Media saturation has set cultural theory problems that it has yet to solve. Even cultural studies, which led the way in taking media culture seriously, struggles over how to pitch critique while acknowledging the sophistication of audiences, and how to respect audiences' pleasures without insulating popular fiction from the questioning to which media news has long been subject.
Henry Giroux, professor of education at Penn State University, has addressed these problems for more than a decade. He has argued for a critical engagement with popular culture that respects the heavily mediated conditions in which children now find their identities.
Drawing on a broad theoretical background (Raymond Williams, Marxist cultural studies, feminism, post-colonial theory), he has argued long and hard about how we should read the impact of specific media texts, particularly films. In these two books, he directs his attention to some particularly controversial targets.
The Mouse That Roared starts from a deceptively simple premise: media culture is a primary source of the norms through which young people learn about themselves and the world. The media's teaching, or "public pedagogy" as Giroux calls it, must be studied for its impact on children's notions of history, identity and agency. Because Disney occupies a powerful, almost iconic, position in such media teaching (and often claims an educational role), its public discourse in films, merchandise and theme parks needs attention.
Crucially, Disney argues that its teaching is not ideological, portraying itself as appealing to childhood innocence and everyone's capacity to dream. That evasion is nothing if not ideological, as Giroux shows from public statements by leading Disney representatives. His criticism is not that Disney is ideological - and he does not dispute Disney's right to some educational role - but that by hiding the fact that it has ideological aims (for example, to promote a particular picture of America's history), Disney generally contrives to insulate its products from open public debate in the media and classroom.
Giroux's general point is pluralist, attacking the monopolising effect of global corporations on the public sphere and thereby the educational process. But he is also critical of Disney's portrayals of the world, which, if we read between the lines, may be far from pluralist. He argues convincingly that films such as Pocahontas and The Lion King, whatever their other subtleties and complexities, draw heavily on skewed gender and racial stereotypes. Similarly, with the picture of America implied in Disney's theme parks or its attempted model town, Celebration, Disney, Giroux argues, distorts the present by simplifying the contested past.
Objections can be mounted against aspects of Giroux's argument. He gives perhaps too little weight to Disney's more progressive position on gay rights (for which it has been attacked by the far right). And there are problems when he stretches his argument to adult films produced within the Disney group but not marketed as Disney products (Pretty Woman and Good Morning Vietnam). His critiques of those films' frameworks strike more plausibly at Hollywood in general, or at American society as a whole, than at what Disney thinks and does.
However, Giroux recognises that it is precisely the strengths of Disney products, their technical brilliance and imaginative power, that is the heart of the problem. "Enchantment," as he puts it, "comes at a high price" - its universal presence, the invisibility of its ideological assumptions and the de-legitimation of the social conflicts that it pretends do not exist. As one Disney executive, quoted by Giroux, puts it in a multiple oxymoron: Disney theme parks offer "Disney realismI a sort of utopia in nature".
Crucial to Disney's utopianism is its claim to put us in touch with "childhood innocence". This is one of three myths Giroux sets out to demolish in Stealing Innocence, the more ambitious and wide-ranging of these two books. Along with the myth of childhood innocence comes the myth of "the end of history" (all major democratic struggle is now resolved through market choices) and the myth of "disinterested scholarship" (educators can afford to stand back from popular culture without considering its politics). These myths converge in the problem Giroux insists cultural critics must confront - the way commercialised culture operates to impoverish children's chances of being educated as active political agents, as citizens for an open democracy. The idea that children are outside politics (and history) conveniently deflects us from looking at what the history of corporate power has done to the possibilities for politics in children's and adults' lives.
This is a controversial topic, and one that is receiving increasing attention in the United States and in the United Kingdom. In a longer treatment, it would be interesting to know what Giroux thinks about those children who grow up with a sense of political engagement (the protesters against neo-liberalism in Seattle, for example). But Giroux's aim is to provoke, and he chooses his specific targets well in a chapter on America's billion-dollar child beauty-pageant industry (a sexualised impoverishment of children's self-images, masked behind a logic of harmless competition) and a chapter on the predominance of market philosophy, even straight consumerism, in American educational discourse.
His target is not the market or corporations' activities as such, but the increasing monopolisation of legitimate discussion about education, citizenship and politics by the reference points that market and corporate logics provide. Public sphere debates, Giroux insists, must be about more than consumerism or (an equally inadequate substitute for debate) scapegoat-hunting, which preys precisely on those who are already disadvantaged, such as a young criminal underclass. Nor is it good enough to hold popular culture at a safe distance, either by demonising it, as traditionalist critics have done, or uncritically celebrating it, a fault of some postmodernist positions.
Instead, Giroux's aim is to promote critical dialogue about popular culture's impacts. That is why, for all their ferocity, these books are never despairing. Giroux's theoretical sources - the work of Antonio Gramsci, Paulo Freire and Stuart Hall, discussed in helpful detail in part two of Stealing Innocence - give depth to his critiques and link them to the practical question of what we teach and learn in the classroom. It would be easy to ignore the difficult issues that Giroux raises, but that would close a public debate about culture and politics and their connections in which all of us - teachers, parents, and, yes, children - need to participate. Otherwise, he suggests, we only entrench further the cynicism from which Disney perhaps provides temporary relief.
These two books consolidate Giroux's position as one of America's boldest cultural critics, and also one of the most generous. In a millennial Britain marked by the celebration of surveillance television and the Dome's failed attempt at "edutainment", yet amid increasingly hysterical outcries about children's security and sexuality, Giroux's is a voice to which we would do well to listen.
Nick Couldry is a lecturer in communications at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Stealing Innocence: Youth, Corporate Power and the Politics of Culture
Author - Henry Giroux
ISBN - 0 312 22440 0
Publisher - St Martin's Press
Price - $22.95
Pages - 208