Double Exposure (7): Free-Range Children

By: Joshua Glenn
August 20, 2009


“The domestic beast has been bred to special purpose; the tame animal is a wild thing brought to heel. The feral creature, by contrast, is a domesticated animal living without the intercession of man, beyond the bounds of our species’ habitus.” So writes Matthew Battles in an early post. Several advertisements in middlebrow periodicals recently suggest that this schema might be applicable not only to dogs and dingos, but to children — as represented, that is, by the MBM.

A pride of feral "Gen X" youth depicted in 1990

Americans born between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s — i.e., the Revivalist Generation and the Social Darwikians — were, in their youth, collectively labeled “Generation Y,” by a middlebrow media (MBM) eager to distinguish them from the more obdurate and recalcitrant so-called Generation X. [Above: a pride of feral “Gen X” youth.]

A herd of domesticated "Gen Y" youth, circa 1998

If members of “Generation X” (actually younger OGXers and older Reconstructionists) had gone feral, and were therefore of no use to society, there remained some hope for their juniors — who’ve been portrayed with great admiration, by the MBM, as a Greatest Generation-like cohort of content, hard-working, well-adjusted, easy-to-teach-and-train citizens: i.e., as domesticated beasts. [Above: a herd of domesticated “Gen Y” youth.]


And what of the latest crop of young Americans? Those children born — like my own — between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s? How are they being portrayed by the MBM? The domestication of children has gone too far, one now learns from MBM magazine stories and op-eds, in Dangerous Books for Boys and Girls, on mommy blogs and from NPR. What’s required are alternadads and slacker moms, who will not helicopter parent but instead let kids be kids. Which is just what the kids shown in the three advertisements displayed in this post are being.


Not that today’s children should be permitted to go feral, like the so-called Gen Xers were! No, we’ve learned our lesson. Alternadads are not absentee dads; slacker moms may not helicopter parent, but neither do they neglect their children. Somewhere between feral and domesticated is the sweet spot. Following Battles’ schema, let’s call today’s children (as depicted by the MBM) tame. Or even: free-range. Like chickens allowed to exit their cages once in a while by Burger King’s suppliers. Whom we might as well call… parents.


MORE SEMIOSIS at HILOBROW: Towards a Cultural Codex | CODE-X series | DOUBLE EXPOSURE Series | CECI EST UNE PIPE series | Star Wars Semiotics | Icon Game | Meet the Semionauts | Show Me the Molecule | Science Fantasy | Inscribed Upon the Body | The Abductive Method | Enter the Samurai | Semionauts at Work | Roland Barthes | Gilles Deleuze | Félix Guattari | Jacques Lacan | Mikhail Bakhtin | Umberto Eco

What do you think?

  1. That’s right, they’re tame–like exotic birds; we let them squawk all we want, but we do clip their wings (it’s painless).

  2. Tangent: I’m slightly shocked that you were able to find an example of an ad where a little girl gets dirty; usually there’s also a creepy undertone of “Oh, goodness, these boys and their messes — good thing Mom (who is of course the only person in the household expected to do laundry) has this magical detergent!”

  3. Yeah, Sara, the last time we saw kids this dirty was in the Eighties — and it was invariably boys being cleaned up by their moms. Like in this ad. We’ve come a long way! Now moms can also clean up after their daughters.

    Matthew — tame kids are like those birds whose wings may not be clipped, but who won’t fly away even if you leave the cage door open.

  4. … like the golden retrievers of Jamaica Plain, who walk themselves round the pond with the ends of their leashes in their mouths.

  5. There’s a global laundry brand (not in the US) that uses the idea of kids getting messy as a basic human right. This places the parent in an irrenconcilable pendulum between encouraging dirt and washing dirt. It’s sold a lot of washing powder.

    It was much clearer being brought up by a Jewish mildly micro-phobic Father who inferred that Nature was out to get you and was best avoided. I still try to maintain this attitude with my children but they find it unpalatable, as they are of the Free Range Variety themselves and reject me as a paranoid fool.

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