Children’s entertainment finds itself in a strange spot, being defined by its target audience while not being produced by it (Hermansson and Zepernick 2019). Different adults have different ideas of what children are and what content suits them. As a result, how child characters look and behave can vary wildly between different stories. However, according to literature scholar Perry Nodelman, all these stories share the commonality of containing a ''hidden adult'', the adult’s idea of what a child is, made visible by how children are portrayed within a work (ibid). Yet, the term hidden adult implies a sense of secrecy. As if, the creator's ideas of children can only be vaguely inferred. Are adult creators still hidden if they are vocal about their viewpoints?
In this article, I will discuss this question by analyzing an episode of Leo and Layla’s History Adventures, an animated show for children, produced by the conservative nonprofit PragerU. The episode in question, titled Leo and Layla Meet Christopher Columbus, features the titular characters traveling back in time to clear up their confusion about the controversial status of Columbus Day. As children's entertainment, the presence of a hidden adult can be inferred, but given PragerU's outspoken political leaning, are the adult creators still hidden if their ideas are explicitly connected to the content they produce?
The adult hidden in children's media
Children's entertainment, whether books, films or television shows, refers to a broad range of media that spans across several genres and technologies. According to scholars Casie Hermansson and Janet Zepernick, these media share several important characteristics, such as that they are produced by adults for a younger audience (Hermansson and Zepernick 2019). For literature scholar Perry Nodelman, the difference between the creators and their target audience leads to the presence of the hidden adult, the creator who is present in children's media through his depictions of child characters (ibid). Nodelman notes how, as children cannot produce media themselves, they rely on adults to do it for them (Nodelman 2016). However, because they are not part of their target audience, adults make assumptions about what children are like (ibid). This in turn results in the author constructing an idea of what Nodelman terms ''acceptable childlikeness'', the creator's assumption of how children act, or should act.
Yet authors and other creators do not exist in a vacuum. What specific subjects are discussed, what lessons are taught, and even how a child is supposed to act depends on what ideas circulate at any time and place. Within Western, or more specifically American context, media scholar Kirsten Drotner writes that children's media portrays childhood as an innocent period, wherein mostly white, middle-class children are taught how to behave within a particular society (ibid). Drotner writes that as authors and other creators insert their own ideas of what kids are inside their media, an image of the average child is created (Drotner 2013). Portrayals of childhood that deviate from this norm are seen as undesirable or resisted by parents and organizations that wish to hang onto dominant narratives about what children should be like.
This may cause certain parties (such as parents, religious organizations, and broadcasting networks) to voice their outrage. This outrage might even lead to resistance, as concerned parties publish their own media to counter other narratives (Drotner 2013). The last option would fall under what Kevin Howley terms media interventions, using media to acquire power for "strategic and tactical action" (Howley 2013). Parents and concerned organizations can use media to spread their outrage or defend ideas they think are being challenged, but the question is this: is the hidden adult still hidden in such cases? The term ‘’hidden adult’’ makes it seem as if the author's ideas about acceptable childlikeness are only present in the background of a text. Yet, some creators are very upfront about their ideas of what society should be like, can they still be considered hidden adults as well?
Some creators are very upfront about their ideas of what society should be like, can they still be considered hidden adults as well?
Fighting woke children's shows
One such group of adult creators that attempts to defend their ideas of acceptable childlikeness is the conservative nonprofit PragerU. PragerU (short for Prager University) was founded in 2009 by conservative radio host Dennis Prager. Despite its name, PragerU is not an actual university but instead, a media platform that hosts content to offer "a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education" (PragerU 2023). The organization produces a variety of shows, magazines and opinion pieces aimed at spreading conservative values to people of various ages. The nonprofit organization is not without controversy. Francesca Tripodi writes that PragerU has hosted several commentators, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson and Stefan Molyneux, who are associated with the alt-right and thus, may serve as a gateway to extreme forms of conservatism via algorithmic suggestions: "(...)their choice of guests and underlying messaging demonstrates how this cross-promotion of ideas and influencers creates both an algorithmic and cultural connection between conservative ideology and “alt-right” terminology" (Tripodi 2017). In 2021, PragerU launched PragerU Kids, a subdivision entirely dedicated to providing children’s books, magazines and shows (PragerU 2022; 2023). According to the organization's 2022 annual report, PragerU Kids’s goal is to provide children with conservative entertainment in order to combat the supposed left-wing ideas of children's media produced by companies such as PBS Kids and Disney (PragerU 2022). The nonprofit PragerU considers children to be at risk of being taught to be ''ashamed of America'' through Critical Race Theory and being allowed to pick their gender. PragerU positions itself as an alternative to ''leftist brainwashing'' by providing parents with ''pro-American content'' for their children.
