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Wednesday Strange Changes

What I've Finished Reading

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. It took only about an hour to read (it's a graphic novel) and was absolutely worth revisiting. An understated memoir about growing up in Iran in the early 1980s, as a terrifying fundamentalist regime takes over.

What I'm Reading Now

Titus Groan is almost over -- well, there are about a hundred pages left. Gormenghast is coming apart at the seams, and leaking some vile fluids along the way, but Gormenghast couldn't ever have done anything but come apart at the seams, so it's not like it's a surprise. I feel bad for Fuchsia, almost the only character who seems really human, not stone or carved wood or billowing fungus -- for a little while, before Steerpike started his heartless social climb in earnest, I thought maybe they could be friends. Now there's no one -- just the nurse who doesn't understand anything but helpless love and the reckless wet nurse whose path won't ever cross hers anyway, and poor pompous Prunesquallor. Poor Fuchsia. I'm really enjoying this book and I'll be a little sorry when it's done. It's been a very strange, very pungent constant companion.

About Watching Television, I go back and forth -- not surprising, given that it's a book made of multiple essays by different people, but there's also a sameness to the essays. How many times can we learn that television programming in the 1980s reflects the anxieties and aspirations of Reaganite America? A lot, apparently! The essay on soap opera storytelling was predictable if mildly interesting, but the grumpy children's TV essay was a rollercoaster of discovery, and grumpy along lines that child!me would have appreciated (I really, really, really hated The Care Bears). Did you know that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was developed by a toy company, and is essentially a commercial -- not in a sub-satirical derisive way, but literally and openly? Did you know that Gummy Bears (a then-ubiquitous jelly snack in the shape of bears) and the Rubik Cube had their own tie-in television shows? I didn't, but now I do! Actually, a lot of toy/show combinations were developed by toy companies. Strawberry Shortcake, whom I had a book about, was one, and so was Rainbow Brite and the intolerable Care Bears.

I don't know why the author is so fussed that "kids incorporate [this obvious garbage] into their fantasy life and fantasy play, into their desires and dreams"; I mean, what don't kids incorporate into their fantasy life? I like pop-culture criticism and I enjoyed this essay, but sometimes it seems as if Tom Engelhardt -- and all the writers in Watching Television so far -- feel they need to universalize in order to say something meaningful. So Engelhardt breaks out the Sloppy We of Cultural Zeitgeist, musing:

[A quoted passage, and some meandering.]"However kids are actually treated in America, ideally we want to think of them as belonging to another race of beings, rather like the little denizens of Strawberryland, innocents open to the best we can possibly teach. We want to see them as different, more sensitive, somehow more human than ourselves, and so children's TV offends in ways the usual critiques do not touch. It disturbs because we shudder to see our children attracted to balder versions of what we are attracted to. Perhaps many of us also want to see ourselves as more immune to consumer dreams and Reagan-age fantasies than we are, so it is like meeting yourself naked on a busy street in some hideously embarrassing dream to see your child love He-Man or Rainbow Brite with a possessing passion, or hunker down to watch a morning of kidvid. But why, after all, should the kids who live in our houses not be attracted to what, in only slightly more sophisticated form, is meant to attract us all: dreams of buying glitzy toys (promising more than they can ever deliver) with which to play out our fantasies. Why should children in our world appreciate shows that do not sell them anything?"

Is this insightful or reductive? Probably it's both, its insight muffled by its reductiveness. I have a knee-jerk reaction to the Sloppy We used to describe zeitgeists in which I have no part (notable examples can be found in New York Times trend pieces in which "we all" = a portion of the population of Park Slope, e.g., "we ALL know the pain of being waitlisted for the best preschools!") and even zeitgeists of which I am a part ("Who doesn't love the MCU?" A LOT OF PEOPLE, probably!). Partly this is because I hate reductive pictures of the past, so any reductive picture of the present is bound to raise my hackles, partly it reminds me too much of the bullying "we" of ads, in which "we all" care deeply about spots on our glassware, having "toned" arms and legs, the Superbowl, unlimited data plans, or whatever the thing is.

