Antenna Kids – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Santa’s Lousy Prison Guard: The Elf on the Shelf Tue, 23 Dec 2014 16:06:17 +0000 elfIs the Elf on the Shelf teaching children to enjoy, and submit to, a world of surveillance? A recent article in The Washington Post that’s been doing the rounds in my Facebook feed cites Laura Pinto and Selena Nemorin’s “Who’s the Boss? ‘The Elf on the Shelf and the Normalization of Surveillance” saying yes. They’re wrong.

The knee-jerk response is to say, “oh, c’mon, it’s just a kids’ toy. Ease up.” That is not my response. We absolutely should examine kids’ toy worlds for the meanings they present to children. But The Elf ain’t all that bad.

Pinto and Nemorin sense a panopticon at work, alluding to Jeremy Bentham’s prison design in which a central guard tower looks out at, and can be seen from, each cell that surrounds it in a circle. As they note:

Backlighting in the central tower made it impossible for prisoners to discern whether or not they were being watched. Michel Foucault (1979) saw the panopticon as a perfect symbol of modern surveillance societies: a metaphor for discipline operating through a variety of social and institutional apparatuses that leave the individual on guard, never certain if she is actually being watched, but knowing structures are in place to monitor her movements at all times.

Oddly, though, in the very next paragraph after this definition, they continue:

This was illustrated by Huffington Post writer Wendy Bradford who reported that her children insist on ringing the doorbell before entering their home to make sure that their Elf on the Shelf doll, “Chippey,” is prepared for their arrival, thus underscoring their awareness (and acceptance) of the surveillance apparatus.

Wait a minute. If Bradford’s kids need to ring the doorbell to let Chippey know they’re coming, this tells me they know Chippey can’t see them outside their house, and it tells me they know that Chippey isn’t even likely to see everything they do inside the house. This is nothing like the totalizing surveillance in which the individual is “never certain if she is actually being watched.” Chippey’s a pretty lazy guard, who needs waking up lest he sleep through his entire job.

There’s no backlighting here; we know exactly where the guard is. Certainly, my daughter regularly eludes the gaze of her elf, HoHo. If he’s not in the room, she knows he sees nothing. If she’s outside of the home, he sees nothing. And just like Bradford’s kids who sound like they’re making fun of their lazy, sleepy guard Chippey by telling him to wake up (I think here of a high school social studies teacher of mine who would fall asleep while we were taking exams, and, cruel teenagers that we were, we’d relish the task of waking him up at the end, to mock the man’s ineffectiveness), my daughter sometimes rubs her day’s misdeeds in HoHo’s face, reporting back on what she’s done as though she’s aware of his fecklessness. In short, there’s nothing Benthamite or Foucauldian about this. Chippey’s like the guard in a videogame with bad EI, who has a set routine, and all the player needs to do is learn the routine to learn how to elude his gaze.

santaBut you know what is Foucauldian, with NSA written all over it? A guy who “sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” Santa’s The Man here, and always has been. Well, okay, before him, or in some families alongside him is an even more sinister deity who plans to put kids in Hell if they’re naughty. When Santa and God are on the scene, and have been for so long, caring about the Elf seems quaint. If the concern is about normalizing surveillance, Chippey the Lazy Elf and his brother HoHo the Feckless are small fry. Sure, these elves sell well, but nothing like Santa, and nothing like God.

Pinto and Sumerin also write:

When children enter the play world of The Elf on the Shelf, they accept a series of practices and rules associated with the larger story. This, of course, is not unique to The Elf on the Shelf. Many children’s games, including board games and video games, require children to participate while following a prescribed set of rules. The difference, however, is that in other games, the child role-plays a character, or the child imagines herself within a play-world of the game, but the role play does not enter the child’s real world as part of the game. As well, in most games, the time of play is delineated (while the game goes on), and the play to which the rules apply typically does not overlap with the child’s real world.

