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Bill's Values

Media & Mindless Consumerism

Bill Radke

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Disney Princesses
(Courtesy Walt Disney Co.)
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I was playing in a park with my 18-month-old daughter last weekend, she was exploring the water fountain and banging on the statue and trying to climb a tree and then--suddenly--she was thinking about television. That's because she saw a girl carrying a purse with a picture of Dora the Explorer, whom she's seen on TV. I'm doing a monthly series about the values I'm passing on to my first kid and this segment is about Media & Merchandising.

I told my park story to a Harvard psychologist named Susan Linn, who studies children and media. Dr. Linn's latest book is called The Case for Make-Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World. I told Dr. Linn that my daughter didn't dwell on her Dora-sighting for long before she went back to her play. So how much should I be bothered by that little interruption?

"The problem isn't in Dora herself," Dr. Linn told me. "Dora is a really neat character. The problem is that today, the lives of young children are just saturated with media characters and the things they sell. I'm not a Luddite, I'm not a technophobe. I worked in television, I worked with Fred Rogers--I just thought the world of him. It's a matter of access and scale. My fantasy life as a child was all wrapped up in Walt Disney's Peter Pan but I only saw it once, because that's all that I could see it--I went to the movies when I was six and I saw it. And then if I wanted to visit Peter Pan or recreate the feelings that film evoked in me, I had to play about it. And that's not kids' experience today. They own the movies or they rent the movies or they see the television shows over and over and over and over again. And then, most of the best-selling toys that are sold to kids today actually inhibit rather than promote creative play. Either they're linked to the media characters and/or they're embedded with computer chips, which means that the toys sing and dance and do back-flips all by themselves and actually have a lot more fun than the kids, who only have to push a button. And the other thing that's possible is by the time they're two, Dora is baby stuff; so it's got to be something else, like the Disney Princesses--that's what's coming next."

Disney Princesses? I didn't know about this new line...I asked Dr. Linn whether I should be trembling. She told me that Disney has packaged Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Belle from Beauty and the Beast and some other princesses into a brand.

"So, now they sell Disney Princess dolls and there are Disney Princess videos," said Dr. Linn. "And now kids can see them at home, they can see them in the back seat of their parents' cars, they can see them on MP3 players, they can see them on cell phones. And then, if all their toys are Disney Princess toys as well, that kind of drives their play."

Here, Dr. Linn is getting into the values that these companies are pushing. What do the Disney Princesses teach a young mind? I know a lot of people who hate what they see as the values of the Walt Disney Corporation, which, of course, is really Disney, Touchstone, Hollywood, Pixar, ABC, ESPN, Lifetime, A&E, Disney Records, Hyperion Publishing, Baby Einstein, Disneyland Resort, Hong Kong Disneyland--and that's the short list.

People have been criticizing Disney for a long time, but not forever. One of the fathers of Disney-bashing was film critic Richard Schickel. Forty years ago, he wrote a book called The Disney Version, in which he called the company's output "a kind of rallying point for the sub-literates in our society."

I sat down with Schickel this week. He's mellowed in his feelings about Disney--he even likes some of their stuff. But not the princesses. Schickel says children--maybe not one-year-olds, but young children--actually crave more than these bland, prettified stories. He says movies like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are diverting, but they won't authentically delight or authentically shock a child, which is the highest purpose of storytelling.

"What we want to do," Shickel told me, "is introduce--gently, but with a certain amount of seriousness--the notion to children that they live in a complex and serious world where bad things happen to good people; and that you have to bring wit, intelligence, energy, basic good values to the problems of living in a complicated world. Now, whether any corporation can afford to do that is a whole other question!"

As for the merchandising and promotion that comes with modern movie, TV and Internet characters, Schickel isn't crazy about it...but he's also not worried. He's been watching commercial media for a half century and he sees both its banality and its beauty.

"And I think it's far worse for them to be so overprotected from the schlock of our culture--of which there is tons--that they become little nerds, and the other kids won't play with them and Mom is saying, 'Look, here's a beautiful sock, we'll make a dolly together from it.' That's fine if you want to do that. But, you know, let 'em have a Donald Duck toy. Or a Mickey Mouse toy or, better still, a Daffy Duck toy--I mean, I love Daffy Duck! To this day, I love Daffy Duck--I think he's one of the great comic characters ever invented in human history. I wouldn't prevent my child from seeing Daffy Duck just because it's made by Warner Brothers, 'a big evil corporation.' He needs to have things like Donald and Daffy because other kids have them, and it helps him to relate to other children. And it's more important to relate to other children than to be a nasty little nerd with your sock doll."

