Sunday, May 20, 2007

Critiquing Green Themes in Children's Television

I would need to do quite a bit more research to be able to talk with complete confidence about the history of including environmental themes in North American television programming aimed at children, but I have some impressions and some guesses that I think are worth sharing, as well as some analysis based on my own observations.

I do not, for example, know much about the origins of such things. If I had to guess, I would speculate that it first showed up in a major way in the '80s in the context of the relatively short-lived upsurge of green concern in society more broadly in that era. I would also expect that it fell off a bit after the initial surge of interest, but I would also not be surprised to learn that green themes remained more visible in kids shows than elsewhere prior to the great popular resurgence in awareness of the green that happened in 2006.

Regardless of the rhythm of their presence and absence, though, I think certain features have remained quite common. On the one hand, such shows have carved out space to engage in consciousness raising of a sort about the environment that has been much harder to create and maintain in children's mass media spaces around almost any other issue of proressive or radical concern. At the same time, the shape of that concern has tended to be based on ideas of innocence and rescue, which at best have deeply ambivalent political implications and at worst are actively harmful to the goal of creating the massive changes that we need.

My own encounters with shows of this sort have, of course, come about via L and his library borrowings. There are episodes of Magic Schoolbus, Dora the Explorer and the newer spinoff focusing on her cousin Go, Diego, Go, and Reading Rainbow that I am thinking about as I write this. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have to search too hard to find other shows to which this analysis applies.

I think I can guess at the political environmental aims of those writing and producing the shows. They want to capture the interests of children in green ideas on the assumption that if you get 'em young, you've got 'em for life, and beyond just getting kids interested they often try to get them thinking about what they can do. On the surface, these are good ideas. I think the more people whose attention is focused on our impact on the earth, the greater our odds of actually surviving the next century as a species. I think the emphasis on acting, on doing, is crucial as well because I am becoming increasingly convinced that beyond specific barriers to facilitating certain kinds of consciously politicized collective doing, the current realities of most of our daily lives, including but far from limited to our media environment, is a kind of generalized inertia against almost any kind of doing -- I need to think more about it, but I think it has to do both with the powerful grip that internalized and socially policed normativities have on us, and on the material necessities and ideological training we, particularly those of us with some privilege, receive that mitigate against approaching the utilization of the limited but real space for agency we all have in our lives with an orientation towards even relatively apolitical and individually oriented critical thinking and doing rather than a sort of passive, aesthetically oriented compensation-for-alienation-via-anaesthesia being both modelled on and materially based in being primarily a consumer.

That said, you don't have to go far to bump up against the limits of how such things are actually done in mainstream children's television. Usually, the premise when it comes to environmental issues is some sort of problem in which the characters (or the viewers, in shows or segments without characters) are not themselves implicated as causing, benefiting from, or otherwise being complicit in -- innocence -- and which characters and/or viewers either do solve or are encouraged to solve -- rescue.

In Dora and Diego, this often takes the form of an animal, frequently a baby animal to make it additionally cute and worthy of rescue, that is in some sort of distress that the title character then resolves. This is explicitly the premise of Diego, as he and his family are actually "animal rescuers" who run an animal sanctuary in a jungle environment, but it also happens in a more incidental sort of way in Dora. (The gendered ideological dynamics involved across the two shows are also worthy of analysis. For example, in Diego, which is explicitly targeted at youth trapped in the privileged compartment of the gender prison -- boys -- the rescuing is professionalized, shown as work, and more explicitly framed as rescue. In Dora, which is assumed to be more oriented towards residents of the oppressed compartment of the gender prison -- girls -- the rescuing is in the context of relationships, of informal caring and helping rather than rescue-as-professional-task.)

In Reading Rainbow, for example, you have an episode focused on whales and another on manatees. The additional worthiness of the objects of rescue is created not through emphasizing adorableness but by paying attention to how cool and amazing the creatures in question are. In both episodes, the emphasis is on human beings saving animals who are beached or otherwise hurt or stuck. There may be some vague reference to human being creating circumstances that endanger these animals more generally, but there is no hint that the viewer herself might be implicated in these relations of harm in any way, and there is little attention to exploring what these broader problems might be and how they came about and what might be necessary to address them.

Magic Schoolbus, perhaps because its core target audience is a bit older, is the most sophisticated of the four shows used as examples in its treatment of these issues, to the extent that it sometimes avoids endorsing rescue. However, it never escapes its reliance on innocence for framing the issue. In general, though its main characters are almost universally annoying, the pedagogical philosophy underlying this show is great, but that is not enough to escape this problem. The premise of each episode is usually some sort of problem or "what if" scenario that the (animated) kids in the class have to figure out, with the help of the titular magical bus that allows the kids to bend and break the laws of physics in their explorations of the world.

Episodes relevant to this post include ones that ask: What if recycing didn't exist? Why is this cocoa tree no longer producing cocoa pods? How do animals surivive in deserts? Where should we look for a pet frog that has fled, presumably to its natural habitat? These episodes show that waste is a serious, human-created problem; that ecosystems are complex webs of relationships that human beings can disrupt; how animals and plants survive the scarcity of deserts; and what habitats are and how they are suited to the animals that live there. The example episodes vary as to whether or not they contain vague and relatively unexplored implications that human beings as an abstraction bear some responsibility for environmental problems, or that one foolish but educable person does, but in none is there any deviation from the viewpoint characters -- those via whom the target audience members are meant to read themselves into the text -- being constructed as innocent. Two of the four episodes cited follow the model of innocence and rescue (the recycling ep and the one about the cocoa tree) while the other two explicitly disclaim rescue (the one about the desert animals and the one about the escaped frog). However, in so doing the latter two are warning against the idea that humans need to rescue nature from nature, which is a somewhat different question -- it is good advice, but the message ends up being that maintenance of innocence in this instance requires passivity rather than any exploration of a better model for how human beings should be responding to human-created problems.