In my analysis, I will take a closer look at such a case of ''pro-American content'', a Children's show titled Leo and Layla’s History Adventures. Each episode of the animated show focuses on the titular Leo and Layla, two young siblings who travel back in time to learn about historical figures. Each episode discusses a different person. The episode in question, Leo and Layla Meet Christopher Columbus, centers around Christopher Columbus, and the controversies surrounding Columbus Day (PragerU 2022). I will discuss the link between PragerU’s conservative ideology and their portrayal of children, and how this impacts the presence of the hidden adult.
My analysis will be conducted along the lines of what Gunter Kress calls a multimodal discourse analysis, a method by which I will look at what the combination of the episode’s visuals, audio, and spoken text communicates to the viewer, as well as look at the episode’s social context (Kress 2012, 36). I will pay specific attention to the degree to which the hidden adult can be noticed.Finally, I will interpret the episode’s overall message and what societal change it attempts to accomplish.
The lesson of the day
The episode starts with Leo and Layla reading up on the origins of Columbus Day because their teachers could not agree on whether to celebrate Columbus’s arrival in the "New World" or not. The children are confused when the websites Leo visits give different accounts of Columbus, with some calling him a "mean guy who spread, slavery, violence and disease" while other sites call him "a really courageous guy who loved exploring, inspired generations and spread Christianity and western civilization." The confused kids decide to use their time-traveling abilities to go back to the year 1493 and ask Columbus about his journeys.
The hidden adult of PragerU displays a version of children wherein they are young and inquisitive, but also easily confused.
The show follows the pattern of other mainstream children’s media focusing on the deductive and educational potential of the show, in this case teaching children about the society in which they live (Hermansson and Zepernick 2019). In this case, a society that celebrates Columbus Day, but in which the celebratory nature of this holiday is being debated. Leo and Layla are confused by the conflicting opinions about Christopher Columbus and are looking to solve their confusion. As such, this particular episode is closely tied to the country in which it was made. Having established this, it is important to note the ways in PragerU puts forth its idea of acceptable childlikeness, and how the hidden author can be perceived through this.
The adult's ideas expressed
Like other children’s shows, Leo and Layla’s History Adventures was made by adults for children, thus the episode features an adult’s idea of what children are or should be. Throughout the episode, the titular characters are portrayed as curious youngsters who want to understand the world they are living in but also fit into PragerU's conservative view of the status quo and how children should relate to it. This shines through in the character’s visual designs, traits and attitudes.
Leo and Layla display the adult creator’s idea of what children should be like. To begin with, Leo and Layla fit into traditional ideas about gender. Leo wears a T-shirt, has his short hair slid to the right, and wears shorts and sneakers. Meanwhile, Layla has long hair and wears a pink top, earrings, make-up, and tightly-fit jeans. This makes the characters fit a conventional standard of how children should dress according to their gender. While not striving to look unique, the appearance and clothes of the characters can be considered an explicit political statement, considering PragerU's resistance against the possibility that children ''pick their gender''. By making Leo and Layla look and dress according to their gender, PragerU reinforces their conceptions of how children dress or should be dressed.
Furthermore, both children are shown to be curious, but easily confused and able to do their own research. In the opening scene, both characters express their confusion about Columbus Day's controversial status and discuss various sides of the argument surrounding the holiday. Yet, they find it difficult to make up their own minds and itbecomes clear when they cannot decide which interpretation of Columbus's life they ascribe to.
In this way, the hidden adult(s) of PragerU become visible through Leo and Layla. Through a display of gendered clothing and their curious nature, Leo and Layla display what the nonprofit organization might see as traits of "acceptable childlikeness" (Nodelman 2016). In this case, the hidden adult of PragerU displays a version of children wherein they are young and inquisitive, but also easily confused. Luckily for them, the creators have found a way to alleviate their confusion.
Positive association over negative facts
Upon talking to Leo and Layla, Columbus explains that he did commit violent acts against Native Americans and was involved in the slavery of indigenous peoples, but he emphasizes that "the natives were far from peaceful." Columbus then goes on to state that such acts were normal in the 15th century. This information adds a degree of nuance to the figure of Columbus. The episode states the impossibility of viewing Columbus in an entirely positive light. It directly responds to the earlier stated readings of Columbus as either a thieving murderer or a paragon of Western civilization by stating that Columbus could be violent when he deemed it necessary. However, the episode then concludes with Columbus stating that if people want to celebrate the guts he showed in searching new trade routes, they should do so. Layla responds to this message with "I guess you’re right", after which the kids travel back to their own time.
This shifts the focus of the episode from raising questions about the celebrated status of Columbus to the celebration of Columbus despite his violent acts, while these acts are precisely the problem for those who are questioning the holiday’s status. PragerU seems to argue that traditions may be questioned, interpretations of historical figures can even be more nuanced, but traditions should not be changed. The celebration of controversial historical figures should continue, because society connects to that figure by ascribing to their positive traits. Ultimately, historical atrocities matter less than the long-established tradition of celebration.
