Hiroo Onoda: The Toys and Cartoons Edition

The historian Gary Cross published an editorial on toys, collecting and commercialism in the New York Times this weekend.

Cross’ scholarly work is very good. I’ve cited it, read it, and assigned it. But he’s also a dues-paying signatory to what James Twitchell has called the “jeremiad” against consumerism and commercialism, with all the particular and almost ritualistic intensity that this argument takes on when it addresses children’s culture.

Cross tries to argue that he’s really concerned with a new phenomenon, namely, the rise of toy lines that beg for completism and so encourage children to have too much of some kind of stuff, to become collectors. But first off, there’s nothing new about that in the context of postwar children’s culture in the United States. I haunted toy stores looking for Micronauts I didn’t have. My friends and I were always searching for the Colorform Aliens that we knew existed but hadn’t been able to find in any stores. (I miss my Colossus Rex, but I’m not about to shell out $850.00 for him.)

So at best you could say this is a more prevalent commercial strategy now, but I’m not even sure that’s true. Cross doesn’t really talk about the turmoil within the toy marketplace at present.

The article is a kind of quick and affectionate stroll down the memory lane of past crusades against toys, kidvid and commercials. Action for Children’s Television here, past FTC policies there, 1980 regulations on kidvid commercials, the good old days. Perhaps, he concludes, it’s “time to rethink the decision to allow the unrestricted advertising and cartoon promotion of toy lines”.

Why? I don’t know. Because there’s more toys bought and then discarded? Are there really? But in any event, so what? Do we need a public policy initiative to prevent the creation of more Velveteen Rabbits? No, it’s all about our children’s psyches, says Cross. So, exactly what was the social consequence of kid consumerism from the 1970s and 1980s? What bad things happened to the psyches of Generation X that are now visible in American life? What happened to me because I lusted after Time Traveller, Biotron and Astro-Nautilus the Man From Saturn? Am I less than I would have been if I had only had stickball and baseball cards to play with?

That is always the problem with this critique. It can’t really say what the consequences to kids are, and it can only make the vaguest of gestures towards some unspecified past when people were somehow better, cleaner, nobler than today because of the parsimony and authenticity of their toys. As if all America was once a happy, milk-fed Walton Mountain.

I’m laying it on thick here. Cross is smart and largely aware of most of these criticisms. He observes, for example, that kids do imaginative things to and with toys that go beyond the scripts that marketing and advertising establish for those toys. But that’s an aside for him, when it ought to raise profound questions about the arguments he relies upon.

Reading the piece, I was simply struck anew at the immobility of these arguments. Reading Cross is like coming across one of those Japanese soldiers hiding away on a Pacific island who didn’t know World War II was over. Action for Children’s Television? Come on, been there, done that. When there was regulation of children’s television and commercialism, it often led to perverse results. More importantly, the regulatory mentality was one of the key reasons why children’s television before 1990 was creatively weak. Look at kidvid since 1990, since cable, since it escaped from regulation. I bow to no one in my appreciation of the Saturday mornings of my youth, but let’s face it, kids who have grown up since 1992 have had access to better television, better films, better video games and, yeah, better toys than those of us who grew up before that date. I can see offering a cultural critique of very specific toy lines (I can get as wound up about Bratz as any middle-class parent) but of the whole shebang?

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28 Responses to Hiroo Onoda: The Toys and Cartoons Edition

  1. Bill McNeill says:

    Ah yes, the jeremiad…Because of the prevalence of economic activity in modern life, almost any cultural artifact that a person disapproves of is arguably tainted by commercialism. Likewise most manufactured artifacts can trace their provenance to some big corporation which is, ipso facto, heartless, exploitive, etc. I’m wary of elastic, universally applicable pejoratives like “commercialism” because they provide the rhetorical cover under which mere preferences of taste and aesthetic sensibility can be passed off as something more serious and objective. (I think essentially the same slight-of-hand is played by religious conservatives who rail against the “sinfulness” of homosexuality.) That seems to be what’s going on in the Cross editorial here. In the absence of any demonstrable harm caused by the marketing of children’s toys (I too escaped a childhood obsession with Micronauts ostensibly unscarred), the worst charge than can be leveled against it is that it’s garish, obnoxious, simpleminded, and, well, *childish*.

