• Alice enters LazyTown

    Written by Dagny Kristjánsdóttir
    Paper, October 12, 2006

    Kimberley Reynolds, a leading British scholar in the field of children´s literature, says that people’s attitudes toward childhood can be grouped into four main categories. First, there is nostalgia for the traditional childhood; then a tendency to view children as victims; next, as the opposite, or devils; and finally, simply as a market phenomenon. The phenomenon of Latibær (LazyTown) unites all these views in a particularly intriguing way.

    The books

    The author of the children’s books about LazyTown is the aerobics champion Magnús Scheving. He wrote three books about LazyTown (1995-1997) in order to tell children that they should eat wholesome food and exercise more. 1

    In the first book, the Sports Elf (Íþróttaálfurinn) comes to LazyTown (Latibær), which is a mountain town or village where the children have become sick due to computer games, watching television, and lack of exercise; they are too fat, but malnourished and sick in soul and body. The Sports Elf shows them how much better and more enjoyable life can be with wholesome food, much exercise and games.

    The children in LazyTown are Solla the Stiff (Solla stírða), who cannot tie her shoes because she is too stiff to bend over; Goggi Mega, who is a TV and computer nerd; and Siggi the Sweet (Siggi sæti), who is addicted to sweets, obese and neurotic. Other children in the first book are Nenni the Stingy (Nenni níski), who is selfish and spoiled, and Maggi the Skinny (Maggi mjói), who is a picky eater and so weak from malnutrition that he can hardly stand. The children are one-dimensional stereotypes; they do not mature and do not learn anything – they simply take orders from the Sports Elf.

    The plot of the book is simple; there is no dual address and no subtext, and the style is very simple and flat. These are well-intended moral fables about the fact that wholesome food and exercise are good, but they are neither good children’s literature nor a developed pedagogical text. From a literary point of view, the books belong to the genre of cautionary tales, which emerged during the eighteenth century; the most popular such stories were the tales of Madame de Beaumont (1711-1780). The illustrations in the books underline their didactic message. The pictures are rough drawings; children are supposed to color the pictures and in them the elf’s instructions are pursued in pictorial form. The books became popular and sold well.

    The books were adapted for the stage, and the play Latibær (LazyTown) was produced in the winter of 1996. The 28-year-old Magnús Scheving played the role of the Sports Elf in a costume which resembled a wood elf or Robin Hood. The show was bursting with energy, movement, song and dance and enjoyed great popularity.

    The television program

    Magnús Scheving has described how the television program about LazyTown came about. He says that the original idea was to make a cartoon about LazyTown. This proved to be far too expensive for beginners in the business, so it was decided to make a series in which adult actors played opposite puppets. The programs are designed with the best available graphics and technology; no expense is spared. This is highly commendable, for in recent years producers of children’s television programs have cut everything that can be cut in order to make production cheaper: characters are simplified and their movements made primitive; the number of expressions is reduced and interaction between characters is made simpler and more mechanical. Surveys are constantly conducted in order to determine how far aesthetics and depth can be cut before children lose interest in the characters, and this has been taken as far as it can go, as Stephen Kline points out in the book Out of the Garden: Toys and Children’s Culture in the Age of TV Marketing (1993).

    In the first episode of the television adaptation of the LazyTown series “Áfram Latibær” (Go, Go LazyTown), Stephanie comes to a very bizarre town, as an Alice in Wonderland. Each episode in the series begins with a meeting with the Sports Elf, who has now been changed dramatically and is named Sportacus. He is no longer a character from Icelandic folklore, nor an old and wise elf: he has become a Superman who lives in a space ship, where he practices his aerobics, running and jumping, eats fruits and vegetables and makes sure that everything is going well in the world. This is the first but not the last of the references to children’s and young adult literature which form intertextual layers in the episodes. This kind of intertextuality is based on simple repetitions which make the plot and the characters seem familiar and recognizable, but it does not become dynamic in the sense of creating new meanings or revitalizing clichés. Each episode is built around conflicts between the hero Sportacus and his adversary, the evil Robbie Rotten. In the introductory sequence at the beginning of each episode, we first see Sportacus, then Robbie Rotten and finally Stephanie; they comprise a sort of troika (the good, the bad and the beautiful). Finally, the four children of LazyTown are introduced; they form a kind of collective character in the programs.

    The children are, in the television program as well, representatives of certain standard types, which are clearly defined. Solla is the leader, energetic, enterprising and cheerful, intelligent and brave. She is very European or American in appearance and supposed to be eight years old. The other children are played by puppets who represent different ethnic groups: Ziggy is white, somewhat reminiscent of Dennis the Menace, and six years old. Pixel is dark in color. He is nine years old. Stingy is, deliberately or inadvertently, endowed with stereotypical Jewish characteristics: black-haired, bignosed and dressed in a formal but tacky fashion. He is seven years old. Halla is cool and tough. She is supposed to be eight years old. The puppet has vaguely Asian features and thus the major ethnicities have been brought together, once we add the Mayor, Solla’s uncle, who has brown skin and could be of Indian or Pakistani descent, and Miss Símalína (Bessie), who is Latin American.

    In the television series, the emphasis has been shifted from the Sports Elf to Solla, the child who is the agent and the child who moves the plot along. This is sensible, because consumer surveys show that children want to see other children in active and creative roles. In contrast with the book, Solla is both beautiful and in excellent shape from the start. She is the leader of the children, which makes Sportacus’ role as savior less clear. The children struggle with their addictions to candy and computer games, thus coalescing the roles of children as victims and children as devils – bad and spoiled. Why are the children of LazyTown in such bad shape? What happened?

    Obviously, television, computer games and candy came and took over the will of the children, who are the victims of the consumer society; but who brought this on, and where are the children’s parents? They are absent, and all connection with reality is eliminated from LazyTown. LazyTown is not a television program for the whole family, but addresses children directly.

    There is one area in which the child as victim and the child as devil converge: that is when the child is made into a sexual object, and despite their good intentions the market specialists have imprinted this on LazyTown as well. Rose Mauriello, who plays Solla the Stiff, was born in 1991, and is thus fifteen years old. She plays a much younger role and is not altogether unconvincing as an eight-year-old girl. She has an obvious Shirley Temple manner and is “cute and coy” in her acting. “Stephanie is positive, curious, affable, and able to learn from her mistakes. She sees her life as a grand adventure. One where she can try new things, makes new friends, and sometimes hangs out with a hero!”

    The reworking of the original idea of Latibær, step by step, reflects a giant leap from didactic tales for children to entertainment which for the most part joins the chorus of voices which change children into passive consumers of entertainment and of the attendant, very profitable spin-off products. The great success of LazyTown is first and foremost an indication of the consumer society’s bad conscience toward its children.

    1 Áfram Latibær (Go, Go LazyTown!) appeared in 1995, Latibær á Ólympíuleikum (LazyTown at the Olympics) in 1996 and Latibær í vandræðum (LazyTown in Trouble) in 1997.
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