We’ve all seen the theories, repeated and twisted ad nauseum to fit nearly every children’s show. Angelica dreamed up the other Rugrats. Even the humans at Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends were imaginary. The events that took place in Codename: Kids Next Door were just kids playing make believe. Phineas and Ferb exist only in Candace’s head. Ash Ketchum was just in a coma. Harry Potter dreamed Hogwarts because he couldn’t handle his abuse by the Dursleys. And on and on and on.
There seems to be a compulsion among young teens and adults to reclaim these shows for themselves, and for them, that means placing these stories within a tragic context that better fits their worldview, a paradigm in which optimistic stories centered around children could not possibly, believably exist in the real world. When these theories crop up, they go viral, usually with accompanying comments uttered in reverent tones along the lines of “I can never look at this show the same way again,” as if the theory has pulled back the curtain and revealed The Truth about an innocent show that many internet users enjoyed as children. In other words, the theory becomes more valid than the text or the show itself. We substitute the humor, the hope, and the ideology of children’s fiction with run-of-the-mill “it was all a dream” psychological horror, and by doing so, we throw a giant middle finger to the critically important messages these shows convey.
The whimsical tone of Rugrats centered around kids who never quite understood the adult world; they misconstrued words and events and spun their own ideas out of them, and it was a better world, simply because we as the audience were allowed to look at mundane adult things like taxes and car washes in fresh, ultrapositive ways. Phineas and Ferb is a joyously optimistic show about the power of invention and creativity, a world in which children are never asked to hold themselves back and are never cruel to one another. So many fantasy series allow us to find an essential truth of human experience, that hope and friendship and good will can overcome darkness, by showing us a world we can’t always see but is always there, just as Hogwarts is hidden from our Muggle eyes. These stories are equally as valid, if not more so, than our “adult” stories that show the world as a more brutal place. They can both be true, but stories only have the power that we assign to them. If we continue to insist that positive, hopeful stories are unbelievable, then we create a world in which those stories lose their power, and our world reflects that change.
The stories we tell children shape our future. There’s a reason we need those happy endings, and it’s not because children are too weak to handle the “truth” about the world. It’s because we as a society need to be reminded that kindness and hope have power. Children need stories that allow them to be heroes, that value their insight, their ideas, and their narratives. We need stories that empower, not stories that dwindle away into hopeless cynicism. We do not need to insist that fictional stories cannot exist on their own terms, that even fantasy worlds must be fantasies within their own story. It’s backwards, it’s hopeless, it’s wrong-headed. These stories aren’t yours to claim. They aren’t yours to “correct.” These stories belong to children, and thankfully, they’re stories full of more hope and power than anything the internet could ever come up with. Why would you ever try to tear them down?