Even childhood not immune from corporate manipulation for economic exploitation

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

J A Progler

Rabi' al-Thani 03, 1438 1998-01-01

Book Review

by J A Progler (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 21, Rabi' al-Thani, 1438)

KINDERCULTURE: THE CORPORATE CONSTRUCTION OF CHILDHOOD. Edited by Shirley R. Steinberg & Joe L. Kincheloe. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, US. 1997. pp. 270. Pbk: US$19.95.

Conventional wisdom views childhood as a set stage of life through which all human beings pass on their way to adulthood. In the west, psychology since the 19th century has attempted to discern and delimit the various stages of child development. In most schemes, each stage has its own attributes. Western psychological theory continues to inform education and social policy, not only in its European and American birthplace, but increasingly (via colonization and post-colonial cultural hegemony) in the rest of the world.

Discussions on stages of development, particularly those based on the theories of Freud and Piaget, tend to reify society and essentialize individual attributes as distinct from or somehow outside of culture. While some child psychologists, notably Henri Wallon, tried to centralize environmental input, most psychological theories and the disciplines which build upon them operate on what amounts to an ahistorical, largely biological model of human development.

This is not to say that development does not involve biological factors; but neglecting cultural, historic, social, and economic forces has tended to skew contemporary understandings of childhood. Accordingly, as segments of humankind run headlong into the ‘information age,’ the irrelevance of much conventional psychological and educational theory and practice multiplies.

Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg try to rectify this state of affairs in their edited collection of essays, Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood. They bring together a number of American scholars of education, sociology, and popular culture in an interdisciplinary study of children’s popular culture and its implications for schooling and child development. Steinberg and Kincheloe introduce the essays with a chapter entitled ‘No More Secrets - Kinderculture, Information Saturation, and the Postmodern Childhood.’ The basic premise here is that the ‘information age’ has radically altered childhood, especially in America, to the point that even the most basic assumptions underlying education and psychology are hopelessly outdated.

For example, much of education is premised on the belief that children can be initiated into the world of adults via carefully constructed stages or grades, with grownups controlling children’s access to the adult world. But television, computers, and much of social life in the west blurs the distinction upon which this premise is built. In the postmodern media world, children are often more familiar with adult subjects - even traditionally taboo topics like sex and drugs - than many adults. Yet adults, and teachers in particular, still treat children as essentially protected from the ‘real world,’ now laid open for all to inspect by way of the increasingly pervasive electronic technologies. Turning a popular 1960s idiom on its head, Steinberg and Kincheloe insist that ‘the revolution... has been televised, brought to you and your children in vivid Technicolor.’

The editors outline their thesis that it is mega-media corporations who are constructing and benefiting from the postmodern child: ‘Using fantasy and desire, corporate functionaries have created a perspective on late-twentieth-century culture that melds with business ideologies and free-market values. The worldviews produced by corporate advertisers to some degree always let children know that the most exciting things life can provide are produced by your friends in corporate America. The economics lesson is powerful when it is repeated hundreds of thousands of times.’

As an antidote to this corporate indoctrination, Steinberg and Kincheloe recommend a form of ‘media literacy’ for parents and teachers, with the goal of exposing ‘the corporate curriculum and its social and political effects.’ The rest of the book is this thesis put into practice, with essays on various aspects of corporate constructed childhood (i.e. ‘kinderculture’), from film and television to magazines and video games.

Professor of education Henry Giroux contributes a chapter asking, ‘Are Disney Movies Good for Your Kids?’ His inquiry into the global entertainment corporation was sparked by watching Disney movies with his own children. Like most parents, Giroux assumed that Disney films were relatively harmless entertainment. But by watching more carefully, he noticed that Disney reproduces many of the more racist and sexist beliefs and practices of western civilization.

Giroux’s analysis is sophisticated, and he is careful not to fall into the trap of the American Christian Right, who see all sorts of (often ridiculous) conspiracies in Disney features. Rather, Giroux believes that, due to its power as cultural icon, Disney ought to be taken seriously by scholars and its productions critically analyzed. After reading the recent Disney films, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King, Giroux concludes that ‘cultural workers and educators need to insert the political and pedagogical back into the discourse of entertainment.’ He also suggests that parents and educators make Disney accountable for what it produces, citing the example of Muslim and Arab organizations who protested and succeeded in getting Disney to modify some of its racist fare in the feature film, Aladdin.

