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Exploring the Cultural Topography of Childhood: Television Performing the "Child" to Children

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I have found peace with my television viewing habit, big bottoms and German historians both be damned. Television obviously hasn't hurt me that much.
Stephani Woodson

Issue #47, January 2000


I have nursed a specific memory for several years now, replaying the event in my head and creating new dialogue in which I star, witty and cunning as Dorothy Parker. The actual event was minor; in fact, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if I am the only one of the participants who remembers it. My partner and I were at a neighborhood bar with a German historian. We were discussing television--how bad it is, how it caters to the lowest common denominator, how it functions as the root cause of all evil.

Actually, they were discussing television. I was merely nodding appropriately while watching the inebriated guy next to us try to come on to just about every woman in the bar. When my supposed-mate turned to look at me, several beers later, and shared, "You know, Stephani actually likes television. She watches it almost every night," I felt as if he'd just shared a personal erotic detail.

Well, the German historian continued his tirade about the dumbing down of America while focusing increasingly on my "dirty little habit." In a long-winded speech peppered with German phrases no one else understood, he made it sound as if television was right up there with sharing dirty needles or deforestation. And instead of defending my habit, all I did was grin sheepishly and bob my head as if someone had caught me picking my nose.

Television, he thundered, is why so many children cannot read worth a damn, let alone think, or concentrate longer than a minute. Too many people, he continued, punctuating his phrases with his beer, plop themselves down at the end of the day and only get up to haul their large bottoms off to bed. All that remains of them are ass-sized dents in the couch cushions. In my fantasies, I make withering statements about classist academics too puffed up with their own self-importance to enjoy anti-intelligentsia entertainment. I also point out the difference between causality and correlation. At the time, however, I simply felt guilt.

Since then, I have found peace with my television viewing habit, big bottoms and German historians both be damned. Television obviously hasn't hurt me that much. Yet I have to confess a lingering doubt about the relationship of the "boob tube" to children. Before I had kids, I can remember making grandiose statements about how my children would never watch television, or how I would always be right at their sides when they did, so we could discuss those PBS documentaries as a family. Again, I should point out that this was before I ever had a real live kid of my own. Frankly, I was totally unprepared for how much my daughter would like television. She asks for it, demands it even.

Still, in our culture television, especially children's television, remains a low-status activity. Although I let my daughter watch her fair share of television, I still have a lot of questions and quite frankly a lot of guilt. My key concerns revolve around the questions: what are my daughter's favorite programs teaching her? ... practicing on her? ... inculcating in her?

The broad discourse of children's entertainment or "edutainment" contains numerous questionable assumptions about children's supposed emotions, levels of creativity, states of mind, and aesthetic experiences. In order to explore the ideologies and moralities embedded in these assumptions, we must scrutinize childhood and the "child" as complex constructs, rather than accepting them as "natural" objects.

Childhood is not a universal condition of life. Humans, indeed most species, experience biological immaturity. But childhood is a uniquely human experience. It is the manner in which we understand and articulate the physical reality of biological immaturity. Viewed in this light, the "child" becomes a metaphor -- a pattern of meaning -- and childhood can be conceived of as socially specific sets of ideas, attitudes, and practices. Unlike gender or race, childhood is a temporary and temporal classification. But like race and gender, it acts as a set of power relationships revolving around different axes. Notions of "childhood" map implicit ideological (and moral) assumptions in the conceptualization of what it "is" to be a child as well as what it "ought" to be.

This is never so true as when adults discuss the "needs" of children and of childhood. In 1990, Martin Woodhead looked at the concept of "need" in relation to western and westernized concepts of childhood. He discovered that "conceptualizing childhood in terms of 'needs,'" while ubiquitous and widely considered progressive and enlightened, "conceals in practice a complex of latent assumptions and judgments about children." In other words, an individual's use of the term "need" often reveals more about that person's culture, ideology, and values than it does about children.

Arguments as diverse as whether the government should subsidize daycare to whether mothers should be required to stay home with their young children have all been supported through the authority and use of children's "needs." However, the term "need" exists as a type of short-hand expressing what individuals believe about what is in the best interests of children. As Woodhead comments, "A statement which appears to describe qualities of children's nature as young humanity has a very different status to a judgment by parents, teachers, experts or politicians about what is good for them." By citing "need" in policy, statements, or proclamations, individuals naturalize their beliefs by attaching them directly to the biological imperatives of childhood.

