Welcome to the Playground
So far, we have read popular culture as being governed by a logic of aesthetic intensification. We have also seen that the immediacy of popular culture can become the focus of anxiety or fear since it is often read as breaking down constraints that operate elsewhere in the culture. From both perspectives, the child consumer becomes a central figure in any discussion of popular culture.1
On the one hand, the child is often read as more open to emotional engagement than the adult consumer. The circus used to pitch itself to “children of all ages,” as if the experience of entertainment represented a return to the pleasures of childhood. Think of all of the images that circulate in our culture of children staring in wide-eyed wonderment at fireworks displays, puppet shows, magic acts, and circus clowns. Often, the most emotionally charged elements of popular culture—for example, the larger-than-life heroics of superhero comics, the cute and colorful characters of Japanese anime and video games—are assumed to be aimed at children, even when they are not. Childhood is celebrated as a time of sensual discoveries and playful experimentation, as an age free from adult demands and responsibilities. And this is in part why childhood becomes the focus of such adult nostalgia.
At the same time, children are seen as particularly vulnerable to the seductions of popular culture. Often, moral regulation of media content is put forth in the name of protecting the child. Frederic Wertham's 1954 book The Seduction of the Innocent provided an early template for contemporary critics of mass culture and public amusements. Popular culture is accused of stirring up too many emotions, leaving children in a state of frenzied excitement. Then again, as writers like James R. Kincaid and Jacqueline S. Rose have suggested, such representations of the child are themselves the products of adult fantasies—erotic, nostalgic, utopian, and otherwise.2