With host Stephanie MacDonell
Stephanie: Hi Julia!
Julia: Hi Stephanie! How are you?
Stephanie: I’m good, how are you? What are you eating and drinking here?
Julia: I’ve got a pumpkin muffin crumble and I’m drinking this ginger hibiscus tea but it hasn’t steeped yet.
Stephanie: It looks yummy! So, what are you working on? What is your current project?
Julia: I’m in my thesis year and doing a more creative process of writing a thesis since I’m not applying for a PhD. During my first-year review we were discussing doing something like a creative non-fiction. My thesis is looking at children’s cartoon during the post revision era of the Children’s Television Act in 1996 and into the early 2000s. I’m looking at systems of violence and control through the lens of Deleuze and his model in “Postscripts on the Society of Control.”
Stephanie: I’m not familiar with the Children’s Television Act, can you tell me more about that?
Julia: It was the federal government’s response to parents and educators complaining about the dark ages of children’s television in the 1980s. It’s considered the dark ages because the primary mode of making television for kids was through marketing – so they would make entire shows around toy product placement. So, your Transformers, your Ninja Turtles, your My Little Ponies, all that. So, parents and educators alike created backlash on that mode of television which prompted the Children’s Television Act. It basically suggested all that the programing which was marketed for children needed at least three hours of educational programing per day and also orient it to a more educationally based television…whether or not they actually succeeded I don’t know…but it did push for less violent television. And then in the early 90s there was a push from the animators to create more “cartoony” cartoons. This tradition was lost on these shows, for instance the Vaudeville and slapstick was popular when animation was at its Golden Age. So, they made a push to return to the roots, for instance Animaniacs was a response to this and it was all happening during the post revision period.
Stephanie: Are you mainly looking at television shows for your thesis or are you looking at films as well?
Julia: I’m looking at television, distribution wise it’s really different…oh my tea is purple, that’s kinda cool! (laughs)...and I think there is more discussion to be had about the way children consume media especially in that generation because it is more television based. Plus, Television Studies is relatively new so I thought this would add more to the conversation. The children’s media market in cinema is pretty much dominated by Disney, at least at that time, and Pixar, DreamWorks, Sony, and slightly Illumination.
Stephanie: Yeah especially if you are looking at American children’s animation, you are going to fall into that limitation when it comes to film.
Julia: The thing is that here in America we have this idea that animation is for children. This doesn’t really translate as directly in other countries. Like in Japan animation is for all audiences but even places like France, Italy, and some South American countries animation isn’t considered something strictly for children. That isn’t something that we have adopted into our marketing strategies.
Stephanie: When I was teaching my Cult Cinema class we were looking at animation and we watched a lot of Adult Swim which is considered more underground or outside of the mainstream. We also watched anime and rotoscope films as well. But we read this article “Cultural Identity and Subcultural Forums” that looked at the demographic for Adult Swim, the author Evan Elkins argued that these “adult” programs were still marketed towards adolescent white suburban males which reflected in the show’s protagonists as well.
Julia: Absolutely, like South Park. People say, “oh cartoons are getting so much better now” and I think that’s because they are marketing towards a broader audience with the anime boom. Right now, animation is starting to get a wider audience, like Steven Universe. Shows are getting to be more nuanced in their approaches, like Adventure Time, they want to tackle bigger more complex issues. I don’t necessarily think that that makes a show better, I think it just makes it different. But we have this idea that the more complex something is the better and that’s just not true. Also through streaming younger kids are getting exposed to older content like South Park, especially young boys. They are taking that Simpsons tradition and applying it to children’s shows and saying it’s for kids for varying degrees of success.
Stephanie: What shows are you looking at for your thesis?
Julia: I’m working with Kids Next Door, which I worked with on a project my first semester. In terms of talking about systems of control, power, abuse, and violence this show triggered my interests. Let’s see…The Fairly Odd Parents and probably Recess. We watched the Recess movie in [the class I’m teaching] and it triggered a lot of interesting points and I thought I should probably look at this one further. I’m interested in shows, in particular, that have a very strong pro-kids marketing campaign so like “Kids rule!” There’s usually this big divide between adult characters and children’s’ characters that changes the power dynamic in the show itself. I’m more interested in looking at children as a demographic and looking at the difference in ages and the relationships between children and other characters. The whole children’s demographic is a lie, because there are different economic backgrounds, they don’t really take those things into account.