I'm not mad at the passage above; it's just trying to tie all the grumpiness together and get everyone at the Culture Studies conference to murmur appreciatively. But it puts the 80s parent in a bind: if they let their kids watch these commercial cartoons, they're passively allowing Reaganism to be folded directly into the doughball of their growing brains, but if they cry, "Gross!" and switch off the TV, isn't it really just the monster's rage at the mirror? Maybe I'm being too literal -- I know the Zeitgeist We isn't literal, but I still wish Englehardt would leave a little more room for simple dislike.

My parents didn't prevent us from watching Saturday morning cartoons, or afternoon cartoons, but I didn't end up watching a lot of them. I liked to sleep in on Saturday and after school I usually wanted to ride my bike or eat a lot of milk-soaked Oreos in sequence and read in my room. The Tolkienist, who is the same age as I am, watched a bewildering number of these shows, and also had a huge number of tie-in toys growing up. The landscapes of our separate childhoods have a few points of convergence (The Legend of Zelda and sequels, the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, probably a few other things) but it's hard to say what effect, if any, the lack or wealth of cheap cartoons had on us.

Those of you who grew up in or near the 80s: what cartoons do you remember, if any? What do you remember about them?

I'm trying to finish up the "leftover" books from last year before I move on to too many others, so a little more of Edmund Wilson from The Shores of Light: a beautiful description of a burlesque Antony and Cleopatra from 1924, a dull review of a dull book about Woodrow Wilson, and a terrific appreciation of Houdini written after his death.

Also! There's a Moby-Dick reading group happening over on Dreamwidth, so stop by if you want to talk about Moby-Dick! It's not too late to join in; this Friday's discussion is on Chapters 8-15, and the chapters are short! I've been enjoying meeting one of my favorite first-person narrators all over again.

"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

What I'm Going to Read Next

C. P. Snow's The Light and the Dark is still waiting in the wings, and so are a large number of Horrors of the Twentieth Century from my bookshelf.


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 13th, 2016 01:02 pm (UTC)
Ha, I did know about He-Man, although I'm not sure when I found out. It's a pretty disgraceful way to go about things, really, but I suppose not so much different from the inevitable stuff taht follows any successful show anyway!

I was an 80s child and loved a lot of cartoons. I used to get impatient with He-Man (though I did watch it, and liked Skeletor very much, lol) and also never really liked the much younger, cuter (frequently anthroporphised animals) type (all the Care Bears and their ilk) but adored Dungeons & Dragons (this is the only one I've dared rewatch & it really was everything I remembered, it's the best 80s cartoon for my money), Cities of Gold, Thundercats, Ulysses 31, Defenders of the Earth, Visionaries (although that one was moving into the 90s and the last cartoon I had any interest in, I think). It was the era for cartoons, really. To be honest, I think it was fun. But then, I was in the UK and we had a whole load of home-grown TV drama and comedy and education of all kinds every week night on CITV and CBBC, plus schools strands on BBC2 and Channel4 and saturday teen magazine shows, and summer holiday morning repeats of all kinds of stuff (often 70s drama serials, sometimes even older film serials, I think). A cartoon here and there in the mix just lightened things up, really.


Edited at 2016-01-13 01:02 pm (UTC)
Jan. 14th, 2016 03:13 am (UTC)
Dungeons and Dragons is mentioned in the essay! I knew of the game but was not aware it had a TV spinoff (or was it the other way around?) We did have two Betamax cassettes of He-Man episodes, and I had very mixed feelings about them. The animation was creepily terrible! But some of the characters were really cool! But there were also unbearably bad comic relief characters who made me wish I didn't have ears! But the backstory for one of them was kind of cool and sad! We also had Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer, which was so dumb it achieved a kind of majesty (maybe not really).

