"Going Bonkers!': Children, Play, and Pee-Wee" represents my earliest writing on children's culture, produced as part of an independent study under the direction of John Fiske, when I was a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Madison. The essay used as its starting point a "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" party for my son and his kindergarten age friends. The essay argues that children's characteristic engagement with television content involves play (which is spontaneous, unstructured and exploratory) rather than games (which are structured, goal-oriented, and rule-bound); that the kindergarten age students used Pee-Wee's ambiguous age status to explore their own mixed feelings about leaving home and going to school; and that the program's "Ket"-like aesthetic enabled children to express a cultural identity distinct from their parent's demands upon them. "Going Bonkers!" appeared initially in Camera Obscura but was reprinted in the book, Male Trouble.
"x Logic" was a review of Marsha Kinder's Playing With Power and Eugene Provenzo's Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo but also includes some original analysis of the spatial rather than narrative-focus of video games and the ways that gameplaying fits within children's everyday lives.
Extending these arguments, "Nintendo and New World Travel Narratives"was a dialog with Renaissance literature scholar Mary Fuller about the category of "spatial stories," a concept derived from the work of Michel de Certeau. We argue that certain kinds of narratives lack the focus on characterization, causality, and linear plot development which defines classical storytelling and instead focus on movements through and the occupation of narrative space. We argue for a fundamental congruence between Nintendo games and earlier forms of travel narratives. This essay appeared in Steve Jones' anthology, Cyber-Society.
The issue of gender and computer games forms the focus of my forthcoming book, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, which is co-edited with Justine Cassell (from the MIT Media Lab). This book brings together essays by scholars in a range of fields, including educational psychology, cultural studies, social science research, and media design, and includes interviews with six key women in the games industry and a selection of webzine writings by game grrlz. The book takes a snapshot of the current "girls game" movement as a way of understanding the intersection between academic and entrepreneural feminism in the late 1990s.
In our introductory essay, "Chess for Girls?: Feminism and Computer Games," we trace through the range of political and corporate responses to the "gender gap" in the computer game industry, outlining some of the contradictory assumptions about gender shaping current decisions about game design, development, and distribution.
In "Complete Freedom of Movement': Computer Games as Gendered Playspaces," I continue my exploration of video games as "spatial stories," suggesting the ways that the genre conventions of the "boys game" responded to features in traditional backyard "boy culture," moving them inside in response to children's diminishing access to physical playspaces in their own neighborhoods. Then, I continue to examine the history of gender distinctions in children's book publishing as a way of examining the successes and failures of the "girl game" movement. Specifically, the essay includes a close consideration of Purple Moon's Secret Paths Through the Forrest and Theresa Duncan's Chop Suey and Zero Zero.
My arguments about the relationship between computer games and traditional backyard "boy culture" formed the basis for an interview with Next Generation magazine which centered around issues of video game violence. In February 2000, the Comparative Media Studies Program hosted a conference, Video and Computer Games Come of Age, which brought together leading figures from the games industry with critics, academics, and the public for two days of intense conversation about the current state and future directions of this emerging storytelling medium.
In an essay for Technology Review titled "An Art for the Digital Age," I made the argument that video and computer games constitute a new "lively art." I borrow the concept of "lively art" from Gilbert Seldes, who wrote in the 1920s to put forward the argument that the most important American arts for the 20th century would be popular arts, such as Hollywood movies, jazz, comic strips, and Broadway musicals.
PERMISSIVE CHILD-REARING AND POPULAR
"The Sensuous Child: Dr. Benjamin Spock and the Sexual Revolution" offers a provocative look at changing conception of children's sexuality as reflected in advice to parents on such issues as masturbation, "playing doctor," and parental nudity. It traces the shift from the anti-sensualism associated with the pre-war work of behaviorist William Watson to the celebration of sensuality and exploration of the body associated with the post-war work of Benjamin Spock and others. This essay appears in my collection, The Children's Culture Reader.
"'The All American Handful': Dennis the Menace and the Bad Boy Tradition" fits Hank Ketchum's popular comic strip and the television series adaptation within a tradition of writings about bad boys which date back to the 19th century and which provided the culture with a way of exploring its conflicting feelings about masculinity. This essay appears in The Revolution Wasn't Televised: Sixties Television and Social Change.
"'Her Suffering Aristocratic Majesty': The Sentimental Value of Lassie" uses the classic children's novel, Lassie Come Home, and its television manifestation to explore the intersection between our sentimental valuation of the dog and of the child. Specifically, I examine moments in the television narrative when Lassie changes ownership as crisis points in the program ideology, exploring how the series negotiates these transitions and how each shift reflects some changes in the core assumptions behind the series. This essay appears in Kid's Media Culture edited by Marsha Kinder.
"'No Matter How Small': The Democratic Imagination of Doctor Seuss" examines the ways that shifting post-war assumptions about childhood were linked to larger debates about democracy and represented a domestic extension of the pre-war Popular Front movement. I examine the links between Doctor Seuss's pre-war and wartime activities as an editorial cartoonist for PM and as a propagandist working in the Capra Unit and his post-war writings for children. This essay will appear in Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasure of Popular Culture.
"The Innocent Child and Other Myths" is the introduction to this collection. Using a consideration of Susan Molinari's address to the 1996 Republican National Convention and Hilary Clinton's speech to the 1996 Democratic National Convention, I demonstrate the complex relationship between the image of the innocent child and adult politics. Then, I offer an overview of the ways that our understanding of the child has shifted across the last five hundred years and the ways that cultural scholars and others have understood the issue of children's cultural and political agency.
The pedagogical implications of this work are examined in an essay published in Radical Teacher titled "Empowering Children in the Digital Age: Towards a Radical Media Pedagogy." Here, I argue for a mode of teaching which starts from the assumption that popular culture is a meaningful part of children's lives and that teachers should empower them to more actively manipulate and appropriate its materials as a way of working through their implications for children's everyday lives. Here, I bring together my work on children's culture with my work on cultural appropriation and fandom.
The syllabus for my course, "Understanding Children's Fictions," suggests some ways that classroom teachers might encourage students to reflect on the intersection between adult politics and children's culture. [link syllabus here]
COLUMBINE AND BEYOND