Topic 5: Postmodern Kids' TV?

There are several ways into this topic. You might want to get hold of some sort of general work on postmodernism -- how about my own very wonderful file? Earlier discussions in this section also provide clues, such as the work of Mattelart or Ellsworth on the construction of subjectivities and the operation of desire as a mechanism. These readings were very sceptical about certain anti-educational trends inherent in current popular forms -- they were focused on surface appearances in theoir nmodes of address, over-concerned with commercial signs, over-eager to blur the boundary between education and melodrama or other genres, and they involved individuals in some immediate and uncritical way.

This kind of critique can easily be extended to some of the debates about postmodernism and its cultural effects. Let me begin by trying to summarise, very quickly, some of the apparently agreed characteristics of 'postmodern' film and TV:

According to Featherstone (1991) the term 'postmodernism' refers to:
* certain artistic developments in architecture, writing and film, video and television
* social changes (a wide variety of things taking in changes in work, leisure, urbanism, global patterns of finance and control, but above all, cultural changes)
* the experience of living in such societies (the good and bad feelings of change like the senses of liberation, uncertainty, choice, insecurity, freedom to experiment and to enjoy life)

Characteristics of Film and TV

  1.  Departures from narrative in film or TV, the rise of popular non-narrative pieces (including films or programmes as sequences of episodes or spectacles -- Pulp Fiction, say, or even Natural Born Killers). The end of narrative could explain the deliberate absence of tight authorial control, the ‘end of the author’.
  2.  A disinterest in 'depths' in film, in a focus on surfaces and appearances (Almodovar, say, especially Pepi, Luci, Bom..., with its 'innocent' and unexplained 'slices of life' approach, and its conspicuous lack of moral commentary on the doings of the characters). Again, there are connections with the end of narrative, and a turn away from realism and representation. 
  3. Viewers become 'schizophrenic' (an allusion to a more general analysis of the postmodern condition that suggests identity is fragmented). In this case, films or TV programmes offer a 'schizophrenic' experience, a variety of ways of addressing viewers, a number of clashing viewpoints --British  'yoof TV' (at its height in the early 1990s) captures the styule most literally for me with on-screen interviews in studios with lots of other talking taking place as well, the camera roaming to look at other people, while textual information flashes across the bottom of the screen and music plays.
  4. Films as signification (rather than as trying to represent anything), as pure communication, as experiment with the signs of the cinema. This would produce a disinterest in representing the underlying 'truth' and an increase in self-referential ('intertextual' or 'metafictional') elements in film -- films would primarily 'be about' other films. This might be done NOT to deliberately 'transgress', alienate viewers and thus make them critically aware of  film conventions, as in the classic avant-garde, but 'for fun'. Rock videos are good examples here,or advertisements, with their witty combinations of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and the Pet Shop Boys singing 'Go West', or John Wayne movies, Adrian Mole and Barclays Bank.
  5. Commercial films would also feature the spectacular or the hyperreal (a fusion of the real with its representations) rather than try to confine the meaning of signs tightly to some external reality: Lash mentions Rambo, and we might add Jurassic Park as examples.
  6. A loss of interest in using film to educate the masses, represent universal classes, or to somehow 'speak for humanity'. We might expect even Hollywood to abandon Freudian themes for films, say (consciously, that is, except as a joke, say in Lynch's Blue Velvet), or to stop making 'earnest' films that tell us of the state of the nation ('paranoid cinema' pieces like Parallax View, or JFK). Irony, playfulness, cultural relativism, parody, pastiche, even plagiarism would all figure instead -- as in, say, Wayne's World 2.
  7. The ‘collapse of internal differentiations’ could help locate the growth of new or cross-genre pieces, including a number of 'posts' (post-western, post-gangster ). More generally, high and low cultures would mix -- Bergman would meet Bill and Ted, Beethoven would meet football hooliganism (A Clockwork Orange), directors like Ridley Scott would cross between feature film, music video and advertisement, or, like John Landis, direct both horror films (An American Werewolf in London --itself a hyperreal and parodic piece) and Michael Jackson music video parodies of horror films (Thriller).
Armed with this sort of list, we might begin to see why kids' TV might also be seen as 'postmodern' -- combining genres and styles, heading for the spectacular, and going so far over to 'fun' that they feature a deep disinterest in educational depth or the patrolling of boundaries between 'good' and 'bad' behaviour or thought. Apart from anything else, it might start to help us understand some fo the features of kids' TV that puzzled us earlier -- the ironic references to old movies, for example (such as High Noon in Sesame Street, or to Count Dracula) or to old TV shows ( The Squeal of Fortune). Of course, there is now an additional debate -- whatever the amusement offered to adults (especially film buffs), is this sort of playfulness, refusal of depth and schizophrenia good for kids?

