An illustration of the title character and her cat, Custard.
Strawberry Shortcake was created in the late 1970s by the American Greetings card company. As the character became a popular fad among young girls, the company expanded the Strawberry Shortcake product line to include dolls, posters, stationary, stickers, clothing, games, etc. Beginning in 1980 Strawberry Shortcake animated specials began to air on television, joining the controversial trend of program-length commercials designed to advertise such product lines to children. To examine the claims of Gary Cross (“Spinning Out of Control”) about the negative effects of program-length commercials or PLCs, I watched the first episode of the Strawberry Shortcake television series.
For this blog I watched episode two of a miniseries of GI Joe: A Real American Hero titled, “Slaves of the Cobra Master”. In this episode it was found out that the terrorist organization Cobra has three elements that enable them to make a machine that can enslave anybody on earth, from the presidents of the world to the Russian army. The GI Joe team has to try and find all of these elements in order to build their own machine. In this episode they fight their way through robots, lasers, and radioactive gas in order to obtain one of the three elements. While this is going on, one of their other team members, Duke, is in a cage death match at the Cobra headquarters, but gets help from a slave girl to escape.
To connect this PLC to the Cross reading, there were a few different aspects of the episode that stood out. First, let me preface this by saying that in the 1960s, GI Joe was a show that glorified real war, but in the 1980s episodes enemies were, “not communist or capitalist, foreign or American, black or white. They were other worldly or unreal” (Cross pg 291). This shows that shows changed in the 1980s to more fantasy like shows that didn’t really portray the real aspects of life and this was Cross’ biggest fear. He felt that in the past shows would teach kids about the past so they could learn a lesson for the future, but that in the PLCs of the 80s this was not the case as shows were in “perpetual” change with fantasy like plots. In this particular episode, GI Joe wasn’t just one American hero, but a team of special forces that fought using lasers and futuristic trucks to defeat the Cobra terrorist organization that seemed like it was from another world as the leader talked and acted like a snake. These weapons and vehicles are not real (unless our military looks like star wars) and this is the part of the show that backs up what Cross was saying that kids can’t learn from shows like this that don’t portray real life.
There was part of the show that could go against Cross’ idea, and this was the Cobra organization. They are called a terrorist organization and this is something that we do deal with in real life. And in one point in the show, the American delegate responding to Cobra says basically that ‘they will never give in to terrorists’s’. So while it is different context, this is a lesson for kids who watch the show to always fight for freedom, but according to Cross, lessons couldn’t be learned from these fantasy PLCs.
In Gary Cross’s article “Spinning Out of Control”he argues that “the old view that children should learn from the past and prepare for the future is inevitably subverted in a consumer culture where memory and hope get lost in the blur of perpetual change (290).” After reading this I watched an episode of Strawberry Shortcake because it is an example of a PLC (program length commercial) according to Cross (296). In this particular episode Strawberry Shortcake was a finalist in a baking competition where she had to travel to Big Apple city and participate in a bake off with the “villain” Purple Pie Man that will be on TV. In order to get to Big Apple City, Strawberry Shortcake has to travel on the back of a butterfly. Once she is there she makes tons of friends instantly, and they are all eager to help Strawberry Shortcake win. Throughout the whole episode Purple Pie Man is constantly trying to sabotage Strawberry Shortcake’s chances of winning, but always fails because Strawberry Shortcake’s new friends are there to help her out. Ironically at the end of the episode the announcer of the bake-off offers Strawberry Shortcake a television show, but she politely declines because she will miss her friends. The announcer then punishes Purple Pie Man by making him the new vice president of the television network. Strawberry Shortcake according to cross was the “girls’ version of Star Wars,” and I would completely have to agree because it the whole show was not relatable to real life (299). The whole setting and plot was unrealistic and so was the process of making so many new friends. No where in this episode did I see any type of life lessons or preparing children to live in the real world. It was all about making new friends, so in my opinion Cross’s argument holds true for the episode I watched.
Similar to other program-length commercials (PLCs), the Care Bears began as characters on greeting cards in 1981. The Care Bears were depicted by plush animals in 1983, and ultimately landed their own television show by 1985. Examining an episode of the Care Bears television series entitled “The Camp-Out,” it is immediately obvious from the initial theme song that this series is a feel-good series intending to reach out to the imaginative child.
