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Saturday Morning Television:
Endless Consumption and Transmedia Intertextuality in Muppets, Raisins, and the Lasagna Zone

At the ideological level, the goal [of cinema] is to reinforce the unified subject as an intermediate step in reproducing a certain social world. This is not the definitive work of television. Its function is more directly linked to consumption, which it promotes by shattering the imaginary possibility over and over, repeatedly reopening the gap of desire.
—Beverle Houston, "Viewing Television: The Metapsychology of Endless Consumption"

In a groundbreaking essay that distinguished how spectator positioning operates in American commercial television as opposed to mainstream narrative cinema, Beverle Houston explored psychoanalytic discourse on cinema and television theory, altering both models to create a new paradigm that addressed the complex relationship between these two modes of image production within the cultural field.[1] She was particularly drawn to films like King of Comedy, Poltergeist , and Videodrome , which present television as a dangerous medium and dramatize the competitive relationship between these mass media. For in the final analysis, movies and television have been pivotal in constructing or reinforcing two


very different conceptions of subjectivity: the unified subject, associated with modernism and cinema; and the decentered consumerist subject, associated with postmodernism and television.

In this chapter I wish to show how many of the concepts Houston articulated in her essay are explicitly addressed in Saturday morning television, as if it were teaching young viewers not only how to gain pleasure by pursuing consumerist desire, but also how to read the intertextual relations between television and cinema as compatible members of the same ever-expanding supersystem of mass entertainment.

Transmedia Intertextuality and the Child

The most casual glance at Saturday morning American network television yields many examples of transmedia intertextuality among television, movies, and toys. Even in the early days of radio and television, the purchase of a sponsor's product or a program-related premium (like the Captain Midnight decoder offered in 1942, or the Captain Video board game and Cisco Kid writing tablet offered in 1950) was frequently used to rate a show's popularity, but by the 1980s this intertextuality and its commodification had been greatly elaborated and intensified. The most extreme case was the so-called program-length commercial, half an hour of TV cartoons specifically designed to sell a new line of toys (increased sales of which sometimes brought profitable kickbacks to the stations that aired them).[2] Such shows were made possible by the deregulation of American broad-casting in the 1980s and, more specifically, the elimination by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) of its ban against product-based programs in 1984. In 1987, however, the courts ordered the FCC to investigate this phenomenon, an inquiry that the Children's Television Act of 1990 (passed


on October 18, 1990) required be concluded by March 1991 (that is, within 180 days after the act became law).[3]

The TV spinoff from a successful movie (and vice versa) is a more generally accepted form of tie-in, perhaps because the profit motive is less blatant, even though spinoffs frequently involve ancillary toys and crossovers into commercials. Recent examples can be found on all three major networks: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Dink, the Little Dinosaur" (from The Land Before Time ) on CBS, "The Karate Kid" on NBC, and "Beetlejuice," "Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters," and "The Wizard of Oz" on ABC. Although such intertextuality is not restricted to children's programming but pervades all of commercial television (as John Fiske and Mimi White have demonstrated most convincingly),[4] I believe that it probably has the greatest impact on young children. Even when young viewers do not recognize many of the specific allusions, they still gain an entrance into a system of reading narrative—that is, a means of structuring characters, genres, voices, and visual conventions into paradigms, as well as models for interpreting and generating new combinations. As Althusser has argued, while most subjects (both youngsters and adults) remain unaware of the ideological implications of their own schemata or the degree to which they have been shaped by their culture, this very lack of awareness helps to naturalize those cognitive categories, making it more difficult for the subject to see beyond them.[5]

Applebee claims that with each new story we assimilate we must accordingly alter, or accommodate, the schemata, genre, or category to which we assign it, an act that necessarily changes our "representations of experience." He argues that "we build the world through our accumulated record of experience, our systems of implications of previous activity" and that the "adequacy of these representations is a


crucial factor in determining our ability to function in that world," that is, "to understand and to some extent control what happens to us."[6]

While this cognitive process continues to operate in adults, early childhood is when the basic categories for the "construction of reality" and their organization into "hierarchic systems" are established. Piaget claims that the first major shift into an operational mode of thought occurs around age seven, and Applebee applies this perception specifically to the child's understanding of narrative.

As children become aware of their responses to a story, they begin to classify them into categories with clearly marked attributes. It is these categories which seem to be evaluated, rather than the specific details of the story itself. . . . The selection of attributes sometimes seems "analytic," focusing on parts of a work such as its "rhyme" or "rhythm," but these are used to define a class (of "works that have rhyme" . . .) rather than as a means of exploring the structure of a particular work. Other attributes which children select tend to be situational; content is treated literally rather than as embodying a point or message of a wider generality. Stories are enjoyed because they are about "cowboys" or "families" or "trains," not because they are about "how families work" or "problems of good and evil."[7]

Yet as Dore has shown in his analysis of Emily's presleep monologues in Narratives from the Crib , even in the speech acts of a two-year-old one can find the assimilation and development of "not only the components of grammar (phonology, syntax, and semantics) but also the process of genre (of thematic construction, of stylistic rendering, of discursive processes)."[8] Dore claims that using "the notion of speech genre as the largest manageable unit of linguistic functioning" will help us discover the "deep functions" of language.


Although he acknowledges that "genre performance is less fixed, less stable, and less computational than grammar," he states that it is more clearly socially determined and so more clearly reveals how children are "acquired" by language. "Our field needs at least a more deeply interactionist view of language development. . . . We need a theory of what happens between speakers and, especially, a theory of the interaction between how the child acquires language cognitively and how a society acquires the child functionally."[9]

This explanation is precisely what Dore hopes to achieve with his theory of speech genres and what I hope to achieve with the following analysis of genre and intertextuality in children's television programming. I believe that the extensive emphasis on genre and intertextuality in Saturday morning television helps to facilitate cognitive development, yet at the same time it associates this developmental progress with consumerism (a connection that the child retains in later life), thereby enabling our consumerist culture "to acquire the child functionally." As Susan Willis observes:

Children learn and want to be consumers at an ever earlier age. . . . Today, two- and three-year-olds request toys regularly. They know exactly what they want and the brand names as well. . . . It does not matter whether the child actually buys the toy or merely voices desire: "I want that!" In advanced consumer society, . . . we consume with our eyes, taking in commodities every time we push a grocery cart up and down the aisles in a supermarket, or watch TV, or drive down a logo-studded highway.[10]

As we saw in chapter 1, my son Victor's first recognition of Bill Cosby on a billboard already marked him as a two-year-old consumer; he has remained eager to buy Jell-O or any other product promoted by this familiar paternal celebrity, no matter whether Cosby appears in commercials, in his


"picture page" reading promos, in his own popular TV series, or in movies like Ghost Dad . Thus within patriarchal consumer culture, Cosby extends the "dialogues with the father," which Victor interactively reenvoices both at home and in the marketplace. The pervasive intertextuality in children's television also enables the shows to address viewers of different generations and to retain spectators as they mature, by offering new meanings and new cognitive pleasures, especially in reruns. This dynamic is seen explicitly on Nickelodeon, the so-called "children's network," particularly in their ads for syndicated "classics" like "Lassie," "Mister Ed," "Green Acres," and "Bewitched."

The dynamic is especially strong in the revival of "Looney Tunes," where intertextual allusions from Warner Brothers cartoons made in the thirties, forties, and fifties are recontextualized in the ever-expanding commercial intertextuality of the 1980s and 1990s. Writing about the original Warner Brothers cartoons, Martin Rubin has argued that "this tendency toward explicit intertextuality reached its most intense and overt form" in the late 1930s and early 1940s, which was "a transitional period for the WB cartoon—between the Fleischeresque amorphousness and secondhand Disneyisms of the early '30s . . . and the fully developed personality animation of the mid-'40s and after." Thus he claims that intertextuality helped to create distinctive "stars"—"the contemporary, streetwise personae of the WB characters," in contrast to the "eternal, mythologized comic archetypes" of Disney's Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Rubin acknowledges that most of the "topical references to popular songs, sayings, movies, plays, radio shows, books, magazines, celebrities, political figures, advertising slogans, etc." are no longer recognizable to spectators today, a fact that makes the cartoons more easily appropriable to the new consumerist context.[11] This appropriation has generated numerous new


products bearing the image of Road Runner, Coyote, and Bugs Bunny, which are designed to compete in toy stores and video shops with similar ware featuring not only Disney's Mickey and Donald, but also more contemporary stars like Muppet Babies, Roger Rabbit, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A similar case of cultural reinscription is found in "PeeWee's Playhouse," where the intertextual meanings of inset Fleischer cartoons from the 1930s are transformed by their new postmodernist context, blurring historical distinctions or at least making them seem insignificant.

