Little Shows, Big Meanings: Children’s Television and Cultural Messages
As with any type of cultural entity or vehicle of communication, a nation’s choice regarding its children’s television programming reflects certain aspects of its particular collective interests, social mores, values, ethics and priorities at any given time in its history. In today’s digital age of universal cable packages and satellite transmission, native cultural codes and customs cross international (and intellectual) borders—creating texts containing ethical and social meanings that are often re-shaped and re-interpreted by other groups.
This paper offers discussion on the cultural significance of particular children’s programming in specific nations. What it does not do is include and examine the many international children’s channels—such as those created by Disney, the BBC or Nickelodeon. The scope of this paper would have suffered with the inclusion of these channels.
The four nations chosen for the purpose of this discussion are two representatives of Eastern thought and traditions—China and Japan, and two reflecting that of the West–Italy and the United Kingdom (UK).
In Italy, children’s television includes a good dose of imports as well as native-produced programs. Some of the past and present children’s shows Italy imports include: Japan’s Sailor Moon; Pokémon ; Card Captor Sakura; Hello Kitty; Dragonball Z and Knights of the Zodiac, while from the UK it imports shows such as Thomas and Friends. As with so many other nations and markets—Japanese anime imports have a huge following among the children of Italy. This reflects both an embracing of active (often violent) content among Italian children as well as a lack of economic resources (or at the very least, a lack of focus or attention) available for the production of indigenous children’s television programming.
Like other nations, most cities in Italy have channels specifically devoted to children’s programming. What Italian children’s television does not have are period or historical dramas—as well as drama that is reflective of a particular interest or fulfills educational needs (such as the United Kingdom’s Grange Hill or the States’ ABC Afterschool Specials) (“Italian TV”). Further, Italian children’s television does not include any programs of a magazine format—such as the United Kingdom’s long-running Blue Peter (“Blue Peter”) or the States’ Nick News with Linda Ellerbee.
Some samples of Italian children’s programming are: MioMao—a Claymation animated series about the adventures of two kittens as they play and explore in their garden. The premise is that a kitten ventures out into the big world and terrified—returns home. The two kittens, consequently, go back out together and discover that whatever was frightening before is actually something nice and pleasant. The moral here is that no one is alone—and that strength and courage can be found through cooperation and shared experiences. Also, that one’s first impression of others can often be deceiving. This popular series has found audiences in the States as well as in Singapore (“Italian TV”). Quaq Quao is an Italian program geared for very young children. Episodes are only five minutes long and were created using an inventive mix of origami and stop-motion filming. The show features the escapades of a duck (“Italian TV”).
An extremely popular children’s show in Italy is Monster Allergy. This Disney-associated program features an ensemble group of characters—with a protagonist, Zick, (a young boy with allergies, but with the power to see ‘invisible’ monsters all around) his friend Elena and Timothy, the talking cat. Zick’s ability suits him well for he wants to carry on in the footsteps of his father—who is a “monster tamer.” (This displays the strong emphasis on family unity found within Italian culture) Monster Allergy is very much a Sixth Sense meets Ghostbusters. With the powerful backing and push of Disney, the show has become a worldwide favorite—making appearances in the States, France, Germany, and the Netherlands—even in Pakistan. (“Italian TV”).
There is also and Italian Children’s program simply titled Monsters—a fairy tale (of sorts) featuring witches, elves, princes and the like (“Italian TV”). The program Interbang (Interrobang) concerns an interesting plot about two teens, Bruno and Gianni, who are sent by their mentor—a professor—on an adventurous quest all over the world to retrieve replicas/souvenirs of the leaning Tower of Pisa. The teens must also try to thwart the efforts of a group of criminals—including “The Killer” and “The Boss”—who are also after the replicas. A particular feature or ‘hook’ of the show is that on each episode, either the heroic teens or the criminal gang acquires one of the souvenirs—which feature an interrobang (which is a symbol resembling something of a mix between a question mark and an exclamation point). Each souvenir has a differently colored interrobang. This show readily exemplifies cooperation while it promotes Italian nationalism. Interbang was broadcast in the United Kingdom in the 1980s (“Italian TV”).