When placing this view in the context of acceptable childlikeness, PragerU argues that children should ignore the negative aspects of esteemed historical figures. Despite their doubts and confusion, Leo and Layla accept the idea that Christopher Columbus should be celebrated for his part in the discovery of trade routes to the Americas. Whereas before they expressed their uncertainty about Columbus Day's status as a holiday, they stopped questioning the holiday's status, and ultimately embraced a positive reading of Columbus. The episode argues that children can be curious about historical figures, but young people should not change how these figures are perceived. Rather, they should take factual information about violence and slave labour into account, but ultimately discard it in favor of adherence to the status quo.
In the end, this results in a display of acceptable childlikeness that can be considered conservative. The episode portrays children as inquisitive young people who ultimately have to favour the clear ways of tradition, over questioning the reasons why society should commemorate those figures. When they do question this, they would only be confused. When considering the existence of a hidden adult, who becomes noticeable through how child characters are portrayed, the hidden adult in Leo and Layla Meet Christopher Columbus considers children as curious young people who should be shielded from the confusion that comes with questioning Columbus Day's status as a holiday.
The visible adult
However, can the adult creators of Leo and Layla be considered hidden? Nodelmans's definition of the hidden adult includes that the adult is not clearly on display. His views on acceptable childlikeness have to be inferred from how children are portrayed within the text. But what happens when the author is very vocal about their idea of what children are or should be like? Is the adult still hidden, then?
When viewed in a vacuum, the hidden author in Leo and Layla meet Christopher Columbus considers children as intelligent and capable of questioning traditions, but ultimately does not want them to do this, as it will lead to confusion. However, the show's creators are no longer hidden once Leo and Layla are placed within the context of PragerU’s goals. Once you consider that the purpose of PragerU Kids is to combat the perceived "woke agendas" in schools, Leo and Layla can no longer be vaguely linked to the creator’s opinions but become a direct display of PragerU’s conservative view of children. For PragerU, children are exposed to ''leftist insanity'' that makes them ashamed of America (PragerU 2022). Viewed through a conservative lens, questioning American holidays can be seen as fostering these leftist sentiments. When PragerU's goals and intentions are taken into account, Leo and Layla can no longer be vaguely linked to the creator’s opinions but become a direct display of PragerU’s conservative ideas of what children should be taught. For PragerU, children should learn about the status quo and its origins but ultimately accept it. Leo and Layla can learn about Columbus's deeds, but they should not question the validity of his celebrated status. They have to embrace the tradition of Columbus Day.
Whereas the hidden adult’s perception of childlikeness needs to be inferred from how children are portrayed, PragerU’s Leo and Layla can be directly tied to the organization’s conservative views. Leo and Layla are curious about Columbusandconfused by conflicting visions on the celebratory status of Columbus Day, but ultimately choose to ignore the negative aspects of Coumbus's actions. With this, the organization communicates its view on children in both an implicit and explicit sense. Leo and Layla's History Adventures shows PragerU’s ideas of acceptable childlikeness, while also being a direct display of the organization’s conservative views. The episode, and the show by extension, are part of the organization's media intervention aimed at combating what they see as ''left-wing brainwashing'' through the questioning of American holidays. In this case, by using children's entertainment as part of a larger media strategy to familiarize children with conservative standpoints on holidays and the veneration of certain historical figures. With this, the hidden adult is no longer hidden, as the creator’s visions are openly available to all who know. For those familiar with PragerU, the adult creators of Leo and Layla's History Adventures become visible adults: writers, producers and animators who use their idea of acceptable childlikeness to further an explicitly conservative agenda. This makes the concept of the hidden adult an idea that hinges on the outspokenness of the author in question, as well as the audience's familiarity with the specific opinions and aims of an author or production team.
In summary, the episode Leo and Layla Meet Christopher Columbus of the children’s show Leo and Layla’s History Adventures is an example of children’s media in which the hidden adult is no longer hidden. Although the creator’s ideas of acceptable childlikeness can be inferred from the gender-conforming, curious, easily confused and conservative ideas in the portrayal of Leo and Layla, the episode’s creators are no longer hidden when considering PragerU’s branding as a conservative media organization. Suddenly, instead of hiding, the adult creators are in full view. The episode espouses a conservative position on the ideas of acceptable childlikeness and what children should think about holidays based on controversial historical figures. When placed in the context of PragerU’s intention to battle the ‘’woke agenda’’, the episode becomes part of a media intervention aimed at popularizing conservative opinions. For PragerU, children are allowed to question the worship of historical figures. Yet, children should still accept this veneration, while ignoring the unpleasant factual history associated with them.
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