"Mickey, Nicky, and Barbie: Kinderculture in America"

The "Last Lecture" of Richard H. Robbins
Given November 1997, SUNY at Plattsburgh as part of Plattsburgh's Last Lecture Series (in which faculty were asked to give what they would like to be their "last lecture.")


When our newest Distinguished Teaching Professor Doug Skopp initiated the last lecture series last Fall, he mentioned what a daunting task it was to try to encapsulate a career in one lecture. He was right. Groping for a way to approach this evening, I did get a lot suggestions from friends. My mother told me to announce that this is my last lecture, and leave. My friend Ed Champage suggested that I just ask the last person to leave to turn off the lights, and walk out. Lary Shaffer, with whom I’ve spent many hours talking about the futility of the lecture as a teaching tool, recommended that I divide the audience into groups, and ask each group to come up with what they would say if it were their last lecture. Obviously, I haven’t done any of those... yet. Instead I decided to take a little more historical approach and research what others have done when they thought they might be giving their final public address. For example, I found lots of speakers devoting their farewells to talking about the life habits that contributed to their great longevity, but I decided that might be a little premature.

If, like Abraham Lincoln in 1861, I were leaving here to assume some momentous task, I might, as he did when he left Springfield for his inauguration, pay tribute to my friends and neighbors, speak of my sadness at leaving the colleagues, students, and friends with whom I had lived and worked with for a quarter century, and ask for their prayers and guidance; but since I am neither really going anywhere nor leaving to guide a nation through a troubled time, that approach would be more than a little presumptuous.

I would have liked to do a "what-I have-learned-from-my-dog" variety of farewell, pioneered here last Fall by Professor Skopp , but those of you who know my dog, Corky, know that that wouldn’t get us very far. Although I must admit, in fairness to Corky, that it was I who was the poor learner rather than he being the poor teacher.

Then there is the type of farewell address that I finally settled on, what we might call the "warning speech." Perhaps the most famous of those was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s, farewell address, Jan. 17,1961, when he said that

we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will exist.

Interestingly, Lincoln, shortly before his death, almost 100 years earlier voiced the same sentiment: "I see in the near future a crisis approaching" he said,

that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned. . . An era of corruption in high places will follow and the money power will endeavor to prolong its reign by working on the prejudices of the people... until wealth is aggregated in a few hands. .. and the Republic is destroyed.

Both Lincoln’s and Eisenhower’s words resonated for me for a number of reasons.

First, , I think their warnings were well placed, and that the concentration and potential abuse of great authority is one of the most chilling prospects we face.

Second, they are prevocative statements, and I think that if I had to define my teaching philosophy, it has always been to prevoke throught, and use an anthropological perspective to encourage people to better understand their own culture.

Third, any farewell speech has to be influenced by one’s current thinking, and so this represents to some extent my own current interests.

Finally, the theme of the misuse of power allows me to turn this, my last lecture, into something of an anthropological confession.

Culture as Enemy

My confession has to do with the subject that I have spent most of my life trying to explain, the subject of culture.

The idea of culture is central to anthropology, culture being, among other things, the symbols, objects, and meanings that allow people to turn the chaos of shifting impressions that constitute raw experience into a seemingly ordered and coherent universe.

What I want to confess to you is that culture has become our enemy.

That may seem a strange thing for an anthropologist to say; culture is, after all, our stock in trade, it is what anthropologists study, what we claim makes human beings unique, what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal world. It has permitted the birth of language, reason and the building of seemingly great civilizations.

But a case can be made, I believe, that it has become our greatest threat.

Let me explain.

In traditional, small-scale, and relatively isolated communities, there were those who were assigned the task of keeping culture--the elderly, the male and female family heads, the shamans, and priests. But virtually everyone was active in the maintenance of the culture, and given the opportunity to introduce innovative variations.

But in modern society, with its vast, global communications technology culture is no longer communally created and maintained; rather, it is created and maintained by those with the political and economic power to control how the world is represented and the mechanisms through which these representations reach us. This is an awesome power, for it truly is the power to influence, if not determine, the meanings we assign to our experiences. Never in the course of human history have so few been empowered to dictate how so many define the purpose of their existence and define the values that they live by.

