A couple of weeks ago my 5-year old daughter came home with a bundle of newish old things she’d won in the school’s lucky dip. Among them was a Moshi Monsters backpack and when she opened it she was delighted to discover yet another Moshi Monsters bag inside. She thought she’d hit the jackpot.
But her older sister looked at them and frowned.
‘We don’t do Moshi Monsters in our house.’
In case you’ve never come across a Moshi Monster, here’s some information: Moshi Monsters is an extraordinarily successful online children’s game, played by more than 80 million children worldwide. There’s also a Moshi Monsters movie and an abundance of Moshi Monsters merchandise.
At first sight, it looks cute with its cheerful colours and some sweet-looking monsters.
But there’s also a group of ‘evil’ monsters with names such as Freakface (always drooling because he can’t close his mouth), Fishlips (an ‘icky one-eyed blob of badness’) and Bruiser (‘scarred skin makes for a scary sight’). They are depicted with scarred, spotted faces and missing eyes to emphasise their ‘bad’ characters.
Mind Candy, the company that created the Moshi Monsters game, claims that it’s educational but as Changing Faces – the charity that supports children and adults with disfigurement – rightly points out, names like Freakface, Fishlips and Bruiser are similar to terms of bullying and abuse affecting children with an unusual looking face.
While not objecting to the game itself, Changing Faces approached Mind Candy, explaining their concern and asking them to change the names of the characters known as Freakface, Fishlips and Bruiser and to stop using scars, spots and missing eyes to depict evil characters. Mind Candy refused.
When my eldest daughter got a Moshi Monsters pencil case a couple of years ago, I didn’t know anything about these apparently popular cartoon figures, and neither did she, but she thought the pencil case looked cool and brought it to school.
I subsequently learned about Changing Faces’ ‘Don’t call me Freakface’ campaign, and heard the story of Lucas, a teenage boy born with frontal-nasal craniofacial dysplasia, a condition that makes his face stand out from the crowd.
That day I went home and showed my daughter the video clip in which Lucas tells his story of being bullied for his looks.
Her response was, ‘I don’t like bullying; it’s wrong, and I don’t want to have any Moshi Monsters things if they keep putting scars on them and calling them bad names.’
That’s why she reacted to her younger sister bringing two Moshi Monsters bags home.
‘Show her the video’ she said, and I did.
Whilst my 9-year old did notice Lucas’ unusual face, her 5-year old sister didn’t. What she saw was a teenage boy, much like any other, but she passionately agreed with his message that bullying is wrong, so she too decided she wasn’t going to keep her Moshi Monsters gifts.
‘For it’s mean to call someone names because of how they look,’ she said.
A week later, there was a big article in The Observer about a boy born with cleft lip and palate. It was written by the boy’s father, a well-known British journalist, and was accompanied by a sizeable photo of the baby boy, his cleft clearly visible.
As I sat in the kitchen reading the article whilst having my breakfast, my 5-year old came downstairs, saw the picture of the baby boy and squealed with delight:
‘Oh what a cute baby, mummy!’ before heading for the cupboard with breakfast cereal.
‘Yes, he’s cute, isn’t he?’ I said as she sat down next to me. She looked again at the picture.
‘Why is he in the paper?’ she asked.
‘His dad has written a story about him,’ I answered. And that was that.
Looking at the photo, she saw a happy, sweet baby and nothing else. The cleft didn’t register in her awareness.
A similar thing happened some time ago when she came across a picture of me as a newborn baby; to my surprise she didn’t react at all to my unusual appearance.
You might say that my daughter’s perception of what is ‘normal’ is simply a consequence of her being a naïve 5-year old and that, as she matures, she’ll come to view facial disfigurements for what they are, ‘abnormalities’ according to society.
Well, I hope that won’t be the case because I think we would all do well to learn from children like her.