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Kids' Media Culture

Editor: Marsha Kinder
Publisher: Durham, NC & London, UK: Duke University Press, 1999
Review Published: April 2002

 REVIEW 1: Geoff Lealand

I came to this book with a number of reservations. My initial misgivings probably had something to do with a couple of other book reviews I have done recently -- most especially the monster compilation Handbook on Children and Media, edited by Singer and Singer (Sage Publications, 2000). I challenged this particular collection on several grounds, including its physical bulk ('Handbook' was a rather misleading description) but, more seriously, because it was a collection primarily about American children and American media, rather than global perspectives its title seemed to promise. There was an unreflexive assumption that all children were American children (or aspired to be), little recognition of other media environments (the mixed broadcasting environments of the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, for example), and only a minimal nod at the rich research and theoretical literature from non-North American sources. There was, for example, very little mention of the prolific and innovative work of British academic David Buckingham. All contributors were American, except for one token German.

Kids' Media Culture, edited by Marsha Kinder, is also dominated by American academics, with one piece by an Australian (Karen Orr Vered's "Selective Bibliography on Children's Media Culture"). But, unlike the Singer & Singer collection, the great majority of contributions here are very outward-looking and often very knowledgeable about a diversity of research from dispersed sources. The aforementioned bibliography, for example, includes numerous references to important British and Australian books. A good number of the contributors (such as Lynn Spigel, Henry Jenkins, Susan Murray, Ellen Seiter, and Kinder herself) are highly regarded in the international community of researchers and policy-makers in children's media. Their writings are regarded as providing a very necessarily balance to writings of their more agitated and alarmist colleagues, such as Marie Winn and Neil Postman.

It is not mere national chauvinism or xenophobia that causes me to make these remarks. Like many other countries, New Zealand experiences periodic media-led or media-fed alarms about 'television violence' or 'computer-addicted kids' or 'cell-phone mania.' When these occur (thankfully, they seem to be occurring less frequently), 'research' is often called upon to support particular stances on the issue. In most cases, 'research' usually means research from some other country and some other context (as well as very selective research), with little pause nor any willingness to question how neatly it fits with local circumstances. It would seem that in such cases, America both exports the problem ('violent' television programming, or morally-loose feature films) and the solution (effects research which supports calls for censorship or increased regulation). The enthusiasm with which some countries (Australia, for example) talked about copying the FCC-initiated 'V-chip' device of the 1990s is one such example. But they were probably wise in holding off for a while, given that the V-chip has pretty much failed its purpose in the United States. Fortunately, Kinder and colleagues seem to be more aware, and respectful, of cultural difference and more attuned to the subtle differences of gender, age, and place in that life-stage called 'childhood.'

This collection is divided into three sections: "Children's Media Culture in the Postwar Era," "Reception and Cultural Identity," and "Pedagogy and Power." This is a sensible arrangement, for it allows for historical contextualising, discussions of contemporary childhood, and research-based contributions on particular aspects of such culture. It demonstrates, for example, how long-lived some alarms about media and media have been, and the familiarity of the patterns they follow.

There could be a danger, for example, of a cheery and uncritical nostalgia framing studies of Dennis the Menace, Charlie Brown, Davy Crockett, and Lassie, or, as Kinder puts it, "nostalgia for a period of childhood that never really existed" (21). As adults, we do tend to look back on the experiences of our own childhood in a rosy glow -- comparing them with what children do now. It seems, somehow, that there is something more 'authentic' and meaningful in a Davy Crockett hat than in the stuff that now fills children's lives (Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z, for example). But as Jenkins, Sean Griffins, and others point out, commercial forces were very much to the fore in earlier decades (the 1950s, in particular). The great majority of this commerce was American and, as now, was exported globally. As Spigel notes, "childhood became synonymous with America -- the only place where it still existed" (38).

As now, it often generated an ambivalent response outside the United States. Sometimes the response was down-right bizarre. In New Zealand, for example, the Labour government passed the 1955 Rabbit Amendment Act -- specifically designed to prohibit the tanning and trading of rabbit pelts, which might then be made into Davy Crockett hats. This was despite a situation where New Zealand farms were being overrun by the pesky critters!

