Children's Culture [August 30 - September 3, 2010]

Avi Santo's picture

Monday August 30, 2010 – Benjamin Thevenin (University of Colorado) presents: The Wild Child: A Fresh Look at the Pains and Joys of Childhood in Film

Tuesday August 31, 2010 – Steven Boyer (University of Glasgow) presents: Cuddly Kittens and Chainsaw Bayonets: Where Do Kids Fit into Today’s Video Game Landscape?

Wednesday September 1, 2010 – Morgan Blue (University of Texas at Austin) presents: Taking Stock & Giving Back: Citizenship in Hannah Montana Forever

Thursday September 2, 2010 – Allison Butler (Independent scholar) presents: Young People, Social Networking and Qualitative Methods

Friday September 3, 2010 – Phil Nel (Kansas State University) presents: Metafiction for Children: A User’s Guide


Theme week organized by Jeremy Groskopf (Georgia State University)

Picture from D Sharon Pruitt via Flickr, used and altered under Creative Commons License permission.

  • The Wild Child: A Fresh Look at the … by Benjamin Thevenin

  • Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is arguably the most memorable representation of childhood in cinema history—the film’s final freeze-frame being the perfect portrayal of adolescent uncertainty.  In fact, I think that Roger Ebert correctly identified a common theme in much of Truffaut’s work: “the way young people grow up, explore themselves, and attempt to function creatively in the world.”  In recent years, a number of filmmakers—typically known for their more adult-oriented films—have been turning to children’s stories. Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are are among a number of contemporary children’s films that, like Truffaut’s work, seek to address the pains and joys of childhood onscreen.

    The Fantastic Mr. Fox follows a family of foxes as they attempt to outwit three oddball farmers who are out for their blood. And while the film primarily focuses on Mr. Fox’s risky business, it also addresses his son Ash’s own adolescent difficulties. Because he’s small, he dresses as a makeshift superhero, and he struggles to compete athletically, both his father and his schoolmates label him ‘different.’ 

    Like Anderson’s previous work, the film features a bold color palette, an eclectic soundtrack, and a dry sense of humor; but probably most significantly, the film shares a theme of familial reconciliation with his films like the The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited. The father fox makes serious mistakes—so consumed with his own mid-life crisis that he fails to consider his son’s feelings and he ultimately jeopardizes the safety of his entire family. And while Mr. Fox ultimately overcomes these obstacles, it is not without making amends with and helping restore the confidence of his son Ash.

    Spike Jonze’s film Where the Wild Things Are works with similar themes of adolescent angst and familial reconciliation. And like Jonze’s previous films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, the film sprinkles fantastic elements into an otherwise realistic narrative. In an effort to escape conflict with his teenage sister and newly-dating mom, nine year-old Max escapes to the place where the wild things are. Here Max is forced to confront and cooperate with creatures that seem to represent the wild emotions with which he’s struggling. And at times, these creatures are cruel and frightening—indicative of the intense emotions experienced during childhood.

    An often-voiced criticism of both of these films is that while being adaptations of beloved kids’ books, the films aren’t necessarily for children; instead—much like Truffaut’s work—these films are about childhood. And this may be due, in part, to the sensibility of the filmmakers. While more typical children’s films from studios like Disney or Dreamworks seem to be produced to appease their youth market, films from Truffaut and now Anderson and Jonze instead attempt to confront issues faced by youth—even if they’re less accessible and even sometimes disturbing. Though, I find this approach to be refreshing, and I’m eager to see how other films (Scorcese’s upcoming adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, for example) address this interesting subject. Characters like Ash and Max and Antoine Doinel resonate with audiences, young and old, because they embody the conflicted nature of childhood—the joys of romping through the forest and the pains of staring at an empty horizon.

  • Cuddly Kittens and Chainsaw … by Steven Boyer

  • At this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Microsoft opened their press event by showing off a Cold War-era military shooter with guns galore and massive explosions, a Japanese action game fetishizing slow-motion body-slicing, and an alien-shooter where the guns come with attached chainsaws. After previewing several other video games tailored exclusively for adults and showing some new console features, Microsoft then brought a young girl out on stage to cuddle with a virtual tiger-kitten. Huh? 

