Olympics Opening Ceremonies: Of Child and Nation

I watched the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics with a little girl who would not stop talking. It seemed sort of ironic because, in large part, the ceremonies focused on futurity and the child, using children as symbols for the nation and hopes for the future. Much ink has been spilled discussing the role of childhood in nationalist discourses, focusing especially on how the child is constructed to represent the best version of ourselves. Isn’t that really what the Olympics is about anyway? (That and corporations taking every possible advertising opportunity?) What I’m saying is really pretty obvious, but I was struck by how central a role children had in the opening ceremonies directed by Danny Boyle.

While the queen entering with James Bond was awesome and David Beckham has never looked cooler, my favorite part was when the Mary Poppins brigade dropped in.

In fact, I was excited to see an entire section of the show dedicated to the Great Ormond Street Hospital, the NHS, and children’s literature. Considering that the show up to that point had tracked the progress of Great Britain from an idyllic agrarian land of Shakespearean sonnets to an industrialized nation (Cheers to the suffragettes!!!), the inclusion of a section featuring Neverland, Lord Voldemort, and nightmares vanquished by Mary Poppins seemed to put the importance of children’s literature pretty high up there. James R. Kincaid’s Child Loving, Lee Edelman’s No Future, Empire’s Children, Goodly is Our Heritage, and Perry Nodelman’s The Hidden Adult, all take up various facets of the rich connections between British children’s literature and national identity. You may have noticed how many of the nations represented in the games were at one point under British rule. When the sun never sets on your empire, having a strong sense of who you are as a people is a useful tool for governing both political boundaries and the borders between you and the people you have taken over. The Darling children, Alice, the Walker siblings, and the Pevensies can all be read, to various degrees, as child colonizers. Further, remember all the talk in Peter Pan about “good form”? Or in Mary Poppins about being a gentleman? Children’s literature, among delightful things, was also in the business of raising good subjects from the cradle. The stories we tell our children are a pretty good indicator of what we value as a culture.

Though the giant baby was sort of scary looking, the segment ended with the dreams of children peaceful in their beds (much thanks to swing dancing nurses). As J.M. Barrie well knew, much can come from the dreams of babes. If the opening ceremonies are supposed to display the character of the nation, then it seems to me that this emphasis on fancy and childhood indicates two things. 1) The cult of the child is probably going strong and 2) an understanding of childhood as a time of innocence and imagination is important to how British adults understand themselves (and let’s be honest, that extends to the U.S.). As Perry Nodelman and other scholars are keen to point out, we define children so that we can define adulthood.

Update:  So my gears are spinning on this: why a nightmare? Why did the adults, represented by the nurses and Mary Poppins, need to save the children? So much of children’s literature and criticism of it is focused on this same question. Could the battle in the “glowing beds” scene represent the importance of a guiding hand to lead the child to safety and proper adulthood? Is it a larger battle for identity–in the eye of kids’ lit is anything more British than Poppins? Or is it 1:30 and I need sleep? <zzz>

Let’s not forget either that the whole thing started with children’s choirs from around the U.K. singing traditional hymns. I half expected Oliver Twist to pop out during the Industrial Revolution too. From start to finish, children were used to mark the key moments, adorable beacons of long-standing British traditions and of whimsy.

To me, the most touching part was when the young athletes carried the torch(es) the last leg and lit the copper petals, setting ablaze an individual flame for each nation, which came together into the Olympic Cauldron. Call me a hopeless romantic, but since I don’t care much about sports, the best part of the Olympics is the symbolism of unity and peace. This finish was just stunning. While I’m kind of annoyed with the PNG and Johnson & Johnson commercials that romanticize childhood dreams and Olympic dreams, in a very literal way delivering the torch in the hands of young athletes represented the futurity that the games, like children, can symbolize. The world could be (is?) falling apart, but we take the time to celebrate the strongest among us running fair races and playing honest games because it gives us hope that we can be better. All that we can be. We do it for the children. And so on.

Is this emphasis on the children normal and I’m not remembering or was it a unique aspect of this year’s show? What do you think?

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