Too Smart for Strangers
"Kids, there's nothing more cool than being hugged by someone you like! But if someone tries to touch you in a place or in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, that's NO GOOD! It's your body; no one has the right to touch you if you don't want them to. So what do you do? First, you say 'NO!' Then, you get outta there! Most important, you gotta tell someone you trust, like your parents, your teacher, a police officer."A Very Special Episode with a moral about a very important issue: all adults that you don't know are ravenous, sex-thirsty child molesters waiting to lure you into the back of their white van with promises of candy and toys. This Aesop came along in The '80s as child abduction and abuse, particularly in the wake of the 1981 abduction and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, became a national concern in the United States. Of course, being childrens' TV shows, they have to discuss these issues in a way that's easy to understand, but without being scary — which usually just ends up being awkward. Really awkward. They can't mention any of the "worst" crimes (e.g., molestation) by name, so they generally stick to just kidnapping or "being touched in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable" (and, all together now, that's nooooo good). Expect the most graphic euphemisms you can get onto suitable-for-all-ages television, such as the "bathing suit area." For these reasons, the bulk of the show tends to be either about "safety tips" like never talking to strangers (which usually refers to strange adults, mind you) and rejecting all forms of generosity, or about an evil kidnapper and the more fantastical things he does to his victim. It's also worth noting that in the vast majority of child kidnappings and sexual abuse cases, the abuser is someone the child knows and trusts, usually because they have easy access to the child and, in custody cases (which are almost all kidnappings) the kidnapper has something to gain by kidnapping the child. Children are usually warned in these VSE's against strange men, but NOT against strange women. The fact that this Aesop is based on faulty information renders it almost entirely useless, so it fell out of favor by the end of The '90s. A couple of high profile cases where lost children actively hid from the people trying to find and rescue them as they'd had it drilled into them that all strangers were dangerous and would kidnap them given the opportunity put the final nails into the simplistic interpretation of this idea. Guaranteed to be utterly uncomfortable, as happy-go-lucky, fun-loving characters are forced to deal with a truly horrifying eventuality. May have the side effect of making some children unbelievably paranoid, especially if they themselves have had it happen by someone they know and trust. And Heaven have mercy on your psyche if the writers decide to disregard the "don't scare the crap out of the kids" part. Compare Drugs Are Bad, another favorite kids-show message in the 1980s.
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- There was a Very Special Comic Book starring Spider-Man in which his next-door-neighbor kid was being molested by his (female) babysitter. In it, Spidey shares that he was molested, pre-superpowers, by someone who looked suspiciously like Uncle Ben◊. Spidey never references or even acknowledges this story in any other continuity, but can you really blame him? Supposedly, the original draft of the story said the molester was Uncle Ben, with all the attendant Squick involved. One time when Executive Meddling was used for good. Because Some Plots Need To Be Censored.
- Besides the Trope Namer, there was also a book release titled "Don't Talk to Strangers, Pooh" that came out in 1998. It was part of a series called My Very First Winnie the Pooh.
- A book about sex marketed to young people titled It's Perfectly Normal took a light and humorous approach to almost everything about sex using non threatening cartoons to illustrate masturbation, homosexuality, conception etc. The chapter on child molestation gets a bit more serious. No cartoons other than the two animal mascots admitting that this is a difficult subject to discuss. Still, at least it's not a Clueless Aesop.
- Referenced near the end of the book The Year My Parents Ruined My Life. Katie decides to run away from her new home and attempts to fly back to California by herself. She decides to hitchhike to the airport, and is already sitting in a car with a man and wearing her seat-belt by the time she realizes it may not have been a good idea to take a ride with a stranger. Her fears are only amplified when she notices he's taking a different route and hears him say "I may need to zigzag." He quickly realizes that Katie's afraid of him and thinks it's the funniest thing ever.
"Oh, honey, you're scared! Of me! You took a ride with someone you don't know and now you've gone and scared yourself half to death! Honey, it's okay, I'm not a serial killer, I don't have a knife in the glove compartment — check if you want, and I really do have three children of my own. And see here, we are, safe at the airport, and I didn't even have to zigzag."
"You're welcome, and don't you hitchhike anymore, okay?" (muttering) "Oh, my wife is going to laugh..."
- Often used as an Aesop in various retellings of Little Red Riding Hood. Don't stop and talk to strangers, kids, or you could be eaten by a wolf.
- Supposedly, there was an episode of Barney & Friends that discussed the topic — a necessary back-pedalling from one formerly listed under Family-Unfriendly Aesop, which said that every stranger was a potential friend. No, it didn't really exist. There was a song called "Never Talk To Strangers" and an adaptation of a fairy tale to reinforce the message (Little Red Riding Hood of course; she manages to run away and tell a grown-up).