Childhood tends to be constituted in most areas of the western world as a specific kind of space, growing from the construction of the child as "other." Most of the popular culture books on children examine childhood in terms of space (e.g., The Disappearance of Childhood, The Erosion of Childhood, The Road to Romance and Ruin). The conceptualization of childhood as a topography is never so clear as it is in televised programs for children. Such shows create individualized environments in which their characters explore and play. It's important to note however that all children's television programs are controlled and created by adults. These programs contain the cultural geography of childhood, but it is mapped from the perspective of adults. This state of affairs makes it all but impossible for adults to really understand children. Instead, they can only look in on the spaces of childhood from the outside, influenced by personal remembrances and their own adult stories about childhood.

Barney, Teletubbies and Children's Spaces

Two of my daughter's favorite television shows are Barney and Friends and Teletubbies, so part of my interest in these programs is decidedly selfish. However, each exists as pop cultural phenomena, beyond their appeal to my specific child. Just last week, the Barney road show played in my city's basketball arena, and did you know that you can download Teletubby screensavers and wallpaper directly from a BBC site? What each of these programs shares, beyond a marketing behemoth which makes their characters ubiquitous, is a focus on children as children. They both perform childhood for their child audience.

Both shows also appear daily on PBS affiliates. Barney and Friends is still going strong after ten plus years and is filmed in Texas, produced by Lyrick Studios. Barney is the six-foot purple dinosaur that adults love to hate. "Most parents," reported Time Magazine, "want to throttle Barney as much as their children want to hug him." One parent described her first reaction to Barney as "abject horror, followed by serious doubts as to why I had ever had a child." I had hoped to keep Barney out of my daughter's viewing palette, but my sister maliciously played a Barney video while babysitting and now I'm stuck. My daughter recently had to have an out-patient surgery performed on her foot and the only thing that would keep her calm as she came out of anesthesia was for me to sing Barney's treacly finale song over and over (I love you/You love me/We're a happy family).

barney Still, however parents react to him -- a neighbor with two young children shared that she actually got tears in her eyes when Barney first appeared during his road show -- over two million children tune in every day to watch the show, and Barney receives over 10,000 fan letters a week.

Teletubbies has also had great success, generating incredible amounts of publicity since its UK debut in March of 1997 (April 1998 in the US). Filmed in the UK and commissioned by the BBC, the program can be seen, according to its official web-site, in the United States (licensed by the Itsy Bitsy Entertainment Company), the Netherlands, Australia, France, South Africa, Portugal, and New Zealand. The show features four characters with large heads, big ears,and fuzzy bodies: Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po.

This show too has received its share of criticism. About nine months ago, Teletubbies was in the news because a publication owned by Jerry Falwell claimed that one of the characters represents gay pride. The publication based its claim on the fact that the character in question, Tinky Winky, carries a purse, is purple, and has a triangle-shaped antenna on his head. In a less paranoid and wacky vein, one newspaper commentary also noted, "The colorful stars already have been accused of being scary and pointless, and of developing infant couch potatoes." Moreover, Teletubbies does not integrate obvious pedagogical structures, and this, plus the very young target audience, has caused many Americans to become uneasy with them.

Unlike Teletubbies, Barney and Friends fits into parental preconceived notions about what exactly children's entertainment should be. Each episode revolves around a different theme and focuses on basic prosocial behaviors (e.g., cooperation, friendship, imagination, good sportsmanship) or obviously educational subjects (e.g., the alphabet, numbers, taking care of pets, the seasons). The geography of childhood as constructed by Barney revolves around an elementary school, its playground, and a tree-house. Childhood here is mapped out among the landscapes of the suburban middle-class, bounded by a type of new-age, genteel liberalism. The characters of the show are multi-cultural, the show focuses on building self-esteem, while the material conditions of the set and its characters are decidedly well-to-do. The basic premise of Barney is that an after-school group of students bring the purple and green tyrannosaurus rex to life with the powers of their imaginations. While there are adult characters, the show revolves around the playful interactions of the child actors with Barney standing in as the parental figure.