One popular Italian cartoon and character is Mr. Rossi. As a social vehicle, Mr. Rossi exemplifies the Western belief in the need and importance of the individual, while it comments on the de-humanizing potential of Western economics. Mr. Rossi was featured in six television episodes and several short films. Hapless Mr. Rossi lives a fairly boring life of work and frustration—punctuated by adventures that usually end up rather devastatingly—with Mr. Rossi no better off than he was before (“Mr. Rossi”)
The show’s illustration, colors and music reflect a definite 1970’s sensibility. (The music, in particular, has this wonderful Italian grove—one almost expects Marcello Mastroianni to make an appearance.) Poor Mr. Rossi tries to escape the feelings of powerlessness brought on by ‘The Man’ and all that the pitfalls of capitalism can entail—at least for the ‘The Little Guy’ (“Mr. Rossi”).
In most Italian locales, the cultural notion of a child having a particularly early bedtime does not really exist; apparently, this is connected to the concept of familial togetherness that is prevalent is Italian society. If the parents are up late, so are the children, if the parents are in bed early—the children are, too; therefore, children’s television programs are shown past what Americans deem to be the prime-time viewing hours (8-11 pm) (“Italian TV”).
In China, parents (and educators) are very particular about the subjects and themes of children’s programs—as well as how much time they allow children to devote to television. According to the New York Times, “Youth programming in China tends to be conservative and pedantic. It consists mostly of quiz shows team competitions and endless lineups of youngsters dressed uniformly, standing erect and answering questions…” (qtd. in “Hays”). These programs and attitudes reflect both the celebrated discipline and deference to authority found within traditional Confucian philosophy—as well as the communistic dedication to a larger work ethic.
There is a tale told in China regarding a young girl who committed suicide after viewing a television show that she felt paralleled her own life. The young girl had a particular illness—and the program featured a character–another young girl—that had an analogous disease. The character on the show commits suicide (as a result of despondency over her illness). The young girl, seeing herself in a likewise situation—climbed into a boat, sailed out to sea where she killed herself (Lull 166). The tragic tale of the young girl received a lot of Chinese national press—and both solidified and exemplified the potential negative impact and possible dangerous effects that television can have on young children (Lull 166).
Even if Chinese parents and educators realize the extreme nature of this example—they also recognize the belief that young children and teens often model and imitate what they see on television. It is noteworthy that a primary goal of television programmers in China is to present quality children’s shows with positive imagery that children can mimic to their intellectual and emotional benefit (Lull 167).
Further, despite—or because of—the continuing encroachment of the West upon Chinese economics and traditional culture, there is (naturally) somewhat of a backlash. One television producer from Shanghai noted, “My daughter is only seven-years-old but she is already learning how to wear make-up and jewelry. She even learned to jump up and kiss daddy and mommy when they come home from work—that’s a completely Western custom” (Lull 166).
A retired male geologist from Beijing said:
In China, we don’t have much violence like they have in America. We don’t want
to pass the idea of violence along to people. We prefer to use television for
positive propaganda…If kids are home and watch TV, they should get positive
Information. (Lull 166)
One change possibly inspired by the West involves the choice of television viewing. Interestingly, more than ever before, the children of China have control over what programs are viewed by the family (Lull 74). In a culture known and lauded for its deference and reverence of its elders—this is quite stunning. This phenomenon is especially true in the urban centers of China—where, according to parents—the children’s lives and experiences are unlike those of China’s past, and that such examples of advantage are simply a manifestation of 21st century China (Lull 55).
Not unlike many of their Western counterparts, most Chinese urban families agree that if tensions or arguments ensue due to the choice of what to watch on television—the children usually prevail (Lull 25); indeed, much as in the West, children of China’s urban centers receive a lot of attention and focus from all of the family—including its extended members—often with the consequence of creating overindulged and selfish children (Lull 56).
Some key Chinese children’s programming includes shows like Hello Kitty—the educational, award-winning CGI-animated series that promotes the basic, traditional Chinese tenets extolling the value of family, happiness and friendship. Created in Japan, this import has a message of simplicity and harmony, while offering fundamental educational features such as lessons in shapes, colors, math—even some foreign languages (Hays). Although (as aforementioned) Japanese ‘by birth’—Hello Kitty has reached cult status among viewers of all ages in China.
A perennial favorite that pays homage to Chinese tradition and history is The Monkey King (Chi Kung), which is based on a 16th century Ming dynasty text titled Journey to the West, It is an over 500 year-old classic tale about a funny monkey whose duty is to protect a Buddhist monk who is searching for ancient scriptures. The monkey is a magical trickster who comes up with many delightful, clever ways to defeat the monk’s enemies and win the day. (Hays).
Many children’s shows in China illustrate the desire (on the part of parents and educators) to use television as a pragmatic tool for intellectual development; these include programs with such self-explanatory titles as Chess Boy; Seeking Answers to 100 Questions; Studying the Arts; Visiting Schools and Reading Books (Hays).