In this episode, a group of Care Bears go on a camping trip to a friendly looking forest. Care Bears Playful Heart and Funshine Bear call for help with the intention of tricking Brave Heart and the other adult-like Care Bears. After scolding Playful Heart and Funshine Bear about the consequences that could result from calling for help when they do not need it, Brave Heart proceeds to tell a scary story of the Swamp Monster. Playful Heart and Funshine Bear take this story as an invitation to scare the rest of the Care Bears by dressing up as the Swamp Monster later in the evening. Throughout the episode shadows of the real Swamp Monster are seen. The following morning Playful Heart and Funshine Bear again trick the other Care Bears by calling for help. The rest of the group does not find this very amusing. When Playful Heart and Funshine Bear are really in trouble and call for help, none of the others respond, aside from the two Care Bear cubs, Hugs and Tugs. When the Swamp Monster ends up being the series regular villain, Mr. Beastly, confusion about the real Swamp Monster breaks out amongst the adult Care Bears. Eventually the real Swamp Monster reveals himself to be a gentle and shy creature that cares and looks out for the forest and its inhabitants. The Swamp Monster rescues the cubs, Playful Heart and Funshine Bear. In the end, Playful Heart and Funshine Bear learn that playing tricks on their friends can end poorly, and their friends might not be there when they really need them.
The above summarized episode will act as an example of a typical Care Bears episode. Using this assumption, the Care Bears series abides by Cross’ idea of PLCs as “fantasy worlds.” However, the fantasy world created in the series does not perpetuate the fatalistic view that Cross would suggest. The Care Bears are living in a fantasy world, but the program attempts to teach lessons that are applicable to the real world of a child. For a child, learning the lesson of not calling out for help when you do not need it, and not playing tricks on your friends has a very real application. This lesson comes in a brief fifteen minute package that indulges the child in a fantasy world that is “free from adults” (290). It could be speculated that the child would actually respond better to an informal lesson from imaginary characters that it feels personally connected to, rather than in a formal lesson from an adult. The purposeful lessons in the Care Bears episodes serve as an antithesis for Cross’ idea that “the old view that children should learn from the past and prepare for the future” has disappeared into consumer culture (290). The Care Bears’ lessons serve to prepare children for the future. Fortunately for the child, preparation for the future does not come in a dry, dusty fashion, rather a colorful, indulgent fantasy world.
The video of “The Camp-Out” can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FKx0sIF8cw&feature=sh_e_se&list=SL
In the “Strawberry Shortcake in the Big Apple City” episode (part 2, part 3), Strawberry Shortcake travels to New York to compete in a baking contest with her nemesis, the Peculiar Purple Pie Man. He sets many obstacles for her so that she can not make it to the competition or beat him. Luckily, Strawberry Shortcake meets a gang of friends along the way that help her overcome these setbacks, making her trip end on a happy note when she beats the Purple Pie Man in the competition!
This episode does go along with many of Cross’ arguments because the towns and buildings are that of a fantasy world, often made out of common desserts. Snail mail in this world is literally delivered by a snail, and airplanes are simply butterflies. This is a world in which the sun talks and when bad things are thrown in Strawberry’s way, such as the Purple Man catching her airplane (or butterfly) with a butterfly net, happy thoughts can save the day. Many things such as this, obvious signs of “moral tags” (296), are evident in the episode. These moral tags were meant to justify the PLC’s and make them seem better for children. Other examples include quotes such as “Never say never” and “Be good losers. Victory lies in the struggle, not in the prize.” The various friends made by Strawberry in the episode affirm the idea that “friendship” toys for girls were being made instead of home-making or mothering toys.
While many of Cross’ points and arguments were shown through the Strawberry Shortcake episode, there were also a few references to the real world. The Big Apple in the title refers to New York City and the bake-off is held in Times Square. One of the friends Strawberry makes is even from London. Some things from the real world stay the same, such as video cameras and tv’s. The Strawberry Shortcake world is not entirely fantasy. One part of the episode that somewhat defies one of Cross’ arguments is the lack of gender roles in toys. A friend made in “Spinach” (aka Greenwich) Village, Lemon Meringue, is a model and is constantly primping and saying how pretty she is. However, this is the only clear gender role shown in the episode.
Overall, the episode seems to reflect many of Gary Cross’ arguments and doesn’t necessarily negate many of them. While I definitely thought it had no educational value, due to the moral tags, it could be said to have some kind of merit. However, I believe that this PLC, although not necessarily all PLC’s, was mainly for the purpose of consumerism. Viewing this one episode, I agree with Gary Cross, although after viewing more of this show, or perhaps some other PLC’s, it’s possible I could change my mind. I sincerely hope all PLC’s were not as horrible as this episode of a girl named Strawberry Shortcake.
This is the course website for Rebecca Onion's American Studies seminar at the University of Texas at Austin, convened during the spring semester of 2012. You can see the website for last semester's version of this course at this link.