This commodified multigenerational structure calls into question the rigid boundaries that John Fiske draws between intertextuality and direct allusions:

The theory of intertextuality proposes that any one text is necessarily read in relationship to others and that a range of textual knowledges is brought to bear upon it. These relationships do not take the form of specific allusions from one text to another and there is no need for readers to be familiar with specific or the same texts to read intertextually. Intertextuality exists rather in the space between texts.[12]

While I agree that the recognition of specific allusions is not an essential condition for all intertextual relations, to exclude it (as Fiske suggests) is unfortunate, for that would prevent us from seeing how intertextuality can function as a form of commodity formation. Within particular social and economic contexts, the recognition of specific allusions makes certain intertextual relations pay off—especially at the point of purchase.

Saturday morning television also undermines the distinction Fiske makes between horizontal forms of intertextuality (among primary texts) organized around genre or character,


on the one hand, and vertical intertextuality "between a primary text, such as a television program or series, and other texts of a different type that refer explicitly to it" (such as publicity, station ID's, journalistic articles, and criticism), on the other.[13] The conflation of these various forms of intertextuality into a single commercial system erases the boundaries between primary and secondary texts, enabling primary texts (such as television series and video games) to function as promotional material for other primary texts (such as movies and toys), and vice versa. It was precisely this kind of conflation that made possible the program-length commercial. Thus, the problem of decommodifying children's television cannot be addressed simply by limiting the amount of commercial time that broadcasters can sell or by demanding a crackdown on the program-length commercial—two of the regulations introduced by the Children's Television Act of 1990. Although well intentioned, these measures are merely "Band-Aid" solutions. As long as children's programming is firmly embedded in the larger intertextual structures of American commercial television, it will reproduce consumerist subjects. To supplement these legal measures, perhaps what is needed is an educational program in elementary and secondary schools on how to read media images interactively, a program that enables children to understand how meaning is constructed and encourages them to question and negotiate those readings that are privileged by the text and its corporate sponsors.

Saturday CBS Fun

Within specific shows designed for children, the intertextual relations among movies, television, and other media are complex. On four successive Saturdays (September 30, October 7, 14, 21, 1989) I taped CBS's morning programming—what


was then called "Saturday CBS Fun" (it was renamed "Kids' TV" in the fall 1990 season). On the West Coast and in the Midwest, this "strip" of children's television begins at 7:00 A.M. (on the East Coast it begins at 8:00 A.M.) and extends to 11:30 A.M., unless preempted by sports (see table 1). I decided to tape CBS rather than the other networks because that is the channel my son, Victor, usually watches on Saturday mornings.

What I found was a fairly consistent form of transmedia intertextuality, which positions young spectators (1) to recognize, distinguish, and combine different popular genres and their respective iconography that cut across movies, television, comic books, commercials, video games, and toys; (2) to observe the formal differences between television and its prior discourse of cinema, which it absorbs, parodies, and ultimately replaces as the dominant mode of image production; (3) to respond to and distinguish between the two basic modes of subject positioning associated respectively with television and cinema, being hailed in direct address by fictional characters or by offscreen voices, and being sutured into imaginary identification with a fictional character and fictional space, frequently through the structure of the gaze and through the classical editing conventions of shot/reverse shot;[14] and (4) to perceive both the dangers of obsolescence (as a potential threat to individuals, programs, genres, and media) and the values of compatibility with a larger system of intertextuality, within which formerly conflicting categories can be absorbed and restrictive boundaries erased.

I also found that in featuring animal (or other forms of nonhuman) protagonists, many of these programs dramatize subject formation, or what Althusser called "the extraordinary adventure which from birth to the liquidation of the Oedipal phase transforms a small animal conceived by a man and a woman into a small human child."[15] By encouraging


Table 1
Saturday Morning Network Programming

Fall Season, 1989 (West Coast schedule)






Dink the Dinosaur

Alf Tales

Scooby Do


Muppet Babies

Camp Candy

Gummi Bears



Captain N

Winnie the Pooh


PeeWee's Playhouse

Karate Kid

Real Ghostbusters


California Raisins




Garfield & Friends






Bugs & Tweety


Rude Dog & Dweebs

Saved by the Bell



Raggedy Ann & Andy




Fall Season, 1990 (West Coast schedule)







2 the Point

Young People's Special

Black Sheep Squadron




Krypton Factor


Popeye & Friends


Muppet Babies

Camp Candy

Winnie the Pooh

Zazoo U



Captain N & Super Mario Brothers 3

Wizard of Oz

Bobby's World





Tom & Jerry



Gravedale High


Attack of the Killer Tomatoes


Garfield & Friends*

Kid 'n' Play


Piggsburg Pigs



Chipmunks Go to the Movies

New Kids on the Block

Fun House


Bill & Ted's Adventures

Saved by the Bell

Bugs Bunny & Tweety Show

Captain Planet


PeeWee's Playhouse

The Guys Next Door





Saturday videos

Little Rosey

Soul Train

* On the East Coast and in the Midwest, "Garfield and Friends" precedes "TMNT". This order is reversed on the West Coast because the three-hour time difference frequently leads to more sports preemptions and the network wants to protect the higher-rated program.


young spectators to identify with nonhumans, these programs represent a form of masquerade that (consistent with Mary Ann Doane's theorization of female spectatorship) produces "a certain distance between oneself and one's image" and, in this case, a distance from the entire process of subject formation and gendering.[16] On Saturday morning television, this masquerade is facilitated by the choice of creatures whose gender is not immediately distinguishable to an untrained eye; the patriarchal act of naming thus blatantly constructs them as subjects by simultaneously individuating them from their species and designating their gender. In this way, young viewers learn that television and its advertising discourse are powerful agents of the gendering process and that during the vulnerable period when their own gender identification is being established, the most effective way for them to play an active role is by choosing their own clothes and toys.

Let me cite a concrete example. Victor used to enjoy playing with toy ponies at a friend's house—until he saw them featured in the "My Little Pony" commercials, where they were being fondled exclusively by little girls (in hyperfeminine clothes) who combed their colorful manes, as if they were equine Barbies. He thus learned that the gendering of toys is determined not by direct experience (that is, not by observing which children actually found them fun to play with), but by how they are represented in TV commercials and other marketing practices.

This gendering process also extends to inanimate toys—even to those once considered appropriate for both sexes. For example, a recent commercial for "Dream Builder" shows two little girls playing with a building set designed specifically for their gender, the implication being that all other similar toys are intended exclusively for boys. If the young female viewer already owns a set of building blocks,


then, it instantly becomes inappropriate and therefore obsolete. Thus, this advertiser makes the product more desirable to its target audience by commodifying the gendering process: by renaming the toy and dressing it up in a female masquerade that is just as hyperfeminine as the clothes worn by the little girls in the commercial. Since all of these toys are designed and promoted as objects of identification for the youngsters who consume them, it is apparent that these children are being constructed as commodified gendered subjects in precisely the same way.

