Reviews 2018

Connecting Childhood and Old Age in Popular Media

Connecting Childhood and Old Age in Popular Media. Ed. Vanessa Joosen. U of Mississippi P. 246 pages. £62.50 (hardback).

Ageism, Vanessa Joosen declares, "is one of the most naturalized prejudices in Western society" (3). In everyday parlance, the term "ageism" refers to prejudices against the elderly, but as scholars of children’s literature are perfectly aware, prejudices against young people are no less profound. Parallels between childhood and old age are drawn so frequently that Joosen suggests that this has formed a root metaphor. Her compilation volume, Connecting Childhood and Old Age in Popular Media, examines the implications of this root metaphor in a genuinely international variety of media ranging from South Korean films, to Danish advertisements, classical children’s literature, fairy tales from Europe and Japan and more. Combined, the collection shows how "cultural traditions in viewing childhood and old age, while clearly distinct, are regularly blended" (Joosen 5). Common tropes include the infantilization of senescence and, conversely, the wisdom of childhood innocence. The elderly and children are often portrayed as allies, but may also be depicted in opposition; the elderly may prey upon the young and, in reverse, children may demand time and attention from elderly relatives since they are deemed to have no lives of their own. Whilst these general patterns may not immediately seem inspiring, the collection’s diversity allows for a celebration of nuanced understandings of how the specifics play out in fiction from around the world.

The collection comprises twelve chapters and a very thorough introduction to the field by Joosen. The authors come from a broad range of disciplines, anthropology, sociology, education, media studies, and literature studies. Many of the contributions combine more than one approach. They are arranged in clusters around similar types of material: 1. Classical children’s stories 2. Film 3. Television. Each cluster also contains media originating from at least three different countries on two or more continents. Although Joosen does not highlight this feature in her introduction, it is truly refreshing and contributes greatly to the overall value of the collection.

The cluster examining classical children’s literature through the lens of ageism reveals tensions that have largely been ignored. For instance, Ingrid Tomkowiak’s analysis of Spyri’s Heidi swiftly moves on from the frequently discussed child savage trope to expose the way in which Heidi ignores her own needs to serve her elders, and the pervasive sexism underlying this "happy" ending. Mayako Murai’s study begins by tracing the influence of Western fairy tales on Japanese stories and then examines more traditional Japanese fairytales, pointing out the lack of historical verisimilitude. Murai notes that although infanticide was a common practice among poor peasants until the nineteenth century, it did not enter the fairy tale. Whereas the abandonment of old people, which contradicts the Confucian principle of honouring one’s elders and was extremely rare has given rise to a whole swathe of stories. Helma van Lierop-Debrauwer continues the theme of premature death in senescence with an examination of the elderly’s right to self-determination including the right to die in two Dutch novels for children. As one of the few countries in the world to legalise physician-assisted suicide, the Netherlands provides a context for open debate on topics such as the knife-edged balance between the right to die and the duty to die, which more squeamish nations are not yet ready to even acknowledge. Sadly, van Lierop-Debrauwer shows that these novels confirm rather than challenge ageism: elderly lives lack value.

In her own chapter in the collection, Joosen examines the film and book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and notes that the act of raising the previously disempowered groups – children and the aged – comes at the expense of the currently empowered group: adults of working age. Drawing on Altmann, Joosen refers to this as the "seesaw effect" whereby the focus on the child’s friendship with an elderly person debases the generation in between. Nevertheless, she values the nuances, especially of the novel, but also the film, and argues that its difference from other texts examined in the collection primarily stem from the adult readership. The seesaw effect is also observed by Emily Murphy in her discussion of Taiwanese films. Murphy explains that Taiwan’s recent history has given rise to four generations: the Colonial generation, the Authoritarian generation, the Transition generation and the Democratic generation more disparagingly dubbed "the Strawberry generation" because they supposedly bruise easily (Murphy 109-10). As the term indicates, communication across the generations is often fraught due to a complex economic situation which has left young people with far higher qualifications than their predecessors, but without the ability to find work and thus become fully independent adults. The situation pits children against their parents, however, as Murphy notes, these tensions work in the favour of grandparent-grandchild bonding.

Sung-Ae Lee’s paper also investigates films from another country influenced by Confucian thinking: South Korea, where she claims the "living conditions of the elderly … are the worst in the developed world" and continues that 20-35% of elderly people are abused by their children or other relatives (Lee 129). Picking up on the theme of abandoning the elderly to die raised by Murai, Lee uses the Jige (A-frame) script to uncover resistance to neglect in recent films. The Jige script refers to a story in which a man, accompanied by his young son, carries his elderly parent into the mountains in order to abandon them to die. As the father and son prepare to leave, the son picks up the A-frame and says that he will need it when it is his time to abandon his father. In response, the father picks up the grandparent and all three generations walk down to mountain together. This script is evident in recent South Korean films, some more overtly than others, and is accompanied by a new variant in which the urban grandchild is forced into the care of the aging, rural grandparent. What these films share is a commitment to exposing the living conditions of the aged and a call to remember filial piety.

The cluster of chapters on television includes studies of The Simpsons, Mad Men and a number of Turkish TV shows. Unlike the American contexts in which the former two were produced, the Turkish population is very young: children under 14 comprise 25% of the total population. For the most part, however, it seems that portraying the elderly as weak, needy and whiny dominated in all three sets of media examined. However, when Turkish children and their grandparents were interviewed, they were far more open-minded than the media intended for their consumption. In the final chapter, Anna Sparrman also reports on an empirical study as she investigates responses to a Danish shoe company’s advertising images. Noting that both children and the elderly are deemed to be asexual, Sparrman sought to understand how 11-year-olds responded to images hinting at a sexual relationship between an elderly person and a young adult using the catch phrase "How to Afford the Whole Collection," the implication being that the young person would exchange sexual favours for money to buy shoes. The fifth graders were disgusted, not by the implied financial transaction, but by the idea of desire existing across a significant age span.

As a whole, the collection has much to offer, not only in terms of its development of our understanding of the connections between childhood and old age, but also in terms of developing our understanding of how thematic similarities play out in different media.

Lydia Kokkola
Luleå University of Technology, Sweden