Bill Moyers Essay: The Nutcracker and the Loss of Childhood

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Bill Moyers reflects on The Nutcracker’s power of enchantment, and laments society’s blurring of the lines between childhood and adulthood.


BOB SCHIEFFER: Our “Spotlight” this morning is going to focus close to home, on children, all our children. This holiday season, Bill Moyers has been doing some serious thinking about the world they’re growing up in, the world we are making for them.

BILL MOYERS: There will be time in the New Year to return to that confusion of events we journalists call news. Right now, while still under the spell of the season, I’d like to indulge in a little nonsense-this kind of nonsense.

(Scene from the Pacific Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker)

I was a grown man when first I saw The Nutcracker 20 years ago. I still remember that my heart waltzed with delight that afternoon, and that part of me also sighed a lament that I had come so late to its fancy. I saw it the other night for the umpteenth time, my emotions now a veteran of every pirouette, and as I watched I wished for the power to make all little boys and girls the gift of a front-row seat at a live performance. In a world where little is left to enchantment, The Nutcracker is the surest flame I know to light the candle of a child’s imagination. What other sanctuary offers such safety to childhood?

This is no idle question. In a book titled The Disappearance of Childhood, Professor Neil Postman suggests that our culture is forcing children back to their role in medieval times when they were no more than miniature adults. Nowadays, says Neil Postman, everywhere we look the behavior, language, desires, even the physical appearance of adults and children are becoming increasingly indistinguishable.

I know what he means. When I was growing up we used to play baseball or football for fun, not for adults. Coaches didn’t berate a youngster for making the same error twice; there were no coaches. There weren’t any parents on the sidelines either, arguing over a referee’s call. We kids were our own referees, and parents weren’t around to interfere. We didn’t think big league scouts were looking us over or that our sandlot was the road to the Super Bowl or World Series. We were just having a good time on kids’ terms. But have you been to a Little League game lately or the Pee Wee Football League? You’d realize that Neil Postman is right. Children’s play has become an adult preoccupation. It’s professionalized.

And what about those children in commercials on television or ads in magazines? They’re miniature adults, too; worldly wise, more cynical than curious. “Let’s pretend” used to be fun and games. Now it’s pressed into the service of an economy run by adults who consider every kid a potential Willy Loman or Christie Brinkley.

Remember when Brooke Shields’ mother allowed nude photographs to be taken of her daughter, who was then only 10 years old? She was doing more than merchandising a little girl’s body. She was putting the very idea of her childhood on the market. I suppose that’s the smart thing to do in a society where corporations hire 12 and 13-year-old girls to pose as erotic objects in advertising, but we shouldn’t be surprised that in the shadows thrives a pornographic industry turning hundreds of millions of dollars in profit using children to satisfy the sexual desires of adults.

Psychologists are still considering the effects of this blurring of the line between the child’s world of fancy and the all too literal world of grownups. I personally wonder what it’s doing to the capacity for make believe. Modern media leave children nothing to imagine. Ready or not, they see everything there is to see. No secrets are left to be revealed; no mystery, no awe, no authority of experience. We offer the world to children before they understand self-restraint or have a clear conception of right and wrong or learn to feel good about themselves.

(Scene from the ballet The Nutcracker)

Once fairy tales conditioned kids, gradually, for what life had to offer. The stories might strike terror in the heart but always for a purpose. There is child’s terror in The Nutcracker, but it’s a far cry from the horror films of Hollywood or television’s prime-time violence or the aggression of rock video. The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim says that fairy tales are important because they reveal the existence of evil in a form that permits children to integrate it without trauma. Children know that conflict exists, that death hovers nearby, that life’s a tough act and evil’s for real, but they also learn that good is worth fighting for.

(Scene from the ballet; the battle of The Mouse King and of The Nutcracker)

Fairy tales, you see, are fictions that don’t lie about the human condition. They look deeply into the human heart and acknowledge that fear and madness dwell there, but also hope and possibility. Hope and possibility are the stuff that children are made off. I know, I know; journalists are supposed to deal in fact, not sentiment, but the inner life is a fact and wiser men than I have said that the suppression of it, the intimidation of this life within, is responsible for so much of today’s waste and mindless cruelty. Hope turned sour in a child becomes rage in the adult.

Nonsense? Of course, it’s nonsense. Flowers that waltz and menacing Mouse Kings. A Sugar Plum Fairy in the Kingdom of Sweets and gallant young hearts possessed of the will to live and love. This nonsense we have need of. These scenes were first performed in this country 45 years ago and The Nuctracker’s success at the height of the Second World War prompted one critic to ask, “What is its nonsense plot really about and how does it create its spell?” The answer is one of the few secrets left to kids and we’re not about to tell.

This transcript was entered on June 16, 2015.

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