Within the advertising discourse on Saturday morning television, this exaggerated emphasis on choosing "appropriately" gendered products is also associated with the movement toward adolescence, implying that consumerism is a form of growth. In many of these commercials young viewers are frequently positioned to identify with sliding signifiers who fluidly change age, size, voice, and form before their eyes and ears. As Susan Willis observes, "Young children anticipate adolescence both consciously and unconsciously . . . [and] in consumer society their anticipations are met more quickly and easily by commodities than by social institutions like family and schools. Commodities offer the young child a means to articulate his or her notions about the transition to adolescence."[17] Although several commercials show preteens consuming products (like Barbies, soft drinks, and cereals) that instantaneously transform them into adolescents, this process is perhaps most resonant in the campaign for milk (that wholesome product that "does a body good"), for there it blatantly appropriates, fetishizes, and commodifies a "natural" substance that is linked to the infant's original object of desire: the mother's body.


Appropriating Mother's Milk

As if illustrating the dynamics of Lacan's mirror stage, these ads for milk playfully dramatize "the deflection of the specular I into the social I." They feature a growing child who is painfully aware of what Lacan would call physical "insufficiencies" and who is anticipating a magical transformation into the "Ideal-I" that he or she first saw in the mirror. Moreover, the "misrecognition" of this idealized image "appears to him [or her] above all in a contrasting size . . . that fixes it."[18]

In at least two commercials in this series a young boy stands in a mirror relation to another figure who embodies his present and future object of desire (the mature female he would like to possess, the mature male he would like to rival and replace). As he gulps down his milk, the boy is magically transformed into the idealized imaginary signifier that someone else imagines he must become if he is ever to fulfill those desires—that is, the mature, muscular signifier of phallic power. Thus, in an act of ventriloquism, the sponsor and the medium (the absent enunciators) (1) speak to him as the future commodified subject they are helping him become, (2) design and groom his imaginary signifier and that of his object of desire, (3) transmit to him the culture's assumptions about what is "good" for his body (not only protean protein, but also heterosexual coupling and the reproduction of the nuclear family), and (4) position these transformative images within an oedipal miniplot that is driven by desire (that is, the young boy's desire to grow up as quickly as possible so he can become the phallus that the desirable older female desires). As Lacan puts it, "If the desire of the Mother is the phallus, the child wishes to be the phallus in order to satisfy that desire."[19]

In these commercial narratives that flaunt their powers of


gendering, milk is naturalized as a fetishistic substitute for the primary signifier of desire—in other words, for the father's phallic power, which (in patriarchal culture and Lacanian theory) arrogantly replaces the mother's body as the original object of desire. Thus, milk curiously comes to stand for the phallus rather than the breast ("the tube of plenty" rather than "the boob tube"), and the television medium is revealed as the perfect replacement for the Lacanian mirror. For, as Beverle Houston reminds us, while television's endless flow of text suggests the flow of milk from the mother's body, its representational practices and "magical enunciation—at once diffuse, sourceless, but directly demanding"—partly substitute for the Name-of-the-Father.[20]

Eating Fellini

These patterns of transmedia intertextuality and commodified masquerade are clearly demonstrated on two CBS shows (which were broadcast back to back on Saturday morning, October 14): "The California Raisins" and "Garfield and Friends." Amazingly, both shows included a cartoon character who not only parodied Federico Fellini as the symbol of film culture on the wane, but also boasted a name that evoked a desirable edible (Rasperini and Fettucini). In both instances, too, the nonhuman protagonists were at first highly respectful of this auteur, yet ultimately sought to assimilate him and his cinematic model into their own brand of stardom, demonstrating the superior versatility and consumptive power of both themselves and their medium, TV animation.

In the segment of "Garfield and Friends," the lasagnaloving feline is "discovered" by an egomaniacal Italian film director named Federico Fettucini (to the accompaniment of


music from the soundtrack of 8 1/2 ). Garfield is cast (and dressed) not in the starring role that he imagines (in a fantasy sequence evocative of the auteurist imaginary that is the source of creativity in 8 1/2 ), but in the anonymous role of stunt double, which enables him to assume multiple identities yet undermines the pride he takes in his own uniqueness. To get revenge, Garfield changes the script and usurps the role of director, recasting himself as auteur. This resolution demonstrates that in television the magnetic aura belongs not to the writer or director, whose name is rarely known, but to a character like Garfield (or Bill Cosby), who functions as a commercial nexus around which a whole array of products can be marketed.

Such commercial systems of intertextuality are easily extended outside the home to urban space, where stuffed Garfields and other animal icons cling to car windows and where birthday parties are increasingly designed around a popular media personality like Garfield, whose image is reproduced in the celebrity guest, birthday cake, party favors, and loot bags. These birthdays can later be read diachronically (particularly when documented on home video), both in terms of the child's developmental chain of transformative masquerades and as a minihistory of pop culture. These systems have also appropriated an ever-proliferating stream of banal products like lunch boxes, which were recently featured in a television exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., tracing the fickle rise and fall of popular TV stars and genres (from western hero Wild Bill Hickcock in 1955 to sci-fi ThunderCats in 1986) while demonstrating some stability in rapidly changing social formations like the family, school, and consumption. According to Standard and Poor's Industry Survey of toys for 1989:


The most successful marketing strategy during the 1980s was the use of storylines and animated television programs to promote new products, which increased consumers' brand awareness. . . . Companies have also succeeded in boosting both brand awareness and sales by licensing their products' logos and likenesses, which now appear on everything from briefs to lunchboxes. Product proliferation has also helped. By offering a broad line of related products and accessories, as opposed to only a few toys based on a product concept, companies have also been able to increase the sales of popular toys by encouraging what the industry calls "collectability."[21]

In the "California Raisins" episode, an Italian producer-director named Federico Rasperini (who mimics other Italian filmmakers besides Fellini, such as Sergio Leone and Carlo Ponti) wants to direct a rock video starring the Raisins (who, incidentally, rose to TV stardom from commercials), but he does not know how to work in this new medium. Feeling sorry for him because he has invested his own money in the project and because they (erroneously) assume he is broke, the good-hearted Raisins accept his offer. Although they all agree on the Motown classic "Stop, in the Name of Love," Rasperini (in his quest for an ever more lavish cinematic spectacle) keeps changing the genre (from western, to swashbuckler, to circus show, to horror film, and so forth), and consequently the mise-en-scène and costumes keep changing as well. Their video is also sabotaged by the Raisins' rival, Lick Broccoli, a British heavy-metal singer who wants to replace them as star and change the style of the music. As a result, Rasperini's video is not ready for the premiere. The Raisins come to his rescue, deciding to let their "live" performance (in direct address) control the clip and to incorporate the previous filmed versions as inserts,


thus utilizing the visual modulation, fast editing, and pastiche structure characteristic of the music video genre. This solution also realizes one of the dreams of that ultimate postmodernist filmmaker, Raul Ruiz: "You can have many films inside of one. It's one of my dreams to make a film that begins in the time of Ivanhoe and would end as a western. The story would not change, the actors would not change. Only the film would change. That would be fantastic."[22]

This program trains junior spectators how to distinguish, combine, and consume different genres in both media, for as Fiske insists, "Genre is a means of constructing both the audience and the reading subject."[23] Dore perceptively observes, "The learning of genre requires more repetitions and routine productions, indeed even ritualizations, of varieties of talk in context than does grammatical thinking,"[24] and this is precisely what this episode of "The California Raisins" provides. But beyond this cognitive function, the program also leads kiddie spectators to prefer video (with its live broadcasting, direct address, instantaneous electronic editing, and heavy reliance on computer animation) over film. It suggests historical reasons why international auteurs like Fellini have chosen to direct music videos and why they were not entirely successful. It presents a discourse on ethnicity, linking Italians with European elitist high modernism and black Americans with postmodernist pop culture. As Fiske argues:

Highbrow, elitist works of art are typically valued for their unique qualities. . . . Understanding works of art generically, however, locates their value in what they have in common, for their shared conventions form links not only with other texts in the genre, but also between text and audiences, text and producers, and producers and audiences. Generic conventions are so important in television because they are a prime way of both understand-


ing and constructing this triangular relationship between producer, text, and audience.[25]

An Intertextual Reading of Three Empirical Studies

Although one might predict that the appearance of a Fellinilike figure on two successive shows would increase a child's recall of these narratives, Perry Thorndyke claims precisely the opposite in a 1977 study on the comprehension and memory of narrative discourse: "For successively presented stories, . . . repeating story structure across two passages produced facilitation in recall of the second passage, while repeating story content [e.g., the same character in a different set of actions] produced proactive interference."[26] Since Thorndyke's experiment was selectively designed to measure the recall of structure apart from content, he considers the reduction in plot recall an "interference." Yet his own findings imply that the conflict between similarities and differences in structure and content leads the subject to a more complex restructuring, which I would read not as interference, but as what Piaget calls "conservation." Thorndyke acknowledges: "When these same characters were engaged in a different set of actions and relationships in the second story, a new hierarchy encoding the relationships had to be constructed in memory."[27] I believe that it is precisely this restructuring of hierarchies of relations and categories (or, in Piaget's terms, "reequilibrations") that serves as a cognitive basis for genres and is fostered by intertextuality.