We now turn to the work of Marsha Kinder to accompany us through this. Kinder begins her book by telling us that TV is now some sort of master text, the dominant form used by kids to understand their cultural world including the other elements used by TV -- fragments of films, music, books -- and educational knowledge. Video games, she predicts are becoming the new master text (and we'll get on to them below). The integrating roles of TV and video games occur because they are placed at the heart of whole 'supersystems' of the manufacture and marketing of cultural goods. Commercial pressures install TV as a master text -- especially as other forms of integration are being destroyed. Are these changes and characteristics I have listed above likely to have good or bad effects on educational knowledge and on the development of the child (especially the steady accumulations of expereince and periodic reorganisations of conceptual frameworks cited by Piaget above)?

Kinder derives other insights from Freud, especially as applied to children's development by Applebee. Clearly, families, parents and kids are represented in particular (usually very conventional) ways in kids' TV, but there is more of interest.Kinder uses Freud to explain the peculiar fascination of kids for repetition and serial structures. This fascination originates in the attempt by children to control and prolong conversations with adults, especially as part of the nightly 'sleep bargaining' rituals (themselves based on childish thoughts about sleep and death). In other words, deep anxieties are involved in the infantile mind. This mechanism is much exploited in kids TV (marvellously clearly in the repetition sequences in Teletubbies, of course), but here it delivers kids only into endless consumption of TV images.

Let's take narrative and its apparent decline or abandonment. This may be witty and amusing -- but kids depend on narratives in order to structure and arrange the information they are accumulating as they develop conceptually. The disordered flux of images and information kids witness on TV DOES help kids accept similarities and differeces and allows them to develop some increasingly sophisticated systems of ordering information. Yet this flux and disorder can become excessive. The resulting confusion delivers kids into the hands of the commercial 'supersystems' mentioned above. To put it another way, TV does foster new ideas of subjectivity as infinitely malleable and changeable, and this 'postmodern self' can be quite a liberating one for repressed adults. Less so for kids, perhaps,and anyway, sustained social life is not possible as a process of constant change and shift. Commerce provides some sort of integration and stability. Complexity and subjectivity is released in postmodernism, but (to steal a phrase from Horkheimer) it is 'simultaneously eclipsed', patterned and ordered by some commercial entrepreneur telling kids how to behave amidst all the complexity (when we get to Kinder on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all might become clearer).

Let's consider intertextuality. In some writers, the ability to interpret texts by reference to other texts 'called to mind' became one of the main guarantees of 'active viewing'. Even the most ideological text could not close the universe of signs enough, could not prevent members of the audience thinking of other contradictory texts they had encountered --for every attempt to represent Prince Charles as dignifed and sage, there would be a text to recall which showed him as a silly upperclass person who talked to plants or boogied in a dinner suit. However, the media themselves soon began (or maybe even originated) the habit of doing intertextuality for themselves, deliberately introducing references to other texts for various reasons (including providing the illusion to the audience that thery were sophisticated 'active' viewers, perhaps). As usual, professionals do intertextuality very well indeed (probably better than the rest of us),and now much of the critical potential is reduced, Kinder thinks, and we are reintegrated back into the managed universe of signs. Professionals 'add value' to their products by making them as 'spin offs' from succesful films, for example, transferring some of the 'magic'of a Disney movie on to the highly-priced stuffed toy of one of the characters.

The same argument applies to cross-genre pieces for Kinder. The stability of genres (probably partly already commercially underpinned by studio marketing,as we know) is equally undermined by postmodern experimentation. No doubt there are creative aspects -- the collision between national generic traditions as Japanese animation met Hollywood animation produced one of my favourite new products -- anime or manga. I also think that erasing the boundaries between humans and machines cqan be insightful, as in much recent writing on 'cyberculture' or on women as 'cyborgs' (foreshadowed, in my view, by Kids' TV programmes like Transformers).But there are the usual 'bad' sides'

  1. Some generic distinctions were valuable and losing them is a retrograde step - the ones between kids' TV and adult TV, perhaps, or between education and advertising, or even between documentary and drama. On the other hand, some unhelpful and repressive generic distinctions seem to remain unaffected by all the swirling cultural changes -- those based on gender.
  2. Generic distinctions were useful in helping kids develop their own classificatory systems, in moving from seeing programmes as 'ones with Kermit in them' to 'cartoons', for example. Once again, what is playful for adults can be confusing for kids.Things never stay stable enough, so to speak, for kids to discover for themselves the limits of generic classifications. Inadequate cognitive development generates the infantile state of narcissism (again, there is a classic book on America as the home of the narcissistic personality -- Lasch 19XX), the defiant and pathological insistence on preserving a phoney 'individuality' as a defence against the confusions of the world which have never been understood (expressed in the enormous, desperate and insatiable egotism that we normally associate with the word). Consumerism is the only mode of relating to the world for the narcissist.
  3. What began as a witty attempt to break out of convention, by combining the western with a sci-fi (Star Wars), or by making films based on parodies of books (Clueless) becomes a marketing technique. Now, commercial producers suggest these links for you, 'adding value' to their products by lending them a cultural or artistic significance -- illustrating ads for hair shampoos with clips of Marilyn Monroe movies. Further, films, video, video game and comic book become part of the same system, their differences emphasised only to help make them collectable --'you've seen the film, now get the game -- a very commercial form of transgeneric style. Liberating potential,stressed by writers like Greenfield, turns out to be rather limited and politically conservative in practice -- the past is joined to present imagery only to decorate and legitimate it (and not to serve as a source of critical contrast), while kids can use consumer goods only really to enagage in feeble 'generational politics' as they strive to differentiate themselves from their parents by playing with different toys. 
  4. NB Much the same sort of analysis of D Lynch as a postmodernist is undertaken by Denzin (19XX) -- flashy visual experimentation but conservative politics in the end i shis view -- and likewise for the music video? ( see file )

