My little phoney

In Front of the Children
March 29, 1996

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Home Alone, My Little Pony. While often loved by children, such films are often a source of anxiety among parents. As children's culture is increasingly appropriated by consumer culture, this volume offers insightful interpretations of diverse examples of children's media. The problematic boundaries between education, entertainment and consumption are explored, revealing contradictory modes of address that variously position the child as onlooker, participant or consumer. This broad-based cultural analysis of children's media is intended to contrast with the more traditional focus on violence.

The authors emphasise that the commercial contexts within which media are now produced is resulting in the increasing marginalisation of quality children's media. As national media must now compete in a global market, there is widespread concern over formulaic, market-led, "lowest common denominator" programmes and films. For example, the extensive use of gender stereotypes is seen as a strategy for displacing the ethnic, class and cultural differences among audiences which threatens this global reach.

Children are "the invisible audience", for their media are constructed through the lens of adult fantasies and anxieties about childhood. As the media also provide a focus for social anxieties, the combination of media and children is emotive. The child as sinful, as innocent, as "other", as our inheritor and usurper, the "child" in us; such images generate strong moral and ideological anxieties which frame academic and public debate about children's media, as well as the production of those media. These anxieties are exacerbated by perceptions of the eroding boundary between childhood and adulthood, with implications for sexuality, access to knowledge and rights of representation.

While the authors try to avoid these discourses of moral panic, this sometimes results in the over-liberal position according to which all such anxieties are wrong. Thus, some say, let us stop patronising children, for if children are enjoying the programmes they must be gaining something. These analyses seek to undermine the criticisms of uncomprehending adults by revealing the child-friendly places on television and the opportunities for identity-exploring play and fantasy. By contrast, others question the value of these pleasures, dependent on familiar patterns of sexism, racism and class prejudice in children's media, and show how these may be dictated by commercial and political production contexts. Frustratingly, the book does not recognise the contradictions between these positions, and the absence of a concluding chapter leaves the reader with many questions but few answers.

Despite the success of reader-oriented approaches in media theory, the authors rely on textual analysis, thereby continuing the invisibility of the child audience. While some refer to the responses of their own children, these can only represent occasional voices from the middle classes and do not substitute for serious audience research. Ironically, these few children's responses are used mainly to explore gender themes, and so also continue the media's displacement of other sources of difference. Also worrying is the fact that the children's voices we do hear hint at other interpretations than those offered by the textual analyses; "implied readers" may not be mirrored by actual child audiences.

The problems faced by this book - the impact of global media markets, criteria for quality media, the text-reader relationship - are general to contemporary media and cultural studies. But for those authors advocating the production of "better" children's media, the lack of resolution is undermining. The ideological critiques mean we cannot take popularity as a straightforward indicator of value. Yet the "quality" media valued by the textual analyses might not prove popular with, and hence commercially viable for actual child audiences. Thus, the focus on texts, while frequently illuminating, hinders development of these arguments. A focus on production contexts might identify ways to support the production of "quality" children's media. A focus on real children could help us understand why they watch and enjoy what they do.

Sonia Livingstone is lecturer in social psychology, London School of Economics.

In Front of the Children: Screen

Editor - Cary Bazalgette and David Buckingham
ISBN - 0 85170 452 2 and 453 0
Publisher - British Film Institute
Price - £14.99 and £35.00
Pages - 220

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