Interpellation in children’s advertising

There are several ways this ad for Nickelodeon’s 2014 shows interpellates boys. I am analysing this ad in terms of how it interpellates a “typical” eight-year-old boy, as specified in the assignment instructions, with a focus on scenes from Haunted Hathaways and Thundermans. Dominant (hegemonic) norms overtly and covertly pressure individuals to identify within certain categories, based on a number of oppositional distinctions used to constitute power dynamics within societies (reductive binaries of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, age, class, political affiliation, religion, etc.). This is the essence of interpellation, within a hegemonic social order: it is a mechanism for enacting social order, and cements its goal by disguising itself as commonsense and naturalness.

Most obviously, the Nickelodeon ad features male characters; in particular, the scenes from Haunted Hathaways showcase several lines spoken by a prepubescent boy. Characters hail viewers who share some of their characteristics, such as age and gender, and who are therefore likely to recognize themselves in the characters. Portraying male characters automatically hails male viewers, giving viewers a cardboard cut-out of masculinity to identify with or to apply to others. “In the act of acknowledging that it is indeed he who is addressed, the individual thus recognizes his subjecthood. It is important to note that this subjecthood is double: although he is recognized as a social subject by the [ideology], he is also subjugated to the [ideology]” (Althusser para. in Nguyen). In short, by accepting and enacting cardboard cut-outs of identity, we not only perpetuate them, but implicitly endorse them on a philosophical and ethical level. The act of recognition is key to this process of interpellation; if we refuse to apply the interpellating ideology to ourselves, we potentially halt, or at least challenge, the process of interpellation. Whether or not a truly oppositional reading is achievable, in practical terms we can certainly denounce and critique the act of interpellation, and the ideology it offers us. In many cases, disrupting interpellation may be desirable – it’s often the first step in countering hegemonic norms, such as those presented in many ads.

One way interpellation can be disrupted, or at least reshaped, is if a non-normative subject participates in an interpellation process that society originally targeted to somebody else – a case of brand community taking over from brand strategy. As Foucault argued, labels subjugate through interpellation, but by recognizing non-normative identities, they can simultaneously pave the way to spaces of resistance and independent identity-formation (Nguyen). This is, perhaps, interpellation in reverse – a person enacting their subjecthood by ignoring the subjectivities society intends for them, instead choosing subjectivities that society has pre-packaged for others, or even reshaping these subjectivities into something society hasn’t imagined or is trying not to acknowledge. This reverse interpellation allows Althusser’s passive subject to become an active agent who can interpellate society, as is arguably the case in Foucualt’s example of the queer community changing diagnosis and marginalization into Pride. When the subaltern insists on speaking in a new language and forces society to acknowledge its voice, the society itself is hailed. This is an inversion of Althusser’s police officer hailing a pedestrian; we could perhaps think of it as the pedestrian giving the finger in response to the officer. With such problematization of interpellation in mind, I think it’s important to note that the male characters in the Nickelodeon ad could hail (or be reverse-interpellated by) viewers other than cis-boys. A transgendered or gender-neutral child might also identify with these characters. Any person across the gender spectrum might identify with characters of different genders in different ways, and to different degrees.

To return to the artefact at hand, using the word “boy” for the sake of brevity: The representation of the young-boy character in Haunted Hathaways interpellates young-boy viewers by aligning itself with other mainstream representations of young-male identity. The boy dresses, speaks, and acts according to conventional gender norms for 2010s North America, conforming to young boys’ probable expectations about their own and others’ gender roles, reinforcing the norms through this compliance, and (to a degree) eroding non-normative identification by presenting the norm as the only option. One instance of gender-construction in the ad is the association of fart jokes with masculinity. Interestingly, the female characters are to some extent included in this previously male-chauvinist discourse of physicality – the girl character in Haunted Hathaways doesn’t shy away from the grossness, but addresses it (0:08) and later engages in it (0:38). Flatulence, then, remains a conservative signifier of masculine identity, and normatively hails children identifying with male gender. This contrasts with the ad’s use of body humour as a provocative development in the representation of femininity. This could be an instance of reverse interpellation for some children identifying with female gender. For others, it might simply fail to interpellate them.

