As a parent of a mentally retarded daughter whose mental age is stuck permanently at two, I get to watch a lot of TV programs and videos designed for young children.
While many parents may try to protect their children from the realities of life under capitalism, those realities inevitably start to intrude at quite an early age. Children become aware, for instance, that a mysterious thing called money is needed to get things and that some people have much more of it than others. However, many of the programs they watch present an ideal play world in which a benevolent parental figure like Barney or the Bear in the Big Blue House looks after all their needs and teaches them an egalitarian ethic of give and take, taking turns, and fair shares. The most isolated and self-contained play world is, no doubt, that of the Telly Tubbies, who play together harmoniously in an empty idyllic landscape, fed and kept clean by the robot Noonoo.
Some programs do set the children’s play against a sporadically glimpsed background of adult life. Some attempt may even be made to reassure children regarding some of the adult problems that affect them, such as divorce. And yet the most discomfiting realities remain concealed.
You would never guess from Sesame Street, for instance, that the great majority of Americans live in racially segregated areas. Although Sesame Street is evidently an inner city neighborhood, everyone seems to live in modest comfort, no one is on drugs, and any hint of violence is taboo. The employment relationship, which dominates most people’s lives, is relegated to the margins of awareness by making most of the main adult characters self-employed (Maria and Louis have a fixit shop, Alan has a store, Gina is a vet, etc.). Other programs are set in a community of family farms, achieving the same effect.
Rather than avoiding the issue of employment, one British series openly glorifies the institution. Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends are trains and other animated machines on the Island of Sodor. They all work for a man named Sir Topham Hatt, who is forever telling them off for “causing confusion and delay” when they forget his instructions and follow their own inclinations.
The most honest children’s program I have seen is a cartoon called Arthur (an eight-year-old anthropomorphic aardvark). It confronts the viewer with social inequality as a problematic phenomenon, featuring characters in families at various economic levels, from Buster and his impoverished single-parent mother to Muffy, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy businessman. When Francine is embarrassed at having a trash collector as her father, he demonstrates to her and her friends the social value of his work. And Arthur himself learns that injustice is also a real problem when he is unjustly accused of stealing money that belongs to his school. Of course, he is vindicated at the last moment. Certain limits must be observed, after all, when revealing to children the existence of injustice.