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Little Founders on the Small Screen: Interpreting a Multicultural American Revolution for Children's Television

  • ANDREW M. SCHOCKET (a1)
Abstract

From 2002 to 2004, the children's animated series Liberty's Kids aired on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the United States' public television network. It runs over forty half-hour episodes and features a stellar cast, including such celebrities as Walter Cronkite, Michael Douglas, Yolanda King, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liam Neeson, and Annette Bening. Television critics generally loved it, and there are now college students who can trace their interest in the American Revolution to having watched this series when they were children. At the turn of the twenty-first century, it is the most extended and in-depth encounter with the American Revolution that most young people in the United States are likely to have encountered, and is appropriately patriotic and questioning, celebratory and chastening. Although children certainly learn a great deal about multiculturalism from popular culture, the tropes and limitations of depicting history on television trend toward personification, toward reduced complexity and, for children, toward resisting examining the darker sides of human experience. As this essay suggests, the genre's limits match the limits of a multicultural history in its attempt to show diversity and agency during a time when “liberty and justice for all” proved to be more apt as an aspiration at best and an empty slogan at worst than as an accurate depiction of the society that proclaimed it. This essay is not an effort to be, as Robert Sklar put it, a “historian cop,” policing the accuracy of the series by patrolling for inaccuracies. Rather, it is a consideration of the inherent difficulties of trying to apply a multicultural sensibility to a portrayal of the American Revolution.

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1 This and all subsequent references to the content of the series are based upon the DVD release of the entire series in fall 2008: Liberty's Kids the Complete Series, DVD (Shout! Factory, 2002).

2 For critical reaction to the series see Judith S. Gillies, “That's the Way It Is … in the 1770s,” Washington Post, 25 Aug. 2002, sec. TV Week; Ernest Hooper, “U.S. History PBS-Style Great for You and Your Kids,” St. Petersburg Times (Florida), 25 Dec. 2003; M. S. Mason, “Pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Kids,” Christian Science Monitor, 30 Aug. 2002; Kathryn Shattuck, “Voices of Freedom, and of Its Anchors,” New York Times, 10 Nov. 2002, Section 13, Column 1, Television, 55; Jonathan Storm, “‘Liberty's Kids’: History Lessons, Prehistoric Animation,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Sept. 2002; Kevin D. Thompson, “‘Liberty's Kids’ track the American Revolution,” Cox News Service, 29 Aug. 2002.

3 G. R. Edgerton, “Introduction: Television as Historian: A Different Kind Of History Altogether,” in G. R. Edgerton and Peter C. Rollins, eds., Television Histories: Shaping Collective Memory in the Media Age (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 1–18; for a perspective on where contemporary Americans encounter history see Michael Frisch, “American History and the Structures of Collective Memory: A Modest Exercise in Empirical Iconography,” Journal of American History, 75, 4 (March 1989), 1130–55.

4 This has always been true of treatments of the American Revolution for children. See Taxel, Joel, “The American Revolution in Children's Fiction: An Analysis of Historical Meaning and Narrative Structure,” Curriculum Inquiry, 14, 1 (Spring 1984), 755.

5 “CPB: Public Broadcasting Act of 1967,” http://www.cpb.org/aboutpb/act/text.html.

6 Carlos E. Cortés, The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach about Diversity (New York: Teachers College Press, 2000), 70–90.

7 Sklar, Robert, “Review: Historical Films: Scofflaws and the Historian-Cop,” Reviews in American History, 25, 2 (June 1997), 346–50.

8 The historiography on these topics is vast. For syntheses of African Americans, women, and Native Americans during the Revolutionary period see, respectively, Douglas R. Egerton, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Joan R. Gundersen, To Be Useful to the World: Women in Revolutionary America, 1740–1790, rev. edn (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Colin G. Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

9 Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007); Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (London: BBC Books, 2005).

10 Robby London, “Producing Children's Television,” in J. Alison Bryant, ed., The Children's Television Community (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007), 78–80.

11 Brian Ward, A Revolutionary Tale: A Look Back at ‘Liberty's Kids’, DVD (DIC Entertainment, 2008).

12 Kevin O'Donnell, interview with author, telephone, 5 Feb. 2009.

13 Jordan, Amy B. and Woodard IV, Emory H., “Growing Pains: Children's Television in the New Regulatory Environment,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 557 (May 1998), 8395; Kunkel, Dale, “They Call This Educational?,” Broadcasting & Cable, 134, 37 (2004), 36; idem, “Policy Battles over Defining Children's Educational Television,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 557 (May 1998), 39–53.

14 Michael Maliani, interview with author, telephone, 18 Feb. 2009.

15 Doug McIntyre, interview with author, telephone, 24 Feb. 2009. Among other topics, McIntyre was and is particularly interested in the Wright brothers, publishing two articles on them in the mid-1990s: Doug McIntyre, “Wings for Man,” American History Illustrated, Feb. 1994; idem, “Odyssey of the Flyer,” American History Illustrated, Feb. 1994.

16 Jack Rakove is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1997). Gordon Berry, then a professor of education and media studies at UCLA, had long consulted for television networks on children's programming, beginning with a formal role in developing Fat Albert with Bill Cosby in the early 1970s. B. Merritt, “Bill Cosby: TV Auteur?”, in Harry B. Shaw, ed., Perspectives of Black Popular Culture (Bowling Green, OH: BGSU Popular Press, 1990), 131.

17 Walt Disney Productions and Walt Disney Home Video (Firm), Ben and Me (Walt Disney Home Video, 1953); Johnny Tremain (Walt Disney Home Video, 1997).