Americans don’t talk much about power. One of the reasons, I suspect, is that power works in such a subtle and hard-to-define manner. Ask Americans how McDonald’s or Disney, or General Motors has shaped them or constructed their consciousness, and you’ll likely draw blank stares. What does it mean to argue that power involves the ability to ascribe meanings to various features of our lives?

Let me illustrate. In the 1960s Ray Kroc dedicated his organization to insuring that people associated his company, McDonald’s, with the American nation-state. In what up to that time was the most costly advertising campaign ever, he succeeded in making McDonald’s into an American icon , a place where the American flag was to fly 24 hours a day, decorated with an eagle with a banner in its beak proclaiming "McDonald’s: The American Way." Little effort or expense was spared to ensure that anyone thinking of McDonald’s would think of it as American. The association is so complete that protesters in Sweden and France have tried to block the opening of McDonald’s because it represents, to them, "creeping Americanism."

McDonald’s, of course, is not alone in the attempt to colonize our consciousness. Collectively, American businesses last year spend over one hundred billion dollars on advertising, most of it spent by large corporations. Walt Disney, for example, spent $1.3 billion last year to define its image and persuade us to purchase their products, while McDonald’s remains the number one advertiser in TV. American corporations employ 170,000 public-relations specialists engaged in manipulating news, public opinion, and public policy to serve the interests of paying clients. These public relations specialists now outnumber actual news reporters by about 40,000--and the gap is growing. A 1990 study found that almost 40% of the news content in a typical U.S. newspaper originates from public-relations press releases, story memos, and suggestions.

Others have certainly warned about how advertising and other forms of corporate persuasion influence our lives: Vance Packard’s classic work, The Hidden Persuaders, did that almost 50 years ago. But I don’t think we are yet aware of the extent to which these efforts and the power they represent define our entire culture, and consequently influence our behavior.

The Construction of Childhood

What I propose to do this evening is to illustrate how corporations control our culture by focusing on one aspect of it--what Shirley Steinberg and Joseph Kincheloe call kinderculture. My interest in kinderculture is in part dictated by the fact that I have a 5-year-old daughter, and arises in part from conversations I’ve had with my colleague in the history department, Vincent Carey, and our own concerns about the commercialization of childhood; growing up in Ireland, and seeing childhood in America from the perspective of another culture, he reinforced for me the fact that childhood in America is indeed, in sometimes frighening ways, unique.

One thing that anthropology teaches us is that childhood, much like the rest of our culture, is socially created. That is, childhood, and how it is defined, varies from society to society, and from era to era. Even childhood in America in the nineteenth century was very different from today. Prior to the nineteenth century the major role of children in the capitalist economy was as workers. There were few industries that did not employ children at some level, and there were few families whose children did not contribute economically in one way or another through either their farm or factory labor. This began to change dramatically in the twentieth century, largely because of the effort of business, with the cooperation of the government, to change children from laborers into consumers. This is not to say that there was no childhood culture. Children’s culture in America has always existed in playgrounds and schools; but this culture was produced by children and maintained through child to child contact. Today’s childhood culture is created by adults and maintained largely by television and the mass media, for the purpose of convincing children to consume.

The economic stakes in kinderculture are considerable, and so it should come as no surprise that children have become a main target of corporations; as one marketing specialist recently told the Wall Street Journal, "Even two-year olds are concerned about their brand of clothes, and by the age of six are full-out consumers." By 1990 children aged five to twelve annually spent $4.2 billion of their own money. They influence household spending to the tune of another $131 billion each year, of which $82 billion goes to food and drinks..

McDonald’s. along with Disney, Mattel, and others such as Saban Entertainment, who produce the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the number one rated children’s TV show, have created a kinderculture that is designed to produce consumers, and to separate them from any other institution that might challenge that goal. If you have a problem conceptualizing power, you only need to examine the extent to which kinderculture works to promote childhood hedonism, produce an ethic of pleasure, and separate children from parents, teachers, and other community members who would challenge their authority.

