Topic 4 Children's Media and ‘Informal Education’

It has long been known that kids are influenced by factors outside of official schooling. Indeed, these 'influences' are apparent to anyone working with kids too. For a long time, and still today, these were seen as undesirable influences with negative effects on what schools were trying to do -- the anti-school values of the (working class or ethnic minority home and family) played a major part in early educational research trying to explain the underachievement of those groups (try  my file on this). Other undesirable influences were seen to emanate from the 'peer group' ( the fear of all 'respectable' parents was that their child would 'fall in with the wrong people', or 'mix with a bad set'' and be influenced away from study and reasonable behaviour into truancy, smoking, drinking, premature sex, early leaving, without any school qualifications,  and an unskilled 'dead end' job). As we have seen (Topic 1), early kids's comics and even children's cinema were soon associated with these fears too - and now, of course, the TV and the electronic game are the most prominent candidates for blame. No matter how hard teachers and parents try, it is believed, kids still  undergo 'informal education' from the media, still acquire 'unwelcome' knowedge (about sex and drugs, or violence or dubious politics),and, above all, 'unwelcome'  or deviant values.

We know that this concern has driven the attempts to use popular forms for educational means, to try to integrate informal eduaction with  the 'good' educational goals (learning school knowledge and acceptable or 'functional' values). We have also seen that for marxist or femininst critics, such integrated informal education is 'ideological' -- that it participates in the costruction of 'bad' subjectivities', or modes of adaptation like consumerism. We pursue these themes in later topics via the work of Kinder or the controversies over video games.

For this section, I had some other work in mind. We might begin with reminding ourselves of the work of Wagg, for example (Strinati and Wagg 1992), describing the dominant themes in the notions of childhood deemed to be 'natural' in our society -- predominantly that children need both 'imagination' and 'activity'. Kids are supposed to be naturally imaginative and innocent, and naturally democratic, forming communities with no social divisions yet apparent among them. These values were used to condemn those characteristics of undesirable (and very often American) popular cultural activitites like sitting in cinemas watching 'formulaic' Hollywood 'B pictures', hanging around in coffee bars listening to repetitive and banal pop music, wearing the standardised 'uniforms' of youth styles, 'abusing themselves' in their bedrooms while scanning dubious popular magazines, and hanging out on street corners smoking, instead of going out to get cold and wet in a proper recreational activity ( any students of recreational studies will spot the allusion to the 'rational recreation' movement). Thus policy towards kids involved encouraging their natural qualities, protecting them from premature exposure to the nasty aspects of life, and the careful regulation of their access to inappropriate areas. The same values are still there behind many of the anxieties about video games and the hours spent in private playing them or watching TV.

The same values  influence the work of the peculiar British tradition of 'children's TV' too, we argued -- the 'Children's Hour' of the BBC when  mother was able to spend an hour with the children at teatime (i.e. 4 o'clock') before Nanny took them off again for bath and bed,or at lunchtime before their afternoon nap. Kids would be exposed to a number of  programmes based on puppetry, nursery rhymes, and simple songs,.sometimes with a little memory test (like Muffin the Mule or Andy Pandy).Later, the tradition evolved into a new schedule as well -- kids's programmes after school and before tea, around 3:30 until the adult schedules began with the BBC news at 5:30 or 6:00. The classic programme here was the magazine format -- a series of comedy sketches (rather like a pantomime really, without the double entendres), games with audience participation, features on people of interest, songs (later pop songs) and light entertainment of the 'variety' type (like my favourite -- Crackerjack). In Crackerjack, incidentally, the audience was allowed to participate by encouraging the contestants, and shouting the name of the show -- even more daringly, they were even shown on screen from time to time).

Much has changed recently, of course, to the chagrin of various pressure groups wanting to retain that special format for that special audience. childrens' TV is much more centred around commercial popular culture, you could argue -- pop songs and bands, football, video games, and, above all, imported animations (from Rug Rats to Count Duckula and Scooby Doo). Many of these fall under Kinder's critiques as what we will call  'bad' postmodernism.. However, some elements of tradition remain and the values of imagination aand activity survive - I have seen traditional renditions of  Blyton's The Famous Five, for example (five nice kids go off and have adventures involving catching smugglers or other traditional villains). Currently, there is also the Australian series Round the Twist -- a nice family living on a remote island have adventures, some of them involving magic.

