Susan Davis: My work for the last seven or eight years has been on the production of space. I started out with a strong interest in the question of public space in a world that is increasingly dominated by corporate culture. My book Spectacular Nature (1997) is about the Sea World nature theme park and it looks closely at how space is made safe and meaningful, but also infused with particular kinds of messages by Sea World’s corporate parent, the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch. Busch owns a chain of nine theme parks around the US and is a partner in several European ones, as well. Watching Busch market itself as a family-friendly recreation giant (a difficult and contradictory stance for a beer maker in the US, with our long history of temperance movements, and our astounding rates of deaths due to drunken driving) I have become very interested in spaces for children and families. One of the emphasises of my Sea World book is how this theme park uses nature and wildlife to market itself as a good place for families, actually an educational space, and I was looking very carefully at the different techniques that went into shaping this space as an appropriate learning space for children. There was also a strong class dimension to this, and I found that the theme park spoke to a largely white, very affluent audience, who had strong educational and mobility aspirations.
So, coming out of this, I have also become very interested in the theme parking of other kinds of spaces. Everybody knows well the work done on the redeveloped downtown, on regional shopping malls. This has been widely written about: the best work is by architectural historians and architects, like Margaret Crawford and Michael Sorkin, and also people in film studies, like Ann Firedberg, who is interested in the visual aspects of the shopping experience. But what I have been noticing is the specific role of multinational media corporations in re-shaping and re-styling spaces. I am thinking of a broad set of examples, Universal Studios CityWalk in Los Angeles, which is a simulated city space, places like the Viacom Stores and Disney Stores, which aim to sell brand as much as to sell merchandise, and the Disney redevelopment of 42nd St and Times Square, the ESPN bars and stores, but also pay-to enter playgrounds, arcades and adventure zones run by companies like Disney, Sega and Game Works. In these spaces, a broad spectrum of media content is infused into shopping spaces, neighbourhood spaces, places for children. Media producing and distributing conglomerates, like Dreamworks, Disney, Sega, Viacom, Universal, and MCA/Seagrams are interested in creating new kinds of places. Or, at least I see them as new kinds of places.
This is taking place particularly in Southern California. There’s an urban and suburban boom here, a speculative process of building new kinds of communities from scratch. As California’s economy seems to be taking off again, it is constructing very extensive new suburbs at a fantastic rate. This is a process that has a strong focus on children and families, and I think media companies come in here, in the words of Michael Eisner, Disney’s CEO, trying to ‘hook up the inside with the outside’. These new media-filled spaces are attempts to hook up the traditional site of media consumption, which is the home and the family, with the public world.
Ellen Seiter: I think that one of the things that was most compelling about your book was that it took apart in a very detailed way how Sea World got to be a place that is homogenous. You took the analysis far beyond simply saying, ‘The price of admission is so high that it creates a homogeneous environment.’ Sea World is part of a whole phenomenon of leisure targeting a specific segment of the upper middle classes which has money for vacations, and spends intensive amounts of money during these relatively brief vacation periods. For these affluent families, the sensibility is that expenditure on children is good and that places like Sea World maximise these magical moments of leisure time. What was so unusual about your book, however, was the way you went back into local history to show how the site of Sea World is geographically isolated, intentionally cut off from public transportation, and de facto segregated. The freeway is the only route to Sea World, although it is in the middle of San Diego. African-American kids in south east San Diego can’t get there. Your local research in the development of San Diego’s tourist economy in the 1950s and 60s demonstrated how class-and ethnically segregated spaces are made. Ticket prices are only one thing that cuts people out: zoning, transportation, and city-wide development decisions are another part of it.
SD: The process is continuing in stark ways in the building boom now underway. There is a vacancy rate of under 2% in San Diego at the moment, for example, which means that people are coming here faster than the houses can be built. These houses are being built nowhere close to an older core, even outside the edge city, and this means new commercial service areas have to be built. This landscape is going to be determining people’s experience for the next 75 years, unless we do things very differently. American suburbs are a pretty radical social experiment that arrays life before affluent people as a set of product choices. You choose your school, shopping centre, movie theatre, park and that is that. Everyone else pretty much fits themselves in as they can. This is what we perceive as and call community building.