This kinderculture represents a cultural pedagogy, an educational curriculum ,taught largely outside the school on TV, in movies, newspapers, magazines, toys, advertisements, video games, books, sports, and so on. The curriculum of kinderculture has replaced traditional classroom lectures and seatwork with

dolls, "magic kingdoms, animated fantasies, interactive videos, virtual realities, kick-boxing TV heroes, spine-tingling horror books, and an entire array of entertainment forms produced ostensibly for adults but eagerly consumed by children.

Our most important teachers are already no longer in schools, and educational policy is no longer being constructed by elected officials." Instead, our educational curriculum is being crafted by corporate producers in the interests of generating consumption and accumulating profit; corporate America, as Shirley Steinberg and Joseph L. Kincheloe put it, has revolutionized childhood by creating a "consumption theology" that in effect promises redemption and happiness via the consumptive act (ritual).

The Curriculum of Kinderculture

If an anthropologist, unfamiliar with American culture, were to examine the way that kinderculture represents such things as the family, gender, and ethnicity, they would find some things that even they, aware of the variety of human cultures, might find bizarre. Let’s first take a look at the family curriculum in kinderculture

The Family Curriculum in Kinderculture

While anthropologists have described hundreds of varying family structures, none that I know of shares the dominant feature of the family in kinderculture--the irrelevancy of parents, in general, and the absence of mothers in particular. Think a moment of how the family is depicted in the latest major Disney releases, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. None of the major characters have mothers. Ariel has none, Belle has none, neither Aladdin nor Jasmine has one, Pocahontas has none, Quasemoto’s mother is killed by his protagonist and substitute father Frodo at the opening of the film, while Esmeralda, the gypsy dancer, I believe, has neither father nor mother. Interestingly this has long been a feature of Disney characters. In fact the only mothers I can recall in Disney films are the Elephant mother in Dumbo, the short-lived mother in Bambi, and the evil stepmothers in Snow White and Cinderella.

The Duck family is made up of Donald, his 3 nephews, his uncle Scrooge, Grandma Duck, who is Donald’s aunt (but not Scrooge’s wife) along with all kinds of cousins such as Gus and Moby Duck; even Daisy’s family consists of only nieces; Mickey also has only his nephews Morty and Ferdy, while Goofy has Gilbert and Gyro Geargoose has Newton; even the Beagle Boys have only uncles, aunts, and nephews (Beagle Brats whose female cousins Beagle Babes occasionally appear). Whether this absence of parenthood is a way to obliterate any suggestion of sexuality, as some have suggested, or whether it is an expression of Disney’s own unhappy relations with his parents, is difficult to judge. But since the same meanings about parents are present in other films, such as the Home Alone movies, in which a ten-year-old does quite well when his parents forget him, and in movies such as Halloween or Friday the 13th in which parents are irrelevant or hostile, it is safe to say that the absent mother is a common theme in kinderculture.

We might speculate that these representations are simply based on the reality of the American family today. But my own suspicion is that, intentionally or unintentionally, the goal is to create in children a sense of their own agency, that clearly isolates them from any parental authority, and suggests, to coin a term used by sociologist Robert Bellah, that "they have given birth to themselves."

The practical consequence of this family form, or lack of it, is anything but benign, for it suggests to children that they live in a world in which they must act alone, a world in which collective, or at least family, action is non-existent or futile. The result is to leave the corporation as the only benevolent agency capable of exerting collective power, and as the major benevolent force in the lives of children. Don’t worry children, Ronald McDonald, Mickey, and Barbie will always be there to fill your needs, as long as you can pay for them. They have suceeded in commodifying nurturance.

Gender in the Curriculum of Kinderculture: women as altruist shoppers

While women as mothers are largely absent in Kinderculture, women are not absent altogether. On the contrary, they play an important role as what might be termed "altruist shoppers," beings who subordinate their interests to that of men, whose otherwise major activity revolves around buying things. Disney films, especially over the past decade, are good examples of this. Ariel in The Little Mermaid trades her beautiful singing voice for a chance to pursue her handsome prince; while Ursala, the evil octopus, assures her that men don’t like women who talk anyway, a sentiment in which the prince clearly concurs since he bestows the kiss of true love on Ariel even though she has never spoken to him.

