Alice's Academy

Senior Class: Graduating from Children's Literature to YA Television Series

The Panel - Elizabeth Parsons, Debra Dudek, and Elizabeth Bullen

At the Children's Literature Association's International Conference in 2006, I stepped into an intriguing panel titled "Transforming Class-Coded Identities: 'The O.C.,' 'Veronica Mars,' Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," primarily because of my own burgeoning interest in the WB's series, Veronica Mars. What I found was a carefully crafted, theoretically provocative, and socially engaged panel, one I immediately thought of for publication in this column. With their inclusion of non-adapted, original televisual texts, authors Parsons, Dudek, and Bullen had taken the idea of the children's and adolescent text to a new place for that conference. In this modification of that panel, with the replacement of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Twin Peaks, the thematic cohesion of these television series as adolescents' texts is outstanding. Enjoy!
Caroline Jones (editor, Alice's Academy)


The status of young adult (YA) fiction as a subgenre of children's literature research has long been troubled by the shades of adolescent-grey that graduate the black and white of childhood and adulthood. However, Caroline Hunt points out that since the 1960s, "YA literature has gone from having no acknowledged existence, to forming a generally recognized category" (7). At the same time, ideas about what scholars of literature should study have broadened to include popular as well as canonical texts, national literatures as well as English Literature, screen and multi-media as well as print texts. The theoretical and critical resources scholars use to interpret and to understand literature have also multiplied. In this special issue of "Alice's Academy", the contributors draw from sociology and anthropology in order to canvass the representation of class in three young adult television series: The OC, Veronica Mars, and an earlier, precursive manifestation of the genre, Twin Peaks. All three series foreground the experiences of adolescent protagonists and all have been consumed by adolescents with the alacrity that their ratings imply.

Although the study of televisual texts has been more the province of media and cultural studies than children's literature, we believe that the distinction between televisual and print media as valid objects of children's literature scholarship is becoming increasingly artificial. One the one hand, a televisual series constitutes a fictional narrative no less than children's and young adult print serials. On the other hand, and as Margaret Mackey points out in her article, "Serial Monogamy: Extended Fictions and the Television Revolution," they are no longer ephemeral. They are becoming widely available on DVD, and this is how we watched The OC, Veronica Mars, and Twin Peaks, if not in one sitting, in a number of uninterrupted sessions and without advertising.

Advertising, of course, punctuates the consumption of narrative aired on commercial television, marking it as an explicitly commercial medium. Some critics may consider this marker as a way of distinguishing televisual texts from YA literature proper. However, as Jack Zipes and others have pointed out, the very emergence of print culture was associated with the culture industries and, therefore, with capital. Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio, a classic of children's literature, was originally published in weekly installments in an Italian children's magazine. We do not anticipate the same longevity for the televisual texts we discuss in this Special Issue but, then, our interest in them is not with their literary merits or, indeed, with how their narrative conventions differ from print media. As John Fiske's book, Television Culture makes clear, televisual texts are ideologically-laden and bespeak the identity politics of gender, race, and class. They function as a technology of social reproduction no less, and perhaps more strongly, than print narratives. The papers in this Special Issue variously deal with this trio of identity categories, but its overarching theme is the representation of class.

While analysis of class in literature has tended to be informed by Marxist criticism, our focus is exclusively on Bourdieu's contemporary reconfiguration of capital. In our view, the demarcations between a lumpen proletariat and the factory owners are as limiting in their binary opposition as childhood and adulthood that young adult texts complicate. Distinctions within and between class locations and class identities has become complex and can no longer be understood simply in terms of the distribution of economic capital. Rather, as Bourdieu argues, cultural, social, and symbolic capitals inflect and alter the class hierarchy and the fields of power. The ability to accumulate these non-economic forms of capital is certainly influenced by economic capital and vice versa, but they are not commensurate. Our own status as academics is a case in point, since our cultural capital is likely to vastly outweigh our economic capital and, in certain social circles, the kudos of working in the academic domain outweighs the often larger financial remuneration gained from, say, selling real estate. Class identity and economic capital are no longer perfectly wedded in terms of constructing social positions as they were when Marx proposed his ideological shift.

