Since the 1980s, a peculiar paradox has evolved in American film. Hollywood’s children have grown up, and the adults are looking and behaving more and more like children. In popular films such as Harry Potter, Toy Story, Pocahantas, Home Alone, and Jumanji, it is the children who are clever, savvy, and self-sufficient while the adults are often portrayed as bumbling and ineffective.
Is this transformation of children into "little adults" an invention of Hollywood or a product of changing cultural definitions more broadly? In Coining for Capital, Jyostna Kapur explores the evolution of the concept of childhood from its portrayal in the eighteenth century as a pure, innocent, and idyllic state—the opposite of adulthood—to its expression today as a mere variation of adulthood, complete with characteristics of sophistication, temptation, and corruption. Kapur argues that this change in definition is not a media effect, but rather a structural feature of a deeply consumer-driven society.
Providing a new and timely perspective on the current widespread alarm over the loss of childhood, Coining for Capital concludes that our present moment is in fact one of hope and despair. As children are fortunately shedding false definitions of proscribed innocence both in film and in life, they must now also learn to navigate a deeply inequitable, antagonistic, and consumer-driven society of which they are both a part and a target.
In this revealing social history, Daniel Thomas Cook explores the roots of children’s consumer culture—and the commodification of childhood itself—by looking at the rise, growth, and segmentation of the children’s clothing industry. Cook describes how in the early twentieth century merchants, manufacturers, and advertisers of children’s clothing began to aim commercial messages at the child rather than the mother. Cook situates this fundamental shift in perspective within the broader transformation of the child into a legitimate, individualized, self-contained consumer.
The Commodification of Childhood begins with the publication of the children’s wear industry’s first trade journal, The Infants’ Department, in 1917 and extends into the early 1960s, by which time the changes Cook chronicles were largely complete. Analyzing trade journals and other documentary sources, Cook shows how the industry created a market by developing and promulgating new understandings of the “nature,” needs, and motivations of the child consumer. He discusses various ways that discursive constructions of the consuming child were made material: in the creation of separate children’s clothing departments, in their segmentation and layout by age and gender gradations (such as infant, toddler, boys, girls, tweens, and teens), in merchants’ treatment of children as individuals on the retail floor, and in displays designed to appeal directly to children. Ultimately, The Commodification of Childhood provides a compelling argument that any consideration of “the child” must necessarily take into account how childhood came to be understood through, and structured by, a market idiom.
With the advent of urbanization in the early modern period, the material worlds of children were vastly altered. In industrialized democracies, a broad consensus developed that children should not work, but rather learn and play in settings designed and built with these specific purposes in mind. Unregulated public spaces for children were no longer acceptable; and the cultural landscapes of children's private lives were changed, with modifications in architecture and the objects of daily life.
In Designing Modern Childhoods, architectural historians, social historians, social scientists, and architects examine the history and design of places and objects such as schools, hospitals, playgrounds, houses, cell phones, snowboards, and even the McDonald's Happy Meal. Special attention is given to how children use and interpret the spaces, buildings, and objects that are part of their lives, becoming themselves creators and carriers of culture. The authors extract common threads in children's understandings of their material worlds, but they also show how the experience of modernity varies for young people across time, through space, and according to age, gender, social class, race, and culture.