But how do they know what’s accepted or not? First, they forget a key player here: the parent. Parents filter the rules, and change them as they wish. So what if the book says X? The comparison to board games is illustrative here, inasmuch as I’ve never, ever found two families who play Monopoly the same way. The rule book is the same, but everyone domesticates it. So too with the elves. My daughter was welcome to touch HoHo last year, till we found out why that rule exists: he’s cheaply made and falls apart easily. She’s no longer allowed to touch the almost-decapitated HoHo this year, but he serves a limited role. My daughter looks for him when she wakes up, he fills her advent calendar, then he’s pretty much done for the day. I don’t doubt that some parents use him as a minion of evil who disciplines their kid and rules over their house with an iron fist and without mercy, but that’s on the parents in question, and if that’s what they do with their elf, the elf is the least of the child’s problems. If the elf wasn’t their tool of surveillance and discipline, it’d be something else.

In forgetting about parents, Pinto and Sumerin also don’t see the immense prospect for parental play. Most parents I know who have the elf use him more for their amusement. HoHo abseils down walls, he dons a feather boa and chills with Miffy the rabbit, he tried to start a cult last year, which worried Teebo and Wicket W. Warwick greatly (see left, below) until it turned out to be a large-scale literacy program that resulted in all of my daughter’s stuffed toys learning to read (see right, below).


Others are slightly more devious, or outright inappropriate, if deeply funny (just Google: you’ll see worse. The below aren’t mine, for the record).


HoHo isn’t entirely feckless, to be honest, since he serves a role in our house that the Internet suggests he serves in many, many houses: allowing the parents to have a little bit of carnivalesque play in the realm of kid culture. We all need things like the elf, or Louis CK routines to keep us sane. And towards this end, it’s worth considering that the elf does nothing while the kids are awake: he just sits there. He comes alive when the kids are asleep, allowing parents some scope for play and fun. Even if he ends up in a saccharine sweet pose by morning – as with the HoHo scene on the right, above – he may’ve been tested out in other poses before: the HoHo scene on the left was created solely for my wife’s enjoyment.

He’s creepy looking, sure, but that’s an intertextual creepiness: one needs to have seen horror movies in which dolls come alive to worry about the little freak. Kids are unlikely to see more than a rosy-cheeked little white guy.

Indeed, if there’s anything to complain about, it’s not the elf as lazy, ineffectual prison guard, it’s the elf as yet another emblem of white male power. He is a he in the book, but even if you queer the elf, s/he’s still a servant of Santa, The Man. So maybe the ultimate “message” of the elf is that white guys are watching you, checking up on you. Not a fun message but hardly untrue … and all the more reason for us adults to mess with the elf.


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Annedroids Appisodes and the Potential of Interactive Kids TV Thu, 11 Dec 2014 15:00:12 +0000 annedroidsappisodes_zps4aa8835c 2As Meagan Rothschild noted in a recent Antenna post, the growth and diversity of screen media for children suggests the need to look beyond the issue of screen time to how media can lead to different kinds of inactivity and interaction. While Rothschild’s example largely points to the activity of children inspired by but away from screen media, I would like to consider how shifts in media consumption that have seen children consuming media (including video) on internet enabled and mobile devices like phones and tablets have fostered burgeoning changes in media with the potential to alter the way we think of interactivity, media, and its potential for education.

In particular, I am interested in the growth of “Appisodes”: versions of television episodes with embedded games and interactive components that allow viewer/players to interact directly with the narrative, often through mini-games or other interactive components that punctuate the episode and are required to move the story forward. Introduced with minimal fanfare, Appisodes (which I have referred to as “Merged Screen” experiences) have recently been made available through outlets like the Itunes store or Amazon. The first few appisode apps released had a number of factors in common. Disney Jr. Appisodes, (which I have written about elsewhere), Dora the Explorer Appisodes, and VeggieTale Appisodes were all extensions of broadcast television animated series targeted at pre-schoolers. However, the most recent addition, Annedroid Appisodes produced by Amazon, breaks from this formula and points to some of the broader potential—and limitations—in this new format for children’s media.