Maybe I'll watch Dungeons and Dragons sometime. I just recently was shown an episode of Thundercats and thought it was kind of interesting, except for the obligatory terrible comic relief. And I've actually seen the opening credit sequences for Cities of Gold and Ulysses 31, which look kind of great.
Jan. 14th, 2016 09:13 am (UTC)
I'm pretty sure they came up with the cartoon because the game was popular, but I don't think there was a real connection beyond that. It's a Yuletide regular, though!

It was on when I was about 7 and I adored it like nothing else for years, so I'm not an unbiased commenter. It's set up in a fairly standard way, but some of the scriptwriters clearly started having fun - one of the big things with D&D is that the comic relief character is one of the best things about it, that there's some hinted at ambiguity and backstory to the villain, pop culture references and banter and heart, and then there are some episodes that go a bit deeper and darker, although sadly for D&D the US TV networks spotted them at it with "The Dragon's Graveyard" (in which the young heroes get so fed up with the villain, they decide to murder him) and it didn't last for much longer. Tragically for wee me.

The Intro sums up the basic concept. (Though the intro is kind of annoying when you're watching it every week - they changed it for S2 or 3 but apparently have lost it! It's not only the BBC that's careless, it seems. However, I do have a love for the outro, though, which is actually what conjures up watching it in my mind. The composer evidently liked it too; he recorded a longer version here.)

There is also a five-headed dragon called Tiamat. All cartoons could be improved by that. Also, for all Venger's faults, he's a seriously scary villain when you're seven. (Although Mumm-ra in Thundercats was the scariest. Nothing worse than a villain who sits there shrouded in bandages and doesn't do anything, so you get freaked out if he so much as stands up, let alone changes.)

Cities of Gold was a rather different thing - a French-Japanese epic, which I also adored, but as one-off event TV. A serial cartoon like that was just unknown to me before it arrived. And any others were that bit younger and involved animals in literary adaptations. (cf. Dogtanian and the Muskehounds and Willy Fogg.) And, aha, it and Ulysses 31 definitely have cool intros.

ETA: Totally forgot I made a fanvid to express my feelings on the matter one time. ;-)

Edited at 2016-01-14 09:19 am (UTC)
Jan. 14th, 2016 06:34 pm (UTC)
Aww! I am intrigued - a good comic relief character? and lots of teamwork and friendship? Also, that green-robed wizard looks like it could be Harry and Ginny's kid.
Jan. 14th, 2016 08:40 pm (UTC)
Ask anyone who knows D&D - Eric is the best! ;-D (Mind, Presto - the green-robed wizard also gives good comic relief in being rather haplessly prone to magic going wrong. Sometimes they have a double act.)

It's just as cartoony as anything else, but once it got going, as I said, the writers had a bit of fun with it & there's some proper characterisation and development and a lurking backstory. But this was the thing I played in the playground at age 7, and adored all over again when they repeated it when I was about 13/14 (& I have the fanfic somewhere in my diary to prove it).
Jan. 13th, 2016 02:31 pm (UTC)
I loved the Gummy Bears show! Which is kind of hilarious, because I loathed gummy bear snacks - actually, any kind of gummy snack, but especially gummy bears.

I think there is a strand of thought in America that wants to see children as innocent and pure and irresistibly attracted to butterflies and tinkling brooks - sort of a leftover from Rousseau - as tabula rasa, so giving them junky entertainment is worse than giving adults junky entertainment because the adults are already hopelessly corrupted.

I'm not sure it's as universal as the author suggests, though.

It's interesting to think how definitions of junky change, too. I usually see The Muppets held up as a rare example of quality children's entertainment, and in some ways they are, but the gender roles really give me pause now. (Then again, one could probably say that latter about a lot of eighties cartoons.)
Jan. 14th, 2016 03:17 am (UTC)
What was it about? Were they bears who could change themselves into gummy jelly as a defensive measure, like Emma Frost (only with gumminess)?

It's probably pretty usual to like a show without liking its tie-in products (or the products that inspired it? I'm not sure what the order or causality is here, but probably the gummy snacks came first?) I loved Star Wars-the-movies, but didn't want to play with Star Wars toys or eat Star Wars themed cereal.

