Subversively Didactic

By Ashley

For my upgrade report I have been nose-deep in Perry Nodelman’s The Hidden Adult, as I try to figure out how to define children’s literature.  I am sure you have all been there, and perhaps are currently expressing a mixture of sympathetic looks and a few giggles of relief that it’s not you.

One thing I have decided on for sure in my quest is that children’s literature cannot help but be didactic.  In its very essence, it is an adult’s construction of what children should be exposed to, what they find funny, what they are interested in, etc.  Nodelman makes the point that even when children’s literature is supposed to be subversive, it remains conservative because of its nature – e.g., the use of classic plot structures or motifs (p.).

Enter Glee.  Maybe you have never heard of this American TV show aimed at teenagers, or you’ve only had it on in the background when you thought no one was home.  Basically, it’s about a show choir at a ‘typical’ American high school.  The members are all misfits looking for a place to fit in, and they find it in Glee Club.  There have been plenty of ‘taboos’ explored on this show.  In particular there is a celebration of homosexual and transgender lifestyles that is rare for American television.

I began as an avid fan of the show, but after being disappointed too many times by the needless dramatics between teenagers and the frequently flat plots, I gave up.  This summer in the lull of TV reruns I gave in and caught up on the Glee episodes I have missed.  Perhaps because of reading Nodelman, or because my mind has finally been taken over by children’s lit criticism, I suddenly realised that this show that wants so desperately to be innovative and subversive is actually incredibly didactic.  Sure, maybe the lessons are that it’s okay for two women to be together romantically and that having sex in high school is fine as long as you and your partner are ready – two decidedly ‘un-conservative’ positions – , but the way each episode is structured to teach this specific point to viewers – characters begin the episode disagreeing with a position, only to end the episode agreeing that this point, or at least acceptance of others in general, is right – is very conservative, or at least traditional.

I am not saying that Glee is right or wrong in its pronouncements.  I’m just noticing that nothing aimed towards children and young adults seems able to escape the didactic factor.  Not even one of the most groundbreaking, ‘subversive’ TV shows.

Bibliography
Nodelman, P. (2008). The hidden adult: Defining children’s literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Picture from: Glee’s Facebook page

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3 comments

  1. I respectfully disagree. This is what happens in our field because we have not adequately theorized the difference between literature as an art form and narrative works in general. No one would accuse Glee of being a work of art, I hope. It is clearly a commercial enterprise that panders to a certain agenda while teaching life lessons as a kind of bone to the moralists. It seems to want to eat its sensationalist cake and have its moralist smugness too. (Can you tell I'm not a fan?) Children's literature as an art form is extremely rare and precious. It authentically represents a child's (or young adult's) perspective (and as I argue, this means it must come from the artist's own childhood or adolescence, symbolically represented). Of course even the best works slip into didacticism at times, but the classics of our field are those that succeed more than they fail to represent a child's perspective on the adult world rather than vice versa. Pippi Longstocking, Harriet the Spy, and Huckleberry Finn are all breakthrough works in this respect. Most of what is didactic in these works is a critique of adults from a child's perspective. Similarly, the picture books of Maurice Sendak, Anthony Browne, and Raymond Briggs are celebrated as works of art precisely to the degree that they authentically represent a child's perspective. There may be didactic elements, but these are not what make these artists great.

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  2. Interesting that you should find these patterns in a show that isn't particularly targeted at young people. Increasingly, popular entertainment seems to have turned to patterns formerly most common in texts for young people–like, all those superhero movies with plots and patterns from the comic books of my youth. And while Glee has an audience of all ages, I believe, it differs from countless Disney channel shows focused on the antics of a group of crazy but loveable, albeit theoretically more geeky and less popular but actually astonishingly good-looking kids in a high school only in being more forthright about swears and a little more honest about sex; in recent years on the Family Channel, the Canadian TV arm of Disney, I've watched shows like The Latest Buzz, Winging It, What's Up Warthogs, Debra,and Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide that all exude a slightly absurd and supposedly comic aura of geeky niceness, along with lots of useful lessons–all much like Glee, but specifically intended for younger viewers. and meanwhile, even old geezers like me wear the jeans and T-shirts that used to be exclusively clothing for children. It's the childification of contemporary civilization. We don't have to worry about ever entering a second childhood because with any luck, we never have to leave the first one.
    And then, eventually, there will be nothing adult left to be hidden anywhere?
    Thanks for this interesting use of my book.

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