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What do we mean, when we say ‘children’s film’?

The term 'children's film' doesn't mean the same thing to everyone who uses it. Watch Sarah Olive explain some of the variations in meaning.
In this session, we are going to explore ‘children’s film’. That sounds quite a familiar and cozy term, doesn’t it? But as we’ve discovered in the previous sessions on picturebooks and comics, defining such genres is not totally straightforward. For starters, there are many synonyms for ‘film’ – we could perhaps call this session ‘children’s movies’ or ‘children’s cinema’ instead. Do some of these synonyms lead you to conjure up images of children sitting on rows of plush seats in front of a giant screen with buckets of popcorn? Do others suggest children literally making themselves at home in front of a TV, laptop or tablet screen?
Usages of these terms can differ between individuals and populations in ways that suggest an activity occurring in different places or spaces, physical or historical. For instance, studying in Australia, I would talk about going to see a film, my grandmother in Britain would have talked about a trip to the cinema instead. The adjective ‘children’s’ is more complicated yet. Early literature on children’s film largely considered cinematic adaptations of canonical works in children’s literature. But it soon came to embrace other films, including those ‘for a general audience containing some children’; those produced for and marketed towards children; those produced for children but enthusiastically adopted by a general audience; those with child characters and actors; and those about childhood.
On the whole, ‘children’s film’ is not yet used to mean films made by children. This is despite the fact that Internet 2.0 thrives on user-generated content such as YouTube videos. These include content made by children with access to smartphones and their (often pre-installed) video camera apps. And when we say ‘children’, precisely who are we talking about? Under twelves? Under 18s? Teenagers? Young adults? Enough already!

The term ‘children’s film’ doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone who uses it. Watch Sarah Olive explain some of the variations in meaning.

Not only does ‘children’s film’ not mean the same thing to different people. But there are plenty of synonymous or overlapping terms we could use to describe the same or similar phenomena:

  • movies
  • cinema
  • pictures
  • motion pictures
  • flicks
  • videos
  • DVDs
  • feature films

Can you add any more terms to the list? And would you use them interchangeably? Or do they connote slightly different things for you? Do some connote particular places or spaces, technologies, lengths of time spent viewing, or different types of viewing experiences (alone, social, at home, in public or commercial spaces).

We could do something similar with the word ‘children’:

  • kiddies
  • kids
  • youth
  • young people
  • young adults
  • adolescents
  • teen(agers)

And we could think about the way in which these words connote perhaps different ages, but also attitudes. Some seem quite serious, some a little dismissive or pejorative; some clinical, some affectionate. Try putting these different terms in front of the word ‘film’. If you saw them on a poster for an event or on a DVD cover, think about how you would feel for each of the different terms. Would you feel intrigued? bored? repelled?

Why do these different terms and their various nuances matter? Because language can be understood not just as reflecting our realities, societies and histories (though it does that – just think about some pretty obscure terms nowadays, obscure perhaps because they are tied to old technologies: ‘talkies’, ‘silver screen’, maybe even ‘videos’), but also as actively shaping our realities, societies and histories, none of which exist independently of language (verbal or non-verbal).

If you enjoy thinking about the way the vexed relationships between words and concepts; the way in which words take on new meanings, and these meanings reflect the political bent as well as the values of our past and present society; if you enjoy thinking about similarities and differences in the vocabulary we use even within a single language like English, you might enjoy the book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society written by the cultural critic, Raymond Williams.

Next up, a chance for you to think about what the term that we started with, and which we’ll use throughout this week’s work, ‘children’s film’, means to you in more detail.

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Pictures of Youth: An Introduction to Children’s Visual Culture

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