- There were three Diff'rent Strokes episodes that were like this.
- One where Arnold's friend Dudley was molested by Gordon Jump. (Don't forget that scene where the bike store owner wants the kids to scream real loud at his ass.)
- Another where Arnold and Kimberly hitch a ride with a kidnapper who clearly intends to rape Kimberly.
- The eighth season opens with a two-part episode where Sam is kidnapped by a grieving father.
- Australia has for a while had the Safety House Program, where applicants stick the symbol on the letterbox only if they actually are safety houses. An education campaign back in the 80s had to remind kids to look specifically on the letterbox (not the door. And not on any cars). It came complete with a character, Clebo the Clown, and also a song that seems to have faded into obscurity, were it not for a few old memories of the lyrics:
Look for the Safety house, Get to know the sign
The friendly face inside the triangle
If strangers talk to you, here's what you should do
Just run up to the front door of the Safety House near you.
- This sexual abuse video, complete with an actor who plays his Dirty Old Man role a little too well. At least the boy isn't ambiguous about "bad touch" and says the word "penis".
- The trope is referenced in the episode "What Fresh Hell?" of Criminal Minds, where the "Stranger Danger" programme is mentioned as probably being the single biggest enemy of child abduction cases in America, because after it was disseminated research showed that strangers were probably responsible for a minority of kidnapping cases. Far more often the abductor was friends, family, neighbours or someone at least associated with the family or child. In this case, it was a local gardener who lived a few blocks away.
- More than a few examples of these Very Special Episodes have been dug up by Everything Is Terrible.
- Referenced occasionally by The Nostalgia Critic. Justified as it's his job to smash the Nostalgia Filter of all this stuff, but you've got to wonder why his parents suddenly decided to care enough and make sure he knew about stranger danger.
- DVD-R Hell has covered a couple of these, including the trope namer. Brad's reaction to the song about molestation is a classic.
- The Trope Namer: the episode "Too Smart for Strangers" of Welcome to Pooh Corner, a mid-'80s production where Winnie-the-Pooh and rest of the Hundred Acre Wood crew (of all people) teach children how to not get abducted and subsequently molested. It's actually pretty blunt, with repeated mentions of "private parts" and a (delicate) broaching of the subject of ejaculation. Particularly infamous for the scene that directly addresses child molestation and how to react to it. In song.
- Tricky People, a 1998 video produced by Nest Entertainment, is a rather serious PSA about sexual abuse and stranger danger... which stars a silly yellow Barney-esque dinosaur named Yello Dyno. Watch it here (with snarky annotations).
- The TV version of The Berenstain Bears story is actually a bit more nuanced. The Bumbling Dad decides to Scare 'Em Straight, until Sister Bear is reduced to a terrified wreck who doesn't want to leave the house. The Closer to Earth mother (as always) has to reassure Sister Bear that there are dangerous strangers out there, but you can't be paranoid like that. In some ways the book made it creepier because the newspaper pictures were in black-and-white, and you had time to read the text and let it sink in. And to top it all off, you got to see Sister's wide-eyed expression at the same time.
- And then there's that infamous Sonic Says quoted above...
Kids, there's nothing more cool than being hugged by someone you like! But if someone tries to touch you in a place or in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, that's no good. It's your body; no one has the right to touch you if you don't want them to. So what do you do? First, you say 'No!' Then, you get outta there! Most important, you gotta tell someone you trust, like your parents, your teacher, a police officer.
- Less well-known, but no less awkward, is a PSA starring He-Man and She-Ra of all people. It really brings the awkward when it acknowledges that kids are abused by people they know already.
- A Care Bears episode (partially included here) went for the related message of "don't go out in public without an adult". Bright Heart disobeys Champ Bear and goes down to Earth by himself. The message is undermined by the fact that the "danger" he encounters comes in the form of Shreeky (who, ironically, is a child and a human one at that) and Beastly. Of course, Shreeky and Beastly's attempts to kidnap Bright Heart are thwarted at every turn by their own stupidity. So the Broken Aesop is "don't worry about kidnappers — they're idiots." Although the intended Aesop was "don't go skiing alone, because if you get hurt, no one will be there to help you" but they have used this trope in at least 2 episodes.
- Get Muggsy! subverts this. Although the plot does briefly stop for Muggsy to give a lesson on strangers (complete with the "bad touch" kind of stuff), the lesson also says that some strangers (e.g., authority figures) are more trustworthy.
