Anyone who was a child in the ’80s certainly remembers the fleet of shitty animated cartoons in the afternoons and Saturday mornings. This was around the time when the industry was deregulated and transformed (pun intended!) into a platform for advertising, targeting America’s youth as the great new frontier market. During the Reagan administration, legislation was passed which dramatically increased advertisers’ ability to market products to children, increasing the allotment of time per program in which they could run spots and include commercial content directly related to programming.
Before the industry was deregulated, advertising on children’s programs was limited to nine and-a-half minutes on weekends and twelve minutes per hour on weekdays. Since then, commercials have taken up as much as eleven minutes per hour on weekends, when viewing by children is heaviest, and up to fourteen minutes per hour on weekdays.
-Jeremy Gerard, New York Times
The Media Education Foundation has these facts to report:
In a nutshell: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had tried to ban all advertising aimed at children eight and under, but the toy and cereal industries fought back and eventually won, convincing Congress to pass the FTC Improvement Act of 1980.
The FTC Improvement Act actually did the opposite of banning advertising to kids: it mandated that the FTC would no longer have any authority whatsoever to regulate advertising and marketing to children, leaving marketers virtually free to target kids as they saw fit.
…One result of deregulation was that it became possible to create a television program for the sole purpose of selling a toy, essentially turning kid’s shows into program-length toy commercials. And sure enough, the year after deregulation, all ten of the best selling toys were based on media: Transformers, G.I. Joe, Carebears, Voltron, Mask, Cabbage Patch Kids, He-Man, Super Gobots, WWF Figures, and My Little Pony.
…Children now spend $40 billion dollars of their own money and influence another $700 billion in spending annually — roughly the equivalent of the combined economies of the world’s 115 poorest countries.
The shows were fucking terrible from an artistic standpoint, with serious continuity flaws and simply awful art and animation. Some of the associated toys were pretty bad too, but what the creators of these cartoons successfully provided was the relevant mythology around which children could structure their play.
A significant part of childhood cognitive development is participation in dramatic play (when kids act out scenarios with scale objects, such as a doll house or farm set, it is referred to as “miniature dramatic play”).
Dramatic play permits children to fit the reality of the world into their own interests and knowledge. One of the purest forms of symbolic thought available to young children, dramatic play contributes strongly to the intellectual development of children (Piaget, 1962). Symbolic play is a necessary part of a child’s language development (Edmonds, 1976).
–The Center, part of the College of Education and Human services at Western Illinois University
Recently, I got an urge to watch one of my favorites from the mid-’80s, a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy called “Jem,” later “Jem and the Holograms.” The show’s premise: Jerrica Benton, who had recently and suspiciously lost her father, inherits one half of Starlight Records and Starlight House, a home for foster girls. When Evil Record Executive Eric Raymond refuses to provide funding for the dilapidated Starlight House, while simultaneously presenting the obnoxious and sociopathic Misfits (sadly, no Danzig) as Starlight Records new flagship act, Jerrica is forced to take drastic action to preserve her family’s legacy (presumably Jerrica does not have access to a good entertainment lawyer). A pair of magical earrings are mysteriously delivered to her, which she soon finds are linked to a fabulous computer called Synergy, “designed to be the ultimate visual entertainment synthesizer.” Led to Synergy’s secret lair, housed in an abandoned drive-in movie theater, she and her friends find themselves outfitted with not only the magical hologram-generating supercomputer, but also glamorous fashions, musical instruments and a totally rad convertible roadster. Thus equipped, the friends form Jem and the Holograms, a pop group aimed to defeat the Misfits in a battle of the bands, which will win Jerrica total control of the record company as well as a feature film deal and a mansion.
The Holograms’ songs themselves were poorly written but well executed (Jem’s singing was performed by Britta Phillips, later of the band Luna and composer for The Squid and The Whale) — essentially music-video-style backdrops for fantastical montages of Jerrica and her boyfriend traveling over rainbows astride unicorns, etc. The show delivered exactly what it promised — all of the glamor, glitter, fashion and fame that any human mind could handle within 30 minutes.
“Jem” was a show and a line of Hasbro toys marketed towards girls, intended to edge in on the behemoth Barbie brand. However, the Jem dolls proved to be large and awkward, their clothes easily fitting onto the body of a Ken doll, transforming him into an ever-lovable drag queen (but certainly not the terrifying supreme she-male embodied by Barbie herself). Mattel simply offered it’s knock-off line, “Barbie and the Rockers,” and subsequent efforts to market a girls’ doll, such as merchandise spin-offs of Disney‘s pathetic princess heroines, were licensed to Mattel under the mighty fashion doll standard of Queen Barbie and her sundry, innocuously ethnic friends.
The children who grew up in the era of cartoon commercials are now evidencing a backlash, particularly in terms of feminine gender roles. Politically conscious feminist parents are rejecting the model of pink and sparkles and princesses altogether. In the various educational and toy retail fields in which I have found myself employed, I’ve wondered, sometimes aloud, why a parent would discourage a child from aspiring to be the leader of a nation (or merely fabulous).
Recently, I have been watching the Bill Moyers/Joseph Campbell series “The Power of Myth,” in which Campbell outlines the psychological symbology of the collective unconscious through storytelling. In certain episodes, Campbell speaks about coming-of-age myths in which the protagonist enacts adventures to the end of maturity and self-realization, as well as experiencing a sense of spiritual wonder that creates a sense of connectedness to society and the universe.
I was surprised to recognize, in the storyline of the “Jem” series as well as the standard princess tale in general, this myth of the transition into adulthooed. Read any familiar Grimm‘s fairy tale, such as “Cinderella,” “Snow White” and the like, and you will see similar content. A beautiful child falls from grace when she is suddenly bereft of parental guidance, often at the mercy of a hostile Id-like force (evil stepsisters, perhaps). In exile, the heroine takes on a typically mystical persona, often one in which she is secretly magical and glamourous, awaiting the opportunity in which she can be recognized as the proficient heir to a great kingdom. Often, the kingdom itself is the realm of magic and universal love, represented by a marriage and consecrated by humane acts such as the forgiveness of her former oppressors or benevolence towards the less fortunate. And that, my friends, is a fully-realized and mature adult.
This myth is not just a gender-specific coming-of-age tale, but one of a person realizing that their place in the world is bound to a sense of beauty grace and love. It is the magical, rock star aspect of a person, and our culture at its best encourages females to adorn the psychological environment with a sense of wonder and elemental power. The archaic use of the word glamor denotes magic and enchantment, and the urge to permeate the experience of maturity with these qualities is a noble urge indeed. This tale, told in the show “Jem” and in other forms via the Hasbro cartoon canon, was a story of this urge. Its appeal is therefore no mystery.
Perhaps the later realization that this story was told to us so we’d pester our parents to spend at Toys R Us put a sour taste in our mouths. The princess story was transformed into yet another tale of commodities, of a shrunken plastic body for sale, covered with rhinestones, yet not good enough to be Barbie. But if you believe this, you will believe that the major label’s current flagship act is the best music available, and Eric Raymond wins total control of Starlight Records forever.
You don’t have to buy the clunky man-doll and the mute plastic key-tar to believe in the power of sparkling, magical pop music and unicorn montages. You can still understand that it’s all just a hologram, an illusion. But every once in a while, if not often, we need someone to come along wearing a ton of rhinestones and glittery body paint, winning the day with their fabulousness and glamor and living happily ever after in the Starlight mansion.
That, for certain, is real. And truly, truly, truly outrageous.