Batlash

Batlash

Am I the only person who was totally creeped out by the Batkid event in San Francisco on Friday? On the surface it was a good thing: kid plays a game, world briefly remembers what it’s like to feel emotions, The End. But if you look any deeper, it was profoundly unsettling.

First, no one seemed to care that the event was one giant commercial. The Batman oeuvre is owned by Time Warner. To the extent that Time Warner endorsed the Batkid event, it was a marketing ploy. To the extent that they didn’t, it was even more icky—did a whole city just volunteer to promote a corporate product? We might as well have been celebrating one adorable little boy’s overwhelming love of Pine-Sol.

Who’s to say that five-year-old Miles Scott is the best judge of what will make him happy, anyway? We had virtually unlimited resources at our disposal. We could have arranged for Miles to swim with dolphins, or fly an airplane, or bounce on an endless field of trampolines in the midday sun, stopping to meet his friends and guzzle ice cream along the way. Instead we let a colossal operation be guided by the limited imagination of a kid who isn’t even capable of making an informed decision about what to eat for dinner. As a result, we used this magnificent opportunity to draw the world’s attention on a multi-billion dollar commercial franchise instead of, say, the joys of exploring and preserving our planet.

We should be skeptical of any movement that silences its critics, and the approving mob that followed this story (via absurdly glowing reports like “20 Batkid Instagram Photos That Will Make You Whole Again”) carried pitchforks as well as smiley faces. One San Francisco official was forced to publicly apologize after wondering how many foodstamps the Batkid event would have paid for. Attacking him in a piece called “Supervisor Eric Mar Tries to Ruin Batkid Merriment for Everyone,” SFist.com thoughtfully declared, “Like, we get it, Eric. But come on, man. Such a buzzkill.”

That’s the real lesson of Batkid—that we feel entitled to vicariously enjoy one little boy’s corporate-sponsored fantasy about doing good deeds, and we will punish anyone who harshes our vibe by mentioning a real civic problem. Make a wish, indeed. Just like the tightly scripted caper that Batkid went on, this whole spectacle was about indulging the fantasy of being a do-gooder, and making it a crime to talk about what “doing good” really means.

– Brian Hurley

9 Comments

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9 Responses to Batlash

  1. I think one problem is viewing charity as a zero-sum game. Sure, the cost of the Batkid event could have paid for foodstamps, or another good cause. But would people have donated to those causes instead of the Batkid event, if that event never existed? Would people donate to both causes? There is always going to be a more “worthy” cause; why donate money to Make A Wish when the people of the Philippines have a more urgent need? That kind of thinking inevitably leads to “… Fuck it, I’m not donating to anyone.” I’d rather encourage charitable behavior, even with a less “worthy” cause, in the hopes that it will make future giving more likely.

  2. Good point! I think that’s exactly the kind of thoughtful response Eric Mar should have gotten.

  3. John Bapst

    Time Warner had nothing to do with the wish, this was all Make-A-Wish. And the mission of Make-A-Wish is to grant the wish of a child with a life-threatening medical condition to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy. The first wish kid wished to be a police officer and had a similar experience on a smaller scale. Some wish to go to Disney, some wish to have a computer or shopping spree, some even wish to give their wish away, like a boy did to a local food pantry (knowing his time was limited and he wanted to do something that left a lasting legacy). I think to judge someone’s wish or to say a child can’t decide what will make him happy is ridiculous! That is the entire mission of this wonderful organization and the fact that thousands of people were following, involved, and impacted by this wish, just shows the power of it. Maybe we can all suspend our cynicism for a day and enjoy the fact that this wish (and the wishes granted every day on a less public scale) make these kids going through a terribly time have some happiness.

