In the chapter Spinning out of Control, Gary Cross states that during the 1980’s, “toys lost their connection to the experience and expectations of parents” in order to enter “a realm of ever-changing fantasy” (309). With this he implies that when toys became centered around fantasies instead of realistic issues, they lost their educational value and became less useful for the lives of children. He then goes on to argue how through the use of program length commercials, Television played a major role in the further detachment of toys from any realistic context.
Program length commercials, or PLC’s, were TV shows that promoted a specific toy by giving children “a set of fantasy situations and personalities upon which to model play”. Among the most popular PLC’s, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is the only one that caused me to agree with Cross’s argument. When referring to this particular PLC he says that it “offered boys no more than a simple vision of ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’ in a fantasy world where violence was a constant” and that it “certainly did not orient children to the real world of international politics”. When looking at the current American political atmosphere, it is curious to see how the rhetoric revolving American Foreign Policy is so similar to that in G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.
On the day of 9/11, President George W. Bush told the American people that we were attacked because we are “a beacon for freedom” and because the attackers were “evil”. Since that day, this oversimplified view of the problem has actually been the prevailing view among politicians and citizens across the country. In the G.I. Joe theme song, there is one particular part that echoes a profound similarity to the speech given by President Bush:
GI Joe is the codename for American’s daring, highly trained
special mission force.
It’s purpose, to defend human freedom against Cobra-
a ruthless, terrorist organization determined to rule the world.
This is probably the reason why many critics “complained that G.I. Joe and other action-figure lines celebrated the United States as high-tech world policeman” (298).
Gary Cross is right when he says that this PLC fails to teach children that world politics is not simply an issue of good vs. evil, where the U.S. government is the good guy and whatever country they happen to be fighting at the time is the evil enemy. As Ron Paul explains in one republican debate, there are a lot of reasons behind the 9/11 attack other than pure hatred and desire to spread terror. It is important to teach children that their actions have consequences and that before judging a situation they have to look at the context as well as the different perspectives of those involved.
Side Note: I am not trying to justify the 9/11 tragedy in any way.
I watched the pilot for the original Transformers animated series, which premiered in September 1984. The name of the pilot was “More Than Meets The Eye“. In the episode we are transported “many millions of years” before the present (1984) to a planet called Cybertron. This is a technologically advanced planet populated by shafeshifting machines. The planet is being ravaged by a civil war being fought between two sides- the Autobots and the Decepticons. The Decepticons are said to be greedy, evil machines bent on total domination; the Autobots, on the other hand, seek only to stop the Decepticons and return peace to their beloved planet. The energy sources on Cybertron are depleted, so both sides leave the planet in search of alternative sources with which they can fuel their ongoing battle. They end up crash landing into a volcano on Earth, where they lay in wait for four million years until the Volcano erupts, somehow switching their power switches back on. The Decepticons regroup decide to mine Earth for all its energy supply, then return to Cybertron to create a weapon capable of dominating the universe. The Autobots take it upon themselves to stop the Decepticons, and protect life on Earth at all cost. With this, the stage is set for the rest of the series.
The Transformers animated series is basically the embodiment of Gary Cross’s argument 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. (course packet page 290)
The world which the Transformers inhabit, Cybertron, could be the pictorial representation of the word fantasy in the dictionary. It is a distant planet, tucked into some obscure corner of the universe. The beginning scene of the animated series’ pilot involves a period of “space travel” as an introduction- no doubt meant to communicate to children the remoteness of this faraway land- isolating them from their worldly surroundings while simultaneously engaging their focus with measured buildup. As we meet the Transformers, they are amazing marvels of engineering. Otherworldly aliens that, oddly enough, when shifted resemble vehicles we normally encounter here on Earth. The sight of a car speaking in the first scene, then later empathizing with his fallen comrade quickly remove all semblance of familiarity. These are not vehicles like we have on Earth- these are much cooler. As we shift scenes from battling on Cybertron to intergalactic space travel and later to mid space battle, the characters somehow end up on Earth. The scenes on Earth are deliberately staged in areas where humans would not inhabit: the desert, open ocean, a volcano. Even when humans appear in the series, they are tiny, thoughtless, impulsive beings. Their role on the show is much like a mouse or a dog would be portrayed on a present day sitcom- our function is to be weak, frightened lifeforms dependent upon the autobots for our salvation. There is no tie in towards learning from the past. Absolutely no mention of how children should prepare for the future (unless calling down forty foot robot guardians from space counts as a plan- pretty sure Newt Gingrich would approve). There are no lessons taught, to be quite honest. Even though the show takes place in our world, it strives to maintain its “other-worldliness” by reducing mankind and its achievements to a mere side-show- “ants” that the glorious Transformers may step on at their will. The show is about one thing and one thing alone- promoting the Transformers toys. The real world has no relevance here…
Birthday Bear wants a hug. Awww. (click for source)
The episode of Care Bears that I watched, called “Birthday Bear’s Blues,” took place on Birthday Bear’s birthday. The Care Bears are celebrating after scaring off the villain No Heart. Thinking the other Care Bears forgot his birthday, Birthday Bear goes to Earth to cheer up a rich little boy, Charles, because nobody has come to his birthday party. Meanwhile, No Heart is plotting revenge. He tricks the Care Bears into going to Charles’s estate and bewitches a maze with thorns and no way out. The Care Bears are tricked into the maze and trapped. Birthday Bear and Charles watch from outside the maze and seek out Charles’s classmates for help. No Heart begins to track The Care Bears inside the maze. He almost catches Gentle Heart, but the Care Bears team up and “scare” No Heart, sending their beams to find him. Evil is defeated, and Charles learns that you can’t buy friends.