Some of you may be wondering why, exacrly, framing green issues in children's TV via "innocence" and "rescue" is a bad thing at all. My understanding of the use of the posture of innocence as a way for people to avoid seeing their own complicity in oppression and therefore to avoid asking the very difficult, potentially self-disrupting questions required to create serious social change comes from reading various writings by Sherene Razack. She writes on page 10 of this book:

[P]luralistic models of inclusion assume that we have long ago banished the stereotypes from our heads. These models suggest that with a little practice and the right information, we can all be innocent subjects, standing outside hierarchical social relations, who are not accountable for the past or implicated in the present. It is not our ableism, racism, sexism, or heterosexism that gets in the way of communicating across differences, but their disability, their culture, their biology, or their lifestyle. In sum, the cultural differences approach reinforces an important epistemological cornerstone of imperialism: the colonized possess a series of knowable characteristics and can be studied, known, and managed accordingly by the colonizers whose own complicitly remains masked.

Particularly given the connection that others have noted between gender oppression and the domination of the natural world, and between colonial oppression and the domination of the natural world, it is easy enough to read this into the environmental context -- an approach which focuses on educating us about the other as its main mechanism of action keeps us from having to examine our actual complicity in the problem.

I think in places Razack talks about rescue as well, but in my own thinking about the idea I have a wider spectrum of places I trace it to, even though it can't really function without the underlying idea of innocence. You can find it in a very old but still valid left criqitue of charity: that it is a piecemeal effort to rescue a small minority of people who are in need, need that exists precisely because people are exploited and oppressed by those with the resources to do the rescuing. This helps those with feel better about themselves and is a tool for dividing and regulating those without. You can also find it in colonial contexts from the old British Empire to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, in which white liberals, including white liberal feminists, have justified various nastinesses on the need to rescue women of colour from men of colour. You can also find it in efforts by private philanthropists and state welfare initiatives to justify their regulation of the lives of people living in poverty, particularly poor women. You can find it in lots of places, and it is a problem because it is still an expression of power over, even when there is genuine and much needed help mixed in, and it serves to obscure the need for a fundamentally different relationship between the parties involved.

My understanding of why discourse in mainstream children's television stays largely confined to narratives of innocence and rescue is actually not very interesting. Or, at least, not very surprising to anyone who has thought much about the media more generally. Some combination of explicit ideological gatekeeping and the pressure to either generate profit or not offend those who need to generate profit function to police the boundaries of the acceptable in the context of the institutional relations in which mainstream mass media gets produced, including children's television. In the first bunch of paragraphs of this post I talk about it in the context of Hollywood movies -- there would be differences for small-scale television production, but largely similar dynamics. And this boundary-keeping functions to prevent too much branching out from innocence and rescue in terms of green issues because any fundamental breach with that model would require asking "why" in ways oriented towards politics or even basic social organization. Even if done halfheartedly, it would be hard to follow such questions to places that were not anti-neoliberal, in the sense of the need to impose regulation on profit-driven rapacity, and I think a more thorough asking would lead to more radically oppositional questioning of social relations. In fact, the reason that green themes can avoid at all the squelching faced by most other issues in childrens shows -- except for the shallowest liberal takes on "diversity" and "inclusion", and not even always those -- is precisely because it can be framed in ways that emphasize science and individual conduct, which are usually constructed in mainstream discourse as being something other than political.


SR said...

I love when you write about media, especially kids media. I think this area of analysis is more important than most people give it credit for being, since the target audience is so impressionable, and the medium is seen by most people as being harmless fluff. The socializing messages can be so strong, it's frightening sometimes. Even in these shows that most parents consider "good" (ie. they are not violent, they mostly have some deliberately educational component), there are a lot of troubling things that kids are learning.

what habitats are and how they are suited to the animals that live there...

The nitpicking biologist in me can't help but point out that you've got the causality backward's more that the animals that are suited to the habitat, not vice versa! Yes, I know, animals change their habitats to some extent too, so there is some back-and-forth, but the driving force is the animals adapting to the environment. :D

Scott said...

Well I'm glad you like it!

And as for your nitpicking, my dear biologist...first of all, I'm not sure that the way I've worded it necessarily implies a direction of causality at all...I suppose there is a more active and a more passive way to understand "suited" in that phrase, and I was meaning the more passive one, which would say nothing about causality and would be synonymous with "are suitable for the animals that live there."

Secondly, I would also say that I was writing based on the particular episode itself, in which habitat is understood through the kids imaginatively modelling the motion of a particular (frog) body through space -- that is, though a series of actual physical environments -- not an abstract "species" and an abstract "habitat" with a relationship between them that has come to be over an evolutionary timescale. The suitability of different habitats are compared to the needs of that specific body...X is not suited to it, Y is not suited to it, but Z is perfectly suited to the needs of Bella the frog.

Oh, and... :P


thwap said...

you think too goddammed much.

just kidding. good post.

make a cartoon where the kids save the baby dolphin and then go eat pepperoni pizzas. where does the magic schoolbus get its fuel?

does the Rockefeller Foundation pay for the animal rescue squad?

Scott said...

:) Thanks.

And, yes, exactly...presumably the bus runs on gasoline mixed with the blood of West Asian children, just like every other vehicle in North America. And I think the animal rescuers get money from the Ford Foundation as well as Rockefeller...divsersifying their funding base, dontchaknow.