Image © Matthew Herring, 2017

Watching a lot of kid’s TV with my children, it struck me how clearly some kid’s TV shows, particularly American ones, illustrate Baudrillard’s idea of the hyperreal. British ones tend, if anything, towards the surreal. This probably shouldn’t be surprising: America is the land of the hyperreal, according to Baudrillard. But it struck me nonetheless, and I wanted to explore it a bit, looking at an entirely unscientific sample of shows that my kids have been into. Baudrillard’s idea is basically that cultural representations tend to drift further and further away from an original reference in the ‘real’ world; so far, in fact, as to engender skepticism as to the existence of a ‘real’ (unmediated) world at all. It’s as if reality has been Xerox copied so many times that any resemblance to the original is lost. In the hyperreal, signifiers refer to nothing at all; the chain of reference back to the real is broken and signs float free.

Rookmaaker writes about how artists in the nineteenth century, from Goya to Delacroix and Gauguin, depicted ‘dream’ worlds which, far from being divorced from the real world, enabled aspects of the real world which might remain hidden to be heightened and explored. The ‘dream’ is anchored to reality and reflects (on) it. The clearest example of this is satire – a twisted and grotesque world satirises (that is, tells the truth about) the real one. The surreal could be seen as an instance of this: surreal images gain their power from the way in which the fantastical elements are set off by the real. Pure fantasy lacks the unsettling power of the surreal; the link back to the real is vital.

Kids’ TV shows are hyperreal when they hash certain conventionalised elements together pick ‘n’ mix-style and when they negate important elements of the real world, particularly time and place. These elements include: the trope of the superhero; technological gadgetry and enhancements of the body (a variant on the superhero trope); vehicles which can go anywhere; speed; villains; and the ‘gang’, or defined group of protagonists. The way they are used robs them of any meaning or power. A given set of elements exist; in any given case others could have been selected and the resulting texture would be the same. The elements are analogous to sweets in that they are things which children crave but little care how they are combined.

The origins of each of these elements lie ultimately in the real world and in secondary ‘dream’ versions of it. In superhero comics, the element of the individual endowed (somehow or other) with superhuman abilities is added to a more-or-less realistic world. The power of the superhero resides in how he/she answers various needs and anxieties in the real world. 

Wild Kratts, which my children are extremely fond of at the moment, is a case in point. The show has the laudable aim of teaching children about wildlife and my children are testimony that it does achieve this. Each episode begins with a live action section which introduces a particular locale and its wildlife. The central, animated, section takes place in a hyperreal version of this place. The hyperreality starts with the trope of every-episode-a-different-setting. Places are on hand and available. The internet is the model of reality here: everything a click away and accorded an equal status in the network. Travel and the actual scale of the world are negated, as are geopolitical or historical differences.

The vehicle is the guarantor of this equal availability of places and at the same time the negation of place – it is always the same wherever it goes and its passengers are equally untouched by the places they visit. In Wild Kratts, this metaphor is pushed: the vehicle is a flying tortoise-inspired mothership called the Tortuga. The Tortuga insulates the Kratt gang from the realities of travelling, even though, oddly, its cockpit with control yoke recalls the B17, B24 and B29 bombers with which American won the Second World War. Memphis Belle is a ghost here: why does Jimmy have to fly the thing manually? Doesn’t it have an autopilot?

The other ghost here is Scooby Doo. The character Jimmy is based on Shaggy; the Tortuga is the camper van. Scooby Doo is a dream world; the laws of the real world operate here to a much higher degree than in Wild Kratts (indeed, rational explanations and the denial of the supernatural are central to Scooby Doo). Wild Kratts sucks its reality from this second-hand source and the laws that govern it are correspondingly weaker. Could such a thing as the Tortuga really fly? Even Thunderbird 4, from Thunderbirds, another canonical source, has some concessions to aerodynamics and real-world technology. The assumption that the Tortuga could fly is parasitical on the assumption that Thunderbird 4 could.