While not focusing on child characters, Teletubbies still focuses on childhood. Here it is the Teletubby characters who are infantilized, having large heads, full cheeks, and big eyes. With thick limbs and prominent bellies, the teletubbies resemble nothing so much as a diapered child in fuzzy pajamas. Given the limitations of the costumes, the creatures' movements also appear to be those of a young child, and the choreography is simple, repetitive, and rhythmic. The tubbies each have a special object that differentiates them from the others. They frequently play with these objects, sing songs about them, and share them. The tubbies occupy a developmental scale reinforced by their physical and verbal abilities, often visually reinforcing their biological "progression" by lining up from largest (Tinky Winky) to smallest (Po). Despite the Reverend Falwell's claims, gender differentiation is minimal. The two largest teletubbies have male voices while the two smallest are voiced by females. Other slight gender-based differences exist as well; for example, the giggliest tubby, Laa-Laa, has a female voice. However, all the teletubbies participate equally in what are traditionally gender-segregated activities: everyone interacts with technology or everyone wears a pink tutu and dances.

In fact, both Teletubbies and Barney and Friends depend upon the use of music and dance to hold the attention of their young audiences. Narrative segments rarely last longer than six minutes before characters begin to sing and/or dance. I believe that this is one of the primary appeals of both shows. Barney and Friends in particular depends upon simple songs (often based on nursery rhyme tunes) to reinforce the "message" of each show.

It is in these choreographed segments, however, that the fissures between a show mediated and produced by adults and their imagined child audience clearly appear. Writing about children's literature, Jacqueline Rose first described this relationship in 1984: "Children's fiction sets up a world in which the adult comes first (author, maker, giver) and the child comes after (reader, product, receiver), but where neither of them enter the space in between." Childhood is, in fact, the ultimate product and message constructed by Barney. This appears clearly in the simple singing and choreography performed by the child actors who, writes one reviewer, "seemed to have learned to sing and dance that morning."

The child actors render the choreography with varying degrees of success and they mug and ham it up for the camera. The adult-negotiated vision of childhood they help to construct with all this singing and dancing is as treacly-sweet as the finale song itself. Utterly lacking in irony, there is something almost obscene about this adult-controlled performance of childhood produced on the bodies of actual children and for a child audience. This directorial method "sets up the child as an outsider to its own process, and then aims unashamedly, to take the child in." The visual language of television along with the use of real children to portray child characters depends upon and reinforces Barney as belonging to a realistic paradigm (the giant purple dinosaur notwithstanding). In effect this hides the constructed nature of childhood. It conceals authorship and the choices involved in the production process behind a veneer of reality. As British sociologists Abercrombie, Lash, and Longhurst state: "Realist forms ... are fictions but do not present themselves as fictions." Ultimately then, the topography of childhood as performed by Barney constrains children to one particular type of adult approved and mediated identity.

Unlike Barney and Friends, the organization and visual geography of Teletubbies can create a type of unruly space for the practice of alternate childhood identities. This "wild range," however, is contained by the more comprehensive structure of control represented by the geography of Teletubbyland. It is a geography that depends upon Romantic constructions of childhood as utopic. Gently rolling hills covered in velvety grass and small patches of flowers anchor the cerulean skies and well-groomed trees. This provides a beautiful background to the brightly colored teletubbies. There are no weeds, deadpatches of grass, or imposing structures (natural or synthetic). Childhood is constructed as a controlled natural environment - a garden. Impossibly idyllic, the landscape is paired with gently rhythmic music (including birdsong, wind, etc.) and simple repetitive melodies: the soundscape of Teletubbyland is as mild and cultivated as the setting.

However, two items subvert this very controlled and controlling milieu: the absence of embodied adults, and the spontaneous appearance and disappearance of magical and material objects.

eh oh! There are no adults in Teletubbyland. Adult power and desire is performed through the narrator and the trumpets that voice demands; however, there is no physical presence to reinforce them. The tubbies frequently are shown disagreeing with and subverting adult stipulations. They say "no" and run away if adult demands become too obstructive. Although generally compliant, the tubbies do not depend upon adults to meet their physical or emotional needs and have the power to express dissension; they are not punished for insubordination. Teletubbyland can exist, then, as a landscape of power for very young children.