  2. Bill McNeill says:

    A nitpick, from the article:

    “How many toddlers do you know who are obsessed with anything having to do with Elmo and Thomas the Tank Engine toys? ”

    Well, in my case none, but I’ll buy that they’re out there. However, kids get obsessed with lots of things. A friend of mine’s nine year old, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, knows absolutely everything there is to know about subways and buses. Is this obsession somehow better because it’s located firmly in the public sector? My own childhood fascination with dinosaurs amounted to nothing, though a subsequent fascination with video games ultimately led to an intellectually satisfying adult career as a software developer, so I guess thanks, Atari, for brainwashing me way back when.

    And what about childhood obsessions that have a commercial component but aren’t shaped by any particular corporate entity? I’m thinking here about things like little girls’ fascination with unicorns. (Leaving aside the whole issue of the gendering of certain images, since that was recently addressed elsewhere on this blog.) That meme certainly gets a boost from the loose-leaf-notebook-and-sticker-manufacturing sectors of our economy, but does that make it pernicious, or even less authentic?

    For adults of a certain cultural disposition, being obsessed with non- or less-commercial things (the arts, intellectual pursuits) is considered admirable, while being obsessed with overtly commercial things (clothes, cars) is declasse. Part of the issue here is that some adults are impatient with children who have not yet learned to make this distinction.

  3. Alan Baumler says:

    I’m not sure that the improving quality of kidvid is likely to have much impact on this type of talk. I’ve always felt that these sorts of arguments have more to do with making statements about the parents’ anti-commericalism than concern with the kids. Thus I may buy all the books I want, eat out whenever I want, and stop for coffee whenever I want, but since I have not actually purchased every single LEGO set in creation for my kid I am not a slave to advertising. Or at least that it the dynamic I see happening in our family. It’s not so much if what you are buying is “good” or god forbid educational its buying at all, and since stuff for the kids is always a luxury (I don’t feel the need for it) not buying is always good.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I think a lot of it is what Alan is pointing towards: a demonstration of parental virtue through proxy performance on children. Which, I think, is an old story with children, media and culture in the 20th Century: bourgeois manners as a spectacle of childhood, or moral panic as something which is made visible in the imagined figure of an innocent child. At least some of this is about the educated middle-class having anxieties about working-class tastes and needing a device through which to legitimately express those anxieties.

  5. JonathanGray says:

    When, as a young kid in the early 80s, my dad was able to use business trips to Hong Kong to pick up the last remaining Star Wars figures that weren’t available in England, I was very much a completist. Indeed, it’s the first real completist urge I had, and a discussion with my parents had them agreeing. So in the framework of great concerns over what this does to one, it might be worth looking where that completism led me: as a lit major, I was determined to read everything in the Norton anthologies, when I saw the AFI 100 list, I was determined to watch them all, when I got a Kurosawa kick, I was determined to watch all his films, when I was a PhD student, I read obscene amounts of books because I was determined to read everything I needed to (obviously, alas, i never did) 😉 I’m sure those close to me could list more manic completisms that speak to worse sides of my character, but maybe just maybe collecting Star Wars toys 24 years ago actually prepped me in some small way for some of the lovely bourgeois consumption that Cross et al would no doubt be quite approving of?