This normative rendering of masculinity stands in contrast to the Thundermans scene (0:30 – 0:35). Although the male character that the scene focuses on is an adult, and interpellation for children is therefore arguably weaker, young male viewers are still hailed by the gender category itself. Furthermore, we base our gender identity around adult role models as well as peers. Thus, the adult male character hails young boys based on the fact that this is who they may become as adult males (strong identification), as well as hailing them based on who they are at present – males, but not adults (weak identification). This character presents an interesting representation of masculinity. He is very heavy, contrary to most characters portrayed on live-action children’s shows, and what’s more, he appears to be sympathetically portrayed. (That is, notwithstanding the insulting “Blob” superhero persona – the term “blob” traditionally connoting a disgusting or unformed shapelessness. Perhaps this is mimetic reclamation of identity, a new rendering of obesity? If so, it is problematic.) To a degree, the ad challenges norms of body image simply by including a physically non-normative character. Furthermore, the older Thundermans character presents gender signifiers that are more complex than would have been typical even ten years ago. He is identifiable as a male character, owing to signifiers of appearance such as clothing and hairstyle, but other social signifiers like mannerisms and tone of voice do not conform to traditional norms for masculinity. His voice is high-pitched and his body doesn’t conform to the physical norms of masculine virility signified by extremely high muscle mass in combination with extremely low body fat. This character, then, hails male viewers, including young boys, with a non-normative version of masculinity.

These are only a few of the ways in which this ad hails one of its potential target markets; the complex layering of social semiotic messages makes the subject far too rich to analyse thoroughly in a 1,000 word blog post.

Sources Cited

Nickelodeon. “Saturday Night Ultimate Hangzone.” 2014. Web. 3 March 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lr69QqHNq9c>.

Cindy Nguyen. “Interpellation.” The Chicago School of Media Theory. University of Chicago. Web. 1 March 2015. <https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/interpellation/>.

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Multimodality and Communicating with Children

This was a “journal” assignment I completed for ENGL306F:  Semiotics (uWaterloo Fall 2012).

About a year ago I had a part time job as an assistant in an ECE classroom. One of the things I found most interesting about this job was the ways I was taught/learned to communicate.  Four- and five-year-olds often don’t see someone’s underlying motivations for their communication the way some adults do, so it was very important in that job that my speech, body-language, tone of voice, actions, and so forth were all communicating one unified message.  For example, if I were to tell a child, “I’ll read you that story in five minutes,” and then go on to other tasks without following through on that intention, that child would be disappointed.  When this happened, the children would often come back and remind me of their request and my promise, but a very shy child might feel uncomfortable raising the issue, and my slip of memory might thus result in a miscommunication.

Another example is that if a child with a very strong personality was exhibiting difficult behaviour, perhaps demonstrating that they heard an instruction, but refusing repeatedly to acknowledge or comply with the instruction, I might combine spatial/tactile communication along with my verbal communication.  This might mean squatting down to match the child’s eye level (I would often do this for routine communication as well), and if that didn’t have an effect, putting my hands on the child’s shoulders and asking them to look at me.  (I tried to be careful about demanding eye contact though, since uses of eye contact vary across cultures.  That was one thing I felt my supervisor could have been more mindful of in her communications with the kids.)  By contrast, if a child was sad I might use a tactile cue like a hug; if they were happy, I would smile and use tactile and verbal cues to communicate that I shared that happiness with them.

I would also make sure to speak a little more slowly and clearly than when speaking to an adult to give the children time to process my message.  Some of the children had advanced speaking skills and knowledge of English and didn’t need me to do this, but it seemed to help clarify my communication with many of the kids, especially if English wasn’t their first language.

At the school where I worked, I was taught to use certain words and phrases to help communicate a precise meaning that emphasized the children’s agency and the age-appropriate level of responsibility that accompanied it.  For example, instead of saying, “That’s bad,” or, “Don’t do that,” I was taught to say, “That is not ok,” or, “I don’t like the choice you are making.”  Altering my tone, facial expression, and body language helped make these statements gentler or sterner, as the context required (i.e. a child making a rude joke would probably get a gentler response from me, while one child hitting another would get a stern response).

As identified above, the main modalities I used in my communication with the children were wording, tone of voice, speed and clarity of speech, facial expression, body language, spatial cues, and tactile cues.