The summer holidays have rolled around again, which means that I move into my traditional August role swap from university lecturer to active granny, given that none of my (adult) children work in the education sector. Consequently, it is the time of year that I get more closely acquainted with the latest media for the age group in which my grandsons are located, and despite many years of my own children impatiently urging me to 'just watch the film, mum, don't analyse it', I have never been able to turn off from the detection of subliminal messages in children's media. This is probably because much of my own research has focused upon the ways in which children and young people engage with narrative, from the theoretical basis that life for human beings is essentially and inescapably rooted in storytelling.
As little boys like my grandsons leave toddlerhood behind, they typically become highly captivated by what sociologists have named 'the hero narrative', a culturally complex concept which is found in many ancient texts such as the ancient Greek Odyssey. This is initially constructed by young boys as a simplified battle between 'good' and 'evil' which can be played out in various contemporary scenarios such as superheroes vs super villains and cops vs robbers. By contrast, little girls typically become more engaged in the related but different 'princess narrative' found in ancient folk tales such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty which have been told and retold over centuries, and most recently franchised by the mighty pan-national Walt Disney Company.
One of the most celebrated modern stories based in the classic hero narrative is that of the Star Wars franchise initially presented for older children, but more recently embraced by media products for young children, particularly those featuring sophisticated Lego animations. The Lego Movie and Lego Star Wars DVDs are examples of these, which in the tradition of older family-focused media products such as The Flintstones and The Simpsons contain 'double coding'- that is, a story that is narrated on different levels, carefully crafted for children of all ages and adults to enjoy by the extraction of different meanings.
And of course, technological advance decrees that these stories do not just underpin passively absorbed films but interactive games which can be played on PCs, Smart Phones and IPads, in which the child can become the magic ice princess building her castle or the Jedi hero wielding his light sabre against the 'baddies'. It was by interacting in this medium, tutored by my eldest grandson that I began to realise that it was routine for Lego characters to 'die' in such battles by being violently, but very cleanly and wittily disassembled into the pile of plastic bricks of which they are comprised.
Through a century of technological advance, we have therefore begun to routinely communicate fundamental, pan-human and very ancient narratives to children through stories which can call upon a dazzling variety of media which move far beyond the traditional oral delivery, offering a highly visual presentation and a variety of sophisticated subtexts that appeal to a very wide audience; an extremely successful marketing tool which ensures that a variety of continually refreshed coordinated, franchised story-products to capture the imaginations of both adult and child consumers.
However, an alternative reading of such advances suggests that the densely layered messages given to children in these ways may introduce confusion. The Princess narrative has recently been not only double but multi coded, ostensibly to disrupt traditional gender roles, for example in recent Disney franchises such as Shrek and Frozen. However, the veneer between layers is extremely thin, with traditional and 'new' narratives uneasily competing for supremacy. For example, Shrek's homely ogre, Princess Fiona is by contrast extremely beautiful in her original non-cursed state, and while the sisterly love between Princesses Elsa and Anna in Frozen has the strength to break a bad spell, Elsa's magic nevertheless causes her to develop a far more mature (and sexually desirable) figure during her 'Let it Go' transformation. Both are extremely sophisticated narratives to underpin a story created for very young children, containing troubling messages for young girls with regard to perpetuating what Naomi Wolf calls 'the beauty myth' .
With respect to the Hero narrative, The Lego Movie contains a story line that involves a powerful villain 'beheading' a character depicted as a spiritual leader, with the final punch-line pitched for adult laughter when the disembodied head confesses that in fact he was a fraud all along. One of the Lego Star Wars games for IPad places the child player in the role of a Jedi Knight wielding a light sabre in a bar fight, a game which I stopped my five year old grandson playing despite his pleas of 'it's only Lego men, Granny!' when I realised he did not understand that he had to discriminate between 'goodies' and 'baddies' and thought that instead that the aim was to 'kill' (disassemble) all the inhabitants of the bar. For me, both of these stories contained underlying narratives that were too uncomfortably close to recent tragic events instigated in the real world by teenage boys in France and Germany respectively.
In the contemporary socially networked, slickly mediated western world, very young children are therefore pitched into a psychological deluge of highly visual, competing and densely layered narratives, created for multi-generational consumption. However, the natural human condition involves immersion within traditional stories which are orally communicated and carefully crafted to young children's understanding. In some traditional cultures, for example that of Native Australians this is the job of grandparents, who expect their stories to elicit a 'Dadirri' state within listening children. This is an ultimately untranslatable concept, but in essence describes quiet concentration and deep listening, which this culture proposes that children need to develop in order to become spiritually aware and socially responsible adults.
The development of modern technology has undoubtedly brought many advantages to humanity, but we have not yet thought deeply enough about the ways in which 'Web 2.0' may impact upon young human beings who come into the world equipped with the same cognitive functionality as their ice age ancestors. As a species we are still highly socially dependent 'Homo Sapiens 1.0', which spends a large proportion of its life in its developmental period, and heavily relies upon an ability to construct, understand and communicate cohesive narratives in order to create and sustain cooperative societies.
While it is clearly counterproductive to take a Luddite approach to modern technological innovations themselves, it is becoming increasingly necessary for technologically advanced societies to become more consciously aware of the ways in which they introduce their children to the essential, complex human mediation of narrative, and how this might be more effectively managed to nurture healthy psychological and social development.