Fred Rogers, Hayao Miyazaki and the Concept of Everybody Media

Common knowledge is that there are two types of media: children’s media and adult media. But I say there’s a third — everybody media — and more so, that this third should replace what we think of as “children’s media”.

When I say “adult media”, I’m not referring to pornography in this descriptor, but rather media that is aimed solely at adults. Most media is adult — shows like BoJack Horseman are blunt examinations of depression and drug use, or films like Frost/Nixon which most children would find dull and uninteresting. There as always been an element of the society that wants to “sanitize” media of the former sort, despite the fact that children are not typically going to attempt to consume media of this type. My favorite example of this is when then-Representative Gerald Ford attempted to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas for having an article published in the Evergreen Review; though Evergreen did publish nude photos (though clearly of an artistic bent), it was clearly what I think of as “Adult” media, in that not only were the photographs rather few and far between, but the bulk of the content was ultra-dense pages of text concerning political matters and literature; not something a child is going to seek out and be interested in. (More on the Evergreen Review and its publisher Grove Press can be found in the excellent documentary Obscene.)

In cases like this, adult media is typical self-censoring. There may be a hint of the taboo that may initially pique the interests of children, though that taboo often is not enough to keep the interest; remember the episode of The Simpsons where Bart is hypothetically caught reading a Playdude magazine, and his punishment is to read all the articles, including “Norman Mailer’s latest claptrap about his waning libido”. To bowdlerize adult media as to not damage child viewers is silly for precisely this reason.

What we typically think of as children’s media typically works the same way; often times, children are drawn to it, but adults are kept away from puerile themes and formulaic writing of different types, including perhaps the worst type, the type of writing that talks down to children. It’s pablum of the worst sort — the kind that doesn’t engage or educate, but babysits.

Not all of what we think of as “children’s media” is like that — though, how I see it, that is the hallmark of what is “everybody media”. A program like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, while aimed at children, is one of my favorite examples of everybody media. While Fred Rogers speaks with a slow cadence and mellow timbre, he never speaks DOWN to his audience. He may adjust his language to the bulk of his viewers, but he never censors concepts or ideas that may be “beyond” children. In his book Dear Mister Rogers, he explains the concept of “ambivalence” to a 3-year-old. In the case of Mister Rogers, there have been studies done revealing the elderly as a good portion of his audience as well — his demeanor and way is appealing to everyone, regardless of age. Sesame Street is likewise in this category; while older viewers may not need the refreshers on the alphabet, the humor keeps the show entertaining.

Educational programs are not the only examples of everybody media; one of the oldest and best-known examples is Rocky & Bullwinkle; the humor is sophisticated but silly, appealing to all age groups, along with references for young and old alike. (This ethos is something Sesame Street latched on to as well; I remember in one scene where Bob and Bert are discussing Bert’s new marching band — Bert’s the leader with a whistle. Bert demonstrates, and is praised by Bob; Bert explains he trained for years at Juilliard to be able to do that.)

The best thing about these programs — aside that they encourage the entire family to watch them together — is that children can find out more about their culture by asking questions. For example, given the Bert & Bob example, a child viewer might ask why the adult viewer chuckled at Bert’s response, and the adult can explain what Juilliard is. In this particular case, not only does it give the child a little bit of insight on that joke in particular, and potentially opens up a new punchline for the child’s humor toolbox, but, on a more subtle level informs the child that schools like Juilliard exist, and that music can be something of intense study and dedication.

Perhaps the best thing that can come out of converting “children’s media” to “everybody media” is that it would get rid of the children’s media ghetto that can result. I’ve seen lots of programs where the overarching message is that they don’t need to work hard because it’s just for kids — it’s an excuse to slide. Of course, the most successful “children’s” shows aren’t done for children; but, like the best in adult media, for the creators…. and since children create very few television shows themselves, these programs (programs like the excellent Chowder or Steven Universe) are Everybody shows by that definition; they’re created for adults (the creators themselves) and children to watch.

Finally, any mention of everybody media would be amiss without the grandfather of the genre, Hayao Miyazaki. His films are the best and films that everyone can enjoy and learn from. His films never feature clear antagonists; anyone who’s the “bad guy” has their own reasons that are honorable — they may just run counter to the protagonists, but are not merely “evil.” Some films, like My Neighbor Totoro, don’t even have antagonists at all — it’s just a beautiful story of a family. Miyazaki’s films belong in everyone’s collection, regardless of whether or not children have access to it. Anyone interested in what everybody media can be should view his work and learn from it. If we had more Miyazakis working in media, our media landscape, both everybody and adult medias would be a lot more engaging, emotionally and intellectually sound — and children would have a greater foundation of what media could and should be.

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Previously published on January 6, 2009.