Unknown-1 2Annedroids is a part of Amazon’s effort to compete with Netflix and Hulu through Amazon Prime and the creation of original programing. Annedroids is a half-hour live action series targeted at elementary school-aged children, and follows the exploits of a young girl Anne who designs, builds, and programs large, complex, and personality-filled robots and conducts scientific experiments and solves problems with the help of her two friends Nick and Shania. Made with a combination of live-action and CGI techniques, the series incorporates a large number of scientific concepts, using the robots and CGI elements to depict dangerous and dramatic scientific experiments while still using child actors that are relatable, realistic, and differ dramatically from the glitter and glam of many Disney stars. In addition to these science-centered storylines, the main character is a young girl who has an extensive knowledge of science and a penchant for building, coding, and engineering, presenting a strong role-model for young girls.

Annedroids, therefore, seems like the perfect fit for conversion into the appisode format. The series’ focus provides the opportunity for simple coding-based mini-games or games and activities that teach scientific principles. Given the older target audience of Anendroids, one might imagine that there would be a higher level of educational content in their Appisodes. However, in practice Annedroids Appisodes only show hints of this potential. Of the first two episodes released, each included only three interactive elements/games, only one of which (in each episode) had a clear educational component. Both of these games are based around the idea of completing increasingly complex circuits. Some other games included minor educational components (like the inclusion of weather data or different kinds of animal footprints), but most were based around simple movements—chasing or running from something—or finding the right spot where something was hidden.

Annedroids Appisodes and the Potential of Interactive Kids TV

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

By looking at Annedroids Appisodes, a number of challenges, limitations, and potentialities of the form can be seen. While interactive elements can be easily incorporated into a series like Dora the Explorer or Doc McStuffins because they are animated, converting live-action content into animated games in a way that appears seamless and preserves consistent quality is much harder. This is a challenge that must be resolved in order to make Appisodes a realistic option for a broader variety of content. How to incorporate interactive content in a way that authentically adds value and to the episode and is fun and engaging is another challenge, one that the distinctions between the Annedroids Appisodes and previous iterations places further into context.

Unknown 2Amazon’s stake in selling not only their content but their platforms to consumers makes their children’s content a strong site for considering the potential of appisodes for both creative-storytelling (lauded by Annedroids creator J.J. Johnson) and interactivity. With initiatives like Kindle Free Time, part of Amazon’s pitch to families is its ability to curate media content so children only have access to “age-appropriate” media and can be limited in terms of time spent on non-educational content. While series have only just begun exploring how children’s established media habits—including repetitive viewing and viewing on mobile devices—and access to new devices can allow for new forms of storytelling/media interaction, the themes and limited interactive elements of Annedroid Appisodes is an important case study in considering the limits places on such efforts.

Media is a significant part of many children’s lives, and how to encourage children to interact with this media in creative, playful, and even educational way represents an important avenue for parents and scholars to consider. Appisodes represent the possibility of incorporating the kinds of interactive learning studied and promoted in other media such as video games into children’s consumption of television content. For distributors like Amazon who are presenting their platform as a better alternative for many parents, explicitly activating the educational content potential of Appisodes can help to differentiate them and garner positive attention as the educational content of Annedroids itself has done. As a scholar and an aunt of two young girls, considering how a platform that is only beginning to take shape might be developed in a way that increases the play, interactivity, and educational potential of media presents an important opportunity to look at the growth of new media as an opportunity to develop the best aspects of media designed for children, not as a threat to children it is sometimes framed. As a fledgling format, Appisodes may have not reached this potential, but as the format grows parents, educators, and children’s media scholars will have the opportunity to explore what it does well, what it struggles with, and how we can advocate for the value of merging video and interactive content in children’s media’s future.


Researching from within kids’ culture Sat, 22 Nov 2014 15:00:30 +0000 A princess (by three-year-old student with crown drawing help from me).

A princess (by three-year-old student* with crown drawing help from me).

After my first day in the daycare classroom, I thought I had the kids pegged. Just in the span of an hour, one three-year-old told me all about his Batman pants. A girl wearing a Frozen t-shirt happily informed me of the names Princesses printed onto her front. The pièce de résistance occurred when I drew a copy of a Donald Duck figurine—decked out in his The Three Caballeros poncho and sombrero—and asked the class who it was. “Donald Duck!”In that moment I let my confirmation bias win. It seemed as though gendered merchandizing and Disney market saturation had effectively taken over kids’ media culture. However, with weeks of class time with the kids ahead of me, I had to confront some of my assumptions about kids’ culture and the way we communicate at a young age.

