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  • The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture
  • Steven Mintz
The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture. By Gary S. Cross ( New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 1 plus 259 pp. $30.00).

Few subjects agitate parents more intensely than the commercialization of childhood. Corporations spend more than $12 billion annually marketing to children and ten year olds spend $14 a week on themselves. Bombarded by about 20,000 commercials a year, and spending over 40 hours a week consuming various media, children's body image, their ideas about masculinity and femininity, their games, and, indeed, their very identity, seem to be colonized by a materialistic, brand-conscious commercial culture.

The Cute and the Cool is a provocative and persuasive history of the commercialization of childhood. Not a hand-wringing critique of manipulative advertising and corporate exploitation, the book instead traces three inter-connected historical processes. The first involves a shift in the function and marketing of children's amusements, from educational products sold to parents to fantasy products advertised directly to children. The second involves a shift in parental attitudes and behavior, away from a detached "developmentalist" ideal emphasizing preparation for adulthood to a more permissive and indulgent approach to childrearing. The third process involves children's ever-increasing impulse to assert their individuality and independence by rebelling against adult ideals of childish innocence.

Challenging those who blame the commercialization of childhood solely on corporate peddlers of "disrespect, violence, crude sexuality, materialism, and unchained desire" (16), who manipulate insecure parents and exploit impressionable children, Cross looks at adults and their contradictory behavior and values. Even as adults condemned commercialization, they attempted to compensate for the stresses, frustrations, and tedium of their working lives by transforming birthdays, Halloween, Christmas, and family vacations into celebrations of childhood. Like Colin Campbell, Cross shows how consumer capitalism exploits emotional needs and longings—including middle-class children's desire for adventure, power, and freedom—through various forms of consumption.

Among the book's most fascinating sections detail the shift from regimented, scientific childrearing to a more expressive and less controlling approach and the emergence of the "cute" child—sweet, spunky, mischievous, or coquettish—and how this image legitimated increased parental expenditure. Also intriguing is Cross's history of children's commercial culture, independent of their parents, from colorful trading cards to movie serials, radio programs, comic books, and television cartoons. Cross shows how successive genres—growing-up adventure stories, westerns, detective and crime thrillers, and science fiction—moved away from an emphasis on maturation to fantasies of freedom and escape.

Especially striking is Cross's discussion of the failed efforts to regulate children's commercial culture and media. Each innovation—from silent movies to pinball machines, comic books, and video games—aroused fears for children's innocence, but conservatives' devotion to the free market and liberals' rejection of censorship undercut efforts at effective regulation. Cross cogently discusses controversies over toy weapons, smoking. and advertising, junk food, and violent and sexist television programming directed to children. He makes the [End Page 765] telling point that the language of child protection offers one of the few ways our society has to restrict corporate behavior, even as it is invoked by moralists eager to impose their own ethical code on society as a whole.

The book is sure to provoke controversy, especially Cross's emphasis on a gradual, largely unidirectional process of change. My own sense is that the process has been more disjunctive, discontinuous, and contentious than he suggests, and that commercialization needs to be more tightly linked to such phenomena as the expansion of schooling, the influx of mothers into the wage labor force, and the triumph of deregulation. Largely a work about adult behavior and values, The Cute and the Cool points to the importance of looking at how children consume and manipulate commercial culture for their own purposes. A powerful critique of the commercial culture directed at kids—particularly its mockery of adulthood and promotion of highly unrealistic fantasies—the book is the most thoughtful and richly researched work we have on the history and societal implications of the commercialization...


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