The Diary of a Wimpy Kid has been a literary phenomenon, at least in our house. The two eldest have both read it and my 9 year old son consumes everything wimpy. So it was no surprise that I found myself this weekend at the movie theatre with all three kids and about a 100 more parents to see the movie version; which had real people and not cartoons.
Having not read the book, this was an open slate for me but the kids say the movie was a pretty faithful representation. Basically, the movie revolves around, not surprisingly, a wimpy kid called Greg who begins the movie being terrorised by his older brother and ends the movie having been terrorised by (almost) everyone else. It is a far from an advertisement for 'stay in school' or indeed 'go to school' and its baseline message (although it does this better than most similar things) is that you should be yourself because there is bugger all you can do about the social status that you have been handed. That is not to say that that status might change, it is just that you can't really do anything about it (at least not in an upward direction; downwards can be achieved with action).
Which brings me to the issue of cheese [caution: mild spoilers ahead]. A sub-plot in the movie (but me with my keen eye could see right from the start that it was the device by which the main conflict in the movie is eventually resolved) is a piece of moldy cheese in the playground. No one removes or cleans it. The reason is that some kid once touched the cheese and got watch was appropriately named, 'The Cheese Touch.' He was then an outcast. Fortunately, like any good caste system, he himself was untouchable unless he touched someone else in which case, The Cheese Touch and its harmful social powers transferred to them. There in lied a set of clearly obvious reactions until such time as these American school children realised that they could export The Cheese Touch to Europe (via an unsuspecting German exchange student) thereby ridding themselves of the game. The ever mouldier cheese remained and the movie keep subtly and not too subtly reminding us of it at regular interviews.
Now the Cheese Touch mechanism sums up much of the issues facing Middle Schoolers. The whole thing is a social construct (and our wimpy kid makes an impassioned speech to that effect) and it is designed to be randomly unfair. Nonetheless, it is all consuming and all of the children buy into it. Eventually, our wimpy kid who has had a fall out with his seemingly less socially apt but more socially successful friend, saves his friend from the Cheese Touch by unilaterally opting to carry to stigma. Of course, he does this by touching the cheese but I thought he would do it by touching his friend. In the end, however, in the final scene of the movie, our wimpy kids 'buys' into the Cheese Touch or something by all knowing when the 'mean' kid touches the 'real' carrier and I guess becomes the carrier herself. Although it didn't make sense. Could two people carry the Cheese Touch? I'm still struggling with the game.
I think there is one aspect of this whole mess that parents can applaud, "you shouldn't touch moldy cheese." The social apparatus seems to correlate nicely with good hygiene. And if they didn't find this to create a random social game around, they would have found something else. What is more, from the behaviour of my own kids, I am pretty sure none of them will be touching moldy food items in the playground anytime soon (well, at least not where people might seem them).
One final note. Parents will of course identify with and love the mature 7th grader who sees through all of the social graph and just keeps to herself. Now that is the kid we want our kids to be like. It is also exactly the same kid we may fret and worry about given her social isolation. Ah the irony.