That said, children's literature scholarship has skillfully employed Marxist analysis. Unsurprisingly, however, the application of the concepts has been most readily made to older narratives. Jack Zipes' work in fairytale analysis is a case in point. Zipes demonstrates the class disparity between the lower orders who created and circulated these traditionally oral narratives, and the upper-class fascination with recording and committing the stories to writing in the forms in which they exist today. Similarly, the content of the tales themselves often map a simplistic class mobility whereby the likes of Cinderella marry out of their financially abject circumstances in happily-ever-after closures. While these myths still hold in some of the current reality television productions that match-make ordinary girls with millionaires and attempt to unearth potential princesses, class is usually more subtly manifested in the real world, and this is typical of the television texts we consider. Behaviours, personal presentation, educational background, and social affiliations can locate individuals in ways that a simple delineation of financial haves and have-nots fails to acknowledge.

A further range of inflections and alterations to class status are a product of the multiracial constitution of many western world cultures. Race and class tend to intersect in multicultural societies, and the inequality that stems from both of these strands of identity politics reinforces social locations and spatial exclusions. In Bourdieu's theory, the various forms of capital that individuals embody and possess provide them with power. Australian anthropologist and public intellectual, Ghassan Hage, extends Bourdieu's concept of the "field of power" (The State Nobility) and reconceptualizes it as a "field of Whiteness." Hage calls attention to the ways in which the value of the various forms of capital, and therefore the exchange rate of power, fluctuates as a society's racial constitution transforms.

Class is also implicated in the construction and performance of gender identities. In Masculine Domination, Bourdieu explores the way in which the naturalization of masculine domination organizes the circulation of power and capital. In Formations of Class and Gender, Beverley Skeggs shows how Bourdieu's notions of distinction and embodied cultural capital are linked to respectability and sexual activity in ways that illuminate how class location influences readings of "good girl" and "bad girl" behaviour.

Given these interwoven logics of race, gender and class, clearly there is much territory to be covered if class is to be adequately analysed and interrogated in the television series we discuss. Our response to the complexity of addressing these interdependent dynamics has been to disaggregate the issues across our three papers. Elizabeth Bullen's lead article introduces Bourdieuian concepts of capital and examines their operations in The OC. She evaluates the forms of capital which assist the white male protagonist, Ryan Atwood, to move from underclass Chino into the affluent world of Newport Beach, Orange County. Her analysis is informed by a secondary discussion of underclass masculinities. Bullen's focused introduction to our research is counterbalanced by Debra Dudek's piece on Veronica Mars which does not reiterate the Bourdieusian concepts, but extends them into a discussion of race. She discusses whiteness as a form of capital in the explicitly multi-racial community of Neptune, where the storyline is set. Elizabeth Parsons' piece on Twin Peaks takes up the issue of gendered performances of class by looking at the adolescent sexuality that dominates the series. She reads the class coding associated with women as shaped by social connections that produce both upward and downward mobility as a function of sexual decision-making.

The three articles in this Special Issue are self-contained and can be read in isolation, but for readers interested in accessing multiple dimensions of class as played out through race and gender, we hope that the works will be read as a trio. While much of the Bourdieusian theory outlined in Bullen's article may be fruitfully pulled through Dudek's and Parsons' research, we also encourage readings that mix and match the three articles. By reading across the articles, we hope that new possibilities for comparative work across these and other televisual texts will emerge.

Our agenda, signalled in our choice of title for this introductory essay, entails graduating beyond the signature categories of children and literature into young adult and television, and beyond Marxist concepts of economic capital into Bourdieusian readings of alternative capital investment. In pursuing these expansive and expanding goals, we deliberately employ the gerundial form, graduating. Our gesture reflects Deleuze and Guattari's now iconic use of 'becoming' and proposes a similar invitation to resist categorical limitations. There is no need to graduate because the complex and shifting dynamics of the world ensure that until all capital is exhausted and history concludes, or until the cultural looking glass formed by textual production for the young shatters, there will be no end to this education.


Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power. Trans. Lauretta C. Clough. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1996.

Fiske, John. Television Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Hage, Ghassan. White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Sydney: Pluto Press, 1998.

Hunt, Caroline. "Young Adult Literature Evades the Theorists." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 21.1 (1996): 4–11.

Mackey, Margaret. "Serial Monogamy: Extended Fictions and the Television Revolution." Children's Literature in Education 37.2 (2006): 149–61.

Skeggs, Beverley. Formations of Class and Gender. London: Sage, 1997.

Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. New York: Methuen, 1979.

Volume 11, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2 January, 2007

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"Senior Class: Graduating from Children's Literature to YA Television Series"
© Caroline Jones, 2007.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680