I think that's an interesting observation about wanting kids to be "more pure"! I guess I'm just not sure about the other half of the claim, that recoiling from the Care Bears is recoiling from one's own naked zeitgeisty id. I mean, there's plenty to recoil from without the shock of recognition, isn't there? (Maybe this is just my own shock of recognition recoiling at the mention of itself).

Last night I watched an episode of Captain Planet, a didactic cartoon show from the 80s, and while it was terrible in every other way, it seemed pretty egalitarian wrt gender roles. But that might just be a function of no one having much to do regardless of gender.
Jan. 14th, 2016 04:02 am (UTC)
IIRC the bears couldn't change themselves into gummy jelly. They could bounce, though. Which, now that I think about it, seems really more like rubber than gummy candy, but I wasn't very picky when I was four. They lived in a forest and had forest-y adventures.

I don't remember the Care Bears well enough to remember why one would recoil - zeitgeisty id, overuse of pastel colors, did they sing to each other? I think the idea that people recoil hardest from things that express their id too nakedly is interesting - I have read the theory that the reason people loathe Barney so intensely is that he's an expression of pure neediness for affection - but I doubt it accounts for all revulsion. I mean, Barney is pretty annoying; you don't have to go all naked zeitgeisty id to explain why a parent, babysitter, or older child might want to take a hammer to the TV after listening to "I love you, you love me" fifteen times in a row.
Jan. 14th, 2016 06:29 pm (UTC)
Care Bears were just really false. More so even than is usual for a kid's show about how everyone should be nice. Like in the one I remember, there was a kid being bullied about his braces (the bully puts taffy in his sandwich and laughs at him) so he tries to throw himself off a cliff, but the Care Bears show up with some platitudes and later everything is ok? I think they had some kind of rainbow light power that was them caring really hard, and. . . I don't remember what the mechanism was, but somehow showing up and being syrupy cartoon bears solved everyone's problems in a really artificial and psychologically improbable way.

I found it repellent, not just because it was badly animated and the voices were annoying, but also because caring really hard at bullies did not actually do anything and would probably get you kicked for your trouble at the very least. It was really stupid and boring, but it was also upsetting to me that adults had made this thing for children that was both preachy and a lie, the worst of both worlds. Maybe it's not as bad as I remember?

Mr. Rogers wasn't my favorite thing, either -- he talked so slowly that I would just get up and leave -- but it was much better about talking about specific real things, as opposed to the general power of Caring, and acknowledging that sometimes not everything was going to be ok.

ETA But now I think I've talked myself back into Englehardt's point, because I do want platitudes and The Power of Being Nice to solve everything. Oh, well.

Edited at 2016-01-14 06:40 pm (UTC)
Jan. 13th, 2016 04:02 pm (UTC)
I watched loads of cartoons in the 80's, too many to list. I hardly bought any of the TV tie in stuff - fail for the multi-nations there. I had two care bears, well one was a lion! I saw the Care Bears films and they made me feel nauseous. I did have a large My Little Pony collection (back when the ponies were "fat") but I never saw the cartoons. I don't think they had any really then just a few movies like the Care Bears.

My fave cultural studies article title is 'Don't Treat Us Like We're Stupid and Naive' an early fan study of Dallas viewers in the 80's. I think the researchers were Scandinavian and they did research by post! Is it in your book? It's quite a famous one.
Jan. 14th, 2016 03:23 am (UTC)
The Care Bears films were really terrible, even by existing standards of terrible things for children. If I'm remembering them correctly, that is. I probably won't go back to watch. Did you have a favorite cartoon?

I'm not finding "Don't Treat Us Like We're Stupid and Naive" in the endnotes and unfortunately this book doesn't have a bibliography, but it sounds like something I should check out.
Jan. 14th, 2016 04:44 pm (UTC)
Dogtanian and the Muskerhounds (the first series, the second was rubbish, bah) was my fave of all the serial cartoons that were on in the 80's. I got on with all the serials apart from Ulysses, strangely, great theme tune though. Most 80's cartoons had great theme tunes. Count Duckula which as an adult I got all the videos from charity shops, because there was always a bumper video in the children's section, handy that. Bagpuss and Moomins which were puppets/stop-motion animation. Most Cosgrove Hall and Small Films (Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin) cartoons.