The literature on kids’ media culture is dispersed over disciplines that often fundamentally disagree on the goal of studying young people and the media they interact with. While scholars within our field and outside of it have made key interventions into children’s culture, the focus of popular and academic conversations rests on a binary David Buckingham called protectionist and pedagogical discourses. These two discourses articulate the combination of fear and hope centered on the developing bodies and minds of kids—both the perpetual fear of harm caused by sex and violence and the proactive parent-led curation of educational material to foster “proper” growth.

The problems inherent in this model are numerous—due to classed, gendered, raced, and aged biases—, but the issue I will focus on here is the problem of using an adult bias to talk about kids. I believe that this is a major contributor to the troubling construction of childhood innocence. Speaking from our positions of comparably vast experience, we as adult researchers can underestimate children by assuming that their lack of experience is synonymous with lack of understanding. We also at times see the life of a child as foreign or essentially different than our lives, because of our temporal distance from it. By creating our theses and research questions in isolation from children’s perspectives, we continue to ask questions that center on adults and ignore what children may care about or be interested in.

I’m working on a research initiative led by professor and cartoonist Lynda Barry. The idea is to adapt our research questions for young people (and by young I mean two- to four-year olds) and ask them to weigh in on our questions through drawing. As I mentioned before, the class I visit once a week is made up of two- and three-year olds, an age I find especially fascinating for two reasons. First, because this age group is often ignored by psychological research methods that hinge on repeatable tasks. Apparently toddlers do not typically repeat tasks when ordered (this will come as a huge surprise to parents and caregivers, I’m sure). Second is because they are at the beginning of Disney’s supposed princess target audience (girls age two to six). This “princess obsession” is a loaded one since positive and negative associations with hyper-femininity range across class and taste cultures. With both of the above reasons in mind, I am in the process of crafting research questions and methods with the help of my co-researchers. At this point I hope to share a couple brief observations about creating and interacting with toddlers in a space when they are among their peer group and with adults.

1: Dialogue is generative 

One of Buckingham’s observations is that we can’t take kids’ words at face value. I think we could often say the same for adults, but it is useful to remember that young children do not always have enough experience to know how we want them to respond to specific questions. Our research objective in the classrooms was to get kids to draw and tell us stories about their drawings. What I discovered was that this age group isn’t fond of or especially equipped to synthesizing visual information into stories. When I ask the innocent question “Will you tell me what you drew?” I’d mostly get frank and negative responses, either “I don’t want to,” “No,” or “I don’t know.” I found it much easier to talk with them while they drew. The “stories” were more like conversations, occurring between myself and a child or two. Dialogue moves beyond verbal communication as well. Thanks to Lynda Barry’s insights, my (adult) colleagues and I discovered that discussion through drawing and playing created more insights from kids than standing at the borders and observing.

2: Repetition helps with creation 

Kids repeating each other's drawing ideas. Top: "I'm drawing purple and a rainbow." Bottom: "I'm starting a rainbow."

Kids* repeating each other’s drawing ideas. Top: “I’m drawing purple and a rainbow.” Bottom: “I’m starting a rainbow.”

Again, I’ve interacted with toddlers one-on-one, but I was surprised to see how much kids will repeat each other while making things. Often I’d get one kid drawing a “horse” that looked more like squiggle marks and then another kid who didn’t know what to draw would suddenly chime in, “I’m drawing a horse.” This helped me learn how to initiate a drawing session by simply stating what I was drawing and see if anyone else would start drawing the same object. At this stage of practice and motor skills, the kids’ ability to create “realistic” images varied wildly, but by saying they were creating the same thing as a friend, they were able to create something.

So, what do we do with experiences like these? I don’t expect these interactions to write my papers for me or even craft my research questions in a direct way. My hope is that if scholars communicate with children through interactive research methods, we may be able to move beyond thinking about what media culture does to kids, and move toward questions and methodologies that respect kids’ media and cultural engagement as nuanced, active, and social.