In Beauty and the Beast Belle first sacrifices herself for her father, then falls in the love with the Beast who she attempts to civilize by instructing him to eat, control his temper and dance; in the end she has become another woman whose life is valued for solving a man’s problems. In The Lion King the animal kingdom is clearly ruled by men, and even the evil Scar is served by unresisting lionesses as he assumes control, defeated only by the return of the grown-up Simba. The Pocahantas story, of course, was just made for the woman whose major role is to sacrifice herself for a man.

The altruistic consumer is further developed with Barbie, who, like Disney’s Ariel, Belle, Pocahontas, and Esmeralda, is the ultimate altruist, giving up something for the good of men or mankind. Barbie stories, in case you haven’t seen them, revolve around Barbie’s willingness to take in everyone and to sacrifice her own interests to theirs’.

It is clear, I believe, that the gender curriculum in kinderculture instructs little girls that it is more important to give up one’s goal than to disappoint anyone else. It is the place of the female in our society to sacrifice for the good of others. This, in itself, might, for some, be an appropriate goal, but only if boys were also instructed in the same value; however it is the boys or the men who always achieve the goals that they have set for themselves. Aladdin marries the princess and rules the kingdom, the Beast fulfills his goal of achieving his past glory, and Simba becomes king of the jungle.

Of course that is not all that girls do; the real power of Barbie is her power to consume. It is unlikely that any female in the audience, or any with a young daughter, has escaped unscathed from "Barbie buying," leading Shirley Steinberg to label Barbie "the bitch who has everything." Barbie has clothes galore, of course, and virtually every form of transportation-- cars, dune buggies, motorcycles, speed boats, yachts, and horses--and virtually every sort of pet, appliance, and beauty aide. Clearly the idea is to create a cultural inventory of what every young woman should possess.

The Collective Other in Kinderculture

Finally, while the family is devalued, and women are reduced to altruist consumers, adult groups do appear in kinderculture. The problem is that these groups generally take the form of evil "others," others who are often racially coded.

In the recent Disney films racial stereotyping is clear, for example in the opening song from Aladdin:

Oh I come from a land
From a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face
It’s barbaric, but hey its home

The racist element was clear to the writers of the lyrics; Howard Ashman, who wrote the title song, submitted an alternative verse when he delivered the original (Where it’s flat and immense/ And the heat is intense), and which replaced the original in the video release.

But the characters themselves clearly are stereotyped; as one representative of an Arab organization said,

All of the bad guys have beards and large bulbous noses, sinister eyes and heavy accents, and they’re wielding swords constantly. Aladdin doesn’t have a big nose; he has a small nose. He doesn’t have a beard or turban. He doesn’t have an accent. What makes him nice is they’ve given him this American character... I have a daughter who says she’s ashamed to call herself an Arab, and it’s because of things like this.

Worse yet, at least in my estimation, is the racial stereotyping in The Lion King, where the despicable hyena storm troopers speak with the voices of Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin in racially coded accents that have the nuances of Black and Latino youths. These films suggest to viewers that cultural differences that do not bear the imprint of white, middle-class ethnicity, are deviant, ignorant, inferior, and a collective threat to be overcome.

Particularly interesting is how Mattel, through Barbie, defines ethnicity. Those of you unfamiliar with the Barbie phenomenon that began in 1959, should know that Mattel’s contribution to ethnic and racial tolerance is a series of Barbies that represent different cultures. There is the Jamaican Barbie, Polynesian Barbie, Indian Barbie, Native American Barbie, and the German Barbie whose country is known for its "breathtaking beauty and hard-working people," as if south of the equator Barbies don’t work.

At first one might applaud Mattel’s efforts at increasing cultural awareness; yet, for me, the message is quite different. Mattel. like Disney, defines ethnicity as anything other than white. The multi-cultural Barbies are all defined by their foods, their "dances," and their language. Since Barbie is the norm from which others are defined, no regular Barbie ever talks about her culture’s favorite foods (hamburgers, french fries and milk shakes), the personality of "her" people, or their customs. In the words of one researcher,

Barbie has otherized dolls into dominant and marginal cultures. Barbie’s whiteness privileges her to not be questioned; she is the standard by which all others are measured.