  6. SB says:

    While it’s true that ceaseless occupation with something or other (for me ti was Japan) is a strong and positive characteristic of the late childhood/early puberty years, I do think there is a difference between childhood obsessions and childhood obsessions that have to be expressed via consumerism. It’s a different thing if your kid is obsessed by dinosaurs and one aspect of that is purchasing dinosaur action figures, than if she is obsessed by something whose only outlet is through owning the object, something like (say) Bratz dolls. In my opinion these childhood media that are primarily there to encourage consumption of something are naively training kids for future, more expensive kinds of obsessive consumption that are unreflected and not so harmless.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    There might be that difference, but note that it takes a very sensitive knowledge of any individual child’s psyche to have any sense of it. Cross is reading from the top-down and through a particular ideological perception of consumerism as a system and determining that most children who want a particular type of object are children who want it for the “wrong reasons”. My sense of it is exactly opposite: the children who simplistically motivated by nothing more than consumerism itself, who are hollow shells that have been filled by the content of advertising, are relatively few.

    I listened in on my daughter with some of the boys up the street the other day discussing Pokemon and they were all very sophisticated about which Pokemon subsystems they liked to participate in, how much effort was worth investing to acquire Pokemon within that system (say, trying to catch them all on the DS vs. card collecting vs. watching Pokemon cartoons), which Pokemon were their favorites and why, etc. The typical response from the “jeremiad” at that point is, “Well, your kids are special, we’re worried about the average ‘uneducated’ child whose parents aren’t being supportive”. The boys up the street seem to me to be “average” in this sense–heck, so does my daughter. A kid who is a total dullard about toys and consumerism, who is nothing more than a zombie who speaks back out what has fed right in, is what would be aberrant in my experience. That some adults see that imagined child as typical has more to do with the adults: that’s usually a result of adults who don’t know how to listen to children, how to read their cultural worlds, or how to enter those worlds as a sympthetic presence.

  8. SB says:

    Could they express this obsession without participating in the extremely consumerist consumption of Pokemon items? I don’t see how. What would happen to this obsession were all corporation manufactured Pokemon items to disappear? What systems would they participate in, then? Why are they debating which consumption related system to participate in as opposed to creating their own systems? That’s what’s troubling. And this is just the first step: toward consumption of particular brands of clothing, and cars, and all kinds of tastes that can be fulfilled only with the propagandized consumerist object. That the kids are intelligent consumers of these products does not mean that they are not primarily consumers as opposed to creators.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Could someone participate in culture without culture? You’re posing this in zen terms: could you have imagination funnelled through a typological system (which is pretty much what Pokemon’s central idea is: typological imaginaries) without objects that defined that interest? I can think of ways that you could say “yes” to that: kids can have private imaginary worlds that have some of the same characteristics–a six-year old can sit down and doodle up 500 little monsters, give them names, envision their nature. But the key word there is private: that’s not culture, some shared practice or discourse. Ten thousand kids sharing their private creative worlds in the schoolyard is just a symphony of isolation.

    So if we’re talking shared practices, collaborations, dialogues–in short, play as opposed to private thoughts–I can’t see any reason to think contemporary consumer material culture is any worse or better than other past material cultures of play. In fact, it’s better because it’s so excessive and therefore so much more generative of meaning and possibility: more things, more textures, more colors, more ideas, more shapes. The adulation of scarcity in the opposite direction leads ultimately to the conclusion that the most imaginatively fulfilled child is the one who has no artifacts at all, whose world of play is built up from rocks, pinecones and leaves.

  10. Western Dave says:

    Are you really asking an 8-year old to come up with whole creative subsystems on their own? Do you know any kids? When my 4-year old plays diner she is being just as consumerist as Tim’s daughter is discussing Pokeman. When my kids turn big cardboard boxes into play cities they are being consumerist b/c some of the boxes are stores where they buy things. Likewise, when she plays shoe store at pre-K she is being consumerist as well. Unless your going off the grid, you have to live in this world and its a consumerist world. I say, start ’em young and let ’em develop resistance at an early age. Like the old Syms ad says, “an educated consumer is our best customer.” And there is no teacher like experience.

