Transatlantica special issue
Creating the child audience: media and the invention of modern American childhood from the late 19th century to the present day
One of the most original contributions of the so-called new childhood studies is the shift away from earlier notions of a “universal child” (marked by biological as much as cultural and psychological universals, cutting across all cultural and social groups) to the idea of childhood as a social construct, contingent on historically and culturally situated realities. Starting in the 1980s, researchers have increasingly placed emphasis on children as “agents” and “beings” in their own right, whereas before childhood was conceptualized as a social structure and a state of becoming toward fully realized human adults (James and Prout 1990).
In the United States, modern attitudes to childhood as a realm separate from the adult world date back to progressivism, with the gradual “sentimentalization” (Zelizer 1994) of childhood being in part the result of Romanticism as well as Lockian conceptions of children as blank slates – in other words, as innocent and impressionable. New attitudes toward children also originated in the social, cultural and economic developments of the late 19th century, with the gradual eradication of child labor, changing patterns in family life and women’s social roles, as well as growing concern for the successful socialization of immigrant or maladjusted children, notably through universal school enrollment. In the process, the values of the middle class came to define the standard for what a childhood should be, with the suppression of non-conforming groups as legitimate models.
The development of such constructs was reliant on the media industry, with children’s mass culture harnessing new communication technologies to reach ever larger print, broadcast and now digital audiences. The demarcation of the adult and the child’s worlds conversely opened new avenues for the creation of a specific market – that for children – when, starting in the 1920s, production began to outpace consumption and manufacturers set out to search for new sales opportunities. This, in turn, placed children in the role of agents more or less directly involved in the purchase and consumption of products specifically geared toward them (including the media), with the media being a major promoter of consumer culture and, more specifically, of corporations and their products.
This Transatlantica issue sets out to examine how, in the process of creating new audiences for its products, child-centric media crafted a homogenizing vision of childhood especially compatible with media consumption. As a result, in the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries, the media have made themselves the vehicle of adult norms and expectations about children’s tastes, behaviors and development – be it to pander to existing tastes and behaviors or shape them to ideal standards, some civic-minded (with emphasis on social adjustment, character building, or good citizenship), some commercial, and others both at once.
To reprise observations made by James and Prout, the media have come to work as a Foucauldian “regime of truth” (James and Prout 1997, 23): as it “naturalizes assumptions about how children are and should be” (Buckingham 2000, 7), children’s media represent a specific transaction between adults and children, namely an attempt to imprint a specific self-image on children and encourage desirable behaviors. Drawing from analyses of film, television, music, videogames, print and online media, this issue will thus focus on how children’s media production provides an especially illuminating case of how media producers make inferences about audiences and intend to understand as well as affect the latter’s behaviors. Conversely, the study of children’s media will shed light on childhood’s socially constructed nature, reflecting changing cultural emphases on the various meanings of American childhood in recent history.
Central among these questions are the issues of generational media and the political child. As Buckingham notes, childhood is “a shifting, relational term,” whose opposition to adulthood “serve[s] functions not merely for children, but also for adults (Buckingham 2000, 5, 10).” To this extent, the creation of child-centric media helps create or at least reiterate the adult/child divide and, as a result, serves to maintain, shape or even transform power structures. The adult/child dichotomy is central to children’s media production and reception, with the media industry and its various regulatory bodies not only addressing children and their alleged needs but also defining childhood in the process – a normative and even prescriptive dimension of children’s media productions that may now be increasingly coming into question with the advent of online content created by children themselves for their peers.
In keeping with this line of enquiry, we encourage contributions dealing with the role of the media – print, broadcast, or digital – in the invention, politicization and economization of modern American childhood. Possible topics of discussion include, but are not limited to, the following themes:
- moral panics and underlying assumptions about child audiences;
- children’s media as a topic of public debate and the political interests that such discourses serve;
- media producers’ efforts to co-opt theories of childhood, education, and the media, especially with regards to their educational or socializing values;
- the rise of “edutainment” and “infotainment” as legitimate children’s media;
- the media and the development of peer culture, as well as the fragmentation of child audiences into distinct age groups and developmental stages;
- children’s media as part of wider economic ecosystem, especially with regards to its reliance on the toy and advertising industries;
- appeals to child audiences as economic agents with increasingly available disposable income and growing influence on the family’s buying decisions;
- child audiences’ evolving consumption patterns of the media and of the products promoted by it;
- media producers’ and regulators’ articulation of children’s consumer rights and media literacy skills;
- the influence of non-market forces (such as philanthropic, educational or religious organizations) on the production, circulation or consumption of children’s media;
Abstracts should not exceed 400 words and must be sent in English or in French along with a short bio (both in .pdf and .doc/.docx formats) to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline for abstract submission has been extended to March 15, 2018. Completed papers will be expected by August 31, 2018. For details on formatting, please refer to the journal’s style sheet at: http://transatlantica.revues.org/5220
Boocock, Sarane Spence, and Kimberly Ann Scott. 2005. Kids in Context: The Sociological Study of Children and Childhoods. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Buckingham, David. 2000. After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in the Age of Electronic Media. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Calvert, Karin. 1992. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900. Lebanon, NH: Northeastern University Press.
Chas, Critcher. 2003. Moral Panics and The Media. London: McGraw-Hill.
Cross, Gary. 1999. Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Frau-Meigs, Divina. 2010. “La panique médiatique entre déviance et problème social : vers une modélisation sociocognitive du risque.” Questions de communication, no. 17 (June): 223–52.
Jacobson, Lisa. 2007. Children and Consumer Culture in American Society: A Historical Handbook and Guide. Wesport: Praeger.
James, Allison, Alan Prout, and Chris Jenks. 1998. Theorizing Childhood. Cambridge: Polity Press.
James, Allison, and Alan Prout, eds. 1990. Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood. London: Falmer Press.
Jenkins, Henry. 1998. The Children’s Culture Reader. New York: NYU Press.
Kirsh, Steven J. 2009. Media and Youth: A Developmental Perspective. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
Mitchell, Claudia, and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh. 2002. Researching Children’s Popular Culture: The Cultural Spaces of Childhood. London: Routledge.
Prout, Alan, ed. 2005. The Future of Childhood. London: Routledge.
Qvortrup, J., W. Corsaro, and M. Honig, eds. 2011. The Palgrave Handbook of Childhood Studies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Singer, Dorothy G., and Jerome L. Singer. 2002. Handbook of Children and the Media. London: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Steinberg, Shirley R., ed. 2011. Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood. Boulder: Westview Press.
Zelizer, Viviana A. 1994. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Associate Professor of American Studies, Sorbonne Université