Teletubbies disrupts adult constructions of childhood in another way as well. Items appear and disappear at least once, generally twice, a program: these objects include guitars, mirrors, balloons, and magical manifestations like clouds that rain flowers, dancing bears, and trees that rapidly cycle through the seasons. These phenomena surface regardless of narrative or causal logic; in fact they often have no relationship to previous segments at all. They exist as images of play and function only so long as the tubbies remain interested in them. The entire organization of Teletubbies contains comparable semiotic combinations. Rather than stressing or even creating a straightforward narrative with clear causal relationships, as does Barney and Friends, Teletubbies exists as image and is arranged around play rather than story. There is no concept of "fate" or "consequence" in this show. Occurrences happen because they happen and "impossible" events can occur just as frequently as more plausible ones.

It is this structure of play and the validation of pleasure that has caused many American critics to label this show "pointless." In my own informal discussions about this show with other parents, I have been intrigued to find that adults often are bewildered by their children's interest in Teletubbies. The lack of a pedagogical focus as well as the show's playful structure creates a language of signs based on the experiences of young children, not grown-ups. These experiences could be classified as repetitive and trivial from an adult perspective, and the parents I spoke with were particularly uneasy about Teletubbies' lack of obviously educational goals. Parents want more from their children's entertainment than mere pleasure. Gratification that does not advance scholarship or skill can strike parents as hedonistic and escapist, especially when involving the consumption of television--already a low status activity.

Although Teletubbies disrupts the traditional geography of childhood through its emphasis on the lived experiences of young children, their pleasure and desires, and the exercises of children's subjective power, in the end childhood remains contained. The controlled and controlling landscape, the commands of the voice trumpets and the narrator, define the physical and affective states of the child-like characters. The narrator in particular functions to direct and regulate the teletubbies. He often "describes" their actions, desires, and physical states before the characters perform them. Using past and present tenses to describe future actions, the narrator eliminates choice and reinforces the adult assumption that grown-ups know children's physical and affective states better than do children themselves.

While both programs construct specific cultural maps of childhood, they also function to validate children's experiences as children. As Karen Anijar points out, "Experiences between the child and social world are mediated by a buffer zone of unanswered questions and quandaries. Young people's understandings of the world are trivialized, their passions diminutized, their complex ideas and theories not taken as seriously as those of adults." Ultimately, both Barney and Teletubbies take children very seriously indeed. Any honest representation of the difficulties and problems of children must subvert dominant paradigms of childhood as a place of sweetness and light, characterized not by power inequalities but by innocence and joy. Both programs also converge on the element of childhood desire, in effect, reconfiguring the established geography of childhood as progressive development towards adulthood by allowing and promoting children's pleasure in the now through an emphasis on structures of play.

An extremely complex activity, play allows individuals to manipulate the relationships between symbols and their meanings. While often viewed in opposition to "work" play actually involves complex negotiations between meanings and meaning-makers. Who hasn't seen small children directing one another in games of "house" or "store?" My daughter has recently become very attached to a cardboard box which functions as her car, her boat, her nest, and as a convenient way to move toys from room to room. The box is just tall enough that she must really stretch her physical skills to the utmost to climb in and out with out toppling the whole thing over. Play folds into itself notions of disengagement and interruption, as well as pleasure and what Csikszentimhalyi calls "flow states" or the joyous feeling one finds in having skill and challenge equally balanced in an activity. If my daughter's box was just a bit taller or perhaps a bit smaller, I'm not so sure she would enjoy it as much. Play exists as a liminal state and is, as Victor Turner states, the "dialectical dancing partner of ritual." Play then provides a type of ritual space in which individuals can disrupt and subvert traditional paradigms and social functions. Individuals may reflect reality as they know it or they may sketch out more interesting "designs for living." For children, the liminal space of play allows them to reconfigure power relationships, explore identities, and reframe actions. Liminal space, however, ultimately is recuperated back into dominant power structures. As Davis argues, these spaces "are ultimately sources of order and stability in a hierarchicalsociety. They can clarify the structure by the process of reversing it. They can provide an expression of, and a safety valve for, conflicts within the system ... but ... they do not question the basic order of the society itself." Thus, like the cultural geography of childhood constructed within Barney and Friends and Teletubbies, children's liminal spaces -- including their spaces of play -- are either contained or transformed into adult paradigms. My daughter may love her new cardboard toy, but in the end, isn't it still just a box?

Stephani Etheridge Woodson received her PhD in theatre studies in May of 1999. She is currently busy teaching full-time-plus in part-time jobs.

Copyright © 2000 by Stephani Woodson. All rights reserved.

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