So, I remember being pretty aware of problematic elements in older media when I was a kid (indeed, it was problematic elements in more current media I picked up on less), and I think there were three big things:
- Being taught to think critically at a pretty early age. I’m not even sure how intentional this was, but my parents (possibly and school, but I think mainly parents) taught me not to take things at first value, to understand that the past was different, often in a bad way, and not a halcyon time when things were better, and that racism, sexism, and homophobia were actually things.
A lot of parents fear this sort of thing will “damage” their kids or “rob them of their innocence”, but it’s nonsense, because firstly kids aren’t that innocent, and secondly, delaying the development of critical thinking, and delaying the awareness of social issues and problematic issues, is just setting yourself up for a worse problem later on, where some poor twelve-year-old or whatever suddenly realizes this movie they loved is actually grotesquely racist (I’ve seen it happen) and has a meltdown and the full stages-of-grief experience.
And this should include awareness of propaganda, especially if you’re going to have them watch any old war movies.
- If my parents were themselves aware of problematic elements in something, they told me about them. Not at some great, lecturing length, but just like “The dog in this movie has an extremely racist name, that you should never say, it was because people back then were a bit thick on that kind of thing” (a lot of British people will know what movie I mean, I suspect), or that “James Bond is a sexist scumbag, so don’t idolize him too much”. Give them some context.
It’s also worth carefully considering what elements are worth highlighting. Primarily ones that might encourage bad behaviours or stereotypes are the bad ones. General critical thinking should get a lot of the rest. And try to give them appropriate weight - I think this requires some consideration. With Peter Pan, for example, the issues with Tinkerbell being sexualized and wasp-waisted are not issues of the past - these are present issues, so they’ll likely already be aware of them. If the kids are too young to be aware of them otherwise, they’re probably too young to understand them if you explain them for the movie. Also, they’re not issues that will cause problems like the wildly racist portrayal of Native Americans will.
It can help to watch them with them, too, to point out stuff which is a bit off, and also stops there being like a “pre-show lecture”.
- Don’t just show them piles of problematic movies. If all the older movies you choose to show them have significant problematic elements, or problematic perspectives, then despite your warnings and so on, you’re sort of setting up a situation where you normalize that stuff. If you’re going with John Wayne, for example, most of his movies contain some deeply problematic stuff, but The Searchers, is not only probably the greatest movie Wayne was ever in, and incredible movie period (and the cinematography and so on should likely entrance people even today, esp. if there’s an HD print available), but it’s a lot more complex and nuanced, and doesn’t treat the Native Americans like subhumans or orcs or whatever. And you don’t need to see a whole pile of John Wayne movies to appreciate him at his best.
Also consider movies which were actively progressive, even accidentally so. The Carry On movies are dreadful and I don’t suggest showing them to anyone, but the quiet portrayal of homosexuality as just a kind of sexuality that goes on in a number of them, with positive or neutral characters, really helped undermine the phobia element of homophobia for like an entire generation of Brits (not the one that watched them as adults, so much).
Or if you’re showing them Westerns, consider movies which highlight the fact that this was basically an on-going genocide/invasion. To be honest, thinking of Westerns specifically, I generally found ones which weren’t a bit more complex to be incredibly boring. So maybe just stick to the greats.
- Don’t expect too much from kids below about 8-10, because they have no taste and limited capacity for critical thinking, however cleverly they attempt to “lawyer” you about house rules and the like.
Like re: The Searchers above - at like, 9-10, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it, but by 12-13, I saw it and thought it was incredible.
There’s also stuff like straight-up how impressionable your kids are. If they tend to just obsessively repeat and act-out stuff from the movies, then it’s unlikely any amount of warnings will stop them, and they’re probably too young to watch significantly problematic stuff.
So that’s a lot of random advice from someone who doesn’t have kids, but who does remember what it was like, and was successfully raised to be non-racist/sexist/etc. Critical thinking and acknowledging that stuff was wrong, not just “a different age”, but wrong, is key.
Yeah, that’s always a tricky one. I really loathed school from 10-16, and even outside it that age wasn’t a great time, but 16-18 my school was totally incredible, because I somehow ended up at the perfect school for my personality, but I think that’s amazingly rare. I know neither of my parents enjoyed their school days excessively though, so thankfully they never tried to tell me I would love it all (unlike some other adults I knew, who did).
I’m not even sure that the movies they watch or music they like at that age mean much or even have a lasting influence. Like, pre-8, pretty much I only liked things with animals/dinosaurs/space in them. And I didn’t mind if they were trash or not. After that things changed a lot.
You can also create a sort of perverse attitude if you keep hyping something and it’s just not interesting to little kids. Like Mozart. I was told how amazing he was for my entire childhood, but it was just loud, boring, long, old-people music. And this “fuck Mozart” (and also “Fuck the Beatles”) attitude stayed with me much longer than any actual memory of the music. It wasn’t until my teens I could basically appreciate Mozart, and my twenties before I thought it was a genius. I still mostly hate the Beatles, but I can at least see how talented they were now - it took extra-long because people hyped them so much to me as a kid though.