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Why does nostalgia for childhood, or “the good old days” permeate so much of popular culture? Was it inherently a better time of life, or are we yearning for any deviation from our seemingly inescapable routine? Many forms of children’s media are described as timeless classics, much more so than the media adults consume.
There is no real adult analogue to the friendly cartoon faces that most of us watched and learned from every day in our youth and the deep memories of them that persist today. The lack of overarching plot displayed by children’s shows make them the perfect installation anytime, anywhere. There is never a need to catch up with what “Curious George” was up to last week before diving into a new episode. Conveniently, this means that the media can be reused for years, with generations of children. From the fantastical settings of many children’s shows to the deliberately vague settings of the likes of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” these narratives are decoupled from time passing in the real world.
Some aspects of the media are problematic at first glance. A character who speaks in an unnecessarily heavy accent and promotes racial stereotypes, for example, is low-hanging fruit for criticism. But what about the deeper messages that are so ingrained in our society that we cannot even notice them? The way that Thomas cheerfully answers Sir Topham Hatt’s every beck and call and the way that Greg Heffley’s father must sneak into the garage to snack, restricting his natural diet, are not conscious decisions. In our society, no one bats an eye at this behavior. The creators of these works subconsciously include these tendencies because they are simply what people do.
Harmful nuances baked into the foundations of series that began decades ago also persist without challenge in a way that is not seen in much of adult media. The idealization of capitalist labor baked into “Nancy Drew” and “Thomas and Friends” reflects the capitalist boom that occurred in the west in the 1930s and 40s as the work-centric structure of life developed rapidly. As time has passed, we have moved away from a world where this is accepted by all and begun to question it, yet long-lasting children’s media has ideas of the past entrenched within it. In adult life, some of the more ridiculous notions of children’s media may be challenged, but before new ways of thinking can be passed on to younger generations, they are exposed to the same messages that haven’t faltered in long-lasting media.
When messaging is so interwoven with the normal-seeming activity of lifelike characters, to change these aspects would be to change the characters themselves. Junie B. Jones wouldn’t be herself without constantly being reprimanded for her bold call-outs. We can’t easily take out aspects of capitalism from “Thomas and Friends,” because the trains’ worldview is built upon them — just like our society. Changing the subliminal messaging in these shows would require changing the societal backgrounds that lead to them.
There is no need to cancel certain shows for their messaging — if colonial American messages aren’t delivered by a spunky trio of Earthlings like in “Cyberchase,” casual statements made by teachers in a classroom will achieve the same end eventually. Instead, we must reframe the fabric of our society to move away from the idealization of hard labor for profit, restrictive diets, stifled kindergartners, and more. In much of children’s media, the real villain does not have as recognizable a form as The Hacker from “Cyberchase” and his Grim Wreaker. The true villain is the structure of our society itself which leaves fingerprints of the messages it gives children in their media. Children’s media does not contain more insidious messages than the rest of our society. They are simply easier to note when delivered by smiling cartoons. To resist the needling messages hidden in children’s media, we must reframe the way we think about our world from every angle. Maybe then, despite what Sir Topham Hatt might say, we would actually be “useful engines.”
Nour L. Khachemoune ’22-’23 is a joint concentrator in Chemistry and Anthropology in Dunster House. Her column “Nostalgia: What’s it Hiding?” appears on alternate Thursdays.
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