Another empirical study of children's recall of narrative structure, by Jean M. Mandler and Nancy S. Johnson, challenges Piaget's assumption that errors in remembering the temporal sequence of events "were due to a failure to comprehend chronological, causal and distinctive relations"; instead, these researchers argue that more attention must be


given to the structure of the specific stories (which might include not only narrative structure, which is the focus of their own study, but also the mode of image production and intertextual relations with other stories). They acknowledge:

There is considerable anecdotal evidence that young children often adequately recall stories and plots of television cartoons. . . . The uncertain evidence in this area of study suggests again that the structure of the materials being used must be carefully examined before we can reach a sound conclusion about children's reproduction of temporal and causal sequences.[28]

The heavy reliance on intertextuality in Saturday morning TV cartoons, I would argue, helps to facilitate not only the comprehension and recall of stories, but also the development of more complex schemata of what stories are like, with their highly complex patchwork of similarities and differences in plots, characters, iconography, mise-en-scène, and modes of image production.

One of the most fascinating empirical studies of children's responses to television narratives was conducted by Patricia Marks Greenfield and her associates, who tested 110 first-and second-graders on their ability to generate "creative" narratives after having been exposed to toy-based television cartoons and/or program-related toys. The children were randomly divided into three groups: an experimental group that was exposed to the TV/toy tie-ins and two control groups that were not. In a pretest, the subjects were asked to tell a story using one of two sets of toys: "program-related" Smurfs or "neutral" Trolls. Then they participated in either watching a "toy-based" Smurf cartoon on TV or playing a "neutral" game of connect-the-dots. Finally, they were asked to tell another posttest story (using either Smurf toys or Trolls), which was analyzed for "transcendent imagination"


(that is, "the number of imaginary items supplied by the child, as opposed to what was already supplied in a given stimulus situation").[29]

The investigators hypothesized that "product-based television and related toy products would stimulate the earlier, more imitative and context-dependent forms of imagination, while inhibiting the more creative and independent forms that develop later." Their findings demonstrated that "it is clearly the combination of product-based television and thematically-related toys that is most inhibiting to creative imaginations." When the two influences were examined independently, they found that, "overall, TV, both with and without program-related toys, stimulated imitative imagination, while inhibiting creative imagination."[30]

These interpretations of the data are somewhat compromised by the definition of "transcendent imagination" on which they are based. The investigators argue that "imitative imagination," which they define as the child's ability (usually appearing at the end of the second year of life) to "mentally recreate an entity or action from a preceding situation," is the "earliest manifestation of imagination" in Piaget's scheme of representational development; therefore, they claim, it can be used as a foil to the true, more mature "transcendent imagination," where the child supplies new imaginary items. Although presented as a universal definition of creativity, "transcendent imagination" is actually based on a historical notion associated with romanticism and high modernism, a notion that was not widely held either during the Enlightenment, which preceded these periods, or during our own postmodernist era, which followed. For example, during the eighteenth century, when parodic adaptations of classical works were considered highly creative, one finds the British poet Alexander Pope defining "true wit" in "An Essay on Criticism" (1711) as "what oft was thought, but ne'er


so well expressed"; and the brilliant satirist Jonathan Swift in The Battle of the Books (1704) lavishly praising the nobility of writers (like Pope and himself) who draw wisdom and beauty from ancient authors the way the bee draws pollen from the flowers, but harshly condemning moderns who pride themselves for originality, like the arrogant spider spinning from his own "Excrement and Venom" and "producing nothing . . . but Flybane and a Cobweb." Greenfield's definition of "transcendent imagination" is equally incongruous in our own postmodernist period, where hybridization, simulacra, and what Fredric Jameson calls "pastiche" are dominant creative modes.[31] Even Vygotsky argues for the importance of imitation, which enables children to "go well beyond the limits of their own capabilities" and thereby functions as a crucial link between learning and development.[32] A child's reworking of material from mass media can be seen as a form of parody (in the eighteenth-century sense), or as a postmodernist form of pastiche, or as a form of Bakhtinian reenvoicement mediating between imitation and creativity.

At one point in their study Greenfield and her associates acknowledge some "conceptual difficulty" in their "definition of creative and imitative imagination." The issue arises when one of their subjects uses "Smurfs to build their story around Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (who are not in the study). Although their experimental design leads them to count this response in the "highly creative" category of "new imaginary items," they acknowledge that since it comes from other media sources, "It is probably more accurate to say that television and program-related toys change the source of imagination, rather than its creativity or quantity."[33] The concept of intertextuality might provide a more effective framework for reading these important data, which may help to explain how we arrived at our postmodernist con-


dition and how it is currently being reproduced in our children.

In The Limits of Interpretation , Umberto Eco tries to explain the current refocusing of theoretical inquiry from innovation to repetition:

Before, mass mediologists tried to save the dignity of repetition by recognizing in it the possibility of a traditional dialectic between scheme and innovation (but it was still the innovation that accounted for the value, the way of rescuing the product from degradation). Now, the emphasis must be placed on the inseparable scheme-variation knot, where the variation is no longer more appreciable than the scheme.[34]

Reminding us that "the concept of absolute originality is a contemporary one, born with Romanticism," and that it is "possible to describe the model of a Greek tragedy as a serial" and "the whole of Shakespeare [as] a remake of preceding stories," Eco nevertheless concludes that we may be witnessing "the birth of a new public that, indifferent to the stories told (which are in any case already known), only relishes the repetition and its own microscopic variations."[35] From this perspective, "a true and real genetic mutation" is more likely to be found in the audience than in the text—which is precisely what I am arguing here.

To demonstrate in detail how television helps children to acquire this postmodernist conception of creativity, I will present a reading of two other cartoon programs: the "Green Ranger" episode from "Muppet Babies," broadcast on September 30, 1989, and the "Lasagna Zone" episode from "Garfield and Friends," broadcast on October 7, 1989. Although these two episodes are representative of their respective series, they display transmedia intertextuality and commodified masquerade more complex than those found


in the Fellini examples previously discussed. I have deliberately avoided selecting an episode from "PeeWee's Playhouse," since that show's postmodernist subversion of the borders between genres, genders, races, and species has already been analyzed elsewhere in considerable detail by myself and others.[36]

"The Green Ranger": The Anxiety of Obsolescence

"Muppet Babies" is an animated "prequel" spinoff from Jim Henson's Muppets, who are featured (in live action) on the classic PBS children's series "Sesame Street," as well as in their own dramatic feature films and products. (The successful proliferation of the Muppet image led the Disney organization to negotiate for the rights to use them in their movies and theme parks, but this takeover deal fell through late in 1990 after Henson's death and resulted in bitter counter-suits.) Currently in its seventh season on CBS, "Muppet Babies" has already produced ninety-nine episodes, an unusually high number, particularly since its current ratings are lower than in the past. (For comparative ratings of selected CBS shows on Saturday morning television, see table 2.)