The BBC Worldwide in China has made strong and early inroads –selling Teletubbies in 2003 as well as In the Night’s Garden. Up until that time, there was no CCCT Children’s Channel—much less any pre-school programming. Other imports from the UK include Thomas the Tank Engine, the animated Wibbly Pig and Zing Zillas (all of which will be discussed later).
There has been a variety of Japanese imports—namely Tottoko Hamtara (Little Hamsters, Big Adventures)—cute little creatures that rival Hello Kitty; and from the United States—Spongebob Squarepants and the ‘Grandfather’ of all imports—Zhima Je (Sesame Street) (Hays).
Historically, many parents in the United Kingdom often used television as a sort of pacifier-cum-babysitter for their children. In the 1970’s, British children spent more than three hours a day (on average) watching television (today the figures are slightly lower—the average is about 2-and-half hours daily) (Briggs 197).
In 1972 British cultural critic Alasdair Clayre said, “It’s been said that children are our guests in the world. It appears that what we do with our guests at the moment is largely leave them in front of the television set” (qtd. in Briggs 197). Consequently, the British embarked on several studies on the effect of television on its children; particularly noteworthy are those conducted by Jules Henry (Culture Against Man, 1965) and Cedric Cullingford (Children and Television, 1984) (Briggs 200). Since these studies, British programmers and educators have consciously strived to provide and promote quality, educational—yet entertaining—programming for their children.
One example of such quality programming is Blue Peter—the oldest children’s television show in the world (1958) (“Blue Peter”). At the time of the program’s inception, the head of programming at the BBC noted how there was no programming anywhere for children (he was thinking, in particular, of children between the ages of five and eight); Consequently, Blue Peter was born. The show takes its name from a type of nautical flag used to indicate that a ship is departing–and is, therefore, a metaphor for the show as a ‘vessel,’ taking children on imaginative and instructional adventures (“Blue Peter”).
The format of Blue Peter is an in-studio magazine and features both men and women hosts (allowing for gender identification and accessibility for both boys and girls). Like the institutions of tradition and custom inherent within British culture, Blue Peter has cultivated several familiar (and now customary) activities—including the Blue Peter badge; ‘Make’ (a segment involving cooking, building or otherwise crafting something–as well as a ‘special assignment’ segment (“Blue Peter”).
Blue Peter has also done its lion’s share of forward and innovative thinking in terms of what it presents. It featured an interview with Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, concerning his daughter’s famous diaries. It also revealed a live scan of an inutero baby—something which had never been done on television—and for which Blue Peter received much praise. It is of little surprise that the show placed sixth in BFI’s (British Film Institute’s) “100 Greatest British Television Programmes” of 2000 (“Blue Peter”). Like Britain itself, Blue Peter has progressed into the future with humanitarian, global accomplishments, while adhering to its origins and sense of tradition.
Other successful British-produced children’s program—one of many successful BBC exports—is Teletubbies, the charming antics of four creatures (Dipsy, Tinky-Winky, Po and Laa-Laa)—who resemble rather cute, futuristic ‘Troll’ dolls. The Teletubbies play in a bucolic (yet surreal) setting with a baby’s face/sun sweetly reacting to their adventures (“Teletubbies”).
In the Night Garden is a mix of computer animation, puppetry and actors created by the same team that did Teletubbies. The program features an ensemble cast of characters that reside in a multihued, sunny garden. The intent of the show’s creators is to produce an aid in getting children to relax—thereby establishing less problematic and more peaceful and calming bedtime routines (“In the Night Garden…”).
Zing Zillas is another popular export that caters to the six and under crowd. This program—set on a tropical island—introduces and promotes all sorts of musical styles and genres from all over the world. Each episode features an important, different musical guest. Two other key British exports include Bob the Builder who (along with his anthropomorphic machinery friends) promotes the ‘can do’ attitude admired by the British, as well as an acceptance of diversity and cooperation that reflects modern Britain’s social milieu–and Wibbly Pig—a show that teaches preschoolers social skills, simple academics through the funny, heavily viewer-involved adventures of Wibbly.
One of the most successful British exports is Thomas and Friends, of which more will be discussed later. (Hays). As can be readily interpreted by the sampling of children’s television from the United Kingdom offered here—the British devote a good deal of capital to their children’s programming—with little need (or desire) to import from other nations.
