This issue of the velvet light trap asked authors to contribute to the area of kids’ media by adding critical and historical inquiries into the media with which children engage: film, television, radio, toys, and games. Media producers and affiliated industries have always considered kids important consumers and viewers of mass media, but their interactions with these technologies also engender concerns based on the perceived vulnerabilities and experiential deficiencies of young people. How might content challenge, endanger, or diminish children’s developing cognitive, moral, and emotional faculties? Could commercial culture overtly influence children’s culture by transmitting messages into public and domestic spaces of consumption? Will media technologies shift the course of our cultures and economies by indoctrinating the next generation into a hypermediated world?
Such questions linger in the production, consumption, and wider discourses on kids’ media, where we can see adults struggling—sometimes against one another—to constrain or reform kids’ cultures by way of the media children see, hear, touch, and manipulate. These practices characterize the cultural significance of kids as an audience group—one with limited agency but far-reaching influence. Children have little access to the production of media and to political action that could change media policy. Most often, they must be spoken for, or work through intermediaries like parents, educators, policy makers, and media industry professionals. As a result, kids retain power as a large consumer group, but their activity in the production of their media remains restricted.
The authors in this issue offer critical insights into the field by interrogating the texts, histories, and ideologies at work in kids’ media. Their varied perspectives represent not only the diversity of kids’ media discourses but also the connecting themes that fascinate scholars in the field, including the construction of childhood by media professionals and industry stakeholders. Through case studies on toys, film genre, celebrity, and games and technology, this issue offers new perspectives and methodologies to a growing field of work on kids, their cultures, and the media they enjoy.
In our first article, “Girl Talk and Girl Tech: Computer Talking Dolls and the Sounds of Girls’ Play,” Reem Hilu seeks to broaden historical accounts of girls’ computer use by examining the concept of “embedded computing”—the incorporation of microchips and microprocessers into existing practices and technologies, such as interactive play with dolls. Analyzing the technological mechanisms behind Smarty Bear (1985), Baby Talk (1985), Julie (1987), and Jill (1987), along with design documents, promotional materials, popular and trade discourse, and media representations, Hilu argues that the development of computerized talking dolls in the 1980s reinforced and redirected the established, domestically oriented practices of girls’ play. Through their voice-recognition capabilities, these dolls discipline girls’ voices, but they do so by creating a “cybernetic relationship” in which voice becomes a tool of command. At the same time, [End Page 1] the tendency of these technologies to break down opens up opportunities for unruly play. Situating her discussion within the contexts of doll play, domestic computing, and technological mediation of the female voice, Hilu encourages a study of girls’ computer use that goes beyond their interactions with a screen.
“The Children’s Horror Film: Characterizing an ‘Impossible’ Subgenre,” written by Catherine Lester, highlights Hollywood films made for young audiences in the horror tradition, a traditionally adult-oriented genre known for its violent and disgust-inducing qualities. Through close textual analysis, Lester identifies the core elements that both align these films with the horror genre and make them accessible to children: the presence of monsters, the pleasure afforded by gore and violent content, and the reactions of “ordinary” people to the supernatural beings in their midst. Lester situates her argument within an array of genre theory on the horror film, empirical studies analyzing children’s reactions to media, and industrial research on the Motion Picture Association of America. The introduction of the MPAA’s less restrictive ratings, Lester argues, was largely responsible for creating a space for horror films with child-centric themes and child-appropriate transgressions and violence. Her nuanced analysis of these films’ narrative strategies also reveals that children’s horror films encourage a societal acceptance of their (misunderstood) monsters and...