You might be able to find it in google books as it's quite old now.
Jan. 14th, 2016 03:43 am (UTC)
Persepolis is great. Especially the parts during her childhood.

Man, I'd really like that a reason to read Moby Dick, but I probably won't make it.
Jan. 14th, 2016 05:19 pm (UTC)
It's really good! Persepolis, I mean. The child's perspective -- Marji's conversations with God, the attempts the kids make to explain things to each other -- is beautifully done. I was iffy about the art style at first, when I first read it, but it is perfect for that POV, and extremely effective in some places. It's naive without making a sentimental virtue of naiveté, which I like.

Moby-Dick is also very good, though completely different. If you miss the readalong but still decide to start it, you are always welcome to come talk about it here.
Jan. 16th, 2016 05:06 pm (UTC)
I was put off by the art style at first as well, but I agree that it works very well, and it grew on my very fast. The bit where she's in art school, later, and there's strip of the painting she made for her university admission is fascinating - I wonder what the original painting looked like.
I love your way of putting it, "naive without making a sentimental virtue of naiveté".

Thank, re: Moby Dick. If I do end up reading it, I will. I'm in the last part of Les Misérables right now, so that's one off my "long classics I kind of want to read but always put off" list...
Jan. 14th, 2016 08:59 pm (UTC)
I remember loving the Gummy Bears cartoon! Though oddly, I seemed to have missed out on most of the other 80s cartoons - no He-Man or Strawberry Shortcake or Rainbow Brite for me, and I have only the vaguest memories of the Care Bears.

I also love Moby Dick, and that quote encaspulates all of why. I find myself growing less interested in the book as it goes along, and Ahab dominates the narrative while Ishmael all but disappears, but I still should go and join the group.
Jan. 16th, 2016 12:58 am (UTC)
Poor Ishmael! It's not his fault the sea and Ahab drowned him out! The sea is huge and Ahab is implacable. :(

Gummy Bears seems to have a lot of fans! Part of me wants to check it out, but another, petty and prejudiced part of me keeps going, "But why are they gummy? I don't like it." Well, there's time yet for me to change my mind.
Jan. 16th, 2016 09:04 pm (UTC)
Part of me wants to check it out, but another, petty and prejudiced part of me keeps going, "But why are they gummy? I don't like it." Well, there's time yet for me to change my mind.
I can't imagine if you watched it now as an adult that it would be any good, but I liked it at the time! It had a sort of Robin Hood plot, where the bears were a group (family?) hiding in the woods from sort sort of evil nobleman. Actually, I didn't realize it was a tie-in for the candy until years later, since it was never mentioned in the show. They were just anthropomorphic animals who were really good at jumping (which I guess was supposed to be gummy-like, since they bounced like rubber).
Jan. 15th, 2016 11:57 am (UTC)
Oh golly, I watched all the 80s cartoons and had most of the tie-in toys too. I was very attached to Rainbow Brite both as doll & show, and I had a whole herd of My Little Ponies, which were much less cutesy than those freakish things that bear the same name nowadays, and the cartoons weren't as annoying either. I remember having toy Care Bears, but the show didn't do much for me, I was way more into the Gummy Bears. And funnily enough, I've actually met one of the guys who worked on the Gummy Bears cartoon! When I went to a convention to meet the man who'd created one of my other favorite childhood shows, I learned that he'd done Gummy Bears before that, and he talked about how frustrated everyone on that show had been, because they'd created this whole pseudo-medieval world and really tried to develop characters and storylines that didn't patronize children's intelligence, but they were always seen as a copy of Care Bears, when in fact they hated Care Bears and it's sentimental characters and meaningless platitudes. But people who hadn't seen it assumed Gummy Bears was the less intelligent show because it had originally been developed to promote a candy!