In brief, then, I would suggest to you that kinderculture portrays a world in which goal oriented, white, Christian American men and their altruist female companions alone face the forces of ethnically-coded, evil others. It were as if the only forces remaining to protect them, the only remaining sanctuaries, are Disney World and McDonald’s.

The Masking of Reality

I mentioned earlier that our culture has become our enemy, partially because we have lost any semblance of control over it. But it is also our enemy in the sense that culture, not only portrays a particular world for us, but because culture also has the capability to mask from us other realities. One of the more ironic things about kinderculture is that it subtly hides from us the real state of childhood in the United States and the world.

Let me illustrate by going to another farewell speech, that of Ronald Reagan. Some of you may recall that in his final address from the White House in 1989, President Reagan called for Americans to adopt "an informed patriotism," to return to the basics of American history, and emphasize what it means to be an American. He suggested to the children in the audience that all great change in America begins at the dinner table, and that if their parents haven’t been teaching them what it is to be an American, to "nail em on it," adding that that would be the "American thing to do."

Yet only 50% of the children President Reagan was talking to lived with two parents and only 12% even lived with their two biological parents, let alone sit down to dinner with them. Furthermore, one in five of those children lived in poverty, one in four if they were under the age of five, seven out of ten if they happened to be Afro-American females.

American children likely had more than patriotism on their mind. Adolescent suicide was not even a category 30 to 40 years ago, yet by the 1980s was second to accidents in accounting for teen-age death. Today some 400,000 adolescents attempt suicide each year.

How many Americans are aware that the toys and clothing that they purchase for their children are made in sweatshop conditions, often by children, in countries such as Haiti, Thailand, Malaysia, and Guatemala. One reporter who visited a factory just outside of Bangkok where Barbies, stuffed Lion Kings and other Disney toys are made by 4,500 (mostly female) workers was greeted by women and children in a rally, carrying banners that said, "we are not slave labour!" These workers, earning .60 to .70 an hour were astonished to hear that there are 2 Barbies sold somewhere in the world every second, that than a billion pairs of shoes have been made for Barbie, many in Bangkok, and that Mattel makes from $3 to $4 billion a year.

Then there is the ultimate contrast of American 12 and 13-year-olds playing soccer with balls made in sweatshop conditions by 12 and 13-year-old children in Bangladesh.

How are these things kept from us, how are they masked?

This is where Nicky, St. Nicholas or Santa Claus comes in. Every culture has its myths, the stories that purport to explain how things came to be. Santa Claus, and his accompanying ritual of Christmas is perhaps the ultimate myth of kinderculture, one that idealizes consumption, production, and profit, and is a grossly simplified and idealized model of the American political economy. It depicts a world in which commodities (toys) are manufactured by happy elves, working in Santa’s workshop, and distributed, free of charge, to good boys and girls by a corpulent, grandfatherly male in fur-trimmed clothes. It is perhaps ironic that when political cartoonist Thomas Nast created in 1862 what has become the contemporary image of Santa Claus, he modeled Santa’s costume after the fur-trimmed clothes worn by the fabuously wealthy Astor family.

Nast also created Santa’s workshop, perhaps in nostalgic remembrance of pre-factory production. Writers as early as the 1870s recognized the irony of this idealized version of Christmas and toy production. One magazine editorial in 1873, commenting on a picture of Santa’s elves working gaily in their workshop, noted the reality of the situation: poor, immigrants, working six days a week in factories and not some magical workplace, turning out dolls, boats, tops, and toy soldiers. She added that "The cost of these toys is small; and yet there is a profit in them." William Waits in his recent book The Modern Christmas in America; A Cultural History of Gift-Giving suggests that Santa’s major role was to "decontaminate" Christmas gifts, removing the stigma of factory industry.

Conclusions: What can we do about it?

So my last warning and last message is that people need to retrieve childhood from the corporate giants, to take control of their own cultures. Yet many of you here are only just emerging from childhood yourselves? The question is: how can you do it?


