Media studies

19th May 2000 at 01:00
GOOD GUYS DON'T WEAR HATS. By Joseph Tobin. Trentham Books pound;16.95.

Joseph Tobin's often engaging account of his research with primary school children in Hawaii, investigating how they "think and talk about media representations of violence, gender, race, colonialism and class," is to some extent tilting at straw men.

"Getting beyond the effects paradigm", and "exploding the popular conception that children are passive dupes of all powerful media", as his book claims to do, is nothing new.

Since the British Film Institute began publishing its accounts of primary media education in the 1980s, we have known that young children are active interpreters of popular media texts, using them to inform imaginative play and classroom work.

So what is Tobin offering that is new? In the first place, his group of young children is multiculturally interesting. As Hawaiians, they are United States citizens, and thus part of the American cultural hegemony, but many are also of mixed racial origins, and hence not represented in it.

Many of the children see themselves as distinct from "the good guys" of traditional American movies - the white settlers of the American West, or, as in The Swiss Family Robinson - the 1960 film Tobin used for his study - colonists on a Pacific island.

Much of Tobin's text examines a short sequence from The Swiss Family Robinson, in which pirates attack the white family, to explore how children are assimilated by the colonialist, racist and sexist assumptions of the film.

He produces some revealing discussions, especially concerning children's apparent acceptance that people with "Chinese eyes" are bad and people with no hats are good.

The book will interest researchers who have closely followed the debate about active audiences (especilly child audiences) over the years, but its appeal for a wider audience might be less.

There are two problems. In the first place, the film is not well known (although Tobin describes it as a classic), and the sequence used is short, so, those interested in textual analyses have little to read about the film itself.

Second, there is the question of who needs to know. Tobin has clearly thought deeply and respectfully about the children's comments, relating them to his wide theoretical reading, and claiming that "interpreting children's talk has much in common with interpreting a painting, a piece of music or a literary work". But children's talk is not constructed, nor offeredto the listener, as "art".

More problematically for the potential readership of a book about children, the audience for "artistic" interpretations of children's talk is not the same as the potential audience for literary or music criticism, which includes people interested in music and books.

Should a book about children's talk appeal to those interested in children?

The children's conversations are insightful and revealing, but would not surprise teachers who have spent even a small amount of time talking to children about media. The trenchant points made by Clem, one of the few African American students in the school, about race and power are just what such readers would expect.

The intelligence of children's talk about media is not in question - but books such as this, which relate their value to wider cultural debates, are certainly welcome.

Maire Messenger-Davies is senior lecturer in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff university. She is author of Fake, Fact and Fantasy: children's interpretations of TV reality (Lawrence Erlbaum 1997)

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