A few years ago, I wouldn't have dreamed of taking my boy to the movies. We first tried when he was about 4 or 5, and it was horrible. It was too dark, too loud, too crowded, too long, and too hard for him to handle. And I am still sorry he kicked that poor lady in front of us. Seriously. Sorry, lady.
Now, Ben LOVES going to the movies. We try to go to the first showing on a Sunday when it is less crowded, we sit at the back where he usually has a little space, we buy popcorn, and I bring a purse full of Tic Tacs, straws, and fidgets. Those preparations allow us to have a great time and enjoy the movie together, as well as give Ben practice with social situations. He looks forward to it and has a good time.
Because of this, and the fact that Finding Nemo is one of Ben's all-time favorites that we watch a bit of every single night so he can unwind and go to sleep, he was beyond excited for the sequel, Finding Dory. He knew exactly when it was coming out and was very patient when we couldn't go the first weekend it told me every day when we were going to see it. Overall, I liked the movie. But something has been weighing on me, and despite the fear that my concerns will be dismissed and criticized, I do have a concern regarding two minor characters: Gerald the sea lion and Becky the whatever she is. Bird? Duck? I'm not sure.
Dory herself has memory loss, and I completely identified with her parents' fears, worries, protective tendencies, attempts to teach her how to remember, and their eventual intervention of placing shells in a path to follow so she could find her way. I cried when she became upset and blamed herself for "leaving" her parents and causing them to worry and search for her. But what confuses me is that while the characters of Dory and her parents seem to speak to people with special needs and teach understanding, the treatment of Gerald and Becky mock them and portray the opposite.
Gerald and Becky have clear physical differences; Gerald has furry eyebrows and a distinct, pained smile, and Becky looks and acts frazzled and unfocused. Neither talk. Neither have a background or an explanation. Both are treated badly and openly mocked by the other sea lions. If you know kids with Autism, you know many have a certain "look" in their eyes. To me, it is the look of trying their damnedest to fit in and conform to social expectations without understanding, really, what and why those expectations are. Ben has that "look" from time to time. Gerald has it every time he is shown.
The other sea lions won't let Gerald sit on their rock. They use his need of acceptance and desire to sit on the rock with them to fulfill their needs, and then angrily shoo him off the rock again for no clear reason. They use him and mistreat him, just like bullies do to people with special needs. Becky has a bit of purpose and is helpful in the movie, but all Gerald does is retrieve his special green bucket (another reference to Autism, in my opinion), which is given to Becky and doesn't warrant him any better treatment. There is no voice for him. No one stands up for him or apologizes to him. No one makes it better or teaches that kind of treatment as wrong.
I do not claim to have any idea if this prevalent form of social bullying was intended in Finding Dory, but I do feel strongly that it was overlooked and must have been written by someone unfamiliar with the heartache of a parent of a child with Autism or other disability. One of my biggest fears-- and I have many-- is of Ben being bullied and taken advantage of because he is so vulnerable. The social world is very confusing to Ben and he does not understand or anticipate hidden agendas and ill treatment by others. If someone is mean to him, he thinks it is his fault.
If someone else is mean to my sweet boy, HE thinks it is HIS fault.
He doesn't fight for better treatment. He doesn't stand up for himself because he is afraid to get in trouble. Social cues are hard for him. He thinks that the other child must understand these cues better and that what they are doing or saying must be okay, and this makes him susceptible to a wide range of terrifying possibilities. Yes, I talk to him about it and arm him with words to say and a plan, but that doesn't make up for the fact that he has to identify bullying when it happens. This is why Autism parents are so fierce when it comes to their kids. This is why I will not tolerate any ill-treatment towards Ben or any ill talk of people around him. I do not want him to think it is acceptable behavior to treat someone badly or that it is okay to be treated in that way.
This is why I felt like I'd had the breath knocked out of me when I saw the way the sea lions treated Gerald. And, like Ben, I doubted myself and my feelings. However, the more I think about it and the more time that passes since I have seen the movie, the more upset I am. Society and the world we live in are already far too ugly without an entity as powerful as Disney Pixar mocking characters with differences in their successful, popular movies. I teach children. The things they say and do to each other are atrocious at times. I tell them and my son to "put good into the world" to cancel out the bad. I try to teach them to be better, but my influence is limited in contrast to what they learn from their parents, each other, and the influence of media.
I didn't anticipate the "bad" being taught to children in the form of an animated film that would be viewed by so many impressionable young children. I am not suggesting that you shouldn't see the film or boycott Disney or whatever, but please consider using it as a teachable moment for your children, regardless of their age. Please consider having a conversation about Gerald and the way he is treated. He does nothing wrong or hateful in the movie. All he wants is to sit on a rock with the others and feel like he belongs. Isn't that feeling what we all want and deserve?