THE CUTE AND THE COOL
Wondrous Innocence and Modern American
By Gary Cross. Oxford Univ. 259 pp. $29.95
The Hostile Takeover of Childhood
By Susan Linn. New Press. 288 pp. $24.95
At the age of 7, my niece made a startling announcement. "When I grow up," she declared, her eyes bright with ambition, "I want to be a teenager!" The statement all too obviously reflected the general effectiveness of marketing to "tweens," not to mention a decline in respect for adulthood. Most adults sense that over the past, say, 20 years a disturbing shift has taken place in the way American children experience their forming selves, that a violent and sexually charged mass culture is depriving them of their innocence, and that this change may have serious social consequences. As it turns out, according to two recent books, that concern is not new. It has a long history, and yet there is good reason to be more alarmed than ever.
Historian Gary Cross's The Cute and the Cool could be read simply as a fascinating survey were it not so thick with interpretation. Cross properly begins with early 19th-century romanticism, which set in motion the modern ideal of innocence embodied in The Child. As Enlightenment rationalism snuffed out adults' sense of magic and marvel, many embraced a new sense of children's redemptive natural purity -- what Cross calls "wondrous innocence" -- to make up for the loss. And the unblemished child, facing the world with wide-eyed enchantment, required greater shelter from its tempests. Indeed, Cross argues, modern adults express their own longings for both awe and protection through the vaunted innocence of children.
With the rise of a corporate consumer economy, the "wondrous innocent" became very much a creature of the market. By the turn of the 20th century, Cross argues, the charmingly natural child was well on its way to becoming "cute" -- a word derived from "acute" and formerly associated with crafty adults. What Cross calls the "New Kid" had a new sassy look and newly authorized willful behavior, as in an 1896 ad portraying a little girl drinking hot chocolate and a resentful toddler who pouts, "I want a cup of Huyler's Cocoa, too!" As Cross puts it, "Desire in the child had become desirable to the adult." Dolls with names like Flossie Flirt captured the new girl's coquettishly naughty allure; boys played cunning pranks, like Buster Brown and the Katzenjammer Kids. Unsurprisingly, the adults in these imaginings were risible bumblers, leading even infants, like the one-toothed Baby Snookums, to regard parents with Don Rickles-like derision.
By the 1930s, Cross continues, children began to strain against adults' need to experience wondrously innocent desire through them. Ever at the ready, the advertising and pop-amusement industries created new markets by exploiting children's developmental need for independence, which the suffocating obligation to be "cute" had made more difficult. In the new offerings of mass culture, kids found delights unavailable to their parents in youth, and that very sense of novelty and independence made them "cool."
Children had always liked collecting natural objects (birds' eggs) and adult cast-offs (cigar tags and postage stamps); now advertisers harnessed this impulse, offering coupons kids could save up for prizes and trading cards snippable from empty cereal boxes. The same principle extended to novelty toys like miniature cars, purchased singly but collectible in sets, and to serialized pop literature, movies and broadcast programming.
Adults did not mind the newness of these emerging juvenile amusements as much as they objected to some of their content -- which was increasingly modeled after seamy adult pulp magazines like Dime Detective and Amazing Stories. Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys found themselves competing with the more alien street cool of Dick Tracy. Even cooler were the new science fiction tales, which, Cross notes, "removed the child entirely from the world of parents, the past, the realistic future, and the duty to grow up." Buck Rogers, who had origins in the adult pulp mag Amazing Stories, was the first in a long line of escapist superheroes -- including Superman and Captain Marvel -- who, coming full circle back to the stifling mood of the cute, started out as winsome orphans. Initially, kid cool was primarily masculine and often involved saving women from distress. It wasn't until Barbie glided insouciantly onto the stage in 1959 -- defiantly grown-up, breasts aimed like dual-action ray guns at adult notions of childhood innocence -- that girls acquired their own icon of independence.
Child-rearing experts offered mixed advice on these disorienting developments. Some called for sheltering and shaping childhood innocence. Others recognized the psychological importance of "separation" and counseled healthy outlets for aggression. But occasionally parents expressed outright distaste for kid cool, fearing not only that it was morally unwholesome but that their little angels were turning into little brats. "I Do Not Like My Children" one woman stated flatly in a 1937 American Mercury article by that title. And from time to time, the authorities stepped in, as in 1935, when New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had all the city's pinball machines dumped into Long Island Sound because they encouraged underage gambling and unsavory associations. In 1954, the U.S. Senate held investigative hearings on juvenile delinquency and comic books, resulting in a self-regulating code of conduct devised by the Comic Book Association.
In Consuming Kids, psychologist Susan Linn goes a step further, arguing passionately for more restrictive federal legislation, particularly with regard to television. Linn shows how Reagan-era deregulation of the airwaves, followed by the triumph of free-market ideology in the '90s, produced giant corporations intent on barraging children with ever-changing products, from music and food to toys and fashion, designed to alienate youngsters from parents and establish brand loyalty at an early age. Marketers zero in on children with such novelty food items as Heinz Funky Purple Ketchup (what the industry calls "eatertainment"), product tie-ins, in-school fast food, Channel One's ad-riddled "educational" TV, "aspirational marketing" that induces increasingly younger children to want things more suitable for older kids, and on and on. With annual expenditures of $15 billion, children's marketing is a high-stakes game indeed, complete with conferences on subjects like "Understanding Cool" and pricey studies of how to exploit "the nag factor." Against such strong wind, a parent's determined "no" is all too easily blown away.
Linn makes a compelling case for restricting commercial access to children, moving the debate beyond the influence of sexual and violent programming and concentrating on how the sheer volume of marketing aimed at controlling youthful imagination is what should most concern us. Play, she notes, following psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, comes naturally to children, who, by imaginatively engaging the world within safe boundaries, develop rich inner lives, creativity, critical thinking and autonomy in adulthood. But anything that facilitates free play is precisely what "the loud voice of commerce" cannot endure. Illustrating the baleful results, Linn describes attempting to play dinosaurs with a 7-year-old who refuses to allow the toy creatures to talk. "It's like the movie," the child explains impatiently. "You know! They fight and can't talk!" What concerns Linn here is not that the dinosaurs "fight" but that commercialization has such a grip on the imaginative possibilities in this little girl's world.
Commerce, Linn argues, is making children less likely than ever to grow up with the self-disciplined curiosity and independent-mindedness that a vibrant democracy requires of its citizens. True as this may be, however, we'd do well to listen to Cross's final cautionary note: If adults are to take on big marketing and corporate control, they must begin by checking their longstanding tendency to live out their own cultural desires and political differences through children. After all, there are plenty of good reasons to take on the excesses of the free market, children's welfare being only one of them. *
Catherine Tumber is a staff editor at the Boston Phoenix and author of "American Feminism and the Birth of New Age Spirituality: Searching for the Higher Self, 1875-1915."