Segmented into two separate half-hour episodes (so that it is easier to tune in or out at the midpoint), "Muppet Babies" presents the nursery adventures of eight baby animals of varied species—Kermit the Frog, Ralph the Dog, Fuzzy the Bear, Gonzo the Blue Weirdo, Animal the Infant, Skeeter and Skooter the co-ed twins, and Miss Piggy. There is no mention of their families nor any explanation of why they are always in the nursery with their human nanny, whose head we never see. She remains an ambiguous figure, perhaps to enable a wide range of kiddie viewers to cast her as significant other in their own varied family scenarios.

As if dramatizing Piaget's assumption that assimilation


Table 2
Comparative Ratings (in Points) and Audience Share (in Percent) for "Muppet Babies," "Garfield and Friends," and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," Fall Season 1990–91


Muppet Babies



Household rating

2.5 (14%)

4.5 (18%)

6.2 (23%)

Women, 18 and older

.7 (22%)

1.3 (23%)

1.6 (19%)

Men, 18 and older

.5 (15%)

1.0 (15%)

1.4 (15%)

Teens, 12–17

1.2 (8%)

3.2 (11%)

5.8 (14%)

Children, 2–11

4.6 (55%)

8.1 (51%)

12.1 (52%)

Kids, 2–5

4.3 (37%)

8.5 (42%)

13.6 (45%)

Kids, 6–11

4.9 (63%)

7.9 (58%)

11.1 (55%)

Source: Nielsen Index for National TV Ratings, for the period September 10, 1990 to December 9, 1990.

and accommodation drive cognitive development and creative invention (as opposed to mere imitation), "Muppet Babbies" celebrates interactive fantasy, in contrast to a passive reliance on high-tech toys. It constructs a space that Winnicott (one of the most influential psychoanalytic theorists of play) would describe as "the intermediate area . . . allowed to the infant between primary creativity and objective perception based on reality-testing"; like the mother's breast, this intermediate space fosters "the illusion that there is an external reality that corresponds to the infant's own capacity to create."[37] Winnicott's emphasis on this "area's" connection with the mother makes all the more significant the nurturing presence of the headless nanny (whose breasts are frequently visible, even if her maternity is denied), for she invariably encourages the Muppets in their play and sometimes even "enriches" their games with concrete objects from her own "toy chest." She is the "responsible person" de-


scribed by Winnicott, who must be present to alleviate the frightening aspects of play.[38]

To represent this "intermediate space" of the Muppets' creative play, the series repeatedly intercuts between excerpts from live-action movies or TV programs and animated footage in the nursery, integrating the two discourses (through the wizardry of high-tech computer animation). Thus, the series consistently presents a running commentary on the relationship between movies and television and how they train youngsters to read narratives interactively.

For example, the opening title sequence (repeated every week) includes images of Kermit as Indiana Jones swinging on a rope, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark ; battle footage à la Star Wars (the film that helped promote the use of computer animation for special effects and that pioneered the marketing strategies of recycling and recombining old movie genres and creating product tie-ins for young consumers); Miss Piggy winning an Oscar, a spectacle that evokes both films and the TV coverage of this event; and Miss Piggy and friends on the yellow brick road. This shifting of scenes requires the constant redressing both of Muppets and mise-en-scène and also effaces historical distinctions between a 1940s classic like The Wizard of Oz and the two recent George Lucas blockbusters, both of which generated their own series of sequels. Most important, this opening dramatizes the system of substitutions that facilitates ego identification with fictional characters and imaginary worlds, and therefore is essential to both "creative play" and spectator positioning: animals filling in for humans, children filling in for adults, cartoon characters filling in for live-action actors, TV characters filling in for film stars, TV filling in for cinema. These substitutions help to establish the key paradigms and analogical/hierarchical sets that will guide kiddie spectators in reading specific episodes of "Muppet Babies." They also


evoke Lynne Joyrich's description of television's postmodernity: "Constantly shifting its placement of the subject (as it moves between a number of interrupted fragments), television seems to revel in a pure celebration of difference—a process that is ultimately equal to its reverse formulation, an agenda of absolute indifference."[39]

Significantly, even in this opening "celebration of difference," traditional gender boundaries remain firmly in place. Consistent with Doane's argument,[40] the two female Muppets present the two options constructed for the female spectator by patriarchal cinema: the transvestite position (where girls identify with male characters or their female variants) is occupied by Skeeter, an androgynous female twin; and the more potentially subversive female masquerade is performed by the narcissistic, aggressive Miss Piggy. Conveniently for advertisers, the gendering of both female roles is tied directly to costuming (either as a functional difference that distinguishes Skeeter from her twin brother, or as a form of excess that characterizes the incomparable Piggy). Thus, costumes become interchangeable software, like Barbie's clothes, and another cultural code to be mastered by young spectators of both genders.

Entirely omitted from the opening title sequence is the third female character in the series: the headless Nanny. Hélène Cixous has described the figure of the decapitated female as a displacement of male castration anxiety onto the woman, particularly if she fails "to submit to masculinity as culturally ordered by the castration complex."[41] In this instance, the decapitated matriarch is stripped not only of her reproductive powers, but also of her racial specificity, though her "headlessness" evokes the Aunt Jemima–type maid from the old Tom and Jerry cartoons. Moreover, her consistent costuming in brightly colored striped stockings and baggy skirt and sweater vaguely suggests a subordinate


class position—as a hired nanny rather than a biological granny. Despite her stabilizing presence, her ambiguity makes her parental authority easily appropriable by patriarchal characters featured in specific episodes.

The "Green Ranger" episode opens with live-action, black-and-white film footage of a cowboy standing on a rock and spying on the scene below (which we do not yet see), as a male offscreen voice says, "Hmm, looks like they got some trouble at the Rusty Spur." Then there is a cut to the object of the cowboy's gaze: a still drawing of a ranch in black-and-white, with horses and other important items highlighted in color. The camera cuts back to a closer shot of the cowboy, who whistles, and then to the new object of his gaze and address—his horse, which he jumps onto and rides out of the frame; we now hear the male voice-over sing the Range Rider's theme song: "Anytime, anywhere, when help is needed, I'll be there."

This segment introduces us not only to the iconography of the western genre (the setting, cowboy hero, horse, ethos, and lingo), but also to cinema's suturing structure of the gaze (where the possessor of the look is shown to be a controlling man of action, whereas the object is immobile, domesticated, subhuman). It also teaches us how to read pictures: how color and movement draw our eyes to the most important objects and actions, and how words help to anchor our interpretation of images. This process of reading images is made explicit in a later sequence, when Kermit announces that he doesn't know how to read and Skooter (as if coaching a Renaissance courtier) tells him: "You look at pictures, don't you? Everything's drawn out for you, nice and simple like. It's as simple as falling off a horse."

From this opening black-and-white film sequence we move to an animated version of the western (which mediates between the still drawing and the live-action footage). This


fluid movement between animation and live action also occurs in other TV series ("Super Mario Brothers," for instance) and is simulated by the animated performance of PeeWee Herman. In each case the combination facilitates the kind of transgressive identification across other borders (of genre, generation, race, culture, and species) that was demonstrated in the opening title sequence and that is the specialty of the Muppet Babies and presumably of their peewee spectators. In addition to the stable costs of animated films (which now seem moderate, in contrast to the spiraling costs of live-action movies), this postmodernist superfluidity may help explain the "cartoonmania" of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which some are calling the "new Golden Age" of animation.[42]

In the Muppets' animated version of the western, we see a green Kermit in cowboy outfit look into a saloon as a male voice-over asks: "What in tarnation is going on in there?" When the camera zooms in for a closer look, we see a ball, a doll, and other toys that do not belong in the western genre fly out of the saloon, and the voice-over quips hermeneutically: "Seems more like a question of what's coming out of there." We follow Kermit's gaze and person into the saloon, where the other Muppets are arguing as they play cards—the two activities on which we segue (by means of a dissolve) back into the nursery, where Kermit, wearing the same cowboy hat, sits before an animated blue TV set watching the black-and-white live-action western, smiling with pleasure. When the image cuts from Kermit watching TV to the object of his gaze (the fictional world of the Roy Rogers western), we are firmly sutured into identification with Kermit, from whose point of view we have been watching the western and whose fantasy recreation we soon will reenter.