The next hyperreal element is the technologically enhanced human. This is a common trope, which also appears in Paw Patrol and PJ Masks. It again draws its life from secondary dream worlds and lacks vigour for it. In Wild Kratts, the Kratt brothers (the animated versions of the real-life brothers) can transform themselves into roboticised animals by inserting a specially programmed disc into their ‘creature suits’ and by touching the type of animal they want to turn into. They can even change size. Transformation into and from animals and human-animal hybrids have rich antecedents in myth and culture. The idea of touching an animal in order to become it and deriving powers from animals are strong ideas. However, here they are as banal as sending a selfie via a smart phone. They hold no mythic power precisely because any linkage back to the real world is severed; they emerge from the primal soup of kids’ cartoons.

In Blaze and the Monster Machines, speed is the main hyperreal element. Its distant ancestor is the excitability of real children. In Blaze it is cranked to the max and rocket powered. The excited child is converted into a car: children’s literature and television have always featured anthropomorphic animals and machines, but the boundary between animal and machine has tended to be respected except for the necessary elements of anthropomorphisation. Thomas the Tank Engine ‘eats’ coal, but Blaze can eat food and use his wheels and flexible axles as arms and hands. He can play with ‘real’ human friends, a blend of pet, machine and human. (A British cartoon, Chuggington also blurs the distinction between animal and machine with trains which can flex their ‘bodies’). The worlds of both Blaze and Chuggington resemble plastic toys rather than any real world (but without the acknowledgement that they are toys, as in Noddy). No time here for the meticulously detailed (and slow) world of Thomas the Tank Engine.

By contrast, the British animations Sarah and Duck, The Adventures of Abney and Teal and Peppa Pig are basically surreal. The world of Sarah and Duck contains buses that go underwater; an array of animate objects including cakes, umbrellas and shallots; bizarre dream sequences and a legion of mad characters. Abney and Teal concerns the denizens of an island in the centre of a lake in an urban park, which include a human girl, a cat, an animate turnip, a furry seal-like creature who drinks tea and blows bubbles, and a set of wooden seed-shaped creatures called the Pock-Pocks. Both are classic dream worlds and rooted deeply in the real world. They also draw deeply on the traditions of nonsense and surrealism within children’s literature and television.

Sarah’s world is that of the suburban child, with all the attendant quirks, obsessions and anxieties of childhood, but blown out of proportion and accentuated. Sarah is fascinated by sea cows; she has a friend who always holds a plate like a comfort blanket. Sarah and her friends carry out strange rituals, the surreal counterpart to childish conceits such as not stepping on cracks in the pavement. Her world is punctuated by inexplicable celebrations and events organised for obscure reasons by unseen adults (e.g. International Bread Day and an exhibition about the colour pink). Sarah’s world is both banal and bizarre at the same time; it is recognisably, however, a British suburb – a satire of the insularity, kitschiness and incongruousness of suburbs.

Abney and Teal also draws its charm and interest from the contrast between unlikeliness of its protagonists and events and the scrupulously plausible (and banal) setting. It also has a satirical element: how come the outside world pays no attention whatsoever to the strange creatures living in plain sight in an urban park? Only Toby Dog, himself the craziest of them all, interacts with the islanders from across the water. (He plays the same theme tune on his accordion to mark every significant event on the island. This tune is characterised by the narrator as special to each occasion but it is always exactly the same – just as the down-and-out dog never moves from this spot beneath a tree, even when it snows). The satire is on a rushed and indifferent world, which overlooks the marginal, the down-and-out and the quirky.

Peppa Pig also has a satiric vision. Here it is the petty hypocrisies and absurdities of family life that are acutely observed and gently ribbed. In addition, there is, again, the insularity of suburban living (each family house sits on its own individual childishly drawn hill – each its own castle) and the inexplicability and vacuousness of mediated cultural experiences (“Welcome to Duckland, enjoy the ducks!”) Surreal elements include Miss Rabbit who is omnipresent as the bus driver, supermarket assistant, ice cream seller, hot air balloon pilot, rescue helicopter pilot and occupier of almost any other job imaginable. Miss Rabbit is the gatekeeper to a world of interchangeable experiences and products.

American cartoons can achieve this degree of attentiveness to lived reality, but in the ones I can think of satire is the main intent. I’m think of The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park. Are these really children’s programmes? (Especially the latter). Here, however, the hyperreality of American is one thing to satirise. I’m not sure how watertight my division of American versus British kid’s programmes is, but I have a hunch it’s not entirely wrong…