It may be known for its hugely popular and often-exported anime—but in Japan one of the most endearing and leading shows of the entirety of its television offerings is also one of the longest running. First broadcast in 1959, Okaasan to issho (With Mother) is aimed at preschoolers and features actors, sing-a-longs, puppets and animation that emphasize the dominate Japanese virtues of discipline and care of the body (with informative segments that ask, for example, “Are you brushing your teeth?”) (Hays). The children of Japan, in particular, have always cherished television. In the 1970’s, statistics showed that children between the ages of 10-15 watch an average of four hours of television a day (Kato 299). This number worried Japanese parents and educators who recalled that prior to television’s advent, reading was successfully promoted within the ranks of school-aged children.
Frustrated educators and parents truly believed that the succeeding generations of Japanese children could very well end up illiterate—and blamed the consumption of television (Kato 299). Due to the worry that their children were wasting valuable time that could be better served writing and reading, many parents placed limits on the amount of television viewing time their children were allowed—often as little as an hour a day; however, such attempts at restrictions were fairly unsuccessful (Kato 300).
Japanese children’s television producers answered the call from concerned parents with shows like the aforementioned Hello Kitty, Tottoko Hamtara and Ponkicki (1973)—a show with a Sesame Street format graced with two lovable, very popular characters—a baby dinosaur named Gachapin and his friend, Mukku, a red baby Yeti. Gachapin exemplifies the courageous spirit esteemed by the Japanese people. He explores, does extreme sports and has ‘worked’ as (among other things) a carpenter, fisherman and waiter (Hays). Gachapin can do anything!
Other popular fare includes the aforementioned Sailor Moon—which emphasizes the (particularly) Eastern belief of the need and importance of being accepted and belonging to a group and Domo- kun—a show featuring an animated puppet monster and his friends (a very popular export); Doraemon, a popular program about a fat robot/cat with magical ‘tools’ who helps a backward boy fight off bullies and get physically fit (thereby accentuating the Japanese virtues of helpfulness, courage and care of the body); the world renown Ultraman who demonstrates critical Japanese values. According to one fan, “Ultraman taught me the meaning of justice and the importance of perseverance. When my parents tried to teach me how to behave, they often sounded pushy…but I was able to accept the hero’s messages very naturally through the stories” (Hays).
Interestingly, Ultraman displays two more concepts highly regarded by modern Japan: Diplomacy and communication. Before going into full-fighting mode, Ultraman will try to stop the escalating aggression by attempting to calm his opponent and by suggesting that the creature go into “social monster sanctuary” (Hays).
Further examples of Japanese children’s television are the quirky and entertaining One Piece Bento, the tale of a pirate-wannabe named Monkey D. Luffy who has acquired the ability to stretch his body like elastic. He and his crew sail the world looking for treasure while fending off trouble with good luck (a notion embraced by traditional Japanese culture) and courage; Pokémon (more of which will be discussed later) and Anpanman. Based upon the Japanese baked treat anpan (a sweet roll with a bean paste), the character Anpanman—along with his sidekicks Kareepanman (curry bun man), Meronpanna-chan (sweet melon bread) and Shokupanman (white bread man)—do battle with germs.
Anpanman’s biggest archenemy is Baikinman (bacteria man). (Hays). Obviously, this program promotes the value and necessity of good hygiene and food safety as well as the traditional emphasis on the importance of charity—as Anapanman, who is a kindly and generous creature, will feed those who are hungry with parts of his head.
There are two programs that exemplify practices and behaviors of modern Japanese society that most Western nations condemn as standards disrespectful to women. These
examples include The Ancient Dagoo Girl which is a show aimed at boys between the ages of six and eleven—and features an extremely scantily-clad young woman who utilizes a type of magic bra-piece that literally shoots out beams of energy spikes (Hays).
The second example is Conan and Shin-chan, a cartoon that has a five-year-old boy (Shin-chan) who displays grotesque behaviors and obscene gestures and remarks—particularly about women. Shin-chan has been known to fondle women, talk about both his and his mother’s genitalia and—using his mother’s lipstick—draw an elephant on his crotch area (Hays). The display and promotion of such negative, sexist imagery does very little towards alleviating the reputation of an nation already known for the sexually invasive behaviors demonstrated by its men towards women on its crowded trains and office spaces.
There are four children’s programs that have had a massive (both positive and negative) global impact and are worthy of special consideration; these are Thomas and Friends, Pokémon, The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Sesame Street.
Thomas and Friends debuted on the ITV in the United Kingdom in 1984. Based on the Railway books (1945-1987) by the Rev. W.V. and Christopher Awdry, the show has featured several well-known narrators—including Pierce Brosnan, the late George Carlin, Alec Baldwin and Ringo Starr. The program deals with the adventures of trains and other vehicles on an island called Sodor. The gentle activities and life-lessons of these anthropomorphic characters have captured the hearts, minds and imagination of children worldwide.