    This demo of Kinectimals was one of the Expo’s very few high-profile moments when a game was promoted as specifically “for kids,” which is surprising considering how closely video games and children are tied in the broader cultural consciousness (a lingering perception of who primarily plays games from the medium’s early ties with the toy industry). Today, however, video games have much less to do with Toys-R-Us than with media conglomerates like Sony, Time Warner, Viacom, and Vivendi, which all have major game production holdings.  As the percentage of child gamers shrinks (around 25%, which is slightly less than those aged 50+!), the industry has increasingly pushed children’s gaming into the background and focused on expanding the market upwards (often by explicitly disavowing the medium’s adolescent reputation). 

    This has not only contributed to grisly mature material but also the family gaming trend popularized by Nintendo’s “anyone can play” approach with the Wii that removes kids’ individual preferences and lumps them in with mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa. Even Kinectimals, the gaming equivalent of a stuffed animal, is shown in its’ promotional advertisement being enjoyed not only by two young girls, but also by a female adult. In fact, this E3 demo was only a small part of Microsoft’s larger attempt to capitalize on this lucrative “family” market with the motion-controlled Kinect (see also Sony’s PlayStation Move).  Even those games like Nintendo’s new Zelda title that in the past would likely have been considered children’s entertainment are probably much more exciting to twenty- and thirty-year-olds due to nostalgia than to today’s youth.  While we should applaud the involvement of parents in their children’s play time and the ability of games to bring people of different ages together, is there a real danger of something getting lost in the process?  For the time being, it isn’t that games for kids aren’t popular or profitable, the industry just seems ashamed to admit it.

  • Taking Stock & Giving Back: … by Morgan Blue

  • In the early episodes of the current and final season of Disney’s Hannah Montana, now optimistically referred to as Hannah Montana Forever, Miley Stewart (played by Miley Cyrus) outdoes herself at showing off new digs (in multiple, excessive iterations), new clothes, and new celebrity friends (President Obama and Sheryl Crow, guest stars Ray Liotta and Christine Taylor). But once in a while she pauses to take stock of the abundance and decides to give something back.

    This clip features interviews (about 1 minute in) with the cast at the taping of episode six back in March. The actors and producers seem to agree that this production is all about the kids—specifically, kids with parents serving in the military. Executive Producer Steven Peterman focuses on the potential for this episode to enhance the lives of military families. While the series rarely if ever foregrounds issues of kids’ political or civil citizenship, he presents this episode as, somehow, exemplary of the series since it “is everything we wanted the show to be.” While unquestioned patriotism may not be a new tack for Cyrus, her characters, or the Disney Channel, this episode stands out among a majority that avoid mention of larger social issues, most frequently offering up even more consumerist, depoliticized forms of citizenship.

    Kids in the U.S. are marginalized from political citizenship, though they exist in dialectical relation to adults via an intricately woven web of power dynamics. Yet, when Cyrus’ young co-star Emily Osment reiterates that “this is all for [the kids],” these Disney kid stars are positioned in relation to the kids in their audience—as particularly privileged and able to recognize the sacrifices imposed on the children of servicewomen and servicemen.

    In the episode, which aired August 22nd, Miley wishes “there was something we could do for the families who aren’t as lucky as we are.” She decides to “give back” by providing a Hannah Montana performance for a group of military families (which would later be viewed by their relatives stationed elsewhere). While the “something” Disney is giving these families with the performance, and by featuring them on the show, seems based on a sincere wish to acknowledge the struggles of others, the performance also may locate catharsis and relief in Hannah’s song lyrics and her heartfelt delivery, at once generating appreciation for Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana, Hannah Montana Forever, and the Disney Channel, in the name of patriotism.

  • Young people, social networking and … by Allison Butler

  • Facebook has moved beyond trend and is now a cornerstone of digital communication.  As young people rapidly adapt to digital communication, social networking presents a vital shift in young people’s media cultures, providing the illusion of participation in digital democracy where postings feel unfiltered and unmonitored, as casual as face-to-face conversations, existing without boundaries.  Facebook invites artistic expression and self-reflection while also operating as a platform for divulging all manner of personal revelations.