It is just that the volume and frequency of the media-merchandising connections are now more overt and insistent. There is more media and even more merchandising -- the great majority which results from the 'market synergy' or the 'virtual integration' practices of giant media conglomerates. Toy manufacturers are connected to the parent companies of television networks, and book publishers are subsidiaries of media giants such as AOL-Time Warner or Bertelsmann. Nothing in children's lives escapes their attention -- as in the merchandising onslaught accompanying the first adaptation of the Harry Potter books. But, interestingly, the millions of Harry Potter books and toys circulating around the world seem to have escaped critical attention, with only Coke attracting some criticism for its licensing tie-ins. It may well be because of the book origins of Potter, as well as the privileged place of reading in middle class culture.

This collection is pre-Potter but much of the careful analysis applied to earlier examples of fads and fashions in children's culture is transferable and recycleable. Spigel, for example, suggests that "comic strip characters do suggest ideologies and political choices; they do represent nations" (34). In particular, they often suggest both high idealism and deep conservatism. In fact, Spigel was able to explain why I had always felt a little uneasy about Dennis the Menace, since I first encountered him in New Zealand in the early 1960s. It wasn't just that he seemed like an unpleasant or unlikely little boy; it was also the continuous anti-intellectualism he seemed to delight in.

The real joy of the historical pieces (Spigel on Charlie Brown, Jenkins on Lassie) is the opportunities they offer to revisit and appraise cultural artifacts which have now lost much of their potency. Jenkins, for example, provides a wonderful analysis of the place of the dog in children's culture -- indulging in a little candid autobiography along the way. He argues that "Children and dogs are central figures for nostalgia, evoking images of innocence that adults cannot reclaim and loyalty that defies human understanding . . . the ways that certain myths about children and dogs spring forth to help us deal with our anxieties about change" (95).

Jenkins writes about children, dogs, adulthood, and culture but much of what he provides could also be translated to a wider discussion about the human world and the animal world -- such as our relationships with bears, rabbits, whales, dolphins, cats, and so on.

Other contributions to this collection address the themes of childhood, media, and culture -- most particularly in the ways it is continuously idealized or pathologized. Seiter, for example, provides a fascinating case study of two very contrasting positions on television in the lives of young children. In one camp, there is an authoritarian Montessori teacher (Sara); in the other, there is a more generously-spirited black child-care supervisor (Gloria). In her very careful conclusions, Seiter suggests the following: "Gloria's case study suggests that a less deleterious view of media effects may emerge from situations where adult caregivers know more about the media, invest less in status distinctions, and create an environment where children feel free to talk about media without inviting adult disapproval" (260).

This really sounds like a call for best practice in media education (or 'media literacy,' as it is called in North America). In fact, Kinder calls for this very early in her Introduction: "Itis essential to position children as active producers of media images rather than merely passive receivers, both by teaching media literacy in the schools and by designing media products with this capability" (11).

In this respect, American media educators are beginning to organize themselves -- often taking their cue from their colleagues in Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. There are still internal quarrels between those who see their task as protection or discrimination against the excesses of the media, and those who regard media literacy as a right of citizenship and a rounded education. Nevertheless, the more enlightened leaders of the American media literacy movement often acknowledge that other countries have already developed rigorous, national programmes in media teaching. In New Zealand, for example, visual language comprises one-third of the national English curriculum, and there are national assessment frameworks for Media Studies.

The principles of media education (critical analysis; creativity; citizenship) are not media-specific -- they are applied across all forms of media, from the comic strip to television to the Internet. When teaching involves the Internet, for example, it is important to teach about access and use -- but even more important to teach about evaluation and judgement of Web sites and the material they contain. I favor exercises that ask students to submit a search word like 'nationalism' to see what it produces. This leads to a discussion about the legitimacy of the results -- responses which can range from serious, academic discussions of the nation, to rabid white supremacy sites.

Kinder's Kids' Media Culture supports the spirit of informed debate about the role of media in contemporary life -- most especially in respect of the use its primary users put it to. The contributions by Gilmour and Kafai, on the intersections between gender and computer/video gaming, are good examples of this. I recommend this collection highly.

Geoff Lealand:
Geoff Lealand is a Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media Studies at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.  <lealand@waikato.ac.nz>

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