Within the fictional world of the western, we see the same live-action cowboy as before, but as he gets off his horse the


Image not available.

Inside his interactive fantasy (which was generated by watching TV),
Kermit, a would-be western hero, learns how to mount
a horse by watching his idol, the animated headless
Range Rider. ©Henson Associates, Inc., 1987.

image changes to color animation (colored figures against a black-and-white background) and the blue frame of the TV set disappears. Once inside the saloon, an animated Range Rider (whose head we never see) mediates the argument among the Muppets, sounding suspiciously like Nanny: "What seems to be the problem here?" In case we've missed these visual and verbal associations with the matriarchal guardian, he adds: "Seems to me we're going to have to sort this one out with your nanny." This body shot of the heroic ranger draws our attention to his groin (rather than to his breasts, as in similar shots of Nanny). Although these headless body shots emphasize the signifiers that distinguish these two characters by gender, their formal similarity and the dialogue simultaneously identify them as members of the same paradigm: adult authorities. As in the Thorndyke ex-


periment, the combination of similarities and differences leads the young subject to a more complex restructuring of cognitive categories.

At this point in the story, Kermit, who has been watching his hero in action, breaks out of the cinematic suture, proclaiming the "moral" to us in direct address: "The Range Rider doesn't like cheating!" On the surface, the blatant message of "The Green Ranger" concerns how to define the hero: as a male who instinctively helps others without self-consciousness or vanity. This is what Kermit learns from watching his favorite TV show, through both identification with and direct address from its hero. This moral would probably satisfy the 1990 Children's Television Act, which requires stations to serve "the educational and informational needs of children." Yet the episode teaches children many other things besides.

Perhaps most important, it explains how a genre (or TV series) can be replaced or recycled. Kermit is devastated when he discovers that this is the last episode of "The Range Rider" (which in turn is actually a composite of several classic westerns, including "Roy Rogers" and "The Lone Ranger"), for the program is being replaced by a soap opera called "As the Toast Burns." But we also learn from this episode that the iconography of the western still survives in television. The ongoing card game (which is carried over from the western fantasy to the nursery) is still found on the never-ending game show genre; the heroic horse is still featured on "Mister Ed" (a show that is brought to mind by the talking horses in Kermit's western fantasy and that is now in syndication for a new generation on the children's cable network, Nickelodeon); the desert landscape and chase narrative are still central in Road Runner cartoons (which are included in the newly resyndicated "Looney Tunes" on Nickelodeon, and which are evoked when Animal plays


"Road Crawler" as an homage to his favorite western hero); the western clothes and jargon (if not the ethos) could at that time still be found on prime-time soaps like "Dallas" (which is parodied when Miss Piggy Sue Ewing plays "a modern cowgirl with beauty, brains, and a great head for business . . . just like on nighttime TV"); and the western is still a popular generic motif in music videos (what Kermit calls "songs written about stuff you never did").

This "lesson" in survival through compatibility is presented in the form of a catalogue (of various Muppets offering their own favorite version of the western genre and their interactive notion of how to make Kermit a western hero), which ruptures the coherence both of the narrative line and of Kermit's unifying point of view. This catalogue structure implies that, like any genre, the western is an open system that allows room for both assimilation and accommodation, or in Fiske's terms, "a shifting provisional set of characteristics which is modified as each new example is produced."[43] It also evokes what Roland Barthes calls "the extension of a paradigm onto the syntagmatic plane"—a form of "semiotic transgression" around which "a great number of creative phenomena are situated" (and perhaps an elaborate version of what Victor was doing in his stroller when he was stringing together all the names he knew before he knew how to make a sentence).[44]

In trying to console Kermit for the loss of his hero (this "reopening of the gap of desire" over which he has no control), Nanny explains TV's structural dynamics of reruns, syndication, and cancellations: "Well that show's been running since I was a little girl. They probably ran out of episodes to rerun. . . . You can't ride the range forever, you know . . . someone new always seems to come along." By supporting Brooks's claim that extended serialization merely postpones the inevitable end of all narrative, this speech im-


plicitly addresses the deeper fears that underlie Kermit's separation anxiety, for absence and economic obsolescence can easily be read as aging, castration, and death.[45]

The "Green Ranger"'s recuperative model is a generational discourse well suited to a successful prequel that reverses the aging process and that now, in its seventh season, is proliferating in syndication even as it anticipates the threat of cancellation. It presents a consumerist oedipal narrative that conflates several familiar paradigms: a young "green" hero displaces the retiring Range Rider the way sons traditionally displace fathers, patriarchs eventually displace nannies, new TV shows annually displace cancellations, and television historically displaces cinema. Thus, not only does this episode help children structure a diverse set of categories into complex hierarchic systems, but it also fosters a creative use of transmedia intertextuality to forestall obsolescence and death.

"The Lasagna Zone":
The Anxiety of Endless Consumption

"Garfield and Friends" (broadcast October 7, 1989) also contains episodes that treat the anxiety of obsolescence—such as the opening segment, where Binky, "the most popular kid show host on TV," is suddenly replaced by "Bowling for Meatloaf" because it's "more intellectual than a clown show"; or the "Garfield quickie" that follows, where Booker reflexively asks: "What do you get when you cross a lasagna-loving cat with a bunch of zany farm animals?" and Sheldon replies: "You get picked up for another season!" Yet the "Lasagna Zone" episode is far more representative of the series as a whole, in that it focuses both on Garfield's constant alternation between extreme boredom and anxiety and on his dual consumerist obsessions with eating and watching TV ("Microwave lasagna and a TV set—what more could


anyone ask out of life!"). Beverle Houston theorizes the connection thus: "In its endless flow of text, [television] suggests the first flow of nourishment in and from the mother's body, evoking a moment when the emerging sexual drive is still closely linked to—propped on—the life-and-death urgency of the feeding instinct. . . . It is no accident that the main textbook in American television studies is called The Tube of Plenty ."[46]

Like "Muppet Babies," "Garfield and Friends" constantly alludes to other TV shows and movies, but it also focuses on the tension TV creates in positioning its spectator both as a unique individual with distinctive tastes, like Garfield (who is thus distinguished from other feline media stars like Heathcliff, Tom, and Sylvester), and as part of a mass audience with common appetites. This opposition is reflected in the program's title, which pairs the unique Garfield with his anonymous friends (who nevertheless include a creative pig named Orson, a name that evokes the unique Orson Welles). In the opening title sequence, where Garfield is featured as star performer before a chorus line of "friends," he aggressively confronts his viewer(s) in direct address: "Hey you with the gum, I hope you've got enough for everybody. [Then, in voice-over:] Here are some commercials, and then, more of ME!" Like Miss Piggy, the narcissistic Garfield flaunts his mask of uniqueness, as if to guard against the postmodernist erasure of boundaries.

This opposition between the individual and the species is intensified by the choice of an animal as protagonist. In his discussion of totemism, Claude Lévi-Strauss quotes Henri Bergson as saying:

To recognize a man means to distinguish him from other men; but to recognize an animal is normally to decide what species it belongs to. . . . An animal lacks concreteness and individuality, it appears essentially as a quality


and thus essentially as a class." It is this direct perception of the class, through the individuals, which characterizes the relation between man and the animal or plant, and it is this also which helps us to understand "this singular thing that is totemism.[47]

Our consumer culture has developed a new form of totemism in which we alleviate anxiety and gain an illusory sense of empowerment by bestowing our conception of human individuality onto animals—by giving homes to them (rather than to orphans or the homeless, who themselves are frequently treated as an animal species devoid of individuality); by letting them substitute for missing members of the dysfunctional family; by interpellating them as icons of uniqueness with unusual names like Heathcliff, Garfield, and Orson; and by transforming them into voracious consumers for whom we are always buying new products and with whom we therefore increasingly identify. This process is intensified when animals appear in the doubly domesticated realm of television, where they are often identified by excesses of human desire coded as "functional difference" (like Coyote's obsession with Road Runner, the Turtles' passion for pizza, and Garfield's lust for lasagna), particularly since desire—as opposed to instinctual drive—helps to distinguish humans from other animals. By identifying with such anthropomorphized creatures, spectators acknowledge their own slipperiness as signifiers—as both animal and human—while still affirming their "uniqueness" as the animal that possesses the functional difference of human subjectivity.

