At first glance, the study or teaching of children's media from a TV studies perspective can feel like an epistemological nightmare. This is in part because it requires a blending of two seemingly incompatible frameworks: quantitative, social science approaches, such as those from the fields of psychology, mass communications, law, public policy, and education, and the qualitative, interdisciplinary approaches favored by the humanities. Much foundational work on children's media emerges from the former category, which gives it the appearance of posing or answering questions that are either unfamiliar or not germane to the latter category. The challenge in explaining the relationship between children and media from a feminist perspective is to find ways to make these frameworks speak to each other in more productive, transformative ways.
Because I teach a social science general education course called “Children's Television” but am not a social scientist by training, I usually begin the semester with the story of Mike Teavee, the television-obsessed child from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.1 After watching Mike both at home in his natural element (shooting at the TV with his cap gun while his mother brags, “We serve all his TV dinners right here. He's never even been to the table”) and at the chocolate factory (hijacking the technology of Wonkavision), I ask students, “What's wrong with Mike?” Their answers frequently follow the film's Oompa Loompan line of argument, which is that Mike Teavee is badly behaved because of his intense contact with television, a medium that ostensibly encourages excessive consumerism, violent behavior, and a lack of respect for adults.2 Mike's purported low IQ comes from watching too many commercially sponsored, violent Westerns and cop shows, which in turn explains his love of generic stories and his desire to own a “real gun.”3 Moreover, as the film makes clear with each successive lesson on how to be a bad kid, most of the behaviors exhibited by Willy Wonka's problem children could be forestalled by better parenting, or at least a better understanding of “children as a special audience that needs protection from potentially negative effects of mass media exposure.”4 This common assumption regarding children as a “special audience” posits a fundamentally adversarial relationship between children and media, which not only provides my class with a map for the rest of the semester but also drives the inquiries made by feminist scholars I will discuss below.
In general, the work done by said scholars has allowed for a kind of awakening from the (seeming) nightmare of the either-or approach to studying children's media by recognizing that, first, as Norma Pecora has argued, children's TV is a “cultural category,” and that its history, its texts, and its audiences are not monoliths, and second, that the preferred frameworks of knowledge that are often used to interpret and regulate it are, as Heather Hendershot has argued, themselves discursively constructed.5 This doesn't mean that such approaches have no use value, but that they need to be contextualized and interrogated to better understand the myriad ways Mike Teavee—and television and newer forms of children's media—are constructed as “bad” and what is at stake in constructing television as a bad object. As Hendershot puts it in the introduction to her book Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation before the V-Chip (1999), “By examining [the] process [by which child viewers are constructed by adults], we can see how adults use television to reinforce their own ideas about what constitutes childhood innocence and how that innocence is … or is not … imperiled.”6 Within the broader question of children's television as an adult-driven construct, feminist scholars of children's media have focused on two key areas of inquiry—the political economy of children's media and issues of cultural power and agency—and the relationship between them.
A foundational text in terms of political economy is Pecora's earlier work The Business of Children's Entertainment (1998), which focuses on the development of the children's television industry. Specifically, it problematizes the notion that children were always a significant part of “the commodity” that is the television audience and traces the political and economic factors that led to the increasing focus on child consumers, namely the expansion of the marketplace that occurred as a result of deregulation and the rise of broadcast alternatives in the 1970s and 1980s.7 As the book's title indicates, it is impossible to separate children's television from the larger notion of “entertainment,” which speaks to what Pecora calls the increasing “consumerization of the child,” a “complex process” that she details with toy-based cartoon case studies and in organizational charts aplenty.8 In many ways the book echoes the sentiments of communications-oriented children's media scholars who worry that over-commercialization of children's culture is detrimental to children. However, Pecora also makes space for the possibility of some agency on the part of actual children, which she describes as the ability to tell their own stories.