    Facebook is also an emerging tool in qualitative data gathering, leading to unique, 21st century concerns and opportunities.  In research I am conducting via Facebook, my participants do not check their spelling; they write in colloquialisms and abbreviations; there is little to no punctuation.  The writing is oral: when spoken out loud, spelling mistakes are not ‘seen’ and grammar sounds like a conversation among confidantes.  Data are slices into their ‘natural’ lives, for which qualitative methods consistently strive.  Yet the boundaries are unclear: are their newsfeeds part of the field?  Should their language be ‘cleaned up’ for academic writing?  One participant, after messaging answers to interview questions, popped up on the chat function and wrote: kay,i type from my phone so have typos,plz excuse me,i dont normally write so jacked up,its just facebook i dont feel like proofreading sometimes. im serious,if its not a paper for school or sumthing i really need to proofread, i wontttt, oi no its lazy of meee,ima start doing betta soon as i get energy lol.   We don’t ‘proofread’ our conversations among our peers: we laugh (out loud); we make excuses; we defend ourselves; we exaggerate our articulations to make a point.

    Facebook has shifted the definition of ‘friend;’ turned ‘message’ into a verb, ‘like’ into a status symbol and altered our understandings of ‘public’ and ‘private.’  Facebook is an efficient communication tool, but with what impact?  How young people communicate with each other and how scholars make meaning of data environments needs greater attention.  Much scholarly and popular critique of Facebook focuses on the blurring of boundaries and long-term impact of incendiary postings.  We must better negotiate how young people themselves understand the boundaries and their roles as communicators, artists, students and workers in a digital environment.  As teachers, scholars and – undoubtedly – Facebook users ourselves, we owe it to young people to work towards nuanced understandings of social networking to make the digital environment more comprehensibly navigable.

    Thank you Ivan Forde for the original video. 

  • Metafiction for Children: A User’s Guide by Philip Nel

  • Meta-commentary on “Metafiction for Children: A User’s Guide”

    Of the many reasons I decided to create this film clip, let’s address the most obvious one right away: I am a ham (green, with eggs on the side — also green).  Less obvious but more important, I wanted my meditation on metafictional children’s books to model and reference “meta.”  So, some words on the screen comment upon the content and others on the style. Those words are all in Futura, the typeface favored by Crockett Johnson, whose Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) is the final book discussed. Behind me, with covers facing out, are metafictional children’s books: Jon Agee’s The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (1988), Barbara Lehman’s The Red Book (2004), Roderick Townley’s The Great Good Thing (2001), Johnson’s A Picture for Harold’s Room (1960), Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile (2010), Deborah Freedman’s Scribble (2007), and Laurie Keller’s The Scrambled States of America (1998).  Even my tie is “meta”: the Peanuts characters are all wearing, holding, or looking at their ties. Had I greater facility with iMovie, I would have bombarded you with yet more “meta” comments and images.  Luckily, my incompetence prevented me from doing so.

    I’m not sure what hooked me on metafictions, but I expect it was something I saw or read as a child.  The classic Chuck Jones cartoon Chuck Amuck (1953)?  Harold and the Purple Crayon?  Though I enjoy metafiction’s playfulness, I also don’t want to suggest that “meta” strategies are magically ideology-free — thus, my inclusion of a pair of scenes from Peter Newell’s Topsys & Turvys (1902).  I do think, however, that the best metafictional works can encourage readers to reflect upon what they’re reading or watching, allowing them to step outside of some of the conceptual boxes that enclose them.  Given that childhood reading occurs during and can shape identity formation, books that encourage reflection upon imposed narratives may help children think critically about their own acculturation.  While books like Newell’s undermine this admittedly utopian wish, most of the other stories discussed here sustain it.  Whether dismantling fairy tales, challenging your visual perception, or daring you to read four stories simultaneously, these other books invite readers to question rather than accept received realities.

    One final note on one who helped me make this a reality. The credits omit Karin Westman, who kindly passed me the books as I talked at the camera. So, to correct that omission: Thanks, Karin!

    —   Philip Nel

Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 30 Aug 2010 04:00:00 +0000