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“Going Bonkers!” Children, Play, and Pee-Wee We’ve watched them gaping at the screen. They loll and slop and lounge about, and stare until their eyes pop out . . . they sit and stare and stare and sit until they’re hypnotized by it, until they’re absolutely drunk with all that shocking ghastly junk.1 —Roald Dahl Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a Dantesque vision of the faults and foibles of contemporary children, reserves special ire for the young television addict, Mike Teavee. When we first encounter Mike, he is so preoccupied with a television gunfight, “his eyes glued to the screen,” eighteen cap guns assembled at his side, that he refuses to be distracted even by the news that he is the recipient of one of the much coveted Golden Tickets: “Didn’t I tell you not to interrupt! This show’s an absolute Whiz-banger! It’s terrific! I watch it every day! I watch all of them every day, even the crummy ones, where there’s no shooting!” (p. 39). Once inside the mysterious chocolate factory, where the punishment always fits the crime, the sensation-crazed youngster receives his just deserts: he is “televised.” “A giant camera split[s him] up into millions of tiny little pieces which are so small that you can’t see them, and these little pieces are shot out into the sky by electricity” (p. 134). In order to be projected through the medium he loves, Mike must be transformed, atomized and shrunk to fit within the cramped confines of the television world. Meanwhile, the moralistic Oompa-Loompas sing of the dire consequences of excessive viewing: 7 159 It rots the senses in the head! It kills the imagination dead! It clogs and clutters up the mind! It makes the child so dull and blind he can no longer understand a fantasy, a fairyland! His brain becomes as soft as cheese! His powers of thinking rust and freeze! He cannot think-he only sees (p. 146) Dahl’s nightmarish parable about a youngster physically confined within the television set that has already captured his imagination merely exaggerates the hyperbolic claims activists and empirical researchers make about the negative “effects” of television viewing on children. Such accounts reject, from the outset, any notion that children might exercise selective viewing strategies or that they may bring their own agenda to bear on television rather than remaining passive consumers of its preset curriculum . Befitting their roles as academic apologists for the media reformers , these researchers ask questions that already presume that what is to be investigated is the impact television has on children, and not the impact that children’s viewing strategies might have on program-preferred meanings. Children are preconceived as victims, not users, of television , and their viewing habits are stripped of any social context, allowing the researchers, and the activists who feed upon their work, to rationalize their own efforts to exert greater control over children’s playtime. More recently, however, several scholars working within the AngloAmerican Cultural Studies tradition have sounded a welcome note of discord to the monotonous chorus of professional Oompa-Loompas. Robert Hodge and David Tripp insist that we should begin from the assumption that youngsters find the shows they watch somehow meaningful and that we should pay closer attention to the process by which these television meanings are negotiated between young viewers, texts, and contexts. Hodge and Tripp effectively reverse the logic of existing media research. No longer is Mike Teavee perceived as being transformed by his encounters with television; rather, Mike fragments television content and reshapes it to respond to his own cultural, social, cognitive, and emotional needs: Television sends out messages, which are interpreted and acted on by social agents responsible for their actions. . . . We need to know how tele160 | “Going Bonkers!” vision carries meanings; how different minds will interpret and use these meanings, particularly children’s growing and developing minds; and how such meanings are likely to be enacted in the real world of the child viewer.2 This essay represents my own provisional response, both as a concerned father and as a media scholar, to those central questions. I do so by examining the ways in which a particular group of five Madison kindergarteners made sense of and found pleasure in a specific Saturday morning show, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The nature of the meanings produced— and even, to some degree, the strategies for meaning production—are particular to the...


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