*Note: drawings are recreations by the author due to IRB restrictions on circulation of original pieces.


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Why is My Kid Watching That Lady Fondle Eggs? Fri, 21 Nov 2014 14:52:35 +0000 ImpreriaToys

If this isn’t as articulate as I’d like, I blame it on both the exhaustion of raising two and a half year old twins and the ethical and emotional struggle I personally experience on this topic daily. Let’s just put my cards on the table. Two and a half years ago I would have spouted forth about how the quantity of age-appropriate(ish) media consumption shouldn’t really be a concern. Like many media scholars, I was a child of television. I did a solid version of binge watching in the context of a 1970s/1980s household without cable, and my feelings about kids and media consumption emerged from a childhood love of The Joker’s Wild, Match Game, and The Brady Bunch and in complete avoidance of actual research. Then I had kids. I now function, like many scholar/parents I’m sure, in an ambiguous space between a belief in the medium I love and a fear of melting the tiny brains of the actual humans for whom I’m responsible. Every morning I try to fight the good fight, when my son wakes up, immediately looks for an iPad, and proclaims “want watch ‘big TV’.” And the struggle continues.

The environment in which I’m raising my tiny 21st century viewers brings the best and the worst that technological advancements have to offer. Along with providing a wealth of totally watchable age-appropriate content, new delivery systems and interfaces instill awful behavioral patterns that transcend mere viewing habits. Although this new media landscape allows haggard parents a tremendous sense of ease with content location and selection—constantly leading my partner and I to wonder how our ancestors or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s parents survived child-rearing sans television—we should also be concerned with what it’s teaching our kids about expectations and task completion.

mashupLike many kids of the 21st century, mine live in a house with cord-cutters. Their electronic media comes primarily in the form of DVDs, cartoons on Hulu and Netflix, or videos on YouTube viewed on an iPad. Unlike their foremothers (well, just the two), they never had to wait for their shows to air. Every time-slot belongs to them. There’s no waiting around for Sesame Street or The Electric Company. They’re never forced to begrudgingly watch Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood because it’s that or Donahue. Daniel Tiger, Rabbids Invasion, and Wild Kratts are never more than a click away. Their “now” and “just what I wanted” style of viewership encourages them to be tiny, impatient content bullies. My twins are exceedingly annoyed with advertisements when watching linear television. FBI warnings on DVDs have enraged them since infancy.  If they can’t watch the episode they want when they want it, they’re incredibly frustrated, and we’re now watching this demand for personalization translate into other activities. Why won’t Target replay “Happy” over their loudspeaker now? Why doesn’t everyone have our applesauce? How dare the radio not know what we want to hear at this second? Our reliance on the ease of contemporary media delivery has only aided them—even more than the previous generation’s DVD players and VCRs—in becoming part of a pushy generation of playlist demanders.

BigUnboxingAside from instilling kids with a high degree of impatience and need for immediate satisfaction and customization—and a belief that these expectations are reasonable—contemporary media has further enabled what was once one of the main evils of children’s entertainment. Far from the days of Congress and the FCC debating the scourge of the program-length commercial (damn you Strawberry Shortcake), YouTube has wrought a range of toy videos that function as nothing short of toddler crack. An entire genre of toy unboxing videos shares with kids the wonders of consumer products (and notably, my kids have an uncanny ability to find them). New York Times Magazine recently addressed this genre in “A Mother’s Journey Through the Unnerving Universe of ‘Unboxing’ Videos,” a piece that details user DisneyCollector’s 90million-plus hits—and potential millions in ad revenue—for a video of her opening plastic eggs to reveal small hidden toys inside. DisneyCollector’s contributions, as well as videos with porn-y underscoring showing manicured hands seductively peeling Play-Doh from plastic eggs and endless videos that show kids playing with toys or toy mash-ups, simultaneously (even if as collateral damage) advertise to the very young and reinforce—through their brevity, inanity, and rewindabilty—both compulsive viewing and a tenuous attention span. My household recently deleted YouTube from some and password protected all of our tablets, as the kids were disappearing and our son shouting, “you stay in there ma!” with the hopes that we would not discover them obsessively watching other “kids” play with toys.