I’m also really interested in how space is oriented around leisure and work, especially, with this reoccurring theme, like in Recess, the idea of freedom as it translates within ideological spaces and their functions. My original idea was to have an entire chapter dedicated to spaces and institutions to see how they’ve changed from the disciplinary societies into the societies of control. Are they really enclosures or not? Are they just ideological structures? In children’s television there is always this ideological stance that there is a world outside this work space, there is a world outside this school. This illusive summer vacation, there is this illusive recess, where children are free. Sometimes the way it is depicted is this idea of fun, this idea of freedom, and I think that’s something that comes up over and over and over again is this assertion that creativity and fun are the answers to oppression. I don’t know though if I agree with it.
Stephanie: Have you noticed a shift between the relationship or the composition between children and parents pre and post 1996, if there was a shift within that federal act?
Julia: They pushed for more parental involvement. They are mainly extreme right Christian groups and educators very concerned about this hyper violence happening. And yet (laughs)… and yet we still have all this occurrence where parents who are shown on television are neglectful, or downright mean, or cruel. This is something that happens in The Kids Next Door a lot where the parents are not necessarily mean but ignorant. What does that mean? What kinds of messages are you sending about the system that produces this? Those are some of the questions that I’m asking.
Stephanie: And you are specifically looking at the way violent acts are depicted? I remember your paper for that first project in Research Methods looked at that and your applied trauma theory.
Julia: Yeah for that I tried to look at the affect(s) of the violence and not the causes. I think that that lead me down a different path than what I wanted to go down in the beginning. So, my thesis is a little bit more in-line for what really, I wanted to do, it connects with ideas of Capitalist enterprise and Marxism, Deleuze’s “Postscripts,” and then a history of Foucault. So, I just feel like it’s more structurally based and I feel like I’m better with structural theory than abstract theory like psychoanalysis…not really my strong suit…but I tried it! You never know. Trauma theory was really interesting but for me it’s also daunting. I’m so much better with projects that I can historically trace.
Stephanie: So, let’s talk a little bit about the classes you have taken. What are you taking this semester?
Julia: I’m taking Louis’ Historical Materialist class, which we are looking at films with historical materialism as method…and we have to read so many books! One book a week, it’s like (leans towards recorder) you can’t see my fingers but it’s like two inches…sometimes two and a half.
Stephanie: (laughs) You can do it for the picture so the readers can see.
Julia: (laughs) Yes! We have been reading Michael Denning’s’ The Cultural Front and that’s a big book! It’s a good book! We are watching two films for that class, just two. We just finished Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and now we are moving to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea. We are using all of this text in order to support this one reading of Modern Times and then this one reading of Medea using the historical materialist method. I think it’s really useful to see how much work it takes to produce a publishable paper.
Stephanie: Are there any seminar papers you have written during your time here you would like to talk about.
Julia: I worked pretty much with animation and I don’t really know why I’m specifically drawn to it but I’m also drawn to Japanese anime and the way that it produces affect which is different from American animation. Japanese anime is so popular, and the way that it influenced American animation – not just in aesthetic but also in distribution but I remember one idea I had for Louis’ Film Studies class. We were looking at horror cinema directed by women and I wrote on an anime for that called Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni. There’s this troupe in anime called moe that promotes eternal youth and innocence which can be traced back to the loss of innocence and also preservation of youthful identity. It is often associated with young girls. It’s not quite like fetishizing prepubescents like other animes. Usually they are these characters that appear within romantic comedies with a different kind of appeal than characters that a man traditionally is supposed to fall in love with. So, in this show it takes all of these moe troupes and combines a lot of stereotypes used in visual novels because it was originally a visual novel or a choose your own adventure video game but instead of ending with a coupling it ends with a brutal murder or some kind of Japanese body horror. At the end of each arch it’ll start over and do that whole thing again with a different character and it was very violent. It was directed by a woman which is why I wrote about it and I thought it was one of the most interesting projects I’ve done because I was looking at very contrasting theories…very different aesthetics and seeing how they actually worked together.
Stephanie: One of the things I really like about your work is how you approach aesthetics specifically within animation.
