Neighbors, R. C., and Sandy Rankin, eds.: The Galaxy Is Rated G: Essays on Children's Science Fiction Film and Television.
The Galaxy Is Rated G: Essays on Children's Science Fiction Film and Television is disappointing. Beginning with the introduction by R. C. Neighbors and Sandy Rankin, this is a collection without a clear sense of mission. The introduction, "Horizons of Possibility: What we Point to When We Say Science Fiction for Children," while happy to name check Judith Butler, Fredric Jameson, and Darko Suvin, declares without substantiation, "we find ... little scholarly attention to the joining of children's visual media and sf (1). This carelessness, and their later decision to rely on only two scholars in order to nod in the direction of the wide-ranging debate over the nature and existence of "the child," ensures that the introduction, while seemingly rigorous and grounded in critical history, is in practice rather vague, with no clear parameters for what the authors consider to be sf and even less for what they consider to be children's fiction. These deficiencies are then evidenced in the selection of essays: although many of the essays are competent and interesting in what they do, too often they offer explorations of texts without any engagement with what it means to say a text is "for children" or even to acknowledge that one obvious question to ask when addressing a theme within a text is "what does it mean to include this theme in a movie for children?"
Thus, Carol A. Bernard's "Performing Gender, Performing Romance: Pixar's WALL-E" never pauses to discuss the role of romance in a "children's movie," to consider whether this movie is in part about teaching its audience how to "do" romance, or to consider whether WALL-E is in truth a movie with an intended child audience as primary audience. Alexander Charles Oliver Hall too, in "'Manmade Mess': The Critical Dystopia of WALL-E," offers us a perfectly sensible exploration of the eco-politics of WALL-E and the critical dystopia portrayed on the ship, but what is missing is any indication of how this is expected to be processed by a young audience--or if it is. Is this eco-text there for the parents as the kind of "shadowtext" Perry Nodelman identifies in The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature as existing in so much children's literature?
These same difficulties plague R. C. Neighbors's "The Search for a 'More Civilized Age,' or the Failure of Utopian Desire in the Star Wars Franchise." This chapter, while defending the movie against critics who see the Star Wars sequence as "juvenile," makes no attempt to position these movies--made for a teen to adult audience--within any understanding of children's cinema and is concerned instead to offer a competent but unoriginal argument for the ways in which the movies express utopian desire. This is accompanied by a criticism of the movies that asserts that they fail to feed the utopian desires of women and non-whites and thus fail themselves--which is interesting but not necessarily related to the argument. The chapter, like many here, is interesting in and of itself but does not engage with the issue of "film for children" in any way. This is true as well of Jonathan Cohn's "A Bumbling Bag of Ball Bearings: Lost in Space and the Space Race." The chapter offers a very good overview of Lost in Space and explores the way the show conceptualized the space race and the place of Americans in the universe. Cohn makes a number of amusing points about the estrangement of an American suburban home built on moon-rock. But once more, there is no exploration of this as a children's show and what this means. In contrast, Daniel O'Brien in "Forward to the Past: Anti-Fascist Allegory and 'Blitz Spirit' Revisionism in Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D." heads in the other direction, taking for granted that the movie was intended for child audiences and thus regarding the side-lining of Susan with some puzzlement.
Of the essays that have nothing to do with the thesis of the book at all, many are also under-edited. Bernard, for example, is allowed to get away with asserting that a box is a neutral shape but a ball/roundness is feminine, (an issue dissected by Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender [Norton, 2010]). More problematic is Holly Hassel's "Susan Murphy, Ginormica, and Gloria Steinem: Feminist Consciousness-Raising as Science Fiction," in which consciousness-raising is reduced to a process so that a single female character recruited by an otherwise all male cast is "consciousness-raising" and can be interpreted in feminist terms because she is enlightened in an apparently subversive direction. Hassel has also been allowed to assert, in defiance of historical evidence, that first-wave feminists were uninterested in such "abstract" issues as sexual harassment, reproductive rights, and patriarchal cultural attitudes. The crudeness of the feminist analysis here is seriously problematic.
At the other end of the spectrum is "'Population Us': Nostalgia for a Future that Never Was (Not Yet) in The Iron Giant" by Sandy Rankin. Beginning with exploring Suvin's idea of the novum through a range of critical interpretations, adding in some theories of the double-reader of children's fiction and the shadowtext that underlies so much of it, convinced also that she can offer The Iron Giant as a cultural reading of cultural readings of the 1950s, Rankin quickly becomes lost in theory. The Iron Giant becomes a reworking of Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince"; it becomes a story of happy families or cold war ambition or utopian longing. What we lose is any sense of the movie itself, along with any sense of the movie as children's fiction. The relationship between the book--clearly for children--and the movie is given but one line, and the choices made by the director are never contextualized in terms of audience. There are many, many good ideas and insights in here, but they are lost in a profusion of "buts" and "howevers" that end in a welter of questions that themselves offer a political challenge to what focus there is to the chapter.
Some of the articles are solid if rather basic. J. P. C. Brown offers in "Doctor Who: A Very British Alien," a very sound overview of Britishness in Dr. Who, which also provides much of the back story to the series and its wider contexts for American readers who may be unfamiliar with the series' earlier years. However, although Brown argues that the ending of the series in 1989 might be because this idea of addressing British-ness was only really sustainable for the first decade and a half of the series life, he concludes his exploration in 1982, omitting two doctors and also a Prime Minister for whom British-ness mattered enormously. There is also, again, no sense as to how the series proceeded as a children's show given the continual desire expressed by producers to appeal to parents (notorious in the selection of some of the companions).