I love the ease of 21st century media and it’s a wonderland for kids. They can hold it in their hands and demand it play at their tiny command. For my two cents, we need to be thinking about how today’s media interactions—not just content—are helping to shape our kids’ interactions outside of the box. I’m not going to take away our TV or iPads—the iPad is, after all, the only way to keep them from puking in the car—but as a parent/scholar, I need to keep my eye on the potential residual behavioral impact of these new forms and increased levels of control. After all, it’s all happening on my watch.


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Moving Beyond Screen Time Thu, 20 Nov 2014 14:30:50 +0000 kidscreenA couple of weeks ago I was monitoring the twitter feed of a prominent early childhood conference, and was surprised to see a key voice in the community quoted as exclaiming “Screens don’t teach!” For the record, I’m being vague on purpose. Since I only saw the twitter quote and wasn’t actually there, I’m not quite ready to hang her out to dry. But watching it get retweeted and taken up as an educational “position” required me to drink extra tea and practice deep breathing exercises.

Screens are a tangible piece of hardware, whether part of a television, computer, tablet, phone, or handheld game console. They are not content. More often than not, it’s a show or game or app or program that does the heavy hitting as far as transmitting messages and eliciting activity. So it’s absolutely true and non-newsworthy that screens don’t teach. But are screens a part of a larger package that convey information and facilitate different kinds of meaning-making? Absolutely, and this deserves a conversation deeper than quips of misleading twit-bytes.

I think the attempted educational position above was referencing concerns over “screen time.” This term has been wielded as a sword of parenting fear and guilt (and sometimes trendy emulation) since before the American Academy of Pediatrics set forth their 2001 guidelines advising no more than 1-2 hours of screen time per day (which, by the way, has been adapted recently to take a more balanced approach to kids engaging with digital media). To be sure, there are legitimate concerns about the content and interactions that may be elicited via digital media. But parents and educators are not hostage to the whims of the media industry. They can approach children’s media use by thoughtfully evaluating the content and contexts for media interaction. Here are a few potentially helpful questions:

  1. What is the media content? What is the child watching, hearing, or being encouraged to do? Is the particular content appropriate for the child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development or temperament? How will the child make sense of what they see or what they do?
  1. What kinds of activity and interaction does the media elicit? Is the child engaging with the media alone? With peers? With older siblings or adults? Is joint media engagement supportive and productive? How do the narrative worlds of the media connect with the child’s play and activity?
  1. What role does this media play in the child’s broader swath of life activities? How does the child spend their time? Is there a balance in the child’s activities, including active play, imaginative play, quiet and social times, etc.?

I have a poster child for this. I use this sweetie as an example in many of my talks on the ways kids actively participate in the narrative worlds that are meaningful to them. There was a time, a number of years back, waaaaaaay before Rovio had marketed it to the high hills, when Angry Birds was just one mobile game. (I feel like I should be sitting in a rocking chair for this tale…) As a little guy, he loved to play Angry Birds on his mom’s phone. One day he ended up drawing a group of the bird characters, and used some ribbon as a tool to help launch them. Intrigued by what was transpiring, his mom let him take the lead. Soon he was building obstacles of couch cushions and furniture to try to knock down with his paper birds, which then prompted some great discussions on basic physics concepts and revising his strategies. His engagement in-game led to active creation and experimentation out-of-game, including joint engagement with a caring adult. His play pushed the boundaries of the Angry Birds narrative world. The activity was elicited by media use, by screen time, but became the catalyst for rich engagement to take place. The media wasn’t something he consumed, but something he did. But his story isn’t unique. It does bring us to a broader view of media engagement, though. And with thoughtful consideration, parents and educators can make informed and critical choices about a child’s media engagement, considering more than just screen time.