The work to be considered under this topic insists that these traditional values embedded in classic British TV for kids are also harmful. The programme I have chosen to illustrate this is Blue Peter, a long-running kids' magazine programme, first braodcast in 1958, familiar to just about any British viewer. You may find this difficult, especially if you are a Blue Peter fan, but some writers have seen the programme as deeply ideological. Let's see how:

Ferguson's work will do as an example here. He has written two short pieces on Blue Peter in fact (19XX) both summarised in Wagg's chapter as well. Fergsuons' complaint is a classic one -- certain values are masquerading as universal ones in BP. They are the values of a dominant elite, and they have a deeply-rooted effect. Indeed, they form the very discourses of BP, the organizing principles:

'Discourse has to be understood as a set of informing principles which permeates the construction and articulation of media messages. It is seldom direct in identifying its own origins, but rather works to efface or naturalise itself. This is the ideological function of discourse...highly specific modes of conceptualising the world are made to seem general or universal. Much of this generality is attained by offering an apparent plurality of messages within children's television...[but]...different views or comstructions of the world are always presented from within the framework of the dominant discourse' (Fergusson p.48).
Fergusson uses this notion to analyse BP in a way which he admits is 'polemical' but still important -- because BP and an number of other kids's TV programmes (including pop music programmes) have real effects. They close off 'the universe of discourse and action', or, less techniucally, 'there is a danger that programmes made for children can inhibit their capacity for thought and intellectual development' (p 47). This discourse becomes 'cumulative, organic...[and]...develops a life and a power of its own' (p.50). 'There is never any chance for the viewer to discover alternative discourses by watching television' (p. 48), no chance whatever of a 'Red Peter ... a programme two women and one man...campaign[ing] against any government that could tolerate poverty, degradation, poor housing or [poor]  health care...openly anti-royalist, anti-racist and anti-sexist' (p.52)

BP's discourse (as with other dominant forms of childrens' TV) is ' Anglo-centric, often racist, sexist, royalist, pro-capitalist, ostensibly Christian, and ... generally arguing that the best way to deal with social problems is through benevolence'. Thisleads to more specific analysis of items in BP programmes such as the patronising nature of items about black people, with no mention of colonial history, 'outrageous stereotypes' of boys and girls and ther interests, an unthinking nationalism: '... the Union Jack (the last gaudy signifier of an Empire best forgotten) is the symbol of "what it means to be British"' (p.49).

Now I don't know what you will think of this idea of ideology. On the one hand, it seems very powerful, and it helps us criticise the usual claims for the 'good' aspects of BP. BP's fans like the annual charity appeals, for example, which help the underprivileged (raising funds for poor kids in Britain, or the blind in Malawi, or for lifeboats) -- but Fergusson would see these as politicallly conservative, linked to royal patrons conspicuously doing 'good works', offering only 'benevolence' and charity rather than political action. I must say the images used to illustrate the appeals do run the risk of  blaming the victims -- depicting Africans as 'primitive' or ineffective in solving their own problems,for example (as in the Thompson example above). BP tries to deal with racism and sexism, for its supporters -- but again only with the risk of deploying even more subtle racism and sexism for Fergusson. Thus a 'black prince' was shown on an episode of BP, but in the exotic and ahistorical manner he deplores. And when women do appear in strong or unconventional roles (undertaking parachute training), or men in domestic ones (cooking), there is always the risk of being patronising,  heavy-handed or 'preachy' (or self-conscious and mockingly ironic, I suspect these days). Fergusson argues that dominant discourses are not challenged by merely showing 'various points of view on television' (or various ways of life for that matter) -- 'A plurality of viewpoints [or images, say of men and women] reduced to the terms of a single discourse merely strengthens that discourse' (p. 50)

