Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture
Connecting Social Problems and
Popular Culture SECOND EDITION
WHY MEDIA IS NOT THE ANSWER
Karen Sternheimer University of Southern California
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Sternheimer, Karen. Connecting social problems and popular culture : why media is not the answer / Karen Sternheimer. —2nd ed.
p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-8133-4724-0 (e-book) 1. Mass media—Moral and ethical aspects—United States. 2. Popular culture—Moral and ethical aspects—
United States. 3. Mass media and culture—United States. 4. Social problems—United States. I. Title. HN90.M3S75 2013 302.2301—dc23
2012034416 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Frieda Fettner, whose wisdom and encouragement
will be with me always
1 Media Phobia: Why Blaming Pop Culture for Social Problems Is a Problem
2 Is Popular Culture Really Ruining Childhood? 3 Does Social Networking Kill? Cyberbullying, Homophobia, and Suicide
4 What’s Dumbing Down America: Media Zombies or Educational Disparities?
5 From Screen to Crime Scene: Media Violence and Real Violence
6 Pop Culture Promiscuity: Sexualized Images and Reality
7 Changing Families: As Seen on TV?
8 Media Health Hazards? Beauty Image, Obesity, and Eating Disorders
9 Does Pop Culture Promote Smoking, Toking, and Drinking?
10 Consumption and Materialism: A New Generation of Greed?
11 Beyond Popular Culture: Why Inequality Is the Problem
Selected Bibliography Index
Rather than viewing popular culture as “guilty” or “innocent,” the central theme running through Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture is that various media and the popular culture they promote and produce are reflections of deeper structural conditions—such as poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia—and economic disparities woven into major social institutions. While discussions of sexism in various forms of media, for instance, are often lively and provocative, the representations themselves are not the core reason that gender inequality continues to exist. Media images bring it to our attention and may further normalize sexism for us, but our examination of our society should not end with media.
In order to understand social problems, we need to look beyond media as a prime causal factor. Media may be a good entry point for thinking about how social problems have a basis beyond the sole individual. But while that premise can open the discussion, this book aims to help students and other readers take the next step in understanding social problems. We must look deeper than popular culture—we need to look at the structural roots to understand issues such as bullying, violence, suicide, teen sex and pregnancy, divorce, substance use, materialism, and educational failure.
Neither media nor popular culture stands still for very long—making the study of both a never-ending endeavor. In this second edition of Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture, I include a new chapter on fears about social networking and electronic harassment. With concerns about bullying and “sexting” leading to suicide after news accounts of high-profile cases, it is important to uncover what we know about the role that new media play in such incidents. Perhaps not surprisingly, social networking is less of a culprit than an attention getter. Additionally, each chapter has been updated to incorporate, where applicable, new research and trend data on crime, pregnancy, birth-and divorce rates, substance use, and other social issues for which popular culture is so often blamed.
The “link” between video games and actual violence is always a topic of interest for readers and lay theorists of social problems. In 2011 the US Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that states cannot limit the purchase of violent video games. In handing down this major decision, the Supreme Court decided that California had not proven how actual harm came from playing video games. I address this ruling in greater detail in Chapter 5 on media and violence.
Because popular culture is so ubiquitous—and, frankly, fun—it is a great window for students in a variety of courses to look through as they begin exploring social issues. Students in introductory sociology and media studies courses and social problems and social issues classes, as well as those studying inequality, will be able to make connections between the material and the many common beliefs about media’s effects on society that this book addresses.
By challenging the conventional wisdom about what the media “does” to its consumers—especially those considered less capable than their critics—readers can begin to think critically about the ways in which social issues are framed and how sensationalized news accounts help shape our thinking about the causes of societal problems. Beyond simply debunking common beliefs, this second edition stresses the importance of social structure and provides an introduction to structural explanations for the issues commonly blamed on popular culture. By digging deeper beyond simple cultural arguments, readers learn how policy decisions and economic
shifts are important explanatory factors for many issues blamed on media. Each chapter begins with examples from pop culture that many readers will already be familiar with, taken
from celebrity gossip and controversial television shows like Teen Mom, high-profile news stories, and other easily accessible accounts. Additionally, each chapter introduces findings from recent research, often breaking down the components of the sampling and methods for readers to better understand how research is conducted and how to think critically about the results presented in the press. Where applicable, each chapter includes supporting data—and in some cases graphs—from federal sources, such as the census, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to provide evidence of long-term trends, often challenging misperceptions about particular issues. Because these sources are easily accessed online (and URLs are included in notes at the end of chapters), readers can learn to spot-check popular claims about these issues on their own in the future.
The evolution of this book, across its editions, has truly been a team effort. Thanks to Alex Masulis, my first editor at Westview Press, to Evan Carver who, early on, championed the second edition, and to Leanne Silverman, who helped bring the book in your hands to print.
I am also very thankful for my student researchers who helped find articles for this book. William Rice, Jessica Sackman, and Mishirika Scott assisted with the first edition, and Kimberly Blears helped with the revised edition. They and many other undergraduate students at the University of Southern California have been a pleasure to work with; their input in my classes helps keep me grounded in youth culture as time takes me further away from being anywhere near pop culture’s cutting edge. Several anonymous reviewers provided useful comments and suggestions, and I thank them for helping make this book stronger. For their helpful criticisms and invaluable suggestions, I also want to thank David Briscoe, Joshua Gamson, Kelly James, Marcia Maurycy, Janet McMullen, and Markella Rutherford.
The Department of Sociology at the University of Southern California has been my professional home for many years, and I could not have written this book without years of the department’s enthusiastic support. I am grateful for the many graduate and undergraduate students with whom I have shared countless hours of thought- provoking discussions. Special thanks to Mike Messner, Barry Glassner, Sally Raskoff, Elaine Bell Kaplan, Karl Bakeman, and Eileen Connell for their continued support of me and my work. And most of all, thanks to my family, without whom none of this would be possible. A special thanks to my parents and sisters for their continued support, and for Eli and Julian, who are introducing me to a new generation’s pop culture.
Media Phobia Why Blaming Pop Culture for Social Problems Is a Problem
hey’re here!” Carol Anne exclaims in the 1982 film Poltergeist. “Who’s here?” her mother asks. “The TV people!” answers the wide-eyed blonde girl, mesmerized by the “snow” on the family’s television
set. What follows is a family’s sci-fi nightmare: Carol Anne is taken away by the angry spirits terrorizing their home. Her only means of communication to her family is through the television set.
This film’s plot serves as a powerful example of American anxieties about media culture. The angelic child is helpless against its pull and is ultimately stolen, absorbed into its vast netherworld. She is the family’s most vulnerable victim, and as such is drawn into evil without recognizing its danger. Carol Anne’s fate highlights the fear of what television in particular and popular culture more generally may “do to” children: take them someplace dangerous and beyond their parents’ reach. Ultimately, Carol Anne is saved with the help of a medium, but the imagery in the film reflects the terror that children are somehow prey to outsiders who come into unsuspecting homes via the TV set.
Thirty years later, media culture has expanded well beyond television; unlike in Carol Anne’s day, kids today use social networking, smartphones, iPods, the Internet, video games, and other technology that their parents may not even know how to use. Cable television was in its infancy in 1982: MTV was one year old, CNN was two. Today there are hundreds of channels, with thousands more programs available on demand at any time. Unlike in 1982, television stations no longer sign off at night. Our media culture does not rest. What does this mean for young people today, and our future?
Much of the anxiety surrounding popular culture focuses on children, who are often perceived as easily influenced by media images. The fear that popular culture leads young people to engage in problematic behavior, culminating in large-scale social problems, sometimes leads the general public to blame media for a host of troubling conditions.
For many people, this explosion of media over the past decades brings worry that, for instance, kids are so distracted by new technology that they don’t study as much. Are they crueler to one another now, thanks to social networking? Does our entertainment culture mean kids expect constant entertainment? Do kids know too much about sex, thanks to the Internet? Does violent content in video games, movies, and television make kids violent? Promiscuous? Materialistic? Overweight? Anorexic? More likely to smoke, drink, or take drugs?
This book seeks to address these questions, first by examining the research that attempts to connect these issues to popular culture. Despite the commonsense view that media must be at least partly to blame for these issues, the evidence suggests that there are many more important factors that create serious problems in the United States today. Popular culture gets a lot of attention, but it is rarely a central causal factor. Throughout the book, we will also take a step back and think about exactly why it is that so many people fear the effects of popular culture.
You might have noticed that all of the questions posed above focus on young people’s relationship with media and leave most adults out of the equation. As we will see, a great deal of our concern about media and media’s potential effects on kids has more to do with uncertainty about the future and the changing experiences of childhood and adolescence. In addition to considering why we are concerned about the impact of popular culture, this book also explores why many researchers and politicians encourage us to remain afraid of media culture and of kids themselves. Of course, popular culture has an impact on everyone’s life, regardless of age. But this impact is less central in causing problems than factors like inequality, which we will explore throughout the book.
The Big Picture: Poverty, Not Pop Culture
Blaming media for changes in childhood and for causing social problems has shifted the public conversation away from addressing the biggest issues that impact children’s lives. The most pressing crisis American children face today is not media culture but poverty. In 2011—the most recent year for which data are available —more than 16 million children (just under 22 percent of Americans under eighteen) lived in poverty, a rate two to three times higher than that in other industrialized nations. Reduced funding for families in poverty has only exacerbated this problem, as we now see the effects of the 1996 welfare reform legislation that has gradually taken away the safety net from children. Additionally, our two-tiered health care system often prevents poor children from receiving basic health care, as just over 9 percent of American children had no health insurance in 2011.1 These are often children with parents who work at jobs that offer no benefits.
These same children are admonished to stay in school to break the cycle of poverty, yet many of them attend schools without enough books or basic school supplies. Schools in high-poverty areas are more likely to have uncertified teachers; for instance, 70 percent of seventh through twelfth graders in such schools are taught science by teachers without science backgrounds.2 We worry about kids being in danger at school but forget that the most perilous place, statistically speaking, is in their own homes. In 2010, for instance, 915 children were killed by their parents, compared with 17 killed at school during the 2009–2010 school year.3 By continually hyping the fear of media-made child killers, we forget that the biggest threats to childhood are adults and the policies adults create.
As we will see throughout this book, many of the problems that we tend to lay at the feet of popular culture have more mundane causes. At the root of the most serious challenges American children face, problems like lack of a quality education, violent victimization, early pregnancies, single parenthood, and obesity, poverty plays a starring role; popular culture is a bit player at best. And other issues that this book addresses, such as materialism, substance use, racism, sexism, and homophobia, might be highly visible in popular culture, but it is the adults around young people, as well as the way in which American society is structured, that contribute the most to these issues. These issues are made most visible in popular culture, but their causes are more complex. We will examine these causes in the chapters that follow.
The media have come to symbolize society and provide glimpses of both social changes and social problems. Changes in media culture and media technologies are easier to see than the complex host of economic, political, and social changes Americans have experienced in the past few decades. Graphic video games are easier to see than changes in public policies, which we hear little about, even though they better explain why violence happens and where it happens. We may criticize celebrity single mothers because it is difficult to explore the real and complex situations that impact people’s choices and behavior. What lies behind our fear of media culture is anxiety about an uncertain future. This fear has been deflected onto children, symbolic of the future, and onto media, symbolic of contemporary society.
In addition to geopolitical changes, we have experienced economic shifts over the past few decades, such as the increased necessity for two incomes to sustain middle-class status, which has reshaped family life. Increased opportunities for women have created greater independence, making marriage less of a necessity for economic survival. Deindustrialization and the rise of an information-based economy have left the poorest and least- skilled workers behind and eroded job security for many members of the middle class. Ultimately, these economic changes have made supervision of children more of a challenge for adults, who are now working longer hours.
Since the Industrial Revolution, our economy has become more complex, and adults and children have increasingly spent their days separated from one another. From a time when adults and children worked together on family farms to the development of institutions specifically for children, like age-segregated schools, day care, and organized after-school activities, daily interaction in American society has become more separated by age. Popular culture is another experience that kids may enjoy beyond adult supervision. An increase of youth autonomy has created fear within adults, who worry that violence, promiscuity, and other forms of “adult” behavior will emerge from these shifts and that parents will have a declining level of influence on their children.
Kids spend more time with friends than with their parents as they get older, and more time with popular culture, too. These changes explain in large part why children’s experiences are different now than in the past, but are not just the result of changes in popular culture.
A Brief History of Media Fears
Fear that popular culture has a negative impact on youth is nothing new: it is a recurring theme in history. Whereas in the past, fears about youth were largely confined to children of the working class, immigrants, or racial minorities, fear of young people now appears to be a more generalized fear of the future, which explains why we have brought middle-class and affluent youth into the spectrum of worry. Like our predecessors, we are afraid of change, of popular culture we don’t like or understand, and of a shifting world that at times feels out of control.
Fears about media and children date back at least to Plato, who was concerned about the effects that the classic Greek tragedies had on children.4 Historian John Springhall describes how penny theaters and cheap novels in early-nineteenth-century England were thought to create moral decay among working-class boys.5 Attending the theater or reading a book would hardly raise an eyebrow today, but Springhall explains that the concern emerged following an increase in working-class youths’ leisure time.
As in contemporary times, commentators blamed youth for a rise in crime and considered any gathering place of working-class youth threatening. Young people could afford admission only to penny theaters, which featured entertainment geared toward a working-class audience, rather than the “respectable” theaters catering to middle- or upper-class patrons. Complaints about the performances were very similar to those today: youngsters would learn the wrong values and possibly become criminals. Penny and later dime novels garnered similar reaction, accused of being tawdry in content and filled with slang that kids might imitate. Springhall concludes that the concern had less to do with actual content and more to do with the growing literacy of the working class, shifting the balance of power from elites to the masses and threatening the status quo.
Examining the social context enables us to understand what creates underlying anxieties about media. Fear of comic books in the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, took place in the McCarthy era, when the control over culture was high on the national agenda. Like the dime novels before, comic books were cheap, were based on adventurous tales, and appealed to the masses. Colorful and graphic depictions of violence riled critics, who lobbied Congress unsuccessfully to place restrictions on comics’ sale and production.6 Psychiatrist and author Frederic Wertham wrote in 1953 that “chronic stimulation … by comic books [is a] contributing [factor] to many children’s maladjustment.”7 He and others believed that comics were a major cause of violent behavior, ignoring the possibility that violence in postwar suburban America could be caused by anything but the reading material of choice for many young boys. Others considered pinball machines a bad influence; the city of New York even banned pinball from 1942 to 1976 as a game of chance that allegedly encouraged youth gambling.
During the middle of the twentieth century, music routinely appeared on the public-enemy list. Historian Grace Palladino recounts concerns about swing music in the early 1940s. Adults feared that kids wasted so much time listening to it that they could never become decent soldiers in World War II (sixty years later Tom Brokaw dubbed these same would-be delinquents “the greatest generation”).8 Palladino contends that adult anxieties stemmed from the growing separation between “teenagers,” a term market researchers coined in 1941, and the older generation in both leisure time and cultural tastes. Just a few years later, similar concerns arose when Elvis Presley brought traditionally African American music to white middle America. His hips weren’t really the problem; it was the threat of bringing traditionally black music to white middle-class teens during a time of enforced and de facto segregation.
Later, concerns about satanic messages allegedly heard when listeners played vinyl albums backward and panic over Prince’s “1999” lyrics about masturbation in the 1980s led to the formation of Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, Senate hearings, and parental warning labels. Both stem from parents’ discomfort with their children’s cultural preferences and the desire to increase their ability to control what their children know.
Today, fears of media culture stem from the decreased ability to control content and consumption. While attending the theater or reading newspapers or novels elicits little public concern today, fears have shifted to newer forms of cultural expression like smartphones, social media, video games, and the Internet. Throughout the twentieth century, popular culture became something increasingly consumed privately. Before the invention of radio and television, popular culture was more public, and controlling the information young people were exposed to was somewhat easier. Fears surrounding newer media have largely been based on the reduced ability of adults to control children’s access. Smartphones and near-constant Internet access make it practically impossible for adults to seal off the walls of childhood from the rest of society.
These recurring concerns about popular culture are examples of what sociologist Stanley Cohen refers to as “moral panics,” fears that are very real but also out of proportion to their actual threat.9 Underneath the fear lies the belief that our way of life is at stake, threatened by evildoers—often cast as popular culture or its young consumers—who must be controlled. The rhetoric typically takes on a shrill and angry tone, joined by people nominated as experts to attest to the danger of what might happen unless we rein in the troublemakers. Cohen calls those blamed for the crisis “folk devils,” the people or things that seem to embody everything that is wrong with society today. Typically, moral panics attempt to redefine the public’s understanding of deviance, recasting the folk devils as threats in need of restraint.
Moral panics typically have a triggering event that gathers significant media attention, much like the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, did in 1999. The tragic murder of twelve students and a teacher shocked the nation, who could view nonstop live coverage of the event on a variety of news networks. Drawing on previous concerns about youth violence and popular culture, a panic began surrounding video games, music, and the use of the Internet to post threats and gather information about carrying out similar attacks. In the aftermath, commentators linked the perpetrators’ pop culture preferences to their actions, suggesting that it was highly predictable that violent music and video games would lead to actual violence. This panic cast both teens and violent media as folk devils, claiming that both were a threat to public safety.
Panics about popular culture often mask attempts to condemn the tastes and cultural preferences of less powerful social groups. Popular culture has always been viewed as less valuable than “high culture,” the stuff that is supposed to make you more refined, like going to the ballet, the opera, or the symphony. Throughout history people have been ready to believe the worst about the “low culture” of the common folk, just as bowling, wrestling, and monster truck rallies often bear the brunt of put-downs today. It’s more socially acceptable to make fun of something working-class people might enjoy than to appear snobby and insensitive by criticizing people for their economic status.
The same is true of criticizing rap music rather than African Americans directly. Sociologist Bethany Bryson analyzed data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative random household survey, and found strong associations between musical intolerance and racial intolerance. She notes that “people use cultural taste to reinforce symbolic boundaries between themselves and categories of people they dislike. Thus, music is used as a symbolic dividing line that aligns people with some and apart from others.” Bryson also observed a correlation between dislike of certain groups and the music associated with that group.10 So for many people, rap becomes a polite proxy for criticizing African Americans without appearing overtly racist.
Africana studies professor Tricia Rose writes that the discourse surrounding rap is a way to further construct African Americans “as a dangerous internal element in urban America—an element that if allowed to roam about freely will threaten the social order.”11 She goes on to describe how rap concerts have been portrayed as bastions of violence in order to justify greater restrictions on black youth from public spaces. Likewise, sociologist Amy Binder studied more than one hundred news stories about gangsta rap and found that heavy metal is feared for being potentially dangerous for individual listeners, but rap’s critics have focused on its alleged danger to society as a whole.12
Popular culture often creates power struggles. Every new medium creates new freedom for some, more desire to control for others. For instance, although the printing press was regarded as one of the greatest inventions of the second millennium, it also destabilized the power of the church when literacy became more widespread and people could read the Bible themselves. Later, the availability of cheap newspapers and novels
reduced the ability of the upper class to control popular culture created specifically for the working class. Fears of media today reflect a similar power struggle, although now the elites are adults who fear losing control of what their children know, what their children like, and who their children are.
Constructing Media Phobia
Ironically, we are encouraged to fear media by the news media itself, because doomsday warnings sell papers, attract viewers, and keep us so scared we stay glued to the news for updates. “TV is leading children down a moral sewer!” the late entertainer Steve Allen claimed in several full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times. Other headlines seem to concur: “Teens’ Web Is a Wild West,” warned the Orange County Register. The New York Times wrote of the dangers of “video games and the depressed teenager.” “Health Groups Link Hollywood Fare to Youth Violence,” announced the front page of the Los Angeles Times.13 These and hundreds of other stories nationwide imply that the media are a threat to children and, more ominously, that children are subsequently a threat to the rest of us.
The news media are central within American public thought, maybe not telling us what to think, but, to borrow a popular phrase, focusing our attention on what to think about. Known as agenda-setting theory, this idea suggests that the repetition of issues in the news shapes what the public believes is most important.14 The abundance of news stories similar to the ones listed above directs us to think about entertainment as public enemy number one for kids in particular. Whether the stories are about popular culture causing young people to commit acts of violence or to become sexually active, depressed, or addicted, stories about the alleged danger of popular culture help us make seemingly easy connections between media and social problems. Although not everyone who hears about these stories agrees that there is a cause-effect relationship, the repeated focus on media effects keeps the debate alive and the attention away from other potential causes of troubling conditions.
Problems do not emerge fully formed; they need to be created in order to claim the status as important and worthy of our attention and concern. In their 1977 book, Constructing Social Problems, sociologists John Kitsuse and Malcolm Spector argue that social problems are the result of the work of claims makers, people who actively work to raise awareness and define an issue as a significant problem. This is not to suggest that problems don’t really exist, only that to rise to the level of a social problem, issues need to have people who lobby for greater attention to any given topic.
The constructionist approach to social problems requires us to look closely not just at the issue of concern, but also at how we have come to think of it as a problem and—equally important—who wants us to view it as such. The popular culture problem is one example, created by a variety of people, including academics who do research testing only for negative effects and provide commentary attesting to its alleged harm; activist groups that seek to raise public awareness about pop culture’s supposed threat; and, as noted earlier, the news organizations that report on these claims. Politicians also campaign against popular culture, hold hearings, and propose legislation to appear to be doing something about the pop culture problem. Author Cynthia Cooper analyzed nearly thirty congressional hearings held on this issue, finding them to be little more than an exercise in public relations for the elected officials, yet hearings add to the appearance of a weighty problem in need of federal intervention. These claims makers do not simply raise awareness in response to a problem; their actions help create our sense that problems exist in the first place. Claims makers also shape the way we think about an issue and frequently “distort the nature of a problem,” as sociologist Joel Best details in his analysis of crime news.15 He acknowledges that claims makers might not do this on purpose and often have good intentions. After all, if people see what they believe to be a serious problem, raising awareness makes sense.
For example, consider the surgeon general’s report on youth violence, released in January 2001. This report indicated that poverty and family violence are the best predictors of youth violence. Nonetheless, the report concludes, “Exposure to violent media plays an important causal role,” based on research that is highly criticized by many media studies scholars.16 Newspapers capitalized on this single statement, running stories with the headlines “Surgeon General Links TV, Real Violence” and “Media Dodges Violence Bullet.”17 Even
when studies point to other central causal factors, media violence often dominates the story—even in Hollywood.
You might be wondering what the harm could be in conducting research, holding hearings, and reporting on this issue. After all, media culture is very pervasive, and if it could be even a minor issue, shouldn’t we pay attention to it?
There is danger, however, in taking our attention away from other potentially more serious issues. The pop culture answer diverts us from delving into the other questions. Focusing on the media only in a cause-and-effect manner fails to help us understand the connection between media culture as a form of commerce created in a particular economic context. The quest to get the biggest box-office opening or Nielsen ratings leads to lowest- common-denominator storytelling, which explains the overuse of sex and violence as plot devices. Profit, not critical acclaim, equals success in Hollywood (and on Wall Street). Sex and violence create fascination and are sold in popular culture like commodities to attract our attention, if only for a little while.
Most ominously, the effects question crowds out other vital issues affecting the well-being and future of young people. These issues play out more quietly on a daily basis and lie hidden underneath the more dramatic fear-factor-type headlines. Sociologist Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear, refers to this as social sleight of hand, a magician’s trick that keeps us focused on one hand while the other actually does the work, encouraging us to think of a trick as real magic. He warns that these diversions encourage us to fear the wrong things, while the real roots of problems go unexamined and often don’t rise in public awareness.
It’s not surprising that we have a difficult time looking beyond popular culture as an explanation for social problems. As a nation rooted in the ethos of individualism, Americans tend to understand troubling conditions as the result of poor personal choices. Certainly, these choices play a role, but we often fail to understand the contexts in which people make such choices.
Social structure is the sociological concept that gives us information about these contexts. For instance, social structure encourages us to look in depth at the big picture to understand what factors may shape people’s choices. Looking carefully at patterns of arrangements within our economic system, at inequality in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, will help us understand why, for instance, some people might be more prone to bully, to commit violence, to become pregnant as a teen, or to drop out of school.
For example, many critics of rap music have argued that some of the lyrics are extremely misogynistic, encouraging young listeners to devalue women. While disturbing lyrics get our attention, sociologists Terri M. Adams and Douglas B. Fuller argue that rap is just a continuation of a long history of demonizing women, particularly black women. The “Jezebel” myth (the modern-day “ho”) of the hypersexual woman who uses her wiles to manipulate men dates back to slavery and served as an excuse for white men to violate African American women. Similarly, the “Mammy” myth (today’s “bitch”) also has roots in slavery as the bossy woman who orders black men around while serving her white masters.
In more contemporary times, politicians have used these characterizations to blame women for urban poverty: Ronald Reagan’s 1980s-era “welfare queen” who allegedly can’t stop having babies and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s emasculating matriarch of the 1960s, supposedly destroying the African American family with her strength.18 Whereas politicians may use more genteel language, the outcome of reduced funding for children in poverty carries far more potential destructiveness than the prolific use of profanity in rap. In fact, part of the insidiousness of sexism lies in the use of language to cover and obfuscate its continued importance in American life. The realities of discrimination and violence against women are less sensational than rap’s in- your-face lyrics, but they are still with us.
For example, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), a nationally representative survey conducted by the Department of Justice each year, stated in 2010 that 169,370 American women and girls over twelve reported being raped or sexually assaulted, a rate of .7 per 1,000. Intimate-partner violence accounted for 22 percent of nonfatal violence against women.19 This is partly because females are generally less likely to be victims of violence than males are, but it also highlights the dangers women often face from those closest to them.
Structural factors are often difficult to see for those not trained to think sociologically. It is often difficult to
see how policies enacted decades ago might shape patterns of violence or school failure today, but they do. Social structure involves connecting the dots between the past and present, between large-scale social institutions and individual choices. One of the central goals of this book is to help readers understand that there are many structural factors that can help us understand the many problems that popular culture is often blamed for causing.
Not only is this an issue that politicians can use to connect with middle-class voters, but researchers can get funding from a host of sources to continue to seek negative media effects. David L. Altheide, sociologist and author of Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis, suggests that fear-based news helps support the status quo, justifies further social control, and encourages us to look for punitive solutions to perceived problems. Meanwhile, more significant causes of American social problems fall by the wayside.
Deconstructing Media Phobia
This book uses the constructionist approach to understand how claims makers blame popular culture for causing social problems. This does not mean that all problems are just invented crises, nor does it mean that popular culture is all benign entertainment and should not be crucially analyzed. Within each chapter, we will examine the structural roots of the various issues that tend not to attract the massive attention or news coverage that popular culture does. Issues such as the persistence of poverty, unequal access to quality education, reduced information about birth control, overall disparities in opportunity, and the continued presence of racial and gender inequality explain many of the problems we hear blamed on popular culture.
Understanding moral panics about popular culture involves both addressing how the fear is constructed as well as why the fear is out of proportion, requiring us to include objective evidence. Throughout this book, we will examine data and trends within each chapter to see that many of the problems attributed to popular culture are not necessarily getting worse. Sometimes the problems are very serious (such as violence and educational disparities), and an emphasis on media serves to trivialize them. Studies purporting to find evidence of media culpability are often profoundly flawed or overstate their findings. Since research methodology can be complex and dry, the public almost never hears how researchers actually conducted the studies that are discussed in the news. We will do that here, and in the process you will see that some of the research we hear so much about has serious shortcomings.
In the following chapters, we will consider claims that popular culture promotes educational failure, online bullying, violence, promiscuity, single parenthood, materialism, obesity and eating disorders, drinking, drug use, and smoking, as well as racism, sexism, and homophobia. These are important and often misunderstood issues that merit further exploration.
Media culture may not be the root cause of American social problems, but it is more than simply benign entertainment. The purpose of this book is not to simply exonerate media culture as inconsequential: I contend that media culture is a prime starting point for social criticism, but our look at social problems should never end with the media. Pointing out the real issues we should be concerned about does not absolve the entertainment industry of its excesses and mediocrity, particularly the news media, which often heighten our fears while providing little context or analysis. Fear is a powerful force, especially when children seem to be potential victims, so it is understandable that the public would be concerned about our ubiquitous media culture. However compelling news reports are, with attention-grabbing visuals and the constant competition for our interest, the fear that media are a central threat to children and the future of America is a tempting explanation, but at best, it is misguided.
This fear of media was not invented out of thin air, nor is it fanned only by news stories suggesting media culture is dangerous. There is a parallel groundswell of public concern about the larger role of media culture in contemporary American society. Let’s face it: a lot of media culture is highly sexualized, is filled with violence, and seems to appeal to our basest interests, and some people do use social networking to be incredibly rude and abusive.
The media act as a refracted social mirror, providing us with insights about major social issues such as race, gender, class, and the power and patterns of inequality. The media are an intricate element of our culture, woven into the fabric of social life. For example, many people rightly criticize the highly sexualized images of women in popular culture, the limited representations of people of color on television, and the brutality of fantasy violence in movies and video games. These images exist in the context of a society still mired in various forms of inequality, and although in many respects inequality has been reduced, it still exists. Limited or absent representations of the elderly, the plus-sized, the disabled, and other marginalized groups reflect the tendency of mass entertainment to focus on a narrow portrait of American life. Popular culture can be a great starting point to discuss issues of power, privilege, and inequality.
I want to be clear that by arguing that popular culture isn’t the central cause of our biggest problems, I am not saying that media have no impact on American society or that popular culture doesn’t matter. Far from it. Our various forms of media shape our communication with each other and how we spend our time, and we use many forms in constructing our identities. Popular culture shapes what we talk about, how we think of each other, and how we think about ourselves. Media matter, but our relationship to their many forms is more complex and multifaceted than simple cause-effect arguments suggest.
For example, people might use music as a means of forming connections with others at festivals like Burning Man and for navigating emotional challenges of relationships and self-image. A Facebook account is a way to construct a public self and has become a central means of communication for many people. Debates about use of the N word in music lyrics can lead to broader discussions about the word’s history and meaning and the state of racism today.
I also understand why people are concerned about the content of popular culture. Many of us find it to be distasteful at times and wonder what its impact may be. Others don’t like hearing foul language blasting from the stereo of the car next to theirs and cringe when young girls seem to emulate sexy pop stars. Media culture has become very pervasive in the past few decades, and at times it feels like it bombards us—twenty-four-hour news streams, constant texting, and social networking have reshaped our daily lives and interactions. The news media are often guilty of peddling fascination rather than information. This book serves as a critique of the press coverage of social problems and why the “media made them do it” theme continually resurfaces. I understand why critics sometimes argue that graphic media depictions of sex and violence and the prolific use of profanity debase our culture. Hollywood’s dependence on these tools often represents the failure to tell complex stories and the lack of courage to take artistic (and financial) risks. Rather than just ask Hollywood for self-censorship, we should have more choices, more opportunities for our media culture to engage the complexities of life that the summer blockbusters seldom do. But business as usual often makes this impossible, when a handful of big conglomerates produce the lion’s share of entertainment media and smaller producers have a difficult time getting attention. The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which eased media-ownership restrictions, made it even harder for smaller media outlets to compete with the big conglomerates like Disney, Time-Warner, and Viacom.
That said, I know that sometimes at the end of a long day, I prefer to be distracted and amused rather than informed or inspired. With the threat of terrorism and the lingering fallout from the Great Recession, superficial entertainment serves a purpose. But deflected anxiety doesn’t go away; it just resurfaces elsewhere. And in uncertain times such as our own, it is understandable that our concerns would eventually focus on popular culture that both reminds us of our insecurities and distracts us from them. But understanding the most important issues and their causes can help alleviate anxieties about both popular culture and young people, and help us focus on the roots of troubling issues in order to find solutions. This book aims to do just that.
Notes 1. US Bureau of the Census, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011, Report P60, n. 243, Table B-2, 16,
22, http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p60-243.pdf. 2. Children’s Defense Fund, The State of America’s Children Yearbook, 2002 (Washington, DC: CDF, 2002). 3. US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth, and Family, Child Maltreatment, 2010 (Washington, DC:
Government Printing Office, 2011), http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/pubs/cm10/cm10.pdf#page=70; US Department of Education, Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2011 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2012), http://nces.ed.gov/programs/crimeindicators/crimeindicators2011/figures/figure_01_1.asp.
4. For further discussion of Plato’s concerns, see David Buckingham, After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in the Age of Electronic Media.
5. John Springhall, Youth, Popular Culture, and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gangsta-Rap, 1830–1996. 6. For further discussion, see ibid., chap. 5. 7. Frederic Wertham, “Such Trivia as Comic Books.” 8. Grace Palladino, Teenagers: An American History; Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation (New York: Random House, 1998). 9. Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics. 10. Bethany Bryson, “’Anything but Heavy Metal’: Symbolic Exclusion and Musical Dislikes.” 11. Tricia Rose, “’Fear of a Black Planet’: Rap Music and Black Cultural Politics in the 1990s,” 279. 12. Amy Binder, “Constructing Racial Rhetoric: Media Depictions of Harm in Heavy Metal and Rap Music,” 754. 13. David Whiting, “Teens’ Web Is a Wild West,” Orange County Register, December 14, 2011, http://www.ocregister.com/articles/-149862-
ocprint-.html; Roni Caryn Rabin, “Video Games and the Depressed Teenager,” New York Times, January 18, 2011, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/18/video-games-and-the-depressed-teenager/; Marlene Cimons, “Health Groups Link Hollywood Fare to Youth Violence,” Los Angeles Times, December 13, 2000, A34.
14. Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw, “The Agenda-Setting Function of the Mass Media.” 15. Cynthia Cooper, Violence on Television: Congressional Inquiry, Public Criticism, and Industry Response—a Policy Analysis; Joel Best,
Random Violence: How We Talk About New Crimes and New Victims, xiii. 16. US Department of Health and Human Services, Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General (Washington, DC: Government Printing
Office, 2001). For more discussion of the research on which the statement was based, see Chapter 2. 17. Jeff Leeds, “Surgeon General Links TV, Real Violence,” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 2001, A1; Jesse Hiestand, “Media Dodges Violence
Bullet; Poverty, Peers More to Blame,” New York Daily News, January 18, 2001, B1. 18. Terri M. Adams and Douglas B. Fuller, “The Words Have Changed but the Ideology Remains the Same: Misogynistic Lyrics in Rap Music.” 19. Jennifer L. Truman, “Criminal Victimization, 2010,” National Crime Victimization Survey (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, 2011),
Is Popular Culture Really Ruining Childhood?
here is reason to believe that childhood is now in crisis,” writes law professor Joel Bakan in a 2011 New York Times op-ed. He lists a number of factors for his concern, beginning with a description of his
teenage children, “a million miles away, absorbed by the titillating roil of online social life, the addictive pull of video games and virtual worlds, as they stare endlessly at video clips and digital pictures of themselves and their friends.” He is not alone in the belief that popular culture is at least partly to blame for negatively impacting childhood. “Pop culture is destroying our daughters,” a 2005 Boston Globe story declared, affirming what many parents and critics believe. The article, tellingly titled “Childhood Lost to Pop Culture,” described young girls “walking around with too much of their bodies exposed,” their posteriors visible while sitting in low-rise jeans.1
The concerns are not just in the United States, either. A British newspaper warned readers of children’s “junk culture,” asking whether we have “poisoned childhood” with video games and other kinds of popular culture. A Canadian newspaper asks, “Can the kids be deprogrammed?” noting that “concern is mounting that pop culture may be accountable for a wide range of social and physical problems that begin in childhood and carry through to adulthood.”2
Stories like these reinforce what many people think is obvious: childhood is under siege, and popular culture is the main culprit. From celebrities making questionable life choices to violent video games and explicit websites, there is certainly a deep well of pop culture to draw from in order to find examples of bad behavior that many fear will send the wrong message to kids. But despite the plethora of potential bad influences, pop culture is not changing children and childhood as much as we might fear.
First, we need to examine the meaning of childhood itself. If childhood looks different from what many people presume it should, we need to critically consider what it is “supposed” to be like and how we collectively create the meaning of childhood. Are children’s lives really far from the ideal that pop culture is allegedly destroying?
Second is the presumption that the experience of childhood has changed for the worse. Some people are deeply concerned that children know things that we think they shouldn’t—about sex, violence, alcohol, and drugs. But who decides what children should and shouldn’t know (or when they should know it) and whether knowledge itself is dangerous? Before we convict popular culture, we need to consider whether children and childhood itself have really been damaged.
Finally, if children’s experiences of childhood have changed, we often presume that popular culture is the main cause. But is it really?
In this chapter we will examine these three basic questions about children and popular culture. As we will see, childhood has not been ruined, nor is it ending earlier than in generations past. Yes, children’s experiences are different now than they were when I was growing up and likely from when you were growing up, too. When I was ten, cable television was just coming out (with only a few dozen channels), VHS and Betamax were starting their battle for household domination, and portable music mostly meant a transistor radio. But there were many other factors—more important factors—shaping the experiences of kids my age than our media consumption, just as there are for kids today.
Americans fear media in part because we are constantly told we should and, more important, because media are the most visible representation of the many changes that have altered the experiences of childhood. Changes in popular culture are much easier to spot than shifts in social structure. In this chapter I address why media are so often considered detrimental to childhood and the primary spoilers of innocence. Instead of media being the true culprit, broader social, political, and economic changes over the past century have made adults uneasy about their ability to control children and the experience of childhood itself. Most centrally, fears about the demise of childhood make us nostalgic for our own lost childhoods. In a way we are longing for our lost selves
when we think that childhood and children have been damaged by popular culture. The many moral panics surrounding young people and popular culture stem from misunderstandings about children’s well-being today, and the shifting meanings of childhood itself.
The Meaning(s) of Childhood
What is childhood? This may seem like an obvious question, but its definition is trickier than we might think. For one, Americans don’t even agree on when a child’s life begins—at conception? the second trimester of pregnancy? at birth? Once children are born, the confusion doesn’t end. Many might agree that people under ten can be classified as children, but we will probably not all agree on the sorts of experiences they should have. A religious education? Chores? Responsibility for younger siblings? A job? Underlying these decisions are a variety of basic ideas about what childhood should mean, and these decisions change over both time and place.
If we have trouble defining when childhood begins, we really have difficulty agreeing on when it ends. Is adolescence the cutoff? Age eighteen? Twenty-one? Neither age is really the clear threshold to adulthood; after all, in some states children as young as ten can be tried as adults in criminal court.3 On the other hand, some adults regard college students—many well over eighteen and even over twenty-one—as kids, not yet in the real world.
As a society we have mixed feelings about children and childhood. We all have different experiences of childhood ourselves. For some of us, this experience might have been fun and seem carefree (at least through the benefit of hindsight). For others, childhood might have been a painful experience, one best left behind. While people’s experiences of childhood are quite varied, when I ask my students to define the term child, they seem to have no trouble finding common adjectives. Words ranging from innocent, good, cute, pure, helpless, and vulnerable to mischievous, impulsive, ignorant, and selfish come up year after year. A close analysis of these terms reveals that they certainly do not apply to all children, and they actually fit the behavior of some adults. Note that these words connote either sentimental or pejorative views of young people, a caricature of a vast and diverse group. Advertisers and politicians frequently use these symbols in order to sell products or their political platform.
But these words are not as benign as they might seem. Similar descriptors have historically been used to define women, people of color, and other minority groups to justify their inferior social status.4 Although most people now realize that one’s race, ethnicity, gender, or religion cannot be used to identify personality traits, we still often view children as sharing a set of stable characteristics. Children are a group easily stereotyped, sentimentalized, and misrepresented.
At the same time, there is a danger in viewing children as a singular group. Experiences of childhood are diverse and changing, yet often our standard for the ideal childhood in America (and adulthood for that matter) is based on white, middle-class, and usually suburban standards. If I’m not careful I can fall into this trap too, since this was my experience of childhood growing up in a Midwestern suburb not too far from where the mythical Cleavers of Leave It to Beaver supposedly lived. Childhood is rooted in social, economic, and political realities and is not a universal experience shared by all people of a certain age from the beginning of time. These realities, like the air we breathe, are often invisible, and thus this experience of childhood might seem normal to those who once lived it.
Certainly, each one of us can think of how children’s experiences are different now than in the past. But they are also different based on the circumstances of the present. For instance, a girl growing up in my old neighborhood today will likely have a very different experience if her family’s economic situation, ethnicity, and immigration status are different from mine. Across town, another girl of the same age who lost a parent and lives in public housing will have yet other experiences, as will the girl from another religious background who lives in a rural area miles away. Like snowflakes, no two experiences of childhood are exactly alike.
But we tend to define children as a unitary group and focus on how they are unlike adults. I know what you might be thinking—children aren’t adults. This is true, but some of the differences are not as clear-cut as we
might think. Some children have significant family responsibilities and can always be counted on to be there for the ones they love. Some adults cannot. Some children are very serious and stressed out, while some adults are not. And we all probably know some adults who are financially dependent on others and anything but emotionally mature. Just as some grown-ups don’t meet the ideal definition of what it means to be an adult, many children don’t necessarily fit the stereotype of the child.
This is why we must strive to understand the varied experiences of childhood and to understand how they define their own reality, rather than simply how different they are from the dominant group. Just as the historical definition of women as less competent than men served to perpetuate male dominance, the social construction of childhood serves adult needs and reinforces adult power rather than best meeting the needs of young people. While young children are dependent upon adults in many ways, we tend to define them only by the qualities they lack rather than the competencies they possess.
David Buckingham, professor of education at the University of London, explains the danger of thinking about children as fragile and focusing only on adult protection. Instead, he argues that we need to work toward preparing children to face the realities of the world around them.5 Protection is an idea difficult to let go of—it sounds so noble and above reproach. To prepare rather than protect empowers children to make their own decisions, armed with the necessary information. As much as some people might hope, shielding children from information in media is practically impossible; Buckingham urges adults to focus on preparing children to become empowered media consumers.
Children who know things adults don’t think they should challenge the notion of innocence and sometimes seem threatening. Knowledge is the antithesis of innocence, often seen as the antithesis of childhood itself. The “knowing” child, author Joe Kincheloe points out, is routinely seen as a threat within horror movies. For example, he describes the 1960s British film Village of the Damned, where children can read adults’ minds. Based on this perceived threat, the parents ultimately decide they must kill their own kids. Jenny Kitzinger notes in her study of abuse that a child who has knowledge about sex is often considered ruined and less a victim than a naive counterpart.6 Withholding knowledge is central to maintaining both the myth of innocence and power over children, which is at the heart of media fears. Media destabilize the myth of innocence and challenge adults’ ability to withhold knowledge from children. This is the real threat popular culture poses; rather than threatening kids themselves, popular culture often challenges adult control.
Our conception of childhood reveals a major contradiction between the value of knowledge and the luxury of innocence. On the other hand, it is often through media that adults confront the reality that children do not necessarily embody innocence as much as adults might hope. We struggle to maintain the sense that childhood means carefree innocence and blame popular culture for getting in the way. The more closely we examine both media and the way we conceptualize childhood, the better we will understand the fear surrounding this relationship. We see how unclear the boundary between adulthood and childhood really is. Sometimes it is the media that help blur the line of demarcation; other times it is media that expose the ambiguity.
We often perceive childhood innocence as a natural, presocial, and ahistorical state that all children pass through.7 Idealizing childhood as a time of innocence causes us to panic when children know more than some think they should. We place a great deal of blame for this loss of innocence on media, as if innocence were something that would stick around longer without popular culture. As we will see in the next section, “innocence” before the age of electronic media was likely to involve higher child mortality rates and an early introduction to hard work in factories, fields, and mills.
Childhood is constantly shifting and changing, and it becomes defined based on the needs of society. The idea that childhood in the past was composed of carefree days without worry is a conveniently reconstructed version of history. This fantasy allows adults to feel nostalgia for a lost idealized past that never was. Experiences of children have changed, but popular culture is at best a minor player in the story.
What Really Changed Childhood?
There should be no doubt that children’s experiences of childhood change over time. In my own family history (and likely yours too), when we compare generations the differences become clear. I have a grandfather whose education ended in the eighth grade so he could work full-time in the family business, something not unusual for his peers during the 1920s. Of course, if my parents took me out of eighth grade to work in the 1980s, they would have been in big trouble. This isn’t because people in the 1920s didn’t care about children, but the needs in many families were different at that time, and child labor wasn’t as restricted. My grandfather was the seventh of eight children and lost his father in World War I, as did many children of his generation. Many like him were needed to contribute to their families to ensure basic survival.
By the time I came around, much had changed, both in my family and within American society as a whole. The country had gone through a period of tremendous economic growth, making children’s labor unnecessary. The passage of child labor laws and compulsory education laws made school attendance mandatory. And most important, the postindustrial, information-based economy created the need for a highly educated workforce. A lack of high school (and increasingly college) education would put economic survival in jeopardy for people of my generation. By contrast, my grandfather learned his family trade and eventually had his own business in the garment industry, something that would be more difficult today with the predominance of large retail chains and Internet commerce.
These generational differences had much more to do with economics than culture. Yes, the array of media available was vastly different in my grandfather’s day (and he took pleasure in buying me the stereo he never had), but popular culture did not alter the structural realities of either of our childhood experiences.
Not only have childhood experiences changed significantly over time, but the notion of the ideal childhood has, too. In fact, even the idea that there is a distinct period of the life course called “childhood” is a relatively recent development, according to historian Phillipe Ariès, whose groundbreaking 1962 book, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, claims that childhood did not exist as a separate social category in Western culture before the seventeenth century. Based on his analysis of paintings, Ariès observes that children were painted as miniature adults, mostly wearing the same type of clothing and drawn in adult proportions. Little seemed to separate the social roles between adults and children at that time. Although historians have challenged Ariès on several points, his work clearly demonstrates that childhood was conceptualized very differently in the past than it is today.
Whereas Ariès’s focus was on the children of French aristocrats, historian Karin Calvert describes how colonial American childhood was not regarded as an ideal time of life, as so often it is today.8 She describes how high rates of infant mortality and childhood illness made childhood particularly risky, something to hurry up and survive rather than slow down and savor (or worry it is over too fast). Childhood itself became associated with illness. A colonist entering the New World often met with danger, and growing old was a form of conquest.
Unlike today, when popular culture reveres all things youthful, maturity was highly regarded and looked forward to as a time of prestige. Think of the nation’s founding fathers and their white powdered wigs and white stockings, which added years to their appearance. Calvert goes on to say that by the early nineteenth century, American independence had changed the conception of childhood from a period of intense protection to one of greater freedom. She contends that coddling fell out of favor: just as overinvolvement of the mother country was seen as restrictive, parents were discouraged from being overprotective of their children. The belief was that children were made strong by a tough upbringing, while coddling only weakened them.
Calvert explains that during the Victorian era, when infant mortality rates began to fall, childhood evolved into a celebration of innocence and virtue. Families of wealth attempted to keep children pure by separating them from adult society, even from their own parents. Governesses and boarding schools attempted to prevent contamination from adults as long as possible. Childhood became an idealized time of life, reflected in advertisements, which used images of children to connote purity in products like food and soap.9
But the Victorian attempt to keep children away from the adult world was clearly available only to the affluent. For many children, carefree play and ignorant bliss do not mark past or present experiences of childhood. Death was much more likely to be part of childhood in previous centuries, with high rates of infant mortality, childhood illness, and shorter life expectancy. Historian Miriam Formanek-Brunell notes that
nineteenth-century children’s doll play often involved mock funerals, reflecting anything but happy-go-lucky childhood experiences.10 It is our recent conception that insists that childhood should mean freedom from knowledge of the darker side of life.
For other families, childhood meant work at far younger ages than we see now in the United States—although children in developing countries frequently work for wages today. In nineteenth-century America, children in rural areas were needed on family farms, and even if they attended school, their labor was still a necessary part of the family economy. Learning a craft might have meant becoming an apprentice at age eight or nine. Children held in slavery were considered chattel and expected to work as well. By twenty-first-century standards, children working for wages may seem inhumane, but for many families it was economically necessary. Households required full-time labor for tasks like cooking, cleaning, and sewing, particularly in the decades before World War I when poor and rural families were unlikely to have electricity. Since an adult was needed to do the work of maintaining the family, it was necessary for nearly 2 million children to work for wages in 1910.11
Working children often experienced a great deal of autonomy, especially those living in cities. As historian David Nasaw describes, city kids selling newspapers or shining shoes sold their goods and services late into the night, as newspapers published evening editions.12 They kept a portion of their earnings for themselves but gave most to their parents, who were often dependent on the extra money their kids brought in. When reformers —mostly affluent white women who favored the idea that children should be protected from city life—attempted to get them into schools, many of these young peddlers resisted. Giving up their freedom and their incomes did not sit well with the kids, or with their parents who relied on their contributions.
Children’s wages were vital sources of income around the turn of the century, particularly for immigrant families, and constructions of the ideal childhood reflected this need. The useful child was regarded as a moral child, mirroring the adage “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Work and responsibility were considered fundamental values for children, which sociologist Viviana A. Zelizer notes date back to the Puritan ethic of hard work and moral righteousness in early colonial America. Work was viewed as good preparation for a productive adult life, while higher education remained the domain of elites. The industrial-based economy did not require a great deal of academic training from its labor force. Thus, receiving only an eighth-grade education, as my grandfather did, was not nearly as problematic in the first decades of the twentieth century as it is now.
Zelizer concludes that child labor “lost its good reputation” because children’s labor became less necessary due to rising adult incomes and the growing need for a more educated labor force.13 Compulsory education became more widespread in the early twentieth century, not just because it was more humane for children to be in school rather than factories, but because it became more economically necessary. The growth of automation reduced the need for children in the labor force, and the increasing enrollments in public schools stemmed from a desire to create a separate institution to keep children busy during the day in the interest of public safety, as the large number of immigrant children led to concerns about juvenile delinquency. Fearing that poor immigrants constituted a criminal class, reformers instituted compulsory education, a way to legally enforce social control of this group.14 Schools provided a way to Americanize children, keep them out of the labor force until needed, and remove them from the streets.
This is a defining moment in the history of American childhood: from this point on, adults’ and children’s lives became increasingly divided. Children and adults went from sharing tasks on family farms or the shop floor before the 1930s to increasingly spending more time isolated from one another and creating distinct cultures.
The Creation of Childhood as We Know It
In a way, childhood as we think of it today is rooted in the fallout of the Great Depression years of the 1930s. Historian Grace Palladino contends that the separation between adults and children intensified during the
Depression, when adolescents were far more likely to attend high school than in years past due to the shrinking labor market. Children were all but expelled from the workforce. Whereas only about 17 percent of all seventeen-year-olds graduated from high school in 1920, by 1935 the percentage had risen to 42 percent.15 It is during this time that some of the early concerns about young people and popular culture began, too.
The shared space of high school led to the creation and growth of youth culture. Young people’s tastes in music, for example, grew to bear more resemblance to their peers’ than their parents’. Palladino cites swing music as a major cultural wedge between parents and youth in the late 1930s. Parents complained that young people wasted their time listening to the music and were not as industrious as prior generations, a reflection of children’s exclusion from the labor force and increase in leisure time. This was particularly true following World War II, when economic prosperity coupled with mass marketing created even more distinction between what it meant to be a child, a teenager, and an adult.
The postwar economic boom fueled a consumption-based economy. Following strict rationing of goods during World War II, consumption and the widespread availability of goods expanded dramatically. The amount of consumer goods available to both adults and children exploded, and it became patriotic to spend instead of conserve. Families could also carry more debt with the introduction of credit cards, and home mortgages required much smaller down payments than in prewar days. Increases in wages and automation of household labor provided children with even more leisure time; this prosperity helped to create the new category called “teenager.”
Free from contributing to the family income, this young person had both more time and more money than his or her parents had a generation earlier. Producers created movies, television, and music with this large demographic group in mind, particularly as baby-boom children reached spending age in the late 1950s. But perhaps most centrally, market researchers recognized children as a distinct demographic group. Palladino details how market-research firms that focused specifically on understanding youth culture emerged during the late 1940s to better sell products to this increasingly important consumer group. The perception of youth as a time for leisurely consumption of popular culture began.
Marketers sold the idea that postwar childhood and adolescence should be fun. Following the struggles of the Depression and World War II, children born during the baby-boom years were seen as symbols of a bright, new future. Childhood illnesses like polio were gradually conquered, and basic survival was no longer most parents’ major concern. Instead, happiness and psychological well-being, luxuries of prosperity, became central.
Rather than simply being a time of physical vulnerability, as in the colonial period, or moral vulnerability, as in the Victorian era, postwar childhood came to be defined as a psychologically vulnerable time. Following the popularity of Freud in the United States, parents not only were expected to produce healthy and productive children but were also charged with the responsibility of ensuring their psychological well-being. From a Freudian perspective, the adult personality is formed through childhood conflicts. If these conflicts go unresolved, then neurosis or psychosis is likely to follow in adulthood, placing the burden of lifelong psychological health mainly on the mother, who, according to Freud, was central in these conflicts. This emphasis on children’s psychological health also supported a rigid gender ideology. Middle-class mothers, herded out of the paid labor force following World War II, held the lion’s share of responsibility to raise happy children, a relatively new mandate that would eventually suggest that parents—especially mothers—worry about their children’s media use.
The midcentury growth of suburbs also influenced the meaning and experience of childhood. Shifts from an agrarian to an industrial-based economy led to the growth of cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and following World War II the expansion of American suburbs altered both the experiences and the conceptions of childhood. With suburban life came the growing dependence on automobiles, often creating less mobility for young children dependent on parents for transportation and more mobility for teens who had access to cars. The car culture symbolized American independence: advertisements boasted of the adventures a car could offer on newly constructed superhighways.
Teenagers could also congregate away from parental supervision, listen to music, and visit drive-in movies on their own; in many ways the widespread availability of the automobile altered teen sexuality. Teens, now
often free from the need to work to help their families, experienced less adult control, creating parental anxiety about their children’s access to the world around them.
Cultural scholar Henry Jenkins notes that political discourse increasingly described families as individual “forts,” or separate units striving to shield their children from the perceived harms of the larger community.16 In this approach to understanding childhood, children are considered to be under siege, while individual family homes and white picket fences serve as bunkers of suburban safety. The perceived outside dangers include not only unknown neighbors, but also popular culture. This view of childhood as being in danger from the outside world and in need of parental protection continues more than fifty years later, in spite of important social changes that have altered the realities of parenting and family life since that time.
Recently, the postwar era has been held up as ideal, a benchmark against which childhood today is often compared. This has more to do with adults thinking back to their own twentieth-century childhood experiences and idyllic midcentury television shows than reality. Although far fewer children lived in single-parent families and divorce was less common than today, this era was itself the product of specific economic, political, and social realities of the time.17 The prosperity after World War II, coupled with the strength of labor unions, meant that many more families could achieve and maintain middle-class status with one wage earner’s income. New homes in brand-new suburbs could be purchased with little money down, thanks largely to the GI Bill, which also made it possible for many returning vets to attend college for the first time in their family’s history. In many ways, the postwar years were golden.
But not for all. We forget about inequality when we romanticize the happy days of the 1950s. Nostalgia for an allegedly
carefree childhood of the past does not take into account the pervasive history of inequality in the United States. Economic prosperity was not shared by everyone: in 1955 African American families earned only fifty-five cents for every dollar white families earned.18 Those who mourn the loss of childhood innocence in the twenty- first century tend to ignore the struggles faced by many children of color. In previous centuries children born into slavery, for instance, were regarded as individual units of labor and sometimes sold away from their families. Fifty-five percent of African American families, for instance, lived below the poverty line in 1959, and not only were most suburbs economically out of reach, but unfair housing practices kept suburbs white.19 Our collective nostalgia for this mythical version of childhood calls upon memories of Cleaver-like families, when divorce and family discord were unheard of. In reality it was during the 1950s that divorce rates started to climb, and the families of old that we revere existed mostly on television.
As we will see in Chapter 6, the 1950s was not the age of sexual innocence we often believe today. Pregnancy precipitated many marriages in the 1950s, when the median age of marriage for women dipped to its lowest point in the twentieth century, down to twenty in 1950.20 We often think that teenage pregnancy is a relatively new social problem, believed to be exacerbated by sexual content in media, but the reality is that it has been steadily decreasing. In 1950 the pregnancy rate for fifteen-to nineteen-year-olds was 80.6 per 1,000, whereas by 2009 the rate had dropped to an all-time low of 39.1 per 1,000.21 The difference is that pregnant teenagers now are less likely to be married or to be forced into secret adoptions or abortions. Teens also have more choices, including using birth control, having abortions, or keeping their babies without getting married.
What has changed is our perception of teens and sex. Also changed is our idea of what it means to be a teenager: before the mid-twentieth century, people in their teen years often held adult roles and responsibilities, including full-time jobs and parenting. We have redefined the teenage years as more akin to childhood than adulthood, making previously normative behavior unacceptable.
So childhood in the past was not necessarily as innocent as our collective memory incorrectly remembers. Nor was chewing gum or talking out of turn the biggest complaint adults had about children during that time, as a highly publicized but made-up list claimed regarding how benign children’s problems used to be in the good old days.22 People feared changes in youth at that time just as we do today: juvenile delinquency and promiscuity were big concerns even during this hallowed time, something we conveniently forget today.
Perceptions of childhood now reflect adult anxieties about information technology, a shifting economy, a