Like Giroux, educational psychologist Eleanor Blair Hilty takes a cue from her own child’s television viewing habits, and provides a reading of two popular ‘educational television’ programs, Barney and Sesame Street. Concerned about the unexamined perception among parents and teachers that such programs are somehow ‘educationally valuable,’ she found that a major problem with shows like Sesame Street is that they promote passive learning. Hilty extends her discussion of educational television by suggesting that parents and teachers ought to engage the current debates on public TV, by asking ‘whether public television is functioning for the public good,’ and identifying ‘who determines the goodness and worth of these programs.’

Media scholar Douglas Kellner weighs in with an essay on a popular Music Television (MTV) series, Beavis and Butt-head. Noticing that his students made frequent reference to the series, Kellner watched every episode, from its premiere in 1993 until 1995. His analysis, which has appeared in a number of books and journals (most notably his 1995 book Media Culture), is erudite and wide-ranging. Like many of the other authors in Kinderculture, Kellner is careful not to write off popular culture as unworthy of scholarly study. While he sees Beavis and Butt-head as a metaphor for the downward mobility of American middle class white youth, Kellner also succeeds in identifying both the reactionary and subversive elements of the series.

For example, under all the bathroom humor and adolescent hooliganism, Kellner finds some wry critiques of many of the more repressive and irrational aspects of modern American civilization. But at the same time, Beavis and Butt-head also reproduces some of the most dangerous sexist and racist attitudes of contemporary American society. To arrive at this analytic juncture, Kellner utilizes a method which seeks to find a third way of reading corporate media productions, complementing and complicating the ‘dominant paradigms [which] either theorize media effects as direct and manipulative or privilege the role of the audience in constructing meaning.’

Kinderculture continues with similar analyses and readings of other popular children’s media fare, with chapters on such diverse topics as video games and interactive media, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (as an example of ‘The Aesthetics of Phallo-Militaristic Justice’), horror fiction (the Goosebumps series of stories), children’s magazines, trading cards, and Barbie dolls. Each essay contributes to a clearer picture of corporate America as an increasingly powerful force in constructing contemporary childhood. Taken as a whole, Kinderculture reveals a third force that joins (and even undermines) the traditional sites of child development, families and schools.

This is perhaps most apparent in Kincheloe’s concluding essay on the global junk food conglomerate, McDonald’s. He recalls his own childhood, reflecting on how he and his family were in a sense programmed by McDonald’s ‘regulation of customer behavior,’ via carefully designed facilities and exceedingly enticing advertising. In reading McDonald’s advertising, Kincheloe concludes that the ‘greatest irony of these ads is that even as they isolate the family from any economic connections they promote the commodification of family life.’

This last chapter also includes some concluding remarks, in which Kincheloe suggests a main purpose of Kinderculture is to expose the machinations of power involved in shaping culture and consciousness: ‘Few Americans think in terms of how power interests in the larger society regulate populations to bring about desired behaviors. In America and other western societies political domination shifted decades ago from police or military forces to the use of cultural messages. Such communications are designed to win the approval or consent of citizens for the actions taken by power elites. The contributors to this book in their own particular ways are involved in efforts to expose the specifics of this process of cultural domination.’

Upon first glance, it may seem that Kinderculture might only be relevant to American parents and educators. But with global media networks invading every corner of the planet, American culture is in many ways becoming global culture. This is of concern to Muslims, wherever they live. Disney films, Sesame Street and Barney, and Power Rangers are translated into dozens of languages (including many Islamic tongues). McDonald’s has set up shop in many Muslim cities, including places like Beirut, Cairo, and (nastaghfirullah) Makkah al-Mukarramah.

Most satellite TV services worldwide air MTV (or one of its clones like Star TV in Asia). American media conglomerates are among the largest publishers of textbooks and educational materials worldwide (which maintains English as a global language). Barbi dolls are marketed throughout Asia and Africa (in appropriately ‘multicultural’ versions). Kinderculture is going global fast.

While Muslims have quite admirably concerned themselves with the overtly racist or haram aspects of American media culture, there is much less activity toward trying to understand some of the subtler indoctrinating forces at work on their consciousness. This useful collection of essays will likely provide much needed insight into the more insidious (but no less damaging) aspects of the American-directed corporate construction of childhood. This, in turn, may enable Muslims to develop an array of Islamicly-grounded individual and collective initiatives and responses to what can only be seen as a pervasive affront to human dignity and intelligence.

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