September 02, 2004

The Cute and the Cool, Gary Cross

Cross picks three contradictions out of the twentieth century structure of life, family, and childrearing, and pretty neatly shows how they reinforce each other. When technology pushed productive work out of the home, the home was represented as a sacred place, free of the unpleasantnesses of work. Women got to be the Angel in the House, and children even more so: children were angels still shining from heaven. Consumerism and advertising were rising at the same time, and they found steady profit in selling to the sense of 'childlike wonder', the untrained, therefore innocent, therefore all-deserving desire of the very young. Adults who are supposed to divide their lives between unpleasant work and the goblin-market joys of consumerism are, first, easy marks for buying their children 'real joy', and second, eager to coddle their own 'inner children', who were never as happy as the ads say they deserved to have been.

One of the problems this papers over is that childish innocence has two strong meanings; not just the 'wondrous innocence' that should get what it wants, but 'sheltered innocence' that needs to be protected. These are incompatible views, and they call out political divides between adults who have different sticking-points about what children absolutely have to be protected from. But "for the children" is a nearly untouchable political argument, the only claim strong enough to counter the ideology of the free market. Therefore it gets used more than it could support even if it weren't weakened by incommensurable beliefs regarding children's 'true natures'.

And finally, since children grow up and don't want to be tiny rois faineants forever, children turn wide-eyed cute into eyebrow-raised cool, which their parents experience as a betrayal. Great for the marketers, though, as it gives them a whole new segment.

All the above is my summary of Cross' argument, which is laid out with a lot more historical example. The evolutions of Christmas, of candy advertising, and especially of Halloween considerably strengthen his points. Halloween went from unpleasant but undangerous mumming, to cute kids and their candy, to a marker of fear; Cross points out that it is at least a little strange that parents would feel safer taking their children to the mall for trick-or-treating than letting them visit their neighbors. Little could be more telling about the decline of community trust than this. Finally, Halloween is becoming a grown-up party with drink and naughty costumes, the squares' Mardi Gras.

I don't think Cross and I share many political viewpoints, but he seemed grudgingly fair when describing 'my' side's views.

ISBN: 0195156668

So wrote clew in History (19th c.). , History (20th c.). | TrackBack
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