So -- what of the problems? We mention some below with the Belson study. There are difficulties with concepts which involve unconscious or hidden forces which are claimed to be able to affect people: how do we know they are really there? Belson is in trouble with his notion of unconscous effects because he is so committed otherwise to the careful measurement and assessment of definite and conscious factors. Fergusson's position is less clear -- he argues by appeal to authority really (by citing in support the great thinker H Marcuse). He also chooses a polemical style, doubtless to try and raise our critical awareness by the use of powerful terms and thought-provoking comparisons (the BBC with the Jesuits, for example).Perhaps, as a marxist of the 1980s, he would not support or trust empirical evidence anyway (which was often thought in those days to be a mere reflection of the 'surface forms' of reality, not the real forces which constructed those surface forms). 

As a result,  this is almost too powerful an approach that, rather suspiciously, can explain everything, and thus never be really challenged. Some bits, especially of modern examples of BP, do not seem to fit the main charges (of sexism and racism say) -- the programme has made a real effort to prevent the early 'outrageous stereotypes' ( Fergusson's example dates from the very first BP  in 1958!) -- yet this only leads to a more subtle kind of ideology for Fergusson, where 'alternatives' are presented only to strengthen the dominant discourse by making it look tolerant. What of the anti-commercial elements noted by Wagg -- the incitement to resist commercialism and make your own versions of  commodities like greetings cards or popular toys? In about 1989 (?), BP showed viewers how to make their own home-made versions of Tracey Island, for example, an expensive item then being hyped by the Christmas toy trade and selling in vast numbers for more than thirty pounds each.  BP was deluged with enquiries and despatched many thousands of instruction leaflets, and the hype faltered. Fergusson does not mention this example, although I suppose he could deal with it of course -- he would probably argue that this exercise still delivered kids into the commercialised world of the Traceys and Thunderbirds, that kids still went on to buy Thunderbird toys to put in their home-made base, and that parents were now actively involved in providing commercialised toys for their kids, as commerce finally invaded the middle-class home.

I dare say that all such counter-examples could be managed like this. To take one of my own, I was much impressed as a child (yes, I have been one) by one of the most famous BP presenters, John Noakes, as my model of an ideal man. John Noakes tackled serious physical challenges like climbing to the top of naval masts, parachuting, rock climbing  and power boating. He did these things to the accompaniment of  a self-deprecating commentary. He wasn't afraid to say he was scared or to admit to failure, yet he still did it. He coped and endured, with a combination of stoicism, disdain for his own comfort, and unfailing good humour (while he was on screen at least). He was a thoroughly nice and communicative man, able to talk to a wide range of people. He was equally cheerful in the kitchen and once, with his fellow-presenter, he undertook a programme of childcare with a baby borrowed specially for the series. Compared to other media depictions of manhood, he was complex, reflexive and insightful into the problems of being a male, and an excellent role model, I still think, for kids like me. No doubt for Fergussson, this would be insufficient to rescue BP from the charge of 'crass sexism', however -- Noakes would be seen as one of those 'ideological alternatives' that still strengthen the system,or perhaps as an example of what his inspiration (H Marcuse) once called 'repressive tolerance'?

But this is the problem -- nothing can shake Fergusson's analysis. The scheme is flexible enough to explain anything -- crude sexism, sophisticated sexism, commercialism, anti-commercialism as sophisiticated commercialism. It all depends on this mysterious deep or organising discourse,which may either be truly there, so to speak, or a convincing construction designed to support Fergusson's world view -- how could we tell the difference? Ironically, this is precisely what Fergusson says about the 'closed universe of discourse' in kids' TV!

Fergusson is on even shakier ground when he appeals to supposed effects of this discourse on kids. At one level, it simply must have effects because no radical alternatives have appeared and, by and large, conservative ventures like the Falklands War were indeed popular. The assumption here,of course, is that, left to themselves, most people would be radical and anti-conservative, and only a powerful and sophisticated discourse prevents them from seeing the light. This is a standard (and rather romantic) tenet of faith of marxists of the period, and, again, it is clearly debatable. It is also circular if we are not careful -- there is no protest about war because the media do not permit a suitable discourse of protest and we know this because there is no protest!