In sum, screens don’t teach. Screens don’t entertain. But the content, contexts, and interactions that are elicited via screens can have big impacts on young participants. As a term, “screen time” is incomplete. The affordances of different kinds of media and their related interactions will mean different things to different children. So the next time someone asks you what you think of kids and screen time, I hope you’ll help them think critically about media use in ways that promote a child’s positive and productive meaning-making. We’ve gotta help nip the quips in the bud.

Extra stuff:

There are a number of scholars and specialists who provide volumes to this dialogue. If you’d like to dig in more deeply, here’s a short list of people and organizations that present informed and balanced views of children’s media use. They are listed in no particular order, and this list is not exhaustive.

  • Daniel Anderson, media researcher & originator of the “media diet” perspective.
  • Lisa Guernsey, Director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, and originator of the “Three C’s” (content, context, and the individual child) perspective for thinking about children’s screen time.
  • David Kleeman, Playvangelist at PlayCollective, and all-around smart guy when it comes to children’s media and bridging industry and research.
  • The Joan Ganz Cooney Center – the digital media research arm of Sesame Workshop.
  • The Fred Rogers Center, and specifically their joint position paper with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).


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Reflections on the “Tinker-verse” Wed, 19 Nov 2014 14:30:05 +0000 P1000772Exhibit 1: The ceiling of my daughter’s bedroom, which has been adorned with child-size Disney Fairy decals for nearly two years now thanks to a Christmas present from her uncle. I’ve become quite familiar with what I’ll term the “Tinker-verse” over the last few years, and as with all forms of kids’ media, there are both compelling and troublesome aspects for a feminist media scholar-mom (or “mommy-professor” as I’m considered by my charges). Until writing this, I hadn’t realized the full, somewhat disturbing extent of my knowledge of all matters Tinker.

Peter Pan was the first Disney movie my kids screened due to their Nana’s somewhat unexplained fondness for the narrative. It was with some concern that I identified that a particular gesture of my barely two-year-old daughter—arms crossed, lips pursed, head dropped, eyes narrowed to angry slits—bore considerable resemblance to the 1953 version of Tinker Bell. A few more years have indeed revealed this to be consistent with her temperament, but it certainly led me to be wary about accepting these Fairies and their stories into my house.

The Tinker-verse has grown considerably in the near decade since Tinker Bell’s reboot in 2005 when Disney began building its Fairy line to maintain their girl customers as they aged beyond Princesses.[1] There have been five Tinker Bell movies (2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014), though I don’t believe any were released in theaters, and they commonly appear edited into episodes more as a series on the Disney Channel. There are also many books, and, of course, toys.

The mythology of the Tinker-verse picks up with Tinker Bell after her adventures with Peter Pan. Tinker Bell now speaks; she still lives on Neverland Island, but now lives in a world of other Fairies in Pixie Hollow. Fairies are born from a baby’s first laugh, which floats off to Pixie Hollow and turns into a Fairy. Upon being born, Fairies must find their Fairy talent—which effectively becomes their family unit. Tinker Bell is a “tinker” fairy (meaning she fixes things; aka a “pots and pans” fairy), and her main cohort of friends includes Rosetta (garden-talent), Silvermist (water-talent), Iridessa (light-talent), Fawn (animal-talent), and Vidia (fast-flying fairy). Fairies are actually responsible for most things that we explain through science.

imageAdmittedly, I begrudgingly accepted Fairies as an alternative to Princesses. On the plus side, tinker fairies are basically engineers—fairies who fix things and make things work—so a pleasant deviation from female stereotype in Tink’s case. The Tinker-verse also responds to the common feminist critique of Disney narratives that pit female characters against each other by constructing Pixie Hollow as matriarchy of female friendship. (In the 1953 film, Tink and Wendy clearly compete for Peter’s affection). There are male characters, Sparrow Men, but they are largely secondary. Some of the graphic novels hint more at romantic interest between Sparrow Men and Fairies, but the films, picture books, and chapter books don’t suggest attraction beyond friendship. Though Tinker Bell is central in the films, many of the other Fairies are developed independently in the books. The range of distinctive female characters follows the strategy of gang-of-female-friends narratives targeted to women that present a range of female archetypes without strongly asserting one type of female identity is preferable (Golden Girls, Designing Women, Sex and the City, Girls) while also creating multiple points of identification.

