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ESSAY ‘Dogmeat’ | Producer

Dogmeat | Media Essay

 

Glyn Roberts | MKA Producer
September, 2010

An Essay on the Reporting of the Incident

Swollen in head, weak in legs, sharp in tongue but empty in belly.
MAO TSE-TUNG

This essay will attempt to discuss and analyse the discourses of childhood used in a report published in the UK newspaper; The Daily Mail. In early 2010, the Chinese toddler Lao Lu was repeatedly chained to a lamppost outside a shopping centre in suburban Beijing whilst his rