Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Childhood Pop Culture Literacy: What Do We Miss?

As a follower of Salon on Facebook, I get a lot of their old posts popping up in my feed, and today's brought this 2010 article about why the author (Andrew O'Hehir) chooses to keep his home-schooled children in the dark about the latest pop culture trends. Here is part of the justification for this choice:
we wanted to affirm the idea that media is something you can choose and control, not a collective demonic unconscious that fills up your imagination and swallows all your spare time. Specifically, we wanted to resist the stepped-up invasion and colonization of early childhood by corporate media, both in its most obvious Happy Meal and merchandising tie-in form and also in its friendlier, allegedly educational “Dora”/”Blue’s Clues” guise. It’s not like we think toddlers who watch TV will all become mindless consumer zombies, but the correlations between childhood media consumption, the obesity epidemic, literacy problems and the disappearance of outdoor play are too strong to ignore.

As my previous musings on this topic have probably made clear, I think about the impact of media on children a lot, and those thoughts manifest themselves as guidelines and decisions within my own home about how much and what media my daughter can consume.

But this article didn't really make  me reflect on my own parenting practices and rules. Instead, it made me think about my own childhood and just how lonely pop culture illiteracy made me as a child.

My pop culture illiteracy was more technical than philosophical. My parents weren't intentionally shielding me from television to save my forming mind from corruption. We simply didn't have access to the channels. I lived too far out in the country to get cable, and the reception was too bad to rely on an antennae. We had a gigantic satellite dish (we later used it as a water slide in the summer, once the tiny dishes became the norm), but we didn't get local channels. I watched the old Batman series and Dragnet as a child. I had never seen Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Sesame Street, or (to the horror of my classmates) Power Rangers. My parents also listened exclusively to pop/rock from the 1950's-1970's and contemporary country. That was it. I had no idea who TLC, Snoop Dogg, or Madonna were. It wasn't that I knew they were out there and I was being kept from them. I simply had no idea they existed.

I did have some peripheral exposure to media like the Ninja Turtles through the toys, and I watched movie versions of the Care Bears until the tapes wore out, but none of it gave me a language of familiarity with my peers. 

The real problem was my physical and social isolation. Growing up so far from "town" with a mother who was crippled by anxiety attacks if she attempted to drive anywhere, I spent a lot of time on my own. O'Hehir cites a desire for outdoor and imaginative play as driving forces behind denying his children pop culture, and I can certainly attest that I got plenty of both. I spent hours creating imaginary worlds in the woods surrounding my house, but the skills I gained there (and I'm not knocking them) were not helpful in navigating the social world of kindergarten, my very first exposure to people my own age. 

I remember thinking that everyone around me was just so weird (and I am certain the opinion was mutual). They used words I didn't know, played games I'd never played, and had a collective store of experiences through media that I couldn't access. If someone wanted to play Power Rangers on the elementary school playground, I never played. I didn't understand what they were talking about. When they sang the pop songs of the day, I spent my time walking around the fence--alone. 

I didn't have a single friend until third grade.

I'm not blaming my rough entry into the social world on a lack of pop culture exposure, but I do see it as an opportunity for smoother inroads that I missed.

A more recent Salon article comes to mind as I think through these memories. D. Watkins reflects on what it's like to be too poor for pop culture. When your cell phone doesn't have a camera on it, how do you connect with the news story about Obama's "selfie," he ponders? When news comes to you days late (which is basically the equivalent of months late in our constant news cycle), how does it stay relevant to your life?

And with our media ever-colliding, with hashtags on shows so that you can live tweet your viewing experience, with fan forums where you can contemplate alternative endings, with cross-over media from books, film, and television happening all around you, what social doors close with the removal of a single venue to pop culture?

I am not criticizing O'Hehir's desire to shield his children from the commercialization and potentially dangerous amounts of exposure to pop culture. I understand his decision and empathize with it completely. I just want to take a moment to reflect on what pop culture really does to our social landscapes and what we might miss when we (even rightfully) opt or are forced out.

Image: toywhirl, Jenny Ivins


  1. Michelle, you raise an excellent point (as always). This is something I've been more conscious of since my son started school. There are things I'm not crazy about - media & pop culture-wise - yet I know that letting him have at least SOME exposure allows him to "talk the talk" with his friends. He is a very social kid, so is really important to him. There are certainly places I just draw the line, but also places I have bent more than I expected to.

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