  11. mrscoulter says:

    I am amazed by how my daughter blends her toys and creates wholly new stories with them: for example, she has quite a lot of Thomas paraphernalia, as well as an almost complete set of toy cars from the Cars movie. The cars and the trains, however, exist in the same universe for her and she creates completely original stories as she playacts with them (Thomas and Percy race with Sheriff and Lightning McQueen, etc.). I also find that she plays very creative games with Go Diego Go as the underlying motif–she has a wide variety of plastic animals that may require rescuing at any moment in time (most of which are *not* Diego-branded), and she makes up her own scenarios, not just recreating what she’s seen in the videos. It’s very creative and quite healthy, I think. It also gives her a shared jumping off point when she plays with her friends, which makes cooperative play easier. This is precisely, as Tim points out, because it *is* culture. If you watch actual kids play, you will see that they don’t just parrot scripts (with a few exceptions–my friends’ autism spectrum son parrots scripts with intensive accuracy and refuses to permit deviation, but he’s not a typical kid), they create whole *new* universes.

  12. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    SB wrote:
    “And this is just the first step: toward consumption of particular brands of clothing, and cars, and all kinds of tastes that can be fulfilled only with the propagandized consumerist object.”

    I think “propagandized” misrepresents what is going on here. Sure, advertising and marketing play a role in the ways objects acquire meaning meaning, but they are only one of the factors, and they work only in conjunction with lots of other sources of meaning that children and other consumers bring to the objects (Tim you might have something to say on this topic, no?). Asking objects not to take on meanings seems a bit like asking cultures not to notice (and symbolically elaborate) gender. Asking them not to take on the sorts of meanings we are uncomfortable with (meanings to do with, say, status) seems impossible as long as there are such things as status and indexicality. Asking us not to see those meanings is deriving from the properties of the objects themselves would seem to require that we eliminate iconicity. Asking that this somehow not involve consumerism seems impossible as long as buying and selling is the way we distribute objects (and it is hard o imagine an alternative that would work on the scale required). And as for raising kids to participate in the culture, not doing so seems difficult, and would one really want too?

    (That said, it is pretty amazing to watch: after coming back from NZ, it was interesting to notice Americans encourage their children to interact with adult guests by telling them things like “why don’t you show Maggie your toys?”)

  13. jpool says:

    Actually, I don’t think that the term “propaganda” overstates it, precisely because any form of propaganda, even in the most totalitarian of societies, is taken in and responded to by people, including children, with creative and critical capacities. Children aren’t made to play with particular things in particular ways by the magic bullets of the culture industry, but neither are the flashing lights and cheerful songs without their effects. Similarly children can be incredibly creative and subversive of the scripts that they are given, but that doesn’t mean that the scripts are without their own effects, and therefor not worth critiquing.

    The other point I wanted to make was that, the discussion here has largely been from an upper-middle class perspective (with the partial exception of Daniel Rosenblatt’s last comment). There’s nothing wrong with that, and it doesn’t undermine the validity of what’s been said. I just would also like to acknowledge that part of the dark side of childhood consumerism is that some of us (and our children) will be losers at the game of consumption. Growing up working/lower-middle class, I did covet the starwars collections of those kids I ran into whose parents could afford to buy them figures to fill up those specially designed cases. I didn’t feel fundamentally inadequate for always losing at the game of “which ones do you have,” (and my and my brother’s paltry handful of figures, did play nicely with whatever playskool or other toys we had) but I did feel lacking somehow.

    There’s nothing especially new here — after all a game like marbles was based in consumption and acquisition, and baseball cards were based in completism, much as the more recent forms that combine these qualities like YuGi Oh are — though it seems likely that there has been an intensification in these forms. So, yes, consumerism i children’s culture isn’t itself the problem to be solved, but it does offer opportunities for children and adults to figure out how they fell and what they’re going to do about the social and cultural problems that are reproduced within it.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    But that’s not a children’s problem, or something distinctively embedded within childhood in a capitalist society. In fact, it would be very strange if childhood was a domain of material equality and then at 21, abruptly class was revealed to you as a social reality. If it’s an issue with childhood, it’s an issue with the totality of the social landscape, and the issue can’t be engaged in some fashion that is localized to childhood.

