self-love. To compare, in Guy Ritchie’s remake of the 1992 film Aladdin, which retains a majority of the original film’s music and dialogue, Aladdin (Mena Massoud) sings that even if soldiers and guards were to see his poverty and call him a “street rat,” he cannot buy into their lies: “If only they’d look closer / Would they see a poor boy? / […] They’d find out / There’s so much more to me.” The ambiguity of the “so much more” is not a mystical acceptance of the unknown (whoever I really am, who is to say?) but a guarantee that a new knowledge exists outside of the lexicon of an imposed language, that you could love yourself as a being beyond what you are known as now.