Identification with animals is especially appealing to kiddie spectators, who, like Animal, Cookie Monster, and Slimer, are still in the process of what Althusser calls "the long forced march which makes mammiferous larvae into


human children, masculine or feminine subjects ."[48] In one experimental study where ninety-six third-graders (with a median age of eight and a half) were asked to respond to two stories, one with human characters, the other with animals, 74 percent of the children preferred the animal stories, perhaps because they were less emotionally involving and therefore aroused less anxiety about "good" versus "bad" (that is, socially disapproved) behavior.[49] Even for us adults in our congealed subject positions, identification with animals helps us regain some of the lost fetal flexibility that is so central to a popular toy genre like transformers, to the current craze for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and to a character like Sheldon in "Garfield and Friends," a chick only half out of his shell. Instead of evoking a single individual or species, these creatures suggest a system—of evolution, reproduction, biological development, acculturation, or transmedia intertextuality. Identification with such creatures serves as an entrance into these larger systems, where traditional boundaries are ambiguous. In describing our age of cyborgs, for example, Donna Haraway claims: "The dichotomies between mind and body, animal and human, organism and machine, public and private, nature and culture, men and women, primitive and civilized are all in question ideologically."[50]

Animal signifiers also help us to see beyond the waning nuclear family and the growing influence of the single mother by "naturalizing" alternative models for human bonding. Consider the buddy relationship between Garfield and his bachelor owner, John; the loyal pack or gang on "Heathcliff," "California Raisins," and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"; the multiracial nursery on "Muppet Babies" (which reminds one of day care or a foster home); and the integrated neighborhood on "Sesame Street," including numerous species that do not easily fit into a single nuclear


Image not available.

The little chick Booker and his brother Sheldon, who is a transformer only half out
of his shell, star in the quickie that follows "The Lasagna Zone."
© 1989 United Feature Syndicate.

family (an issue that is the thematic focus of the Muppet movie Follow that Bird ).

These instabilities of the subject and its oscillations between pleasure and anxiety, passivity and control, are the focus of "The Lasagna Zone." In this clever parody of "The Twilight Zone," we are entreated (in direct address) by a cartoon Rod Serling to "consider, if you will, the case of one Garfield the cat," who, after dropping lasagna on his owner John's new satellite dish, "finds himself in the wrong end of that cathode ray tube." Garfield's entry into the TV screen parodies the celebrated dream sequence from Sherlock Junior , where Buster enters the fictional world of the movie he's projecting. In "The Lasagna Zone," this bizarre premise generates TV parodies within a film parody within a TV


Image not available.

An animated Rod Serling, as on-screen narrator, describes Garfield's
entry into "The Lasagna Zone." © 1989 United Feature Syndicate.

parody—a multilayered structure like lasagna and like the TV supertext (which "Garfield and Friends" reproduces with its unpredictable segmentation).

Garfield's anxious entry into the "lasagna zone" (that intermediate space between reality and play) can also be read as a variant of the sleep-bargaining genre. After a dialogue with John, who urges him to go to bed and who warns against staying up all night, Garfield continues the dialogue with the TV set, in a liminal state between waking and sleep. Compulsively consuming more images and lasagna to keep himself awake and alive, he projects his bedtime fears of castration, obsolescence, and death onto the TV set and its stream of images, those transitional objects with which he totally identifies. Thus, not only does Garfield consume TV,


but TV consumes Garfield. As Brooks predicts, the repetition compulsion seeks "to master the flood of stimuli," yet every switch of the dial brings a new short circuit, and every new fiction threatens him with another premature death.[51]

Once Garfield is inside the diegetic imaginary of television, with its paradoxical combination of endless flow and constant interruptions, the sequence focuses on the television medium itself. The source of the image is not the light beam from a nearby projector, as in cinema, but a signal that comes from outer space. (Earlier, when Garfield was adjusting the satellite dish, he remarked: "I want to watch a western . . . I'll point it toward Texas.") The segmentation of TV programming is intensified by the changing of channels through the remote control unit, which is manually operated by Garfield's canine friend, Odie, though Garfield tells him (through direct address) when to push the button.

John's satellite dish receives over one hundred channels and the pace of the channel switching keeps accelerating; there is no escape for Garfield. Each program proves more boring in its familiarity, and each new fictional world more threatening than the previous one. Garfield's coherence as a signifier is destabilized by a series of grotesque masquerades, and his assimilation and accommodation of the TV image are thrown off balance. Garfield becomes a black-and-white monster in a Frankenstein movie, a "colorized" football receiver chased by the opposing team, a macho cowboy in a card game (where the betting of two horses, two pianos, and two mayors recalls a surreal image from Buñuel's Un Chien andalou ), a ballerina in pink tutu in Swan Lake , a survivor on a deserted island about to be eaten by a gorilla, a participant in the Binky clown show, and a bargain in a used-pet emporium ("Here's a 1978 wide-bodied pussy cat with all the standard equipment—whiskers, claws, fleas, the works!").

While Garfield's masquerade as a ballerina may seem to


Image not available.

When Garfield is inside the fictional world of television, 
he speaks to his privileged canine spectator Odie in direct 
address and at one point actually faces him, as in a mirror relation.
 © 1989 United Feature Syndicate.

undermine the rigid gender boundaries that are ordinarily reinforced in children's programming, this female role is presented as merely one of a series of monstrous or perilous subject positions to be rejected. Within this catalogue, the one identification that appropriately proves impossible to evade is that of a commodity—for after awakening and returning to his spectator position, Garfield retains the plaid muffler, one of the accessories he acquired (and one of the best visual puns) in the used-pet emporium.

Before Garfield can escape from the TV set, though, the remote control unit breaks down, as if revealing the falseness of its promise of empowerment. Consequently, Garfield is forced to keep running as the background images con-


Image not available.

Garfield's appearance as a ballerina in tutu with a chorus line is one of the rare moments
when his gender is compromised. ©1989 United Feature Syndicate.

tinue to change at an accelerated pace, placing him on Gilligan's island, in a toothpaste commercial, the weather report, the home shopping channel, an episode of Booker and Sheldon from his own "Garfield and Friends," and so on. Finally Garfield shouts, "Odie, help, my vertical hold is slipping," and images roll by in an indecipherable blur, ending this montage sequence that so clearly extends the vertical axis of a paradigm onto the syntagmatic plane.

Such transformative intertextuality is even more intense in the fall 1990 season of "Garfield and Friends," which premiered on CBS in its new 9:00 A.M. time slot on Saturday, October 13, with a range of parodies including "The Hound of the Arbuckles," "Moby Duck," "Odilocks and the Three Cats," and "Quack to the Future." Even the toys advertised


Image not available.

Garfield's hand in a card game is called with two horses, two mayors, and a piano, an image
that evokes one of the most subversive moments from Buñuel's surrealist classic
Un Chien andalou . ©1989 United Feature Syndicate.

between these segments were promoted for their protean ability to be interactively transformed by young consumers—for instance, Barbies with "cool cut hair" that can be bobbed and restored, and "Baby Uh-Ohs" with changeable diapers. Appropriating the theme of active imagination from "Muppet Babies," the new Garfield show varies this credo by linking it primarily to books (rather than to television, movies, and toys), yet in fact the show demonstrates television's powers of home delivery not just for literature, but for movies and any other product.