Of course, the central Fairies are dainty and very much in accord with dominant standards of beauty, though a tertiary character, Fairy Mary, is more full figured. The core Fairies depict a range of skin colors and are voiced by a multi-ethnic cast of actresses, but the narrative is colorblind and this range in skin color never commented upon. All the Fairies appear Caucasian to my Caucasian eyes except light brown-skinned Iridessa. Iridessa is voiced by Raven-Symone, Silvermist, by Lucy Liu, and America Ferrera voices Fawn, though the Fairies do not seem to be of varied ethnicities. Rosetta (Kristin Chenowith) plays the girly-girl to the more practical, independent Tinker Bell (Mae Whitman). Vidia (Pamela Adlon), who is not included in the Fairy decal collection, often introduces conflict as more full of herself than the communally-oriented core Fairy group. Also, a lot of Fairy talents are pretty domestically-based; though one could argue the range of talents matches the communal society, so this focus on basic life-preservation-tasks matches the narrative universe. The Fairies are led by Queen Clarion, which makes Pixie Hollow a communal monarchy of sorts.

The Tinker-verse fits well with the more feminist-inflected Disney heroines of Brave and Frozen. The stories emphasize the value of a female collective and affirm a range of femininities that viewers might find for identification, and no one is waiting for their prince to come or sitting around just looking pretty. The Tinker-verse is also reinventing and expanding the Peter Pan mythology in some interesting ways that have not drawn the level of fan attention and vitriol common to other franchises and narrative worlds. Though the brief description offered here sounds ridiculous at points, there is an impressive comprehensiveness, consistency, and seeming deliberateness in the narrative world that Disney has created.


[1] See Peggy Ornstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (New York: Harper, 2011).


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Announcing a New Series: Antenna Kids Tue, 18 Nov 2014 14:30:39 +0000 hair bandFor the rest of this week, Antenna will be kicking off a new, continuing series: Antenna Kids. The charge for the series is simple and broad – to engage critically with media for children.

The idea came very selfishly from my own sense that many Antenna readers and contributors have kids, work with kids, and/or work on kids media, and you might help me engage thoughtfully with the mediated environment that my daughter is moving through or will soon move through. Too much of the received wisdom on kids media comes from hacks and moral panickers, or from the press’ crude readings of complex quantitative studies that non-number-literate journalists over-simplify. So what do those of us in media and cultural studies, or in correlate, neighbor fields have to say instead? What would a feminist media studies scholar who knows her kids’ media recommend I show an almost three year-old? What issues in the aforementioned received wisdom need to be challenged, revisited, replaced? What’s not on my radar that should be; apparently there’s this show called Breaking Bad that I’m told I need to watch at every conference, but what television shows, books, games, films, and more am I not hearing about that might interest, fascinate, and challenge my daughter, and which texts should she and I run away from screaming?

The series began with that selfish idea, but surely the answers to these questions could help many of us, whether as parents, scholars, and/or specialists.

1The posts that follow this one will be the interesting ones, and will give a taste of what the series could do and be. But the series will need more writers, so please let me know at jagray3 at wisc dot edu if you’re interested.

The series will take two forms:

1. traditional blog posts.

2. roundtables. For the latter, we would love to get a whole host of names of interested people who’d be willing to field the occasional short question via email (such as my above one – “what would a feminist media studies scholar who knows her kids’ media recommend I show a three year-old?”), and to type up 100-300 words in response. We can then collate some of these and begin the discussion with a post that hopefully others would contribute to in the comments. The roundtable model acknowledges that some people have no answers, are busy right now, etc., and thus we’d always ask more people than we need to get a post going, so that only some need to reply.

Perhaps the only other parameter to set right now is that by “kids” and “children,” we’re thinking around 0-11. Where we set that end line is fuzzy, partly because we hope to have writers from around the world contribute, and the cultural hingepoints are different in different countries. But we’re interested largely in infancy to the end of elementary school.

We hope the series will be of interest to many of you, and that many of you will write for it.



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