|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
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'
Characteristics of Film and TV
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'
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.
See also Buckingham on the challenges posed for media educators