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A (Subaltern) Space of Their Own: Public Space, Middle-Class Childhood, and Mass Media in Late Capitalism

Brunette, Tyler (2019) A (Subaltern) Space of Their Own: Public Space, Middle-Class Childhood, and Mass Media in Late Capitalism. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Throughout the 1980s and 1990s children in the United States, especially white and middle class children, lost independent access to many public spaces previously afforded to them. This reduction in children’s independent spatial mobility and encroachment by adults contradicts idealized images of a free-ranging childhood, which persist to this day. In this dissertation, I explore the ways mass media made for children responded to the changing spatial horizons of childhood in the 1980s and 1990s. Drawing from vintage television ads, ad industry trade papers, and popular press articles, I identify three popular fads in children’s mass media that developed during this restructuring of children’s independent spatial mobility: the development of children’s horror literature, the popularity of grotesque and disgusting toys, and depictions of children becoming animate slime. Each of these fads speaks to the anxieties of children regarding the encroachment they suffered throughout the 1980s and 1990s. By examining children’s horror literature as “equipment for living,” I argue that horror literature by R. L. Stine offered children a conservative message, encouraging them to not only accept their encroachment, but also erasing adult responsibility for said encroachment. With regard to the popularity of grotesque and disgusting toys, I argue advertisements for these toys positioned the toy’s play value, the perceived value of a toy while it is being played with by a child, as being able to repulse adults and turn the tables of encroachment. Commercial advertisements for grotesque and disgusting toys achieved this by drawing upon a shallow notion of the carnivalesque inversion of power. Finally, I argue the persistent imagining of children becoming animate slime, such as found in Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack, constituted a rhetorical vision of slime as an enhanced form of childhood. Ultimately, I conclude that fantasy of children becoming slime was ambiguous. While it identified the problem of encroachment, the only solution it offered children, becoming slime and oozing through the metaphorical grasp of their elders, was far from practical. Taken together, my analysis of these fads demonstrates the complex relationships between children, their guardians, media producers, advertisers, and public space.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Brunette, TylerTbb11@pitt.edutbb11
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairZboray, Ron
Committee MemberMalin, Brent
Committee MemberKuchinskaya, Olga
Committee MemberBickford, Tyler
Date: 26 September 2019
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 5 August 2019
Approval Date: 26 September 2019
Submission Date: 19 September 2019
Access Restriction: 5 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 5 years.
Number of Pages: 249
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Communication: Rhetoric and Communication
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Childhood, Media, Communication
Date Deposited: 26 Sep 2019 13:53
Last Modified: 26 Sep 2019 13:53


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