- There's an Australian cartoon featuring a kid being lured into a hotel bed by a pedophile, but instead of having the kid rescued at the last minute or fading out on an already-creepy-enough-thanks image, it shows the pedophile melting into the blanket, which then melts into a stripey blanket-printed ocean that jostles the kid around awhile, then a close-up on the kid's face as he weeps a single tear, which melts into the next scene. Thanks for clearing that up, guys.
- My Body Is My Own, an adaption of an 80's children's book.
Anime & Manga
- Cowboy Bebop: "Lesson, lesson... If you see a stranger, follow him!"
- In You Got HaruhiRolled!, Kuyou somehow ends up trapped in a cardboard box, and, in a parody of Eliezer Yudkowsky's "AI in a Box" thought experiment, is reduced to begging passers-by to let her out. Shortly afterwards, Imouto and Miyoko walk by, and Kuyou tries to persuade them to release her. Miyoko is all set to do it, but Imouto refuses, bringing up this trope. So Kuyou is forced to stay in the box until a rainstorm ruins the cardboard. According to the writer of the fic, his incarnation of Miyoko is a Nightmare Fetishist, so that may have something to do with her willingness to release Kuyou.
- On 30 Rock, when Kathy Geiss put the moves on Jack, he recounted it to Liz, saying "she touched me in my swimsuit area" and "it made me very uncomfortable".
- In The George Lopez Show episode "Max's Big Adventure", Max has a school play about this that has two kids being approached by a man in a Conspicuous Trenchcoat asking them where their parents are. The play is about as good as one would expect, leading George to think that Max doesn't really know about stranger dangers and testing him. The episode as a whole is more of a deconstruction of this trope.
- In How I Met Your Mother, Ted is stranded when his friend Robin happens to show up in her white news van, leading to this jokey exchange:
Robin: Need a ride, cowboy?Ted: Sorry, I don't get in vans with strangers.Robin: Mmm, too bad. I've got candy.Ted: [Very excitedly] Candy!
- A recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live during the 2013-14 season has a public service officer come to a classroom to teach about stranger danger but the kids misinterpret everything he says, making them want to find vans during recess because the people inside might have candy.
- In the game Evil Genius, when you successfully kidnap someone from America, you hear a radio announcement about the crime, which includes advice that people take steps "such as not taking candy from strangers."
- Subverted in this strip from City of Reality.
- Cinema Snob Reviews Frozen (a fan comic where The Cinema Snob reviews Frozen) spoofs this with Snob thinking Kristoff asking Anna about strangers will lead to this. He begs the film not to do it, and is very relieved when Anna's joke answer is all there is.
- Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons misunderstood these, and thought his shoulder was his "special area."
Abe: Homer - you're dumb as a mule and twice as ugly. If a stranger offers you a free ride, I say take it!Homer: Lousy traumatic childhood!
- In another episode, Homer attempts to remember all the advice his father gave him when he was a kid.
- In The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show, Marge agrees on letting her kids roam around alone for a while in a shopping mall, under the condition that they be careful. Only they completely disregard her advice mere seconds later by leaving together with a total stranger... Subversion! Turns out he was just a friendly marketing researcher, gathering children for a Itchy & Scratchy survey.
- South Park
Stan: Like... money?
- Parodied, of course, with a counselor who asks if Father Maxi had stuck anything up the kids' butts. The counselor avoids the word "penis" though, asking if he had stuck anything "of his" up there, which just confuses them.
Butters: You mean, like, a goldfish?
Kyle: Wait, isn't there some rule about not getting into cars with strangers?
- There are at least two other episodes of South Park that touch on the subject, but the closest to this trope is probably "Child Abduction Is Not Funny". Tweek is nearly abducted by a man who dresses up as the Spirit of Human Kindness and tries to convince him that these sorts of morals are just paranoia. (And they partly are...) Later, the town's parents kick the children out of town for their own safety(!?) — after hearing on the news that parents are most likely to abduct their own children.note
- And then there's "Wacky Molestation Adventure", where the kids frame their parents for molesting them and they're arrested and sent to a facility to "cure" them of their sexual urges. While the kids form colonies of their own now that they're alone, the parents undergo brainwashing procedures that end with them believing that they actually did molest their kids.
- And, of course, who can forget "Sexual Harassment Panda"? ("When I see one little panda pulling down another little panda's underpants, that makes me a saaaad panda!") Naturally, the kids grossly misinterpret his lessons to the point where anything a friend does that they don't like counts as "sexual harassment," and this eventually leads to a rash of time-consuming lawsuits. In the end, the mascot is forced to change his name to "Don't Sue People Panda."
- Subverted in this scene from "Mecha-Streisand" where a disguised Barbara Streisand offers the boys a ride in her car.
Cartman: No, not when money's involved, stupid!