  15. jpool says:

    Yes, but some forms of children’s culture will tend to erase those inequalities (red rover would only replicate class in terms of who’s playing in the first place, or possiblly in terms of the social shunning that occurs within all games), where others would make them that much more manifest.

    It seemed to me that part of what you were responding in the Cross piece was the argument that the rise of collecting or completist elements to children’s consumer culture was damaging in that it brought children more intensively within consumer culture, which is framed as a Bad Thing primarily in a culturally or spiritually corrupting sort of way. I read this as a version of what Scott Simon has referred to as affluenza. You and others then wrote about your own collecting but non-corrupting childhoods and I simply wanted to note that for many children the experience of such collecting or cultures of collection is not just about whether their never ending pursuit of transformers ultimately leaves them empty inside, but more directly about their prior inability to compete in such pursuits.

  16. Bill McNeill says:

    And while we’re being generous in our understanding of children’s consumerism, why not do the same with adult consumerism? Most of the discussion I see here defending children’s interaction with commercial toys–e.g. that material goods serve as a basis of shared culture that can be repurposed in ways their manufacturers did not intend–could also be applied to adults and our toys: cars, clothes, iPods and the rest of it. (The downside of these things, such as the way they delineate conditions of economic inequality, also applies to the adult world without translation.) Tim correctly pointed out how a certain strain of anti-consumerist rhetoric has remained strangely immobile over a period of decades. I’m also struck by how–give or take a few but-won’t-someone-think-of-the-children notes–the same arguments seem to apply equally to children and their parents.

  17. SB says:

    Actually, there are a lot of people in the US who attempt to “go off the grid” in this way, by keeping their kids away from Pokemon, Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc., etc., and their kids don’t seem to have any problem coming up with creative ways to play with the materials they have available. Of course, many of them are conservative Christians and/or extreme left homeschoolers, which is objectionable to the average academic reader. The point beside their larger political or religious sympathies, however, is that they are training their children (insofar as they can, obviously nothing is foolproof) to stay away from the need to consume that is mediated along with these toys. I’m not a conservative Christian, but in general I am very sympathetic to the idea of having my children organize their play around Bible stories or Greek myths rather than around Disney stories, not for moral reasons, but because beyond in a limited sense the Bible is not propaganda for consumption–as Disney clearly is–and because integrating themselves in these stories opens up a whole different world (in my opinion a more complex and valuable one–there’s nothing wrong with entertainment culture, and it can certainly become the object of fascination for some, but in my opinion it pales in moral complexity precisely because of its buyin to the world of consumption) for the child as it grows older. It’s fine to say “make them educated consumers early on,” but the lesson that consumer culture fails to teach, an increasingly important one, is *not to consume*. This is not advocating that kids play with rocks–although they apparently have done so with a great deal of pleasure in the past–but pointing out that there are different kinds of acquisition in play, levels of value that our culture used to recognize more clearly. In games of marbles, it was and I assume is cooler to win other marbles as opposed to simply purchasing them. As open as these consumerist character systems are to children’s constructions, what they are not open to is children’s material constructions. If you are collecting Star Wars figures, the point is to have the piece of plastic–not to make your own figure.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am equally troubled by adult consumerism, which was my point. Allowing our children to be trained to consume Pokemon by the wonderful narratives that are constructed or can be constructed around them by the children is the necessary first step toward getting them ready for adult consumerism, when they have then been socialized by years of such training to accept advertising narratives or construct their own cultural narratives around cars, IPods, phones, etc., etc.. And I feel no need at all to be generous toward adult consumerism: the most enthusiasm I can muster for it is that it’s not harmful to some people, I guess, but I don’t see why it should be defended as something valuable or positive.