  4. I’m a little unclear what was disturbing—that the kid’s wish involved a character owned by a corporation? Can we expect a kid or the people tasked with making him happy for a day to concern themselves with vague, highly disputed cultural issues, the effects of which can be estimated at almost nil but which the child won’t live to see regardless? Let the kid have one day. Whatever the cost, I’m sure the culture can absorb it. Besides, the underlying problem is neither the kid’s nor the Make-a-Wish Foundation’s fault. It’s Sonny Bono’s: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_Term_Extension_Act

  5. Matt, it’s not the kid’s wish that I find disturbing, but the huge crowd, the Internet going gaga, and the special bureaucratic considerations (streets closed off, the mayor and police chief donating their time, Obama delivering a Vine message) all in promotion of a corporately-owned character.

    When was the last time you got exactly what you wanted? And when was the last time something totally unexpected and awesome happened to you? For me the latter usually ends up being more exciting and fulfilling. That’s why I question the logic of building this one transcendent day around what the kid has already asked for. I would think that Make-a-Wish, with all its imagination and money and adult know-how, could arrange something that surpasses the kid’s wildest dreams, rather than simply meeting them.

    If the goal of Make-a-Wish is to make us, the spectators, feel happy, then I guess it makes sense to give the kid exactly what he wants, because we all love to feel like we have provided for a child’s happiness. But if the goal is to blow this kid’s mind, then I think it can be blown bigger.

    Giving the kid exactly what he wants has a morbid aspect, too. Since the child is never going to grow up (many Make-a-Wish kids don’t have much longer to live, although I realize that’s not exactly the case with Miles Scott) we commemorate the end of his life with something childish (pretending to be a superhero). I’m not criticizing that, just saying that for us spectators, the happiness of this moment is inseparable from a funereal sadness. If I were designing these events (and thank God I’m not) I would want the kid to emerge into some kind of new experience on his last days, rather than doubling back into his tragically foreshortened childhood.

  6. Nancy

    You should research your writing. Wish kids have life-threatening medical conditions, not terminal. Sure, some don’t make it. But most do. You have no basis in reality and should really research what you write about.

  7. Thank you, Nancy, for making the distinction. I guess you’re referring to my remark that “many Make-a-Wish kids don’t have much longer to live,” and you’re right, that needs clarification. But wow, do I really have no basis in reality? That’s kind of a mind-blower.

  8. I get your point, Brian, but it seems to me that your beef is with the SF city government for taking part in the event. Obviously, cherry-picking projects that evoke pathos at the expense of projects that could positively affect more people isn’t one of the hallmarks of good governance, but a charity is not a government.

    That said, I’m not sure what sort of new experience you have in mind, but I’m also not sure that this is a situation in which imposing an experience is warranted. Having unwanted events (pleasant or unpleasant) imposed on them by adults is the everyday experience of children everywhere, which to me just underscores how the Make-a-Wish projects are acts of grace. Those projects are supposed to be reprieves from the everyday.

    Unexpected and awesome events are very rare indeed, but how can you know what a child will enjoy? Moreover, how do we even know that that’s what would give any particular child the most enjoyment?

  9. You’re right, Matt, I see this a question of how we (the big “we”) spend our resources and promote certain values, not a question of whether a charity succeeded. Partly that’s because I’m a taxpaying citizen of San Francisco, so it was literally my government — my mayor, my police force, my streets — that was donated to this event. And partly that’s because Batkid became more than a charity event. It was an Internet sensation.

    I don’t know if human beings have free will, but I’m pretty sure 5-year-olds have less free will than most. Given the pervasive popularity of Batman as a commercial franchise (worldwide The Dark Knight Rises grossed over $1 billion) and the deterministic role of parents in choosing what their kids consume (nobody is born with an innate desire to throw a batarang) I’d say Miles’s choice to play Batman for a day was very much imposed on him.

    Honestly, would anyone be celebrating this spectacle if Miles was in love with Pine-Sol instead of Batman? If his “wish” was something bizarre or distasteful, instead of an opportunity for all of us to watch a live-action version of a hugely successful movie franchise?

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