What can you do as parents? Very little I suggest. As popular movies , such as Home Alone and Halloween, tell children, parents have become largely irrelevant. My five-year-old daughter Rebecca dotes on her collection of Barbie dolls, spends too many hours engrossed in the Disney channel, and anxiously awaits the arrival of Santa. Mind you, I don’t accept this passively. I am forever pointing out to her that Disney just wants her to buy stuff, and that nobody looks like Barbie and I have tried to convince her that terrible Sid, the little boy in Toy Story who tears the heads off his sister’s Barbie dolls and replaces them with the heads of dinosaurs and is depicted as the villain, is the real hero of the movie, but to little effect. She just says dismissively, "Oh Daddy".

Corporations, largely but not exclusively through TV and movies, have taken over the task of child-rearing, and have been allowed to do it partially because of a sense that what they do is trivial, that it only entertainment, and also because of the economic realities and necessity of the multi-worker household. With the absence of any meaningful national day care program, TV and its corporate sponsors have been handed the responsibility for daycare in America, much to the relief of many parents grateful for the free time they gain through the largesse of the Disney Channel, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Barbie, and Barney.


How about the schools? I suspect that they too are largely irrelevant in American kinderculture. Furthermore, corporations are even threatening to take over our schools themselves; McDonald’s, Disney, Mattel, along with score of others have targeted the public schools for child marketing; McDonald’s has its A’s for hamburgers program along with advertising-based learning packets for science, foreign language, and other subjects; McDonald’s and other fast-food firms have attempted to operate school cafeterias, and Disney is establishing a model school, while it promotes its "Teacher of the Year" awards. These and other corporations freely distribute promotional material to be used in classrooms, material that financially strapped schools are only to happy to accept. Privatization of our schools is, if the penchant to "downsize government" continues, will likely occur within the next decade, and along with it the emergence of dominant "education corporations," (Disney and McDonald’s will probably be in the forefront) that will parallel the development of megacorporate health management organizations.

Even the so-called charter school movement, groups of concerned people empowered by the federal government to begin their own schools, will likely be easy prey to the easy money of corporations only to anxious to begin building consumer loyalty at earlier and earlier ages.

Hold Corporations Responsible for What They Do

We could make more of an effort to hold corporations responsible for what they do. Certainly a possibility, but one for which I hold no great hope. Not that the potential is not there. As consumers, after all, we have, collectively, as much if not more power than the corporations. They depend on us. Yet I think that, as consumers, we are so disciplined by our possessions and convinced of the evils of collective action that any effective national consumer movement is unlikely.

Taking Back Our Culture

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict used to tell her students that "You can’t beat your culture." Anthropology, she said, by bringing to bear knowledge of other cultures, can help you gain a useful perspective on your own, but, to quote another anthropologist, Eleanor Leacock, "it is folly to think one can transcend it."

So, as I give my final lecture, I have had to think about what I would do next. And, if this truly was my last lecture, and if I no longer could help students better understand, if not change, their own culture, I think I would embark on a career to help people construct communities in which they would have a far greater say in creating and maintaining their culture, and help them discover ways in which to disengage from corporate worlds. There are certainly models for that; small scale movements of a few families; larger scale attempts to set up alternative communities, and even larger attempts to withdraw from the dominant culture, represented by groups such as the Nation of Islam. While we may be critical of some of the cultures that emerge from these attempts, I think we have to applaud them for illustrating that, with some effort, alternatives are possible. That is the true test of a democracy, particularly one that is threatened with destruction by a cultural takeover.

Again, we may not, individually, agree with the kinds of communities and cultures others create or maintain; that is inevitable. Some may be built on religious, social, or political principles that some find distasteful. But the only option, I believe, is to create a society of small, yet interlocking groups, each free to define the world as they see fit, yet open to those who choose to actively participate.

These are to some extent the sentiments of linguist and social activist, Noam Chomsky, so perhaps it would be appropriate for me to close my last lecture with a quote from his work. "The task for a modern industrial society," he said,

is to achieve what is now technically realizable, namely, a society which is really based on free voluntary participation of people who produce and create, live their lives freely within institutions they control, and with limited hierarchical structures, possibly none at all

Thank you for listening.


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