The question of whether such agency is possible, and under what circumstances, is central to the more cultural studies–focused work on children's media by feminist television scholars at such academic presses as the University of California Press, and as part of scholarly book series such as Rutgers University Press's Communications, Media, and Culture (edited by George Custen) and Duke University Press's Console-ing Passions: Television and Power (edited by Lynn Spigel, Jane Feuer, Lauren Rabinovitz, and Mary Beth Haralovich).9 In addition to indicating the need for television scholarship that assumes “television's significance as a form of cultural expression and a medium of social power,” the appearance of such publication venues also provides a space for work that explicitly acknowledges and engages with multiple epistemological frameworks, such as communications, sociology, political science, political economy, cultural studies, literary theory, and (archival) history in order to theorize the possibilities for understanding children's agency and commercial culture as something other than antithetical.10
For example, in her 1991 book Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games, Marsha Kinder combines literary, psychoanalytic, and cognitive theory with an ethnography of her young son's media use and close textual analysis of specific media products to explain how we might understand the contemporary children's media market as both profit oriented and enabling possibilities for different kinds of reading strategies and play among kid audiences. From this perspective, the “supersystem” of TV, toys, video games, et cetera that Kinder argues is designed to foster children's repeated engagement through “media events” and new purchases also produces a “network of intertextuality” that enables new modes of play that confer a sense of power on the player.11
Similarly, Ellen Seiter's 1995 book Sold Separately examines how toy and TV producers market to parents and children as well as the ways in which TV and toys are consumed in the context of lived experience (daycare centers, homes). She offers both insightful critiques of the exclusionary practices of children's TV and toy advertising in terms of race, class, and gender and the taste-cultivating discourses of parenting magazines, as well as a reading of children's toys and media culture and their consumption as vital social practices that “deman[d] the suspension of adult judgment” to be fully understood.12 In this model, the Pepto-Bismol–colored worlds of 1980s toy-based cartoons for girls can be read as unique spaces because, unlike most children's TV and advertising at the time, they spoke specifically to girls.13
Sarah Banet-Weiser's Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (2007) further develops the concept of the actively engaged child consumer imagined by Kinder and Seiter into the child “consumer-citizen” who is made possible in part by the expansion of media spaces that cater specifically to kids (in this case, Nickelodeon in the 1990s and early 2000s) and by the increased market power of the child consumer more generally. Banet-Weiser's project is not to equate the power to purchase with full-fledged citizenship, but rather to “tease out the tensions involved in citizenship, media audiences, and consumerism” in order to understand “how children interact with and attempt to resolve these tensions in a particular political economy, cultural setting, and media environment.”14 This approach is particularly useful as a model for understanding the rapidly changing circumstances in the production, marketing, and consumption practices of children's media more generally.
Indeed, as the children's media marketplace continues to incorporate new technologies and more narrowly targeted modes of content delivery, the most useful studies of children's media will be those that combine social science– and humanities-based paradigms to consider the implications of children's media texts both new (contemporary transnational children's brands) and old (archival-based scholarship on key examples of historical children's television that model how we might think about new forms of children's culture). Recent examples of these two approaches are Australian education scholar Susan Edwards's examination of international TV and licensing juggernaut Peppa Pig as indicative not only of the political and economic changes in children's media landscape, but also of changing notions of children's development and play, and British television scholar Su Holmes's case study of the BBC's flagship preschool program Play School that considers how the institution of the BBC imagined the preschool child and how that affected its program's address in terms of gender and class.15 While I don't have the space to explain each piece in detail, I have singled them out because of the ways they interrogate assumptions about media texts and the children who use them.
As much as I love Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, its utility in the classroom comes not from its accurate assessment of the relationship between children and television. Instead, it comes from the way the film imagines Mike Teavee as a “child viewer” who, in the words of Heather Hendershot, is “both dangerous to society and endangered by television because of [his] proclivity for imitation.”16 What I aim to do in my class is to help students find a way beyond this impossible image by unpacking those arguments. The interdisciplinary work of feminist scholars of children's media has helped me do that.