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Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood.

Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood. Edited by Shirley R. Steinberg and Joe L. Kincheloe. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998. Pp. xi + 270)

Shirley R. Steinberg and Joe L. Kincheloe have brought together a strong collection of essays detailing the ways in which "kinderculture," that is, popular culture materials created by corporate America for consumption by children, impact the everyday lives of kids. Fundamental to the project of this book is the need to understand kinderculture, to take it and its impact on society seriously, and the corresponding desire to use that understanding to rethink childhood education at many different sites of cultural pedagogy. The authors, who are sociology, education, and cultural studies scholars, make this collection even stronger by addressing, not just the top-down forces of kinderculture, but also the complex set of social and cultural interactions with that culture, engaged in by children and adults.

In their introduction, the editors note that:

"[s]uch an effort [as this book] falls under the umbrella term cultural pedagogy, which refers to the idea that education takes place in a variety of social sites including but not limited to schooling. Pedagogical sites are those places where power is organized and deployed, including libraries, TV, movies, newspapers, magazines, toys, advertisements, video games, books, sports, and so on. Our work as education scholars, we believe, demands that we examine both in-school and cultural pedagogy if we are to make sense of the educational process in the late twentieth century (3-4)."

Kinderculture is made not by children, but for children. Notions of just what a child is, and what an ideal childhood should be, are embedded in the products and processes of kinderculture. The distinction between kinderculture and children's culture is structurally and conceptually similar to that made by Peter and Iona Opie in differentiating nursery rhymes from children's rhymes (Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, Oxford University Press, 1967, 1). The former are created and passed on by adults for children, while the latter are the products of kids' interactions with one another, often subversive in their take on the adult world that surrounds them. In Kinderculture the authors note the presence of children's culture within kinderculture, pointing out that corporations can and do use antithetical aspects of kids' play as a part of their marketing strategies. Corporations appropriate at least the form, if not always the content, of children's culture in their attempts to make their kinderculture constructions, and the products they are trying to sell through those constructions, more attractive to their target customers.

Because the editors take social and cultural construction of traditional childhood as a starting point, they see discussions of the contemporary "crisis of childhood" not as an attack on a natural state, but as a transformation through social and cultural forces (including political and economic ones) of a social construct not much more than 150-years old. Several of the authors in this collection also consider the class and racial inequities that informed traditional notions of childhood (i.e., a privileged and protected state of being held primarily by white, upper- and middle-class children in Western Europe and North America), and which continue to inform corporate-produced kinderculture.

The collection of essays is bookended by two from Kincheloe. He leads with his essay analyzing the (thinly veiled) subtexts of the "Home Alone" movie series, and the "central but unspoken theme [that] involves the hurt and pain that accompany children and their families in postmodern America (31)." The book concludes with his discussion of Ray Kroc's McDonald's empire, with a particular focus on its public relations campaign, and the extent to which that presentation of McDonald's public face affects American culture, and kinderculture. Henry A. Giroux takes on Disney once again, asking "Are Disney Movies Good for your Kids?" He calls for taking all of Disney's corporate productions, including, but not limited to, movies, very seriously. Giroux's call is not to censor or ignore Disney, but to enable analysis, not just by academics, but also by consumers, including kids. Eleanor Blair Hilty similarly questions just how educational is Educational TV, as epitomized by "Sesame Street" and "Barney and Friends." Douglas Kellner's nuanced and complex analysis of Mike Judge's "Beavis and Butthead" series (and, of course, merchandise); Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr.'s discussion of contemporary interactive (and increasingly tied in to other forms of media, such as TV and movies) video games; Peter McLaren and Janet Morris's consideration of the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers;" Aaron David Gresson III's confrontation of the images and messages in professional wrestling (past and present); Murry R. Nelson and Shirley R. Steinberg's history and discussion of trading cards; Steinberg's thoughtful catalog of Barbie, "The Bitch who has Everything;" and Jeanne Brady's analysis of the kinds of history presented by the American Girl doll collection, are all excellent case studies of various forms and impacts of kinderculture.

Some of the essays take a slightly different angle on kinderculture, in that they see the agency that is available in children's consumption as well as the potential for top-down socialization. In "Mom, It's Not Real!," Linda K. Christian-Smith and Jean I. Erdman begin by laying out the corporate forces behind the Goosebumps series of books. They go on to address parental anxieties about horror fiction and the "dumbing down" of literacy (including the elitist notions inherent in the latter), and, importantly, include the voices of at least two boys who see a real use for the Goosebumps books. For example, the son of one of the authors uses the books to find a comfort zone in the often uncomfortable manifestations of masculinity found on American primary school grounds. Alan A. Block, in "Reading Children's Magazines" sounds a cautionary note, expressing his concern that too much adult coaching in critical media literacy will destroy the pleasure that kids find in pop culture (including kinderculture). Adults allow themselves to enjoy "trashy" pop culture; why shouldn't kids have the same opportunity? How does one balance wanting to raise media-savvy kids with the risk of making them completely jaded and unable to connect in any constructive way with the culture around them? And in "Anything You Want: Women and Children in Popular Culture," Jan Jipson and Ursi Reynolds give an ethnographic portrait of what it is like to educate teachers in media literacy, a case study in what kinds of strategies educators can take to make sure that kids are being taught by people who recognize the seriousness of kinderculture, and who will engage with it in the classroom.

The central message of all of these essays is that the constructions of childhood, and depictions of gender, age, racial, ethnic, and class roles found in corporate productions such as movies, television, and advertising, need to be taken seriously. It is not enough to write such entities off as "only" popular culture, not enough to disparage popular books like those in the Goosebumps series as "not real literature," thereby implying that the only impact they can have on children's lives is either negative, or fleeting. Elitist approaches (or lack of approach) to popular, corporate productions do not allow for the importance of these materials in the everyday lives of people, do not permit any increase in understanding why and how they can impact not just current but future generations' notions of self and other. In attempting to understand popular materials, in making the processes that produce them more (if never completely) transparent, we can begin to see how kids accept, reject, and otherwise manipulate the notions given to them in kinderculture. Thus Beavis and Butthead are not simply the endpoint of the "downward spiral of the living white male" (Newsweek as quoted by Kellner, 86), but also have the potential to be seen as satirical characters reflecting very real problems in contemporary American society.

The subtle (and not-so-subtle) manipulations of corporate constructions of childhood are themselves manipulated, and in recognizing this two-way street, the authors in Kinderculture do the study of children and childhood a great service. They avoid the pitfall of constructing kids as empty vessels waiting to be filled. They acknowledge kids as people, with responses, needs, and desires that are their own, and may or may not correspond to preconceived notions held by advertisers, educators, or researchers. The interventionist approach advocated throughout this volume adds to the impression that one can do more than merely identify these processes of manipulation. Teachers, parents and other concerned adults can interact with kinderculture alongside kids in ways that can reveal alternate modes of thinking about the world. But to do so one must take kinderculture seriously, not just hope that if ignored, it will go away.


University of California, Berkeley, U.S.A.
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Author:Lanclos, Donna M.
Publication:Cultural Analysis
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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