I'm forced to wonder if the essay writers of the book you've read have ever learned anything about the how these shows were actually made and by whom, or if they'd watched any of them as children themselves, since the tone of that excerpt feels like an academic trying to make himself sound very highbrow by condemning lowbrow consumer culture as a whole rather than in looking at what, specifically, he deems so objectionable about these particular shows. I'm always a bit nostalgic for my late 80s/90s childhood stuff, and I generally think it's actually better than the stuff kids get today, marketing tie-in or not, especially the 90s cartoons. There are a few shows from my later childhood that I still re-watch today: ReBoot and Gargoyles in particular are some of the best written shows I've ever seen, so I'm a little biased toward defending cartoons in general.
Jan. 16th, 2016 01:39 am (UTC)
Well, Tom Engelhardt was born in 1944, so he would be a little old even for the first big wave of low-rent kids' cartoons in the 60s. The essay is very far removed from any element of nostalgia, either in favor of these cartoons or against them.

he talked about how frustrated everyone on that show had been, because they'd created this whole pseudo-medieval world and really tried to develop characters and storylines that didn't patronize children's intelligence, but they were always seen as a copy of Care Bears, when in fact they hated Care Bears and it's sentimental characters and meaningless platitudes. But people who hadn't seen it assumed Gummy Bears was the less intelligent show because it had originally been developed to promote a candy!

Oh no! That does sound terribly frustrating. I have to admit, the corporate tie-in aspect is always a little shocking to me at first glance, but that doesn't mean it isn't possible to write a good show whose genesis was gummy candy -- or flour, or cigarettes, or any other marketable good.

I don't think Engelhardt is so much a "highbrow" rejecting "low" entertainment as a political journalist using children's TV as an example of political/cultural trends. Which probably isn't, as you said, totally fair to all the shows under discussion. I think it's a failing of the essay that he doesn't really look for any reasons these shows might be appealing beyond the unflattering Social Commentary ones he's chosen to focus on for his critique. And probably overestimates how much the corporate tie-in aspect of things is even particularly visible to children? I don't know. It's always interesting to read screeds about your own generation and barely recognize any of it. I like reading these cult-crit essays but I feel like they always end up at odd angles to the experience of living/watching television/buying an SUV/whatever else. Maybe they're meant to.

I have almost no memory of the My Little Ponies, except that they existed (and my cousin had their big plastic castle). Are there two separate My Little Pony franchises?
Jan. 17th, 2016 03:11 am (UTC)
I definitely agree that 'cultural criticism' tends to ignore how people actually engaged with the media they're examining, especially when it comes to children. I don't think I realized the 'corporate tie-in' nature of most of the things I liked as a kid, and wouldn't have cared if I had. Children are smarter and more creative than adults give them credit for, and they'll decide what they like and why they like it regardless of how it's marketed. I've read tomes of criticism condemning Barbie dolls for being obsessed with fashion and appearance, and assuring readers that it turned little girls interests exclusively to those things- meanwhile, in my childhood experience, none of us kids read the marketing patter on the back of the boxes! We tore the dolls right out of the boxes and made up our own stories for them, like marine biologist, horse breeder, and auto mechanic, among other things, LOL.

I think the My Little Pony of today is actually still owned by the same company as the original My Little Ponies, but sometime in the early 2000s I think they 're-branded' it, or something, because they're entirely different now. They used to look reasonably close to actual horses, and had lots of different characters including pony families, but now they're all new characters with skinny stylized bodies that have a cartoon where they all have squeaky high-pitched baby voices. It's apparently very popular among adult men who call themselves 'bronies'. Go figure!
Jan. 19th, 2016 03:05 am (UTC)
in my childhood experience, none of us kids read the marketing patter on the back of the boxes! We tore the dolls right out of the boxes and made up our own stories for them

That's definitely my experience, both with Barbie-type dolls and with action figures. The important thing about them was that they were shaped like grown-up people, as opposed to babies, and so could have adventures.

Huh. I wonder why the re-branding? Maybe it's just a recurring cycle, like with comic-book characters.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )


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