18 Jennifer Lupinacci to Andrew M. Schocket, “Liberty's Kids,” 14 May 2009.

19 McAvoy, Kim, “Public Broadcasters Go on Offense,” Broadcasting & Cable, 124, 51 (19 Dec. 1994), 48; Irvin Molotsky, “One Tough Bird, After All: How Public Broadcasting Survived the Attacks of Conservatives,” New York Times, 27 Nov. 1997, sec. E.

20 “DIC Entertainment and PBS Announce the Debut of ‘Liberty's Kids,’ A Revolutionary Animated Series; Walter Cronkite to Portray Benjamin Franklin,” PR Newswire, 23 June 2001.

21 Lupinacci to Schocket, “Liberty's Kids.” McAvoy, 48; Molotsky; L. Simensky, “Programming Children's Television: The PBS Model,” in Bryant, The Children's Television Community, 131–46; “DIC Entertainment and PBS Announce the Debut of ‘Liberty's Kids,’”.

22 Kevin O'Donnell, interview with author, telephone, 6 Feb. 2009; McIntyre, interview with author.

23 Jack Rakove, interview with author, telephone, 21 Feb. 2009.

24 Lupinacci to Schocket, “Liberty's Kids.”

25 O'Donnell, interview with author, 5 Feb. 2009; Maliani, interview with author.

26 Jocelyn Longworth, “Kid Moguls Converge to Draft Children's Production Guidelines,” Kidscreen, 1 Nov. 1999, http://www.kidscreen.com/articles/magazine/19991101/27104.html.

27 Mediascope, “Special Considerations for Creators of Children's Media,” Mediascope, 11 Aug. 2004, http://web.archive.org/web/20040811075944/http://www.mediascope.org/pubs/scccm.htm.

28 McIntyre, interview with author.

29 James Oliver Horton, “Slavery in American History: An Uncomfortable National Dialogue,” in James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton, eds., Slavery and Public Hisory: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 35–56.

30 O'Donnell, interview with author, 6 Feb. 2009.

31 McIntyre, interview with author.

32 Lupinacci to Schocket, “Liberty's Kids.”

33 Rakove, interview with author.

34 Lupinacci to Schocket, “Liberty's Kids.”

35 McIntyre, interview with author.

36 Rakove, interview with author.

37 “James Lafayette,” in Harold E Selesky, ed., Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History, 2nd edn, Volume 2 (Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006), 597.

38 “Liberty's Kids Special Web Only Exclusives,” Shout! Factory – Music, Movies and Video for the discerning Pop Culture Geek, http://www.shoutfactory.com/video/wip/8/libertys_kids_special_web_only_exclusive.aspx.

39 Ruth Holmes Whitehead and Carmelita A. M. Robertson, eds., The Life of Boston King: Black Loyalist, Minister and Master Carpenter (Halifax, NS: Nova Scotia Museum and Nimbus Pub, 2003).

40 Lupinacci to Schocket, “Liberty's Kids”; O'Donnell, interview with author, 6 Feb. 2009.

41 McIntyre, interview with author.

42 “The Liberty Forum:: View topic – An interview with Kevin O'Donnell,” The Liberty Forum, 10 Oct. 2003, http://web.archive.org/web/20031010180338/www.rpgdarkside.com/libertyskids/forum/viewtopic.php?t=127; McIntyre, interview with author.

43 McIntyre, interview with author.

44 Jonathan Sarna, Benny Kraut, and Samuel K. Joseph, eds., Jews and the Founding of the Republic (New York: M. Wiener Pub., 1985), 22, 37–38; Ellen Smith and Jonathan D. Sarna, “Introduction,” in ed. George M Goodwin and Ellen Smith, eds., The Jews of Rhode Island (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2004), 3; Holly Snyder to Andrew M. Schocket, “Moses Michael Hays,” 19 Jan. 2010.

45 O'Donnell, interview with author, telephone, 5 Feb. 2009.

46 Mimi White analyzes a character very similar to (if slightly older than) Sarah and describes the portrayal as multicultural postfeminist in “Masculinity and Feminity in Television's Historical Fictions: ‘Young Indiana Jones Chronicles’ and ‘Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman’,” in Edgerton and Rollins, Television Histories, 37–58; Tony Wilson, Watching Television: Hermeneutics, Reception, and Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 1993), 33–39.

47 Frederic Kidder and John Adams, History of the Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770 (Albany: J. Munsell, 1870), 255.

48 The Crossing (A&E Home Video, 2002).

49 As several observers note, some television narrative structures have become quite complex, regardless of the depth of the underlying material. See Mittell, Jason, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” Velvet Light Trap, 58, 1 (2006), 2940; Kristin Thompson, Storytelling in Film and Television (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1–35.

50 S. Anderson, “History TV and Popular Memory,” in Edgerton and Rollins, Television Histories, 19–36.

51 Wineburg, Sam and Monte-Sano, Chauncey, “‘Famous Americans’: The Changing Pantheon of American Heroes,” Journal of American History, 94, 4 (March 2008), 11861202.

52 Rakove, interview with author; McIntyre, interview with author.

53 To some extent, the irrationality of revolting against a government “by the people and for the people” reflects the interpretation of Edmund Sears Morgan, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (New York: Norton, 1988).

54 Gordon S. Wood, The American Revolution: A History, Modern library edn, (New York: Modern Library, 2002).

55 John E. Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Edward Countryman, The American Revolution, rev. ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003).

56 Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (New York: Viking, 2005); Ray Raphael, A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (New York: New Press, 2001).

57 Egerton, Death or Liberty, 14; Wim Klooster, Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 195–200.

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Journal of American Studies
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