Announcing my new writing project Growing Up Modern: Childhood, Youth and Popular Culture Since 1945.
This month I’m pleased to launch a new online writing project, Growing Up Modern: Childhood, Youth and Popular Culture Since 1945. Alongside my media education blog, I hope to be publishing new essays on this site every couple of months or so. The first six are up now: you can click on the tab above to find them.
This is an ambitious project, which I’ve been working on for a year or so now. My aim is to explain the changes that have occurred over the past seventy years, both in children’s and young people’s lives and in our ideas about childhood. I do so by exploring popular culture – film, television, popular music and literature, and consumer products more broadly. I look at how children and young people have been represented, addressed and entertained, and what this tells us about the broader social and cultural developments of the time.
The first six essays are as follows (you can even click on these titles to take you directly there):
Children of the revolution? The hippy counter-culture, the idea of childhood and the case of Schoolkids Oz
What can a poor boy do? Representations of child poverty in British cinema, 1969-2013
Emo and The Paradox of Contemporary Youth Culture
An awkward age: representing childhood in 1950s Britain
Troubling teenagers: how movies constructed the juvenile delinquent in the 1950s
Just William: ‘the most popular boy in fiction’
I’m just starting work on the next two. One is about glitter, glam rock and ‘teenyboppers’ in the early 1970s; and the other is about the child star Hayley Mills and the ‘Disneyfication’ of childhood in the early 1960s.
My aim with this project – apart from keeping myself entertained – is to fill a few significant gaps. While there has been an explosion of popular social history writing in recent years, most historians tend to ignore children, and deal with young people in very limited (and often sensationalist) ways. There is a small and growing academic literature on the history of childhood and youth, but much of this is concerned with the period before the mid-twentieth century.
Meanwhile, the popular culture of childhood is often neglected or not taken seriously. While some more glamorous or spectacular aspects of youth culture (especially popular music and fashion) have been well documented, the cultural experiences of ‘ordinary’ young people – especially younger teenagers – have largely been ignored. Meanwhile, academic research and popular debate about children, young people and media is fixated on the very latest developments, and tends to lack a historical dimension.
As I’ve argued in another essay on this site, popular discussions of children’s culture are often infused with nostalgia. To some degree, this is inevitable: most of us look back fondly to the enthusiasms of our own childhoods. Yet in doing so, we risk perpetuating a fantasy of an imaginary golden age, and of a natural childhood somehow untainted by commercialism and corruption. While nostalgia for the past can provide the basis for a critique of the present, such rose-tinted ideas of childhood innocence can also be positively reactionary.
Meanwhile, discussions of youth culture often reflect a different kind of nostalgia. Looking back, we imagine that the cultural experiences of our own teenage years possessed a kind of authenticity that is no longer available to the youth of today. Back in the day, youth culture was a spontaneous expression of rebellion, not a figment of the commercial market as it is today. Back then, we were truly radical and resistant. In both cases, the present is compared unfavourably with the past, in a way that sustains easy narratives of cultural decline.
Growing Up Modern is intended as a critical project. It aims to analyse and interrogate how we typically understand childhood and youth – the stories of liberation and progress, or of lost innocence and freedom; the images of cute children and rebellious adolescents; and the exaggerated anxieties and aspirations that routinely circulate in the public debate. In looking back to the past, it also aims to challenge how we understand the present and the future.
In this sense, I’m using childhood, youth and popular culture as a lens through which to interpret broader social and cultural changes during the period. The aim here is not to ‘set the record straight’ about the past. It is not to recapture young people’s experiences in earlier times – even if this were possible. Rather, it is to explore the diverse and sometimes contradictory ideas of childhood and youth that have been encapsulated in cultural artefacts both for and about young people – artefacts that are almost entirely produced and purchased by adults.
It may just be that I’m getting old, but I believe we are sorely in need of a historical perspective, both in studying media in general, and particularly when it comes to children and young people. I have spent more than thirty years as a researcher trying to surf the wave of technological change. I began by looking at television, and gradually moved on to video, computer games and the internet. Yet here, as in media research more broadly, there is a significant danger of neophilia – an exclusive preoccupation with novelty.
Children and young people today still watch television, go the cinema, read books and comics, and play with non-electronic toys; but researchers (and those who fund research) often seem to be interested only in the latest technological developments – in social media, in mobile devices, or in wearable technology. If we’re not looking at what is happening today, or (even better) tomorrow, it seems that our research is considered irrelevant. Yet the rate of change is such that serious research will almost invariably fail to keep up; and in struggling to do so, we often sacrifice the ability to learn from the past.
The public debate about young people and media is similarly preoccupied with technological change. New media are often seen to be transforming childhood, if not destroying it entirely. Young people, we are told, are a ‘digital generation’ whose whole way of life is vastly different from that of their parents’ generation. As I’ve argued elsewhere, much of the debate here is confined to a narrow and tiresome agenda of questions about risk and harm. The most vocal participants in these discussions – the campaigners with axes to grind, the do-gooders eager to rescue children from harm, the journalists keen to deliver their required copy – tend to frame the issues in simplistic, and often melodramatic, terms.
Looking at history offers a way of stepping back from these frustrating, and ultimately rather unproductive, debates. Of course, there are dangers. In the end, we can only read the past from the perspective of the present – although we can at least try to read the evidence as closely and sympathetically as we can. We need to resist the breathless enthusiasm for change – the idea that the recent past is a long, long time ago, and that everything has changed utterly and irrevocably. Equally, we need to avoid the implication that we have seen it all before, and that there is nothing new under the sun (or on the screen). The point of looking at history is surely that it casts a different light on the developments and controversies of the present. And in the process, it can help to generate a more measured and thoughtful understanding of what is happening now, and might be happening in the future.
Growing Up Modern aims to cover a wide variety of topics, across a range of media and time periods: it will jump erratically from childhood to youth, from the 1950s to the 2000s, from pop music to art movies to children’s books, as the fancy takes me. The essays thus far are quite long (in fact, I’m worried that they seem to be getting longer…), so I have broken them up into shorter, illustrated blog-length sections. I’ll also be posting complete downloadable versions, without illustrations, on my Academia site here.
This is intended as a public knowledge project, which is accessible for students, and for the ‘general reader’ – whoever that may be. The emphasis in these essays is on specific cases and examples: more general, theoretical questions are addressed in a light and straightforward way, although some of them are explored in more detail in rather more academic pieces elsewhere on this site. I’m sure I will struggle – not always successfully – to dispense with academic jargon and pretentious verbiage, but I am hoping to develop a direct and engaging style.
As with my media education blog, I don’t want to spend my life responding to trolls and spammers: I’m afraid there’s a limit to my faith in digital democracy. However, I’m keen to receive feedback, so if you would like to respond, please contact me via old-fashioned e-mail: email@example.com.