My conversations with Susan Linn and Richard Schickel made a big impression on me. Since talking with them, I've been encouraging my daughter to make up her own stories with dolls and toys, instead of just receiving storylines from companies who, well-intentioned or not, want to sell her stuff. I've also been showing my daughter a little less public TV. But not none. I know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for kids below age 2, but I also know that professional recommendations can change. I have to observe my daughter and use my judgment. And she doesn't seem brain-dead when she's watching Barney and his friends sing songs at the zoo. She seems engaged; pointing, imitating, dancing, singing. I'm OK with a little canned sing-along. I just want to make sure that she also grows up being able to make up her own music, without help from an action figure (batteries included).

  • Music Bridge:
    The Broads
    Artist: Minotaur Shock
    CD: Maritime (4Ad)
More stories from our Bill's Values series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Tayel Kincker

    From Chicago, IL, 11/13/2010

    I can't believe this. The writer composes this drivel: http://weekendamerica.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/05/22/raiders_park/

    Then proceeds carry on like a fan boy to a professional archaeologist about Indiana Jones. You know... we've heard it ALL. You aren't so glib. Then he whines about his daughter responding to Dora?

    Mr. Radke never had a Star Wars collection, did he? Red Rider BB gun? How about a nice Football?

    By John Butler

    From Studio City, CA, 08/03/2008

    Of course the blitz has an effect on children. It makes them want the stuff all the more and RIGHT NOW and highly motivated to pester mommy and daddy to get it for them and marketers exploit this to great effect. Which, as I'm sure you're aware, is why the sugar shock cereal packaged in cartoon character boxes is put on the bottom shelf.

    What I don't buy is that any of this is deleterious to a child's cognitive development or that parents should have cause for concern every time someone with a professional credential trots out this same old song. God knows how many studies have been done on the effects of mass media on child development and the best conclusion they can draw is "the results suggest a possible correlation..." (translation: we don't really know, but it kinda looks like...) I'm still waiting for the one that shows irrefutable cause and effect.

    I think Dr. Linn should change the title of her book to "The Case for Make-Believe: Returning Play in a Commercialized World To The Way It Was When I Was A Child". When I was a kid, I had lots of fun, imaginative play with a cardboard appliance box, a pair of scissors and a black marker. That kind of play may not ever be my son's experience, but I have no reason to believe his creative play will be stunted without it.

    The only part of my childhood that I would like my son to experience is freedom. "Mom, I'm going out to play." "Ok, be home by dinner." By today's parenting philosophy, my mother would be considered negligent.

    By the way, you're right - a Princess on the box doesn't make the cereal taste better - just like sweeping plains of wheat with a purple mountains majesty background doesn't make the granola bar inside any more nutritious.

    We can read a thousand books, talk to a hundred "experts" and as parents we'll always be left with the same conclusion as Bill Radke: "I have to observe my daughter and use my judgment."

    By Lisa Ray

    From Minneapolis, MN, 08/02/2008

    Mr. Butler must admit, however, that this "media/toy" blitz does have some effect on children -- why else would marketers continue to spend billions of dollars targeting kids?

    And the argument made here by Mr. Schickel that kids who don't participate as readily in branded culture will become "nerds" shunned by their playmates has to be one of my favorites. We hear it all the time. But anyone who has raised children in a home where commercialism was rejected can tell you that's just not true.

    I think the answer here is in the balance -- of course there's nothing wrong with playing with a Disney princess doll. And there's nothing wrong with a child understanding that Princesses on a box of cereal don't make it taste any better -- they just make it more expensive. And make them want it more.

    By John Butler

    From Studio City, CA, 08/02/2008

    Will this nonsense never end? I can just hear some "expert" in the day when Susan Linn saw Peter Pan as a child express concerns that her imaginative abilities would suffer because the visual was done for her and she didn't have to imagine the scenes delivered in the imageless book. Or lets go way back to the invention wide distribution of the printed word and how we would lose the great tradition of oral story telling.

    Every kid grows up in their own time, with the toys of the time and the media of the time. The vast amount of media these days compared to when I was a kid (I'm 44) is irrelevant. Kids manage to adapt to the world they live in with no more or less loss or gain in various faculties than in any other time in history. Nothing can stifle imagination - it is fundamental to our nature. I have a friend with a 7 year old boy who has piles of these toys that Linn considers inhibiting to the imagination. But with him, their enormous detail and technical complexity is merely the jumping off point for his imagination which can spin yarns of equally immense detail and complexity. I have a two year old boy. Never have I been more at ease as a father than when I decided to throw away the books and ignore the "child development experts".

    None of this media/toy blitz will harm your children. But the stress you put on your kid while trying to control their environment will.

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