Kids' Media Culture
Marsha Kinder, ed. Duke University Press, 1999 Library of Congress HQ784.M3K54 1999 | Dewey Decimal 302.23083
Television shows, comic strips, video games, and other forms of media directed at children are the subject of frequent and rancorous debate. In Kids’ Media Culture some of the most prominent cultural theorists of children’s media join forces with exciting new voices in the field to consider the production and consumption of media aimed at children. What’s good for kids and what’s merely exploitive? Are shows that attempt to level the socioeconomic playing field by educating children effective? The essays in this anthology tackle these questions and pose provocative new questions of their own. As part of their argument that children’s reactions to mass media are far more complex and dynamic than previously thought, contributors examine the rise of mass media in postwar America. They explore how books, cartoons, and television shows of the 1950s and 1960s—such as Lassie and Dennis the Menace—helped redefine American identity and export an image of a particularly American optimism and innocence worldwide. Other essays take up the controversies surrounding such shows as Sesame Street, My So-Called Life, and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. After discussing the differences in how children and adults react to such programs, the collection focuses on television in schools and the ways that mass media convey messages about gender and socialization. Kids’ Media Culture makes clear that children are active, engaged participants in the media culture surrounding them. This volume will be compelling reading for those interested in television and cultural studies as well as anyone interested in children’s education and welfare. Contributors. Heather Gilmour, Sean Griffin, Heather Hendershot, Henry Jenkins, Yasmin B. Kafai, Jyotsna Kapur, Marsha Kinder, Susan Murray, Elissa Rashkin, Ellen Seiter, Lynn Spigel, Karen Orr Vered
In Kids Rule! Sarah Banet-Weiser examines the cable network Nickelodeon in order to rethink the relationship between children, media, citizenship, and consumerism. Nickelodeon is arguably the most commercially successful cable network ever. Broadcasting original programs such as Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Rugrats (and producing related movies, Web sites, and merchandise), Nickelodeon has worked aggressively to claim and maintain its position as the preeminent creator and distributor of television programs for America’s young children, tweens, and teens. Banet-Weiser argues that a key to its success is its construction of children as citizens within a commercial context. The network’s self-conscious engagement with kids—its creation of a “Nickelodeon Nation” offering choices and empowerment within a world structured by rigid adult rules—combines an appeal to kids’ formidable purchasing power with assertions of their political and cultural power.
Banet-Weiser draws on interviews with nearly fifty children as well as with network professionals; coverage of Nickelodeon in both trade and mass media publications; and analysis of the network’s programs. She provides an overview of the media industry within which Nickelodeon emerged in the early 1980s as well as a detailed investigation of its brand-development strategies. She also explores Nickelodeon’s commitment to “girl power,” its ambivalent stance on multiculturalism and diversity, and its oft-remarked appeal to adult viewers. Banet-Weiser does not condemn commercial culture nor dismiss the opportunities for community and belonging it can facilitate. Rather she contends that in the contemporary media environment, the discourses of political citizenship and commercial citizenship so thoroughly inform one another that they must be analyzed in tandem. Together they play a fundamental role in structuring children’s interactions with television.
"A radical approach to children's TV. . . . Seiter argues cogently that watching Saturday cartoons isn't a passive activity but a tool by which even the very young decode and learn about their culture, and develop creative imagination as well. Bolstered by social, political, developmental, and media research, Seiter ties middle-class aversion to children's TV and mass-market toys to an association with the 'uncontrollable consumerism'––and hence supposed moral failure––of working class members, women, and 'increasingly, children.' . . . Positive guidance for parents uncertain of the role of TV and TV toys in their children's lives."––Kirkus Reviews
"Sold Separately is about television and toys, and the various roles that they play in the lives of children and parents. In particular, Seiter examines toy advertising, both in print media and on television; TV commercials; toy-based video for girls, with an in-depth look at "My Little Pony"; action TV for boys, using "Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters" as her case study; and the stores where toys are sold, both Toys "R" Us and the more upscale shops . . . contains many provocative observations."––Women's Review of Books
"Ellen Seiter has a holiday message for yuppie parents who feel guilty shopping at Toys "R" Us. The mass-produced toys that dominate the chain's shelves need not be the enemy of every right-thinking parent. "Ghostbuster" figurines and "My Little Pony" can share the toy chest with those sensible wooden blocks."––Chronicle of Higher Education
"Emphasizing problems of socioeconomic class, gender, and race stereotyping, this study acknowledges the usual parental complaints about toys like Barbie and G.I. Joe, but insists that they do play an important role in children's culture, especially for working class families. A thought-provoking analysis."––Wilson Library Journal
"In this thought provoking study, Seiter reasonably urges parents and others to put aside their own tastes and to understand that children's consumer culture promotes solidarity and sociability among youngsters."––Publishers Weekly
"An important book for those desiring an overview of the toy industry's impact on consumer culture . . . [it] presents a fair and well-balanced view of the industry."––Kathleen M. Carson, associate editor, Playthings
"A refreshing, thoughtful, and insightful investigation of an enormously important subject––consumer culture for kids. . . . I can't recommend it highly enough."––Janice Radway, Duke University, author of Reading the Romance