24 April 2013

Child Development in the Media Age

In 'Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood,' educational theorists Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg assemble a collection of essays on children and the commodification of identity. They bring together a number of contemporary scholars of education, psychology and sociology into an interdisciplinary study of children’s popular culture and its implications for schooling and child development. Steinberg and Kincheloe introduce the essays with a chapter entitled ‘No More Secrets: Kinderculture, Information Saturation, and the Postmodern Childhood.’ The basic premise in their introduction is that the ‘information age’ has radically altered childhood, especially in the US but also in places adopting the American way of life, to the point that even the most basic assumptions underlying education and psychology are hopelessly outdated.

Much of modern schooling is premised on the belief that children can be initiated into the adult world through rationally constructed 'stages of development,' with parents and teachers controlling access to the adult world. But television, computers and much of social life in modern consumer societies blurs the distinctions upon which this premise is built. In the postmodern media world, children are often more familiar with adult subjects – even traditionally taboo topics like sex and drugs – than many adults. Parents and teachers in particular still often treat children as essentially protected from the ‘real world,’ even though that world is laid open for all to see by way of the increasingly pervasive electronic media technologies. With an ironic twist on a 1960s idiom, Steinberg and Kincheloe suggest that ‘the revolution... has been televised, brought to you and your children in vivid Technicolor.’

The authors outline their thesis that it is the mega-media corporations who are constructing and benefiting from the postmodern child: ‘Using fantasy and desire, corporate functionaries have created a perspective on late-twentieth-century culture that melds with business ideologies and free-market values. The worldviews produced by corporate advertisers to some degree always let children know that the most exciting things life can provide are produced by your friends in corporate America. The economics lesson is powerful when it is repeated hundreds of thousands of times.’ As an antidote to this corporate indoctrination, Steinberg and Kincheloe recommend a form of ‘media literacy’ for parents and teachers, with the goal of exposing ‘the corporate curriculum and its social and political effects.’ The rest of the book is this thesis put into practice, with essays on various aspects of the corporate constructed childhood (or what they term as ‘kinderculture’), from film and television to magazines and video games.

Professor of education Henry Giroux contributes a chapter asking, ‘Are Disney Movies Good for Your Kids?’ His inquiry into the global entertainment corporation was sparked by watching Disney movies with his own children. Like most parents, Giroux assumed that Disney films were relatively harmless entertainment. But by watching more carefully, he noticed that Disney reproduces many of the more racist and sexist beliefs and practices of modern American society. Giroux’s analysis is sophisticated, and he is careful not to fall into the trap of the American Christian Right, who see all sorts of (often ridiculous) conspiracies in Disney features. Rather, Giroux believes that, due to its power as a cultural icon, Disney ought to be taken seriously by scholars and its productions critically analyzed. After analytically viewing some Disney films of the day, such as ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘Aladdin,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘The Lion King,’ and others, Giroux concludes that ‘cultural workers and educators need to insert the political and pedagogical back into the discourse of entertainment.’ He also suggests that parents and educators make Disney accountable for what it produces, citing the example of Muslim and Arab organizations in the US who protested and succeeded in getting Disney to modify some of its racist caricatures in the animated feature film, ‘Aladdin.’

Like Giroux, educational psychologist Eleanor Blair Hilty takes a cue from her own child’s television viewing habits and provides a critical reading of two popular educational television programs, ‘Barney’ and ‘Sesame Street.’ Concerned about the unexamined perception among parents and teachers that such programs are somehow ‘educationally valuable,’ she found that a major problem with shows like ‘Sesame Street’ is that they promote passive learning. Hilty extends her discussion of educational television by suggesting that parents and teachers ought to engage the current debates on public TV by asking ‘whether public television is functioning for the public good,’ and identifying ‘who determines the goodness and worth of these programs.’

Media scholar Douglas Kellner weighs in with an essay on a popular Music Television (MTV) series of the 1990s, ‘Beavis and Butt-head,’ which continues to air on some MTV clones in Asia. Noticing that his students made frequent reference to the series, Kellner watched every episode for two years, from its premiere in 1993 until 1995. His analysis, versions of which have appeared in a number of books and journals (most notably his 1995 book Media Culture), is erudite and wide-ranging. Like many other authors in Kinderculture, Kellner is careful not to write off popular culture as unworthy of scholarly study. While he sees ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ as a metaphor for the downward mobility of American middle class white youth, Kellner also succeeds in identifying both the reactionary and subversive elements of the series. For example, under all the bathroom humor and adolescent hooliganism of the series, Kellner finds some wry critiques of many of the more repressive and irrational aspects of American society. But at the same time, ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ also reproduces some of the most dangerous sexist and racist attitudes of contemporary American society. To pass beyond this analytic juncture, Kellner utilizes a method which seeks to find a third way of reading corporate media productions, complementing and complicating the ‘dominant paradigms [that] either theorize media effects as direct and manipulative or privilege the role of the audience in constructing meaning.’