Julia: I’d like to continue with that and look at the process of cell animation, older animation, and Vaudeville because I definitely think that that has a lot to do with it and the alignment of animation with the film industry. I think what is really interesting about the research I’ve done on that front is that aesthetically the early roots of animation were really influenced by Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer – animated personas is Chaplin, is Keaton, and is Al Joelson. One of the original Warner Bros characters, I think It’s Bosko, was really inspired by Joelson’s character in The Jazz Singer. So, I think you can do a whole thing about race and how race is constructed in cartoon animation. The whole history of racism is kind of Vaudeville and within the animation tradition. The question is if that inspires modern animation without us thinking about it. I think that’s really interesting because of this human animal hybrid thing that we come to understand with Mickey Mouse, Oswald, Warner Brothers, and Tex Avery cartoons comes from this kind of ape man hybrid that comes from Al Joelson’s blackface in The Jazz Singer. Not exclusively from that but from a similar tradition. I was actually just reading this article about Thomas the Tank Engine…did you read that?
Stephanie: No…unless we were supposed to read that for a class….then I have…(laughs).
Julia: (laughs) No it was published in the New Yorker. It is all about this authoritative system that is in place in the original Thomas the Tank Engine and the really harsh punishments for the trains that get really graphic and gruesome, there’s this whole sub fan group on Tumblr that’s all about dissecting authoritative qualities and it’s really interesting.
Stephanie: How is your class going? Do you enjoy teaching?
Julia: I’m teaching Children’s Cartoons of the 21st century. We are looking at systems of power and control but not exclusively Deleuze. We look at Deleuze’s model as well as gender, race, Marxism, surrealism, anime – those are the big categories. My students are all really great. I have them do responses because I know not everyone wants to talk in class. They offer their different anecdotes to bring into the stuff we talk about. Like we were talking about nostalgia and how nostalgia plays into criticism, how we see pieces from our past and sources them for our critical discourse. I think it’s interesting so I love it when my students give me anecdotes in their work. It’s really interesting format wise too because we don’t have to have screening days and lecture days. For instance, most of the time we will have a fifteen to thirty-minute screening and then we talk about it. It’s different from film classes I’ve taken so it’s allowed me to be more open to the form of the class.
Stephanie: I’ve been studying film for many years and I’ve always wondered why more courses don’t incorporate animation – most students who get into it must come to it from their own interests. What drew you to animation as an academic study?
Julia: I’ve actually always loved cartoons from when I was very little. I think a lot of that
came from not being very good at reading because of ADHD so I was much more visually inclined. I could enjoy shorter media and focus on different things like music and color. It
made me really invested in animation as an idea. I wanted to become an animator mainly because I wanted to write media for kids and I’ve heard all these people say, “oh the media we’ve shown our kids is all terrible.” and I never really one hundred percent agreed with that because I think everyone is blinded by nostalgia. When I came into scholarship, I was trying to think about what audience I cared about. I have always worked with kids ever since I was old enough to babysit and I was in children’s theater for a time. The problem with a lot of the criticism with children’s media is that we are looking at it from the perspective of adult entertainment – whether or not adults can be entertained by it and I think that that defeats the point. Having a good network like Nickelodeon, which is one of the first children’s oriented networks, is what can give children a political identity. I’ve been reading this book called Kids Rule by Sarah Banet-Weiser that talks about this through a sociological lens, the fact that children don’t really have, or were never fully given, an identity with this rise of late-Capitalism during the early 80s.
I always just leaned into animation. Before I got here I was on the fence because I would try to justify it as a point of critical study and be told it was not important. But how can it not change the way we view making content for children. Like the fart joke controversy (laughs). Like a fart joke is automatically low brow humor. Well if a show has a sex joke it is also automatically low brow but yet there is a way to do a sex joke tastefully. And I think if there’s a way to do children’s jokes tastefully…there’s a way to do the fart joke tastefully. What I mean is don’t belittle another experience just because you don’t relate to it anymore…being a kid is important!
I think this is something that despite the hyper marketing, the 2000s really did well, marketing shows for kids that kids liked. Adults might like it too. SpongeBob started off as an adult show, and then they reoriented it as a children’s show. But many were originally marketed for kids. And some of it was pushed to the extreme. Kids Next Door is pretty extreme with its anti-adult rhetoric which I think is really radical. It’s an important show. It ended an era in cartoon animation. I think it also relates itself to societal critique.
Stephanie: Thank you very much Julia!
Julia: Yeah thank you!