The theme of creative imagination is explicitly introduced in the first episode, where, after a mysterious technical breakdown prevents Garfield from watching a Sherlock


Holmes movie on TV, John tells him that books (in this case, the Conan Doyle novel on which the movie was based) are better than TV or movie adaptations because they allow you to use your own imagination to fill in the pictures. Yet this statement also implies that (in contrast to books) the visual mass media provide a better analogue for the human imagination at work—an idea that is reinforced when Garfield, instead of finishing the Conan Doyle novel, chooses to go to sleep "and have a dream sequence." In simulating dreams (the ultimate adaptive medium that internalizes consumerist desire for external products), television displays its full transformative powers, both as a source for and adaptation of dreams and other audiovisual media. In Garfield's personal dream adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," he plays a brainy Dr. Watson to an obtuse Sherlock Holmes, whose character owes more to the animated TV star Inspector Gadget (whose cases are actually solved by his clever dog, Brain) than to Conan Doyle's brilliant detective. Garfield's master, John Arbuckles, plays the client in search of his lost dog, who sounds suspiciously like Odie. After Garfield awakens from his dream, he finds the missing Odie entangled in the TV antenna wire—thus solving two mysteries at once. But Master John, like Inspector Gadget, takes all the credit. Ironically, then, in adapting the classic literary source, both Garfield's dream and his TV series make us reread Sherlock Holmes through the filter of the parodic TV detective Inspector Gadget (not vice versa), for the subversive Garfield identifies with and therefore privileges the underdog/undercat/undermedium, which prove to be superior after all.

The theme of creative adaptation is also explicitly echoed in Orson's song celebrating imagination that introduces the second episode. In this parody of Moby-Dick , Orson the pig, playing Ishmael, alludes to other familiar whale tales like Pinocchio and the biblical story of Jonah. Yet instead of


sticking with the parody of the whale tale, the episode turns into a series of imaginative generic transformations, determined not by TV channel switching as in "The Lasagna Zone" or by movies, television, and toys as in "Muppet Babies," but by the books Orson chooses to read. By projecting a series of adventure books onto the syntagmatic plane of the narrative, the episode establishes a paradigm of monsters, whose members (whale, dinosaur, polar bear) all prove highly adaptable to the television medium. But when Orson tries to escape from this paradigm by picking a coloring book as a "safe choice," he inadvertently positions colorization as a monster, whose roots can be traced back to coloring books and animation and which now threatens the status of personal choice in movies and television. Thus the intertextual connections among commodities combined in a series prove far more powerful than individual choice—a paradox that is central to all commercial television and especially to advertising discourse. This disavowal of the consumer's choice is also echoed in Garfield's precommercial tag line, where he threatens to kill the pet dog of any spectator who dares switch to another channel.

Despite these overt threats to the viewer in the new season, nowhere is the anxiety of subject positioning more intense than in "The Lasagna Zone," for in that episode John's repeated warning comes true: by obsessively watching too much television, Garfield has become one himself—a malleable receiver, a consumable object of exchange with a broken "joystick." This spectator position, Beverle Houston has persuasively argued, describes how the female subject has been theorized under patriarchy (a perspective that makes Garfield's female masquerade in pink tutu more resonant):

The sliding from the imaginary pleasure of mastery through the passivity of being ourselves the object of di-


rect address and the seductive gaze; the attendant reduced stake in an apparent coherence of the signified; the multiple identifications called for in the movement from fiction to fiction and mode to mode; finally, the forced acceptance of painful delay, deferral, waiting—these characteristics put all of television's spectators into the situation provided for the feminine in theories of subjectivity as well as in her actual development and practice in patriarchy.

At times, Houston's analysis of television's unique form of spectator positioning precisely defines Garfield's plight: "Rather than suturing the viewer further into a visually reevoked dream of plenitude [as in cinema], it keeps the ego at a near-panic level of activity, trying, virtually from moment to moment, to control the situation, trying to take some satisfaction, to get some rest from the constant changes . . . taking something like pleasure in the terror of desire itself."[52]

Whereas Garfield's desperate situation results from his accidental entry into a warp zone, this "near-panic activity to control constant changes" exactly describes how video games ordinarily position the active player, for there "warp zones" and multiple worlds are built into the system and "games and their organization . . . forestall the frightening aspect of playing."[53] Although Houston argues that "in its suggestion of better possibilities, the channel changer reiterates lack . . . [and] further weakens our chance of immersion,"[54] one could also argue that the remote control box (or "joystick") potentially performs a sex change on spectator positioning,[55] changing the TV viewer from a passive watcher to an active player (or, put in Applebee's cognitive terms, from the spectator mode that responds to the whole to the interactive mode that responds piecemeal).


In this pivotal sequence, then, the meaning of "the twilight zone" is expanded beyond mere allusions to earlier texts like the Rod Serling sci-fi series and Buster Keaton's Sherlock Junior to include a rich intertextual prefiguring of the constructed "virtual reality" (VR) one finds in video games and in the latest interactive multimedia (the kinds of VR that were also prefigured in films as diverse as Celine and Julie Go Boating [1974], Looker [1981], and Total Recall [1990] and were greatly elaborated in William Gibson's popular novel Neuromancer [1984]). I am thinking, for example, of the Mandala System by Vivid Effects (on exhibit in Tech 2000), where an on-line video camera records the live performance of the player and the sounds that he or she makes on imaginary instruments, then instantly integrates them within a prerecorded music video now being displayed; or of VPL's electronic helmet, goggles, and glove that enable a player to perceive, enter, and manipulate a three-dimensional VR world of computer-generated images with a mere turn of the head or twist of the hand; or of the new systems, developed with funding from the telephone industry, where two players can meet and interact in a fantasy VR environment of their choice—a technology with great potential for transforming telephone sex. Originally developed for tank warfare and for repairing spaceships in outer space, these experiments with VR promise to expand the same illusory freedoms that early cinema granted its oppressed urban spectators, with similar ideological effects—at least as described by Walter Benjamin: "Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling."[56]


Watching and Playing

Both "Garfield and Friends" and "Muppet Babies" (as well as other shows on Saturday morning television) create the impression that watching TV can be an empowering, humanizing interactive experience that combines watching with playing . As Lynn Spigel has observed, the interactive possibilities of television were recognized and promoted in the early days of television and also in early films about TV (such as International House , an amazing film from the 1930s in which W. C. Fields shoots boats on a TV screen, as if he were playing a Nintendo game).[57] This interactive illusion is strengthened on Saturday morning television by the recurring image that introduces commercial breaks in some of the CBS shows, where children are shown manipulating levers and power buttons in a studio control room as scenes from "Muppet Babies" and "PeeWee's Playhouse" appear on the monitors. While such strategies can be read as merely another example of television's deceptive manipulation of young consumers, one might also argue that they encourage the kind of negotiated readings posited by Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School, where generational subgroups actively appropriate images from mass culture.[58] Indeed, this latter approach is more compatible with Applebee's cognitive model of the "interactive participant role" than with the passive mode of spectatorship associated with psychoanalysis (especially with the Lacanian and Althusserian models).

In any event, this interactive spectatorship may lead children to prefer television over movies and to see it as more competitive (or compatible) with Nintendo's captivating home video games, where spectator positions are prepro-grammed to make youngsters feel empowered through interactive play. In the world of Nintendo and its rival systems, players are almost invariably positioned as active, grow-


ing, male consumers—whether they identify with the voracious Pac-Man, who is empowered to devour more enemies whenever he munches fruity energizers; or with the humble Mario and Luigi, who are instantly transformed into giant Super Brothers whenever they consume a Super Mushroom; or with the mutated Ninja Turtles, whose martial arts powers are enhanced whenever they eat pizza. Firmly positioned within traditional patriarchy, all three options seem to be merely elaborate variations on Popeye's reliance on spinach, yet with the crucial supplement of interactivity and the corollary that consumption is a form of growth. These video games, I believe, are so compelling not only because they use oral symbolism and offer partial and multiple reinforcement (as some behaviorists have argued),[59] but also because they simulate the phallocentric humanist synthesis of assimilation and accommodation that Schiller ascribed to the "play drive":

With the play drive . . . man will combine the greatest fullness of existence with the highest autonomy and freedom, and instead of losing himself to the world, will rather drive the latter into himself in all of its infinitude of phenomena, and subject it to the unity of his reason. . . . Man . . . is only fully a human being when he plays.[60]


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