ES: A recent report done by a policy institute that is sponsored by the local Labour council (The Centre for Policy Initiatives) that said that only 1% of people in San Diego take public transportation to work.
SD: Because it is impossible to do so. The real estate developers will not build, and will allow to be built, the transport infrastructure.
ES: When people move to the suburbs, they are making a set of consumer choices related to children. Some of what is supporting the wildly inflated prices in the real estate market is the idea of children’s safety. But the peculiarity is that we have this intensification of anxiety about the safety of affluent children who are already incredibly privileged and well off. These children have mothers to stay at home to take care of them, and their parents have bought homes in school districts where there is a quite homogeneous population.
The shooting at the school in Colorado is an example of this incredible escalation of fear about the safety of kids. And the news reports here emphasised the utter incredulity of affluent parents everywhere that white kids with lots of money in supposedly good schools were capable of this sort of violence. There is a shocking disregard for the children of working class parents in much of this discourse. At some level, I think there is a growing recognition that if you are really worried about the safety of children you need to keep them closely supervised by adults – not necessarily mothers but adults (teachers, day care workers, counsellors, coaches, therapists) who are paid a decent wage and committed to working with children. (And of course gun control is necessary, too.) The United States has consistently opted for consumer solutions to the problems of caring for children: we have the proliferation of consumer products aimed at entertaining and educating children, like Club Disney – more and more expensive ways to entertain kids on weekends and during summer.
SD: There is a funny and sad example of this which shows how thoroughly the commodified option for children has become the only option. Disneyland has a terrible problem every summer with parents who drop their kids off at Disneyland. Parents who can barely afford it buy their children annual passes to the theme park because it a lot cheaper than an expensive summer camp, which is the only other thing going. So there are these hordes of seven- to ten-year-olds going around
Disneyland unsupervised and of course this raises lots of safety and enforcement and supervision issues for the theme park management. They are making and trying to enforce rules that keep parents from dropping the kids off. This shows the paradox of appeal as a safe place, a family friendly place, against the complete lack of social support for parents and children in any other realm than the expensive commodity realm. It shows that the explosion of these family oriented, media-linked and saturated commodities are directly related to a couple of decades of vigorous privatisation and disinvestment. It is no accident that in Southern California our taxation policies have disinvested in recreational centres, and child care and day-care, not to mention day care and schools and universities, at the same time as middle class families have had both parents pushed into the workforce. Then you have the explosion of Club Disney, Discovery Zone, Kindercare – a corporate day care provider chain. All this commercial space for kids is directly subsidised by the fact that its potential competition, the public sphere, has been largely, purposefully destroyed. There is very little in the way of support for families, and it is even worse for working class families. I see these two things as directly related.
ES: There has been an amazing expansion of corporate culture into public schools – Pizza Hut offered at every public school in California for lunch. Every elementary school I know serves fast food from a major chain one day a week, and in the junior high schools all you have are Taco Bell, Pepsi, Pizza. The curriculum is full of corporate sponsorship, so that Barnes and Noble is going to sponsor your kids’ reading club, and MacDonald’s is going to sponsor your PE class, and the cable company is sponsoring your social studies lesson and wiring the school for ‘free’. This is a massive PR effort with approved forms of children’s culture.
SD: Isn’t it paradoxical that companies are creating these cultural spaces that are full of media – like Club Disney or Discovery Zone – at the same time when parents are really worried about how much media their kids are exposed to?
ES: In my research, I have been interested in parent’s oppositional readings of children’s media. Under what circumstances does a parent look at a cartoon or a movie or a video game media and say that this is wrong, this one steps over the line. What precisely are the range of grounds on which adults object to children’s culture? What makes parents say, ‘OK this one is wrong and off limits’? In some ways I think children’s media is one of the best places to talk about ideology because it is common in everyday conversation for adults to articulate their perceptions of ideological themes in the media. It is also very complexly interwoven with child-rearing practices, religion beliefs, gender roles, and class position. Some oppositional readings are now being catered to through niche markets. Affluent families are in many ways extremely invested in consumer goods and