The chapters in Kinderculture continue with similar analytical readings of other popular children’s media fare, with chapters on such diverse topics as video games and interactive media, ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’ (as an example of what the author of that chapter calls ‘the aesthetics of phallo-militaristic justice’), horror fiction (in particular the ‘Goosebumps’ series of stories), children’s magazines, trading cards and ‘Barbie’ dolls. Each essay contributes a piece to the creation of a clearer picture of corporate America as an increasingly powerful force in constructing contemporary childhood. Taken as a whole, Kinderculture reveals a third force in the media that joins (and even undermines) the traditional sites of child development in families and schools.

These connections are perhaps most apparent in the last chapter, featuring Kincheloe’s essay on the global junk food conglomerate, McDonald’s. Recalling his own childhood, Kincheloe reflects on how his family was in a sense programmed by McDonald’s ‘regulation of customer behavior’ through its carefully designed facilities and exceedingly enticing advertising. In reading McDonald’s advertising, Kincheloe concludes that the ‘greatest irony of these ads is that even as they isolate the family from any economic connections they promote the commodification of family life.’ This final chapter also includes some concluding remarks in which Kincheloe suggests that the main purpose of Kinderculture is to expose the machinations of power involved in shaping culture and consciousness:
'Few Americans think in terms of how power interests in the larger society regulate populations to bring about desired behaviors. In America and other Western societies political domination shifted decades ago from police or military forces to the use of cultural messages. Such communications are designed to win the approval or consent of citizens for the actions taken by power elites. The contributors to this book in their own particular ways are involved in efforts to expose the specifics of this process of cultural domination.'
Upon first glance, it may seem that Kinderculture might only be relevant to American parents and educators. But with global media networks invading every corner of the planet, American culture is in many ways becoming global culture. This is of concern to peoples throughout the Third World, wherever they may live. Disney films, or television series like ‘Sesame Street,’ ‘Barney’ and ‘Power Rangers’ (which actually originated in Japan) are translated into dozens of languages throughout Asia. McDonald’s has set up franchises in most major cities throughout the Third World. Many satellite TV stations worldwide air MTV (or one of its clones like Star TV in Asia). American media conglomerates are among the largest publishers of textbooks and educational materials worldwide (which besides contributing to the hegemony of Western knowledge also maintains English as a global language). Barbie dolls are marketed throughout Asia and Africa (in appropriately ‘multicultural’ versions). The list could go on but the conclusion is clear: Kinderculture is going global fast. While some parents and consumer groups have quite admirably concerned themselves with the overtly racist aspects of American media culture, there is much less activity toward trying to understand some of the more subtle indoctrinating forces at work on their consciousness. This useful collection of essays will likely provide much needed insight into the more insidious (but no less damaging) aspects of the American-directed corporate construction of childhood. This, in turn, may enable activists and teachers throughout the Third World to develop an array of locally-grounded individual and collective initiatives and responses to what can only be seen as a pervasive affront to human dignity and intelligence.
From the Book
Page 26: What often inhibits understanding of the pedagogical power of popular culture in general and kinderculture in particular involve the society’s failure to recognize that power plays an exaggerated role in the shaping of personal experiences. This relationship is so apparent that it is often lost in its obviousness. Power produces images of the world and the people who inhabit it that make meaning for those who receive the images. The films, books, video games, and TV shows of kinderculture shape the way white children, for example, understand the poor and racially marginalized – and in turn how they a white people come to recognize their own privilege. Language patterns connect with this production of images to reinforce power’s influence, its ability to provide the context in which children encounter the world. The advent of electronic hyperreality has revolutionized the ways knowledge is produced in ths culture and the ways children come to learn about the world. Parents and educators need to appreciate the nature of this revolution and its role in identity formation. Simple condemnation of kinderculture accompanied by calls for censorship is insufficient; equally ineffective is a policy of benign neglect. Concerned individuals should begin with an attempt to understand these dynamics in all their complexity and ambiguity, followed by an effort to involved themselves in the public conversation about them. In this context adults may come to appreciate the fact that postmodern children’s confusion and identity disorientation may be a reasonable reaction to the incongruity between kinderculture’s and schooling’s positioning of children.

Further Reading
Consumers Association of Penang, How TV Affects Your Child’s Development (2007).
Steve D. Derne, Globalization on the Ground: New Media and the Transformation of Culture, Class, and Gender in India (Sage Publications, 2008).
Ariel Dorfman, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (International General, 1984).
Henry Giroux, The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (Rowman Littlefield, 2001).
John de Graaf, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2005).
Linda Haas, From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture (Indiana University Press, 1995).
Donaldo Macedo, Media Literacy: A Reader (Peter Lang Publishing, 2007).
Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (Vintage Random House, 1994).
Eugene Provenzo, Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo (Harvard University Press, 1994).
Usha Rodrigues, Youth, Media and Culture in the Asia Pacific Region (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008).
Juliet B. Schor, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (Scribner, 2005).
Shirley R. Steinberg, Christotainment: Selling Jesus through Popular Culture (Westview Press, 2009).
[Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood was first published by Westview Press in 1997, with a 2nd edition appearing in 2004 and a third edition due out in 2011. This review is extracted and slightly edited from Books for Critical Consciousness by J. Progler (Penang, Malaysia: Citizens International, 2010), and it is dedicated to the memory of the late Joe L. Kincheloe (1950-2008). Shirley Steinberg is currently the director of The Paulo and Nita Freire International Project for Critical Pedagogy.]

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