I think this episode of Care Bears refutes Cross’s argument in “Spinning Out of Control.” He argues that 80s kids TV was removed from the “real world,” but this episode deals directly with a topics relevant to kids, friendship and that money doesn’t buy friends. The episode does have a clear moral lesson, even though it is hidden within a world of fantasy.
Cross argued that toys for “no longer needed to conform to the simplest laws of nature” (p. 302). While he sees this as a bad thing, I think personification is a big part of how kids play naturally. Stuffed animals have voices and personalities to kids, so talking bears on television isn’t much of a stretch for them.
However, there are some aspects of this episode that support Cross’s position. The world of Care Bears is obviously very separate from the real world, but the parts of the show that are trying to depict the real world are unrealistic. The villain is “reduced to the killjoy, often pitiful figure whose opposition to the happiness of a colorful world came only from ignorance or fear of caring” (p. 300). “Evil” in the world of the Care Bears has no relation to evil in the world of today. Additionally, there are no adults. Charles’s own parents don’t come to his birthday party. His classmates are off by themselves flying kites. When the Care Bears are trapped in the maze, Charles doesn’t turn to his parents. They just aren’t there.
The world of the Care Bears is removed from the real world, but the lesson in this episode was clear and not distorted beyond something kids can translate the the real world.
“Hello Kitty” started out as a brand in Japan in 1974 and was then brought to the United States in 1976. This brand expanded, which lead to the television show in 1987, Hello Kitty’s Furry Tale Theater. This television show is based off of children’s story books and movies. In the episode, titled “Peter Penguin”, Hello Kitty starts off backstage of the performance asking My Melody if she had gotten her wings ready for the performance because she’s Tinker bell. In next clip, Grandpa Kitty is working on My Melody’s wings, but he is puzzled on which way he should turn the knob, and My Melody comes running in grabbing her wings before Grandpa Kitty could finish the tweaks on them. The play then starts by Hello Kitty and Chip, her brother, playing pirate ship by throwing pillows. Hello Kitty then states that she gives up and her brother Chip says, “Peter Penguin would never give up!” Peter Penguin then emerges through their windows and asks Hello Kitty and Chip to help him with his mission because they are believers. The only restriction when they go to Never say Neverland is to never say “never”. Then it moves to the next clip where Tinker bell is captured by the cat, Captain Claw, who is supposed to depict Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Peter Penguin then flies to Captain Claw’s ship with Hello Kitty and Chip to try and save Tinker bell. There is then a battle with Captain Claw’s army by throwing pies at Peter Penguin and his gang. Peter Penguin and his gang are then captured and are in need to being freed. So Peter Penguin then tricks Captain Claw into saying the word “never,” which then makes the earth destroy itself. Peter Penguin then rescues Tinker bell, but she isn’t waking up so Peter Penguin tells Hello Kitty and Chip to wish her well. In the end, Tinker bell wakes up well and then Hello Kitty and Chip returns back to their home.
The episode that I have summarized above is a typical “Hello Kitty” episode. Thus, it exemplifies Gary Cross’ idea of PLCs as a “fantasy world”. Cross says, “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). The whole plot is based on a fantasy world which is unrealistic, and throughout the whole episode there was not any relation to preparing children in the real world. The episode had animals talking, animals flying, as well as pirates and a land beyond the world. Therefore, I would agree for the most part with Cross’ concept of children not being able to learn major lessons through these fantasy PLCs.
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 the Gary Cross reading he begins saying that, “By the 1980’s play was divorced from the constraints of parents and the real worlds …The dolls and playsets that encouraged girls to act out their mothers’ roles were replaced by Barbie’s fantasies of personal consumptions.” (290) However, my favorite toy from childhood combined elements of fantasy and “playing mom,” I’m referring to the pop culture phenomenon of the 1990’s, the “Giga Pet.”
Giga Pets were launched by Tiger Electronics in 1997, and were the “it” gift that holiday season. Luckily, they were rather affordable at just $9.99 and kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds could afford them. You would care for virtual pet on a knuckle-sized screen that was connected to a keychain. You were responsible for feeding your pet, making sure it slept, and playing with it. If you could not fulfill these responsibilities then your pet died.
I often wondered if my mom was as obsessed with me as I was with my Giga Pet dog. I remembered I was almost eight years old when I received my first one, and the following day I went to the zoo. I didn’t notice a single animal though, neither did my two cousins, sister, or the two neighbors we went with as we all were looking down at our virtual pet key chains the entire time. Finally at lunchtime my dad and my uncle confiscated our “toys” as they were annoyed they had paid for us to come to the zoo to play with fake pets when live animals surrounded us. I felt like someone had kidnapped my child and I should call the police. What if my dog died while in my dad’s pocket for the next few hours?! When we got back to the car my dad handed back our pets, and they were all safe and sleeping. A week later I lost my Giga Pet and was on the next thing. So, Gary Cross while toys might change, one thing doesn’t, kids will always lose their toys.
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.