  18. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    SB says
    “And I feel no need at all to be generous toward adult consumerism: the most enthusiasm I can muster for it is that it’s not harmful to some people, I guess, but I don’t see why it should be defended as something valuable or positive.”

    My only half tongue-in-cheek answer here: because it’s our way of life! Seriously, I don’t see why a consumerist society is necessarily less rich or fulfilling than any other way of life. With regard to jpool’s comments, it’s true that not everybody gets to play, and I do think inequality is a problem, probably the most serious problem facing the US today with all sorts of consequences, all over the social landscape.

  19. Western Dave says:

    How do you know that by letting kids get inoculated against consumer culture early you aren’t making them stronger whereas by denying them it you are going to make them weaker later on. I certainly know enough children of hippies that have swung the other direction.
    Yeah, it sucked to not have an Atari when it seemed like everyone else had one. But my mother explained it this way. “We’re not getting you that because we love you.” To which I would respond “Don’t those parent’s love their kids.” To which she said: “No, they are just buying their affection.” Tough woman, mom. On another level, I think this is pretty much an upper class problem. I don’t see many kids in my neighborhood crying for all the Elmo toys. They are pretty happy just to get one. On the other hand, a I see a lot of these kids doing all the dance moves in the latest videos that make me blush. I think that form of consumerism is far more dangerous and more typical than the collecting tendency.

  20. CJColucci says:

    Quite by coincidence, just the other day I was thinking about the perhaps apocryphal Japanese soldier stuck on an island not knowing the war was over. I won’t bore you with the context. Was there ever more than a handful, and did any stay on their islands for more than a few weeks?

  21. JonathanGray says:

    Let me just give a shout out to a neat book by Dan Fleming here, called Power Play, all about toys as popular culture. He has a particularly neat examination of how kids repurpose toys, using them outside of their intended contexts. Indeed, though above I professed my love of collecting Star Wars as a kid, I also know many kids who only had a Boba Fett, because once you had Boba, you had Da Man. Some people mix and match across toy collections too. And Fleming has a nice piece about what identification with any given toy might mean in a way that rejects the dominant meanings of the collection as a whole. So just as ABC would LIKE me to continue watching their ads, and to keep my TV on their network all evening, yet I don’t, so too can kids still consume within a consumption matrix, yet find their own unique paths through it that don’t always just follow the breadcrumbs laid out for them.

  22. agl1 says:

    No question that kids nowadays have better toys, games et al – but I don’t think that the question ‘What bad things happened to the psyches of Generation X that are now visible in American life?’ has to be answered within the wooden-toys vs. plastic guns framework. Maybe if the preoccupations of educated, wealthy, supposedly socially liberal Gen x-ers were less angled towards exploring different aspects of consumer lifestyles etc. there would be more volunteering at old peoples’ homes, schools. and so on.

    And in terms of psyches, I think I personally would swap all those episodes of scooby doo, captain caveman and the hair bear bunch, to be able to say, to acquire one of those skills best learned in childhood, like reading music. Cross in his books is very good on showing this shift in childhood activity over the past century and a half – from aspiring to versions of adulthood to being locked in a closed fantasy world.

    On SB & Greek myths: I did, purely by chance, encounter the Iliad (in US-import comic book format of course) at about age 7, and I can’t say it had any better effect than the X-men.

  23. Timothy Burke says:

    Was there lots more volunteering at old peoples’ homes, schools, in the past, agl1? The local PTA around here doesn’t seem to have too much difficulty getting parents to pitch in, I’ve noticed.

    You’re right that Cross details that shift quite well, though. I’m just not sure I agree that it’s a straightforward shift from something good to something bad. Part of the problem is also that it’s a shift that is complicated by a fundamental change in the conception of childhood itself which predates or at least laps modern consumerism, namely, of childhood as a phase of life which is strongly distinctive from adulthood, and needing special protection.