Some version of Thomas and Friends has been seen in the U.S., Japan, Romania, Greece, France, Hungary, the Ukraine, Italy, South Korea, Norway, Mexico, Finland, China, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Portugal and Denmark (“Thomas and Friends”). Of special interest is Thomas’ relationship with many autistic children. The National Autistic Society (NAS) conducted a survey (2001) among many parents of autistic children and discovered that many children on the autism spectrum embrace Thomas more than any other televised character. According to the NAS, much of this has to do with the unique movements and expressions on the train’s face. Also, the show has a quiet calm that offers a sense of security (“Thomas and Friends”).
A program with a global pervasiveness that, for many, resulted in annoyance and frustration is Japan’s Pokémon. Based on a video game, the snowballing popularity of these little creatures invaded the entire globe—bringing along (as with so many other media/cultural artifacts) a slew of merchandise. The Pokémon product was wildly successful—yet not without complications. In 1997, many Japanese children were sickened as a result of viewing a particular Pokémon episode where bright lights streamed from a character’s (Pikachu’s) eyes. Symptoms included nausea, temporary vision-loss and seizures. Some 200 children were actually hospitalized; consequently, the show was taken off of the air—only to reappear just after a few months.
In the U.S., the obsession with Pokémon items—especially the trading cards—frustrated parents and educators, alike who observed that the card obsession was seriously disrupting valuable class time and attention; further, when educators started banning the cards from their classrooms—often there were violent reactions. In New York City, for example, a nine-year-old student stabbed a teacher because the teacher had taken away his Pokémon cards.
Che Je Yu Rangers (The Might Morphin Power Rangers) is another Japanese export that caught on like wildfire. Very popular in the U.S., in 1993 it was the top-rated show on Fox’s Children’s Network—and viewed by 75% of French children and in Britain, 70% (Simpson 107). The show would go on to invade more than 40 markets. Much of the Power Rangers’ popularity induced consternation among many parents who were concerned over the program’s display of aggression and its violent content (Simpson 109).
The storyline of the Power Rangers is based on an allegory of a battle between good and evil that, essentially, has never ended. It features five teens who were selected to help the ‘good’ save the planet from the ‘evil’ (Simpson 108). The teens access power (when they need it) through the use of special coins. According to Phillips, “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is one of the most violent programs ever to be aired to children” (qtd. in Simpson 109).
The program does display positive values and methodologies that epitomize the Japanese culture: Cooperation, belonging to a group—as well as the power found within the locus of a group; however, some critics of the show accuse its creators of ill intent –and that it purposely promotes anti-Western (read anti-Christian) thinking while infiltrating the globe with invasive Japanese principals and protocol (Simpson 110). Most parents/educators continue to be wary of the program’s violence. Several nations (including Sweden, Denmark and Norway) have concluded that the violent content of the Power Rangers often breaches their standards of the type and amount of violence that is acceptable on children’s programs, while one nation—New Zealand–has banned the program altogether (Simpson 112).
In total contrast to the Power Rangers is Sesame Street (1969). This American television-juggernaut demonstrates how the most successful children’s programs represent a wide range of diversity and different cultural values and have formats that are flexible enough to absorb and adapt to new customs, new languages, topic matters and teaching/learning methods.
From the start, Sesame Street was packed with universal appeal and global potentiality. The successful format of ‘muppets’ interacting and singing with adults and children of different races, ethnicities—and sprinkled with animated/informative video clips made for a recipe that worked well beyond all expectations. According to Newsweek, “ Sesame Street is arguably the most important children’s program in the history of television. No show has affected the way we think about education, parenting, childhood development and cultural diversity, both in the United States and abroad, more than Big Bird and friends” (“Sesame Street”).
Sesame Street has been exported to South Africa (where it features a muppet who is HIV positive, and where it is shown in 12 languages); Israel; Palestine; Bangladesh and Kosovo (“Sesame Street”). Sesame Street has forever altered universal ideas regarding tolerance for human diversity, education and compassion— all for the better.
In conclusion, programs such as Sesame Street serve to unify the world’s children with an elevated standard of humanitarian values, while many nations continue to make efforts to rid themselves of programs that encourage antisocial, unwelcomed behaviors or glorify gratuitous violence; And despite the global sharing of cultural values and insights via the importing/exporting of children’s programs, most indigenously produced shows retain a surprising amount of a nation’s particular customs and principles (both modern and traditional).
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