On more specific matters, Fergusson depends on rhetoric and polemic (he is quite justified to do so, of course, but a little calm discussion of evidence might also be welcome). So he argues that:

'...certain young reject the values implicit in the discourse of children's television. But their rebellion is often short-lived. The pull towards ideological containment via the smile of Terry Wogan or the inanity of many of the presenters of Top of the Pops is very strong.' (p. 49)
But I would like to know how Fergusson knows this, or how we might try to find out if it were true. Surely this must be testable?  What sort of acxtual young people did Fergusson think of when he made this statement? How typical were they? How exactly does Terry Wogan's smile offer a new containment?  What actual experience is implied here? 

On the same page he argues that:

'One of the clearest ways in which children's television can close off the universe of discourse can be demonstrated through a closer look at Blue Peter'
But, curiously, he goes on to analyse a book about the programme, not an actual programme, and this is a popular account given by the first producers of the programme of its early days. This account mentions the sexist stereotypes we have encountered already -- for the first programme ever, it was believed to be appropriate if a female  presenter, and 'blonde beauty queen' at that, would show dolls, since 'girls were keen on dolls', while the male presenter would 'run trains on a layout in the studio [for the boys]'. Fergusson is incandescent -- 
'there is no hint of the vaguest notion of critical consciousness. It reads as a parody...But it is not a parody. It is as urgently real as the stereotypes it set up in the first programme. The book is written twenty-five years later and the writers are celebrating the institutionalisation of the crassest sexism without turning a hair...They are celebrating one of the discourses of children's television.A discourse with the power to define the world and our place in it by naturalising that which is a social construct' (pp 49--50).
Well we could just mutter 'Right on, Bob! Let's march on the BBC!', or we could try to discuss this view:
  1. Is the best way to demonstrate an effect of a TV programme to look at the memoirs of the producers written twenty-five years after the event? What problems might arise with this material; as 'evidence'?
  2. Are the examples really so devastating an indictment of the 'crassest sexism' of the programme? Are these cultural representations really that important, compared to, say,  the 'crassest sexism' of discriminatory employment practices or family behaviours of the time (see below)? Would it have been less harmful if the programme just ignored the supposed gender differences in leisure pursuits?
  3. Should we expect a children's programme (or a memoir of it) to exhibit 'critical consciousness'? How might it do this exactly?
  4. Is Fergusson right to insist that the extract we have read is not a parody (and not an ironic or embarrassed confession of early error or anything other than a literal statement of principles) but a celebration of institutionalisation of sexism? Why would Biddy Baxter, a female author of the memoir, want to celebrate such a thing? (You could even trace the book and make your own judgement about its tone and intention)
  5. Has Fergusson demonstrated his point that this discourse really has the 'power to define the world and our place in it'? 
  6. If he has not done so, might this whole critique not look a bit hysterical and we really need a sophisticated concept like 'a (closed) universe of discourse' to help us say we don't like the occasionally smug, patronising and uncritically goody-goody tone of Blue Peter?
Wagg's commentary on Fergussson is pretty scathing, but in a 'generational' way. If Fergusson represents the critical techniques popular in the 1970s and 1980s, Wagg hints at a more current repertoire -- those associated with postmodernism, consumerism and the end of childhood. And now, dear reader/browser, you see the appallingly relentless logic of this course, because that approach is at the heart of our very next topic (although we are not going to apply it specifically to Blue Peter -- but there is no reason why you shouldn't!)

Some projects

  1. View some current episodes of Blue Peter and test out Fergusson's analysis on modern examples. Do beauty queens still present programmes about dolls? What are the current dominant themes of the programme, and how many of them are gendered?
  2. To what extent is the current Blue Peter self-consciously ironic (or even self-parodying)?
  3. Can there be a left-wing (marxist, feminist) 'moral panic' about kids' TV? Apply the concept critically to Fergusson's piece.

  4. Were you a Blue Peter viewer? What do you remember as the dominant themes? Would you say you were affected by the programme? (if you said 'no' does this support or negate Fergusson?)

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