"No Future Shock Here: The Jetsons, Happy Tech, and the Patriarchy" by Brian Cowlishaw, offers a celebration of The Jetsons, a cartoon that embraced the future with enthusiasm. There is, however, no clear argument here. Cowlishaw notes the ways in which The Jetsons was as obsessed with, and limited by, its presentism as is most sf: it did not so much inure against future shock as it supported the myth that we know what is to come. Although Cowlishaw begins by discussing the homogenous viewing experience of 1960s Americans, he does very little with this. Similarly, Patrick D. Enright in "Flash Gordon: Remembering a Childhood Hero (Past, Present, Future)" offers us a highly personal account of the pleasures in watching the serial episodes of Flash Gordon, arguing their "fitness ... for youthful audiences" lay in their excitement, the casting, their morals, political and cultural relevance, and lessons learned. However, he offers little to support his (entirely plausible) arguments. This is a fun piece, but it lacks academic rigor.
There are six essays in this collection that do focus on the concept of children's film and television. I was uncomfortable with Elizabeth Leigh Scherman's "Monster Among Us: Construction of the Deviant Body in Monsters, Inc. and Lilo & Stitch" because it reduces the concept of disability to bodily "otherness" (citing disabilities scholar Paul Darke from 1991); this in turn permits a romantic application of the social construction disability to the two movies she chooses. Disability as a social construct is a valuable concept, but it only goes so far--eliding issues of pain, exhaustion, and what is now popularly known as the "spoon theory." Pretending that all bodies can be accommodated with a suitably flexible workplace and home design, while a nice message, can lead to the victimization of those who demur (see the current demonization of the disabled by the UK government).
In "Toys, a T-Rex and Trouble: Cautionary Tales of Time Travel in Children's Film," Kristine Larsen begins with a rather unnecessary four-page summary of the history of time travel in fiction and its perils, along with a reminder of the stereotypes of the scientists that abound in fiction. However, she does then move specifically on to children's films, and offers a very detailed analysis of the time logic, the narrative assumptions, and the ideas about science and scientists that shape Meet the Robinsons, the dinosaur movie We're Back, and The Last Mimzy. In "Inexplicable Utterances: Social Power and Pluralistic Discourse in Transformers," Jacqueline Wiegard usefully pulls together a reading of the Transformers movie and to an extent the early comics, which explores the ways in which the movie presents routes to adulthood other than the consumerist model offered to the young protagonist, and also challenges what "adulthood" might mean in the characters of the transformers.
In "Last in Space: The 'Black' Hole in Children's Science Fiction Film," Debbie C. Olson's argument that African Americans have been marginalized in sf films and all but obliterated in sf films for children is familiar, but the article stands out for its thoroughness as she takes us through thirty years of modern sf films into the 1990s. One wishes one could offer more modern examples as correctives, but of course one cannot. Olson points not only to the sheer whiteness of the filmic future but the way in which African American characters, in the rare moments they appear, are frequently denigrated-- see for example the African American policeman in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Olson's major argument is that this erasure of African Americans from the future has a negative effect on the involvement of African American children in science, sf, and arguments about the future. This may be where the weakness is in the article, because alongside this Olson points to the number of scientists from the African American community, including Charles F. Bolden, head of NASA. The interaction of unrepresented children with the texts that obliterate them is not straightforward, and there are questions to be asked about how children insert themselves into these texts, reworking and revisioning them in ways that challenge the idea of a text as hermetic.
While there is much to criticize in The Galaxy Is Rated G, there are however two standout articles in this collection. In the first, "'No One's Lazy in LazyTown': The Making of Active Citizens in Preschool Television," Lynn Whitaker successfully navigates an overview of the pre-schooler's program LazyTown with an interrogation of the relationship between the child viewer and the producer's construction of childhood, and the relationship between the propaganda for activity and the hypocrisy of selling a passive activity such as watching television. Perhaps most interesting, however, is "A Few Beasts Hissed: Buzz Lightyear and the Refusal to Believe" by Daniel Kinnefick. Kinnefick is less interested in specific texts than how we understand the relationship of the text to the complex intersections of our understanding of child "readers" and adult "readers," and of the imagination and belief. Kinnefick's chapter is interesting because, unusually, he seeks to break down the notion of both "the child" and the often-assumed relationship between imagination and belief. Imagination, he argues, is actually a function of knowledge; it is only possible if given things to imagine with, and therefore a great deal of what authors like Walter de la Mare and Oscar Wilde understood as the "natural" childish imagination is actually imposed upon children by adults--specifically he points to Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and God. Belief, in contrast, is something Kinnefick argues that we learn to do and that children often experience only sporadically--and here I would point to his insistence throughout that each child learns this or not in different ways. Belief, Kinnefick argues, must be practiced. This he argues is why in the novel of Peter Pan, Barrie includes the information--from the performance--that some beasts hissed, because what Barrie is recording is the unwillingness of some children to play a game imposed from above.
Taking this notion of imagination as something that has to be learned, and belief as something that has to be practiced, Kinnefick applies his ideas to Toy Story and the narrative trajectory of Buzz from self-belief to belief that he exists because he is believed in. Kinnefick's argument, and it is a persuasive one, is that this structure emerges from an inheritance from the Victorians and Edwardians that the power of imagination is essentially childly, and that only children can lead adults back to the imaginary, which obscures that the reality is often the other way around and that it is adults who provide the imaginative material with which children experiment. Furthermore, Kinnefick argues that this has been an increasingly pervasive subtext in movies for children as the presence of parents in the movie theater has become the norm. In these terms, it makes sense that Buzz moves from the absolute self-belief of adulthood to the belief in the power of the imagination of childhood.
The Galaxy Is Rated G is a poor collection in a number of ways, and as a whole does little to explore the field of children's movies and TV, but there are some outstanding essays that deserve serious attention.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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