Monday, January 5, 2015

Pop-culture and Kids: a brief reflection

My son was born on the 2nd of January. So, in honor of this momentous occasion, I have decided to write a little about what I think children and pop-culture have to do with each other. Also, as a side-effect of this momentous occasion, I have not been working on an article this past week. So, please cut me some slack if this seems a little hasty or unpolished. 

I, for one, think I have a reasonable and charming excuse; his name is Jack.

Many many things that are undeniably part of pop-culture are directed towards children. These things are also undeniably made by adults. This fact: that things made for children are made by adults, has often impressed me and made me wonder as I walk down the toy aisle at Wal-Mart of somewhere similar. 
Though it's a mixed bag, I've enjoyed me some Adventure Time.
But showing it to my young son and daughter? This suggestion gives serious

As I gaze in dread fascination at the little plastic hammers that light up and play music and have "A, B, C," and "1, 2, 3," inscribed on them, and the humanoid dolls with giant eyes and strange shaped heads, and the robots that contort into cyber-gorillas and back again, I think about the fact that children, when they are born, are the same as children have always been since the beginning of time. 

This means that children will play with sticks if you give them sticks. They will play with Lincoln Logs if you give them Lincoln Logs. And they will play with Lego-Star-Wars-Ewok-Village-Play-Sets if you give them Lego-Star-Wars-Ewok-Village-Play-Sets. Which is to say that what children play with tells you more about the people they got the toys from than it does about the children.

I've said before that pop-culture is a conversation. Saturday morning cartoons, toys, and the rest are part of that conversation. They're just the speeches that begin "Hey, kid..." and the speech is given by an adult.

Now, I'm not saying that children don't participate in this. Clearly many kids enjoy things like Lego, and I suspect and hope that many interesting and unexpected things have arisen from these means in the hands of kids. But, the contribution of a child to the great human conversation (of which pop-culture is a branch) is the kind of art that usually has little or no budget and a production time that is practically the same as, and contemporary with, its presentation.
I imagine the inventor of Transformers coming up with them in this way:
Robots? Cool. Cars and jets and stuff? Also cool. Robots that are also

cars and jets and stuff? Cool * Cool = Cool squared.

I mean play. Really, come to think of it, imaginative play is pretty much what pop-culture is, except children have less experience and fewer resources. When a kid pretends to be a ThunderCat, what is the difference, in real substance, between his game and what the people who drew, acted in, and broadcast ThunderCats did? They put in more hours, and used more (though not more wonderful) means than the kid. But, in the end, they're playing with images, characters, and ideas.

And, very much like play, much of pop-culture is produced with a sort of 'sense,' or 'feeling' rather than being very thoroughly worked out. Pop-culture is the casual branch of the human conversation. 

So, the question I'd like to leave y'all with is this (and it really is a question):

How casual a conversation, and on what topics, do we want people having with our kids?

© 2014 John Hiner III

1 comment:

  1. Your article presents a fair question worth asking, especially if we as parents use media to babysit our children but even if allow consumption of it at all. Come to think of it, I learned about sex from Madonna. I don't have to go into why that was bad. I learned about environmentalism from Captain Planet, a show that taught me that people pollute because they are evil and like pollution. Also, that having large families is evil. (They had a whole episode with an overpopulated rat civilization to drive home the point.) I learned about the Catholic Church from Fr. Mulcahy on M.A.S.H. who was well meaning but moaned about being useless a lot of the time and expounded on Jesus Christ almost never. I learned things that weren't generally true about things that were real in worlds that were not.

    In the course of my adolescence and early adulthood people who raised questions about or decried children's shows were told that we shouldn't take what children consume seriously. As long as they don't watch too much television, it isn't bad. As long as they're reading something, it's absurd to question what kids read. Music was given greater criticism but only by "zealots" and "nuts." Never mind that their music and books, even their television shows taught them more about what they should believe than a place they would visit only on Sunday if at all.

    But if Christopher Reid's Superman and Michael Keaton's Batman encouraged heroism perhaps we should be concerned that Henry Cavill's Superman and Christian Bale's Batman may be expressing something else. These elements of pop culture were, as you say, conversations and they were largely one sided and my parents were not generally part of them. Why would my father watch cartoons and why would my mother care about music videos? Perhaps this is way pop culture needs to be taken seriously, because it has the danger of being a substitute culture instead of an amusing diversion or contrast to something important. So one day my son will watch an action hero kill a bad guy and instead of saying nothing when he exclaims "Cool!" we ask "Why?" When my daughter dresses like her future favorite pop singer instead of grumbling under my breath that she looks like a tramp, ask why is this singer worth emulating. We wouldn't allow our children to talk to strangers without our permission and oversight because of fear of abduction or even corruption. So where is Katy Perry taking teens? What about Katniess Everdeen? I'm not sure their kind can be exiled from children's lives. So the best thing I suppose is to get to know these strangers and join in the conversation.