Michael Jackson, Playground Zombie

I wasn’t going to post on Michael Jackson.  Apart from the fact that this is a blog on playwork theory and practice, I didn’t feel that I had anything particular to add to the recent conversations.  I admired him for his music and choreography but didn’t count myself a particular fan and haven’t followed the coverage of the legions of mourners or the memorial service beyond what was unavoidable.  His life and death, however, has been inescapable – not just when I turn on the television, go online or talk to friends, but also when I go out on session.

The children, who see and notice everything, have been feverishly playing ‘Michael Jackson’.  It is so popular that it has even overtaken playing ‘Swine Flu’.

Children’s ability to play out aspects of their experience that interest, confuse or trouble them had been well documented.  When the children put on one glove and act out Michael Jackson as a zombie that tries to eat children, it seems likely that they are mixing together the videos they have seen with a knowledge of his death and turning it into something new.  However, the Playground Michael Jackson, so far as I have seen, has been only a source of fascination and terror.  He does not sing, he does not dance, he is not interested in issues of race or global warming.  The Playground Michael Jackson wears masks dripping red and presses paint-covered hands onto the arms of children laugh-screaming with terror.  He sucks their blood and keeps them captive in the corners of the play area.

“When he died,” one girl asked me, “were you sad?”

How to explain that one?  I don’t know whether separating an artist’s personal habits from their work is possible or advisable, and this cocktail of disillusionment and nostalgia makes me queasy.

“A little,” I said.  “It was complicated.  He was popular when I was about your age, so I remember him a little differently.”  She squinted at me as if I hadn’t given her quite what she was looking for.

She was in a conspiratorial huddle a few minutes later with her best friend, whispering and looking over each other’s shoulders for eavesdroppers.  I wandered past casually (blaming my incurably nosy nature on anthropological curiosity) and caught a few words from them.

Jackson.  Paedo.  Why?  Scary.

Now, children are far more aware of the existence, proclivities and dangers of dangerous members of society than we might wish.  They talk about them to one another, sometimes hurl the terms at adults and are blisteringly suspicious of anyone wanting to take their picture.  They were not asking “why was he a paedo?”, but “why do adults care so much, that a paedo died?”

I realized then that the earlier question had been a test, had been an investigation by her into whether, or how, a person who spends their days with children in a position of trust and care would be sad at the death of someone everyone believed to have behaved inappropriately with children.  If paedophiles are, as widely reported, terrifying and predatory and dangerous to our most vulnerable citizens, why was the death of one so terrible?  In short, so what if he could dance?

Acquittal aside, most people I speak with take for granted that they would not have let him babysit their children, and yet they get teary at the thought of his death.  How can we explain this to children?  When we address, or fail to address, the difficulties of being unable to trust someone we think we know, children are paying close attention.  When we say “yes, but…” and weigh our own belief in his guilt with our fascination with the moonwalk, they are watching and making judgements of their own.

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