Case Study 1: Muppet Babies (NB video games is another Kinder case study -- but we'll do that below)

As any viewing of any episode will reveal, Muppet Babies can be read nicely as a kind of postmodern stage of Sesame Street, with similar characters (only rendered as animations). This time, though, the educative role is much less prominent -- Babies is entertainment. The episodes routinely feature a great deal of intercut material from other TV programmes and films (in the ones we watched, lots of bits of old Star Trek, Star Wars, and the Jetsons) -- the scenes shift and move at a rapid pace, and the characters constantly shift between watching events on TV in their nursery, and entering the action as they move around on space stations etc. Kinder wants to read these features as good and bad as we saw. The good bits are that creative play and 'objective perception based on reality-testing' are encouraged. The bad bits stem from the confusing and hectic shifts of genres and  viewing positions: Kinder suspects that kids are being taught to read old films as mere fragments of signs. She also thinks that kids will have to rely on the characters themselves as guides through tthe confusion,or possibly on Nanny, who appears at the end to restore calm (incidentally Nanny's headlessness can be explained in several  ways, says Kinder -- expressing castration anxiety or deliberate indifference to the 'hired help'? -- I saw her as a suitably flexible  intertextual refererence to the earlier, politically incorrect, 'black Mammy' in Tom and Jerry).

Case Study 2: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

As we all know, this was a very successful venture and example of commercial intertextuality, with massive spin-offs in terms of toys, fabric goods (like duvet covers), posters, video games and full-length films to complement the original TV episodes (or the even more original teen comic book stories). The venture had multiple audiences in mind form the beginning (not just the under-10s but teenagers and even adults with the ironic references and 'hip' scripts, says Kinder). The very flexibility of the characters permitted this successful marketing.

In cognitive terms such flexibility is two-edged, though.There are themes of growth and transformation, but mostly this is managed as a means of coping witih differences via consumerism, Kinder insists. Consumption is the mark of an adult individual -- hence the all-important individual differences between the characters (much studied and obssesively learned by kids), celebrated in many a challenging trivia quiz, at least in the Harris household at the time ( which Turtle wore the red head band? Which one liked parties? Which one used swords as his main weapon?). All these details can be assimilated without much challenge, in Piagetian terms, but nothing is heard of accommodation, except as fantasy transformations (a very odd way to encourage cognitive growth). There is much transformation and generic confusion -- the Turtles are both human and animal, American and Japanese, contemporary US teenagers with classical Italian Renaissance names -- Leonardo, Donatello and so on (as mockery of the past?)

Politically, Kinder finds the Turtles rather conservative again. Consuming is the way for kids to behave as adults and becomes a way of coping with a rather threatening and violent modern society. April O'Neill is a very conventional if modernised female --she may be a dungaree-wearing trainee journalist, but she is weak and helpless in most situations of danger and the Turtles have to rescue her. The series is full of old Freudian themes about how to relate to powerful fathers, both good and bad fathers (Splinter and Shredder), and the need for family discipline. No mothers are mentioned, conveniently, thanks to the unusual genesis of the Turtles as mutants. There is some flexibility in gender roles though,since the Turtles often have to philosophise about becoming men - after long training and some early experimentation, for example.

Seminar topics

  1. Try out these Kinder themes on some examples of your choice -- what about Thundercats for example? Are the transformations liberating or confusing? For you or for kids? What about the cross-generic and intertextual bits --sci-fi, gothic, Egyptian mummies and futuristic machinery? American heroes and Japanese iconography (or is it Korean?)? What about the family life of the Cats -- nice and cosy or bourgeois/repressed? Do you find yourself gazing longingly and rather smuttily at Cheetara as she disports in her tight-fitting leotard?
  2. Try another favourite of mine -- Inspector Gadget -- is the transforming Gadget a sinsiter figure who confuses kids about the differences between men and machines, or can they see that it might be played for laughs? What do they make of the solemn moralising at the end, when Gadget delivers little dramas to remind kids of health and safety requirements? Thundercats often has one of these moralistic summing up scenes too.
  3. Spot and ponder some possible contradictions too...Muppet Babies may depart from conventional narratives --but does Turtles? How does it work overall if there are lots of transformations but also strong narratives? Does one cancel out the other? How come some boundaries are defended as useful for kids' cognitive development, but not one obvious one -- the one between men and women? Why can't kids be left to adjust that one for themselves too, instead of having it undermined by deliberate feminist intervention as early as possible?
  4. See also Buckingham on the challenges posed for media educators

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