    As long as we’re talking about middle/upper-middle class parenting and childhood, though, there’s still a huge amount of “forced skills acquisition” going on–you see the SUVs busily humming around here as they convey children to language lessons, music lessons, soccer practice, art lessons, cooking lessons, you name it. Video games and toys seem to me a haven from that overbusy, overaspirant kind of relentless productivism.

  24. jpool says:

    Yeah, I would agree that (annecdotally it seems the last ten to fifteen years) that the scheduling of upper-middle class children’s lives has really racheted up, in ways that has a number of cultural critics (and I can’t tell from my limitied vantage whether I think this is legit or not) the death of play.

    On consumerism and choice: I don’t think kids need to be tricked into consumerism. Consumerism is fun! And/or frustrating! And yeah, I’d rather have kids taught about how to navigate what it means to consume (including talking about the people involved in producing what they consume), rather than sheltered completely from it, and that would include talking with them about what their families choose not to consume and why. My mom was a tough woman too (also my dad, but some of this was more her) and, though she never implied that other families who made different choices didn’t love their kids, she was very clear about the guns we were not allowed to have, the sugary foods we were not allowed to eat, and the sexist or violent tv shows we were not allowed to watch.

  25. agl1 says:

    What Cross opened my eyes to (although he doesn’t explicitly make this argument) is that even (or especially) the productivist overscheduled kids are stuck in a closed fantasy environment because most of these activities are designed to be left behind when they themselves become SUV-driving parents, so it’s really Veblen-esque conspicuous leisure in the guise of skill acquisition. Video games, pop music & comics, on the other hand, do have the advantage of connecting kids to a living culture which is shared by adults, and this is what renders them ineligible as signalling instruments in social competition. I still wish I’d learned to read music, though.

  26. Timothy Burke says:

    Again, as opposed to what? Victorian childhoods were not lived in the intimate company of adults, much less so early modern and late medieval European childhoods among the elite or nobility.

    My beef with the kind of argument that Cross is offering, though the issue becomes way worse with less historically sensitive anti-consumerists like Juliet Schor, is that I think there’s a kind of hybrid mythic childhood being stitched together out of bits and chunks of an idealized Fifties, an idealized pre-Depression, and an idealized Victorian/Edwardian, and held up as a moral and social alternative to some postlapsarian consumerist present. I’m neither convinced by the mythic sketch nor am I convinced that this is a postlapsarian moment.

    I mean, I’d like to be able to read music and speak a second language natively, and I accept that this is something that best could have happened to me in childhood. I don’t accept that consumer culture had anything to do with neither of those things happening. I actually played the clarinet for three years, badly and without any desire to learn it. The main difference I see between my life and earlier bourgeois children’s lives is that I was actually allowed to stop doing it when I said, “I don’t like this, I don’t want this, and I’d like to stop”. I actually think it would be fair to see the possibility of that statement as linked to a post-1960 conception of the individuality of children that has some relationship to consumer desire, but from where I sit, that looks like progress, not decline.

  27. JonathanGray says:

    I think here of the wonderful episode of The Simpsons in which Marge campaigns for Itchy and Scratchy to become loving, not vindictive evil killers. When she succeeds, the kids lose interest in television, and we’re then treated to a massively over-romanticized (tongue firmly in cheek, obviously, since this is The Simpsons) vision of all the children of the town playing, whitewashing fences, helping old people across the street, etc. The notion is that if we could just remove this burden from us, we’d be free to be our wonderful, innately brilliant selves. Like the TV Turnoff Week, that naively assumes turning off the television will lead to more people volunteering at homeless shelters, making origami for sick people in hospitals, or reading War and Peace, rather than noting they might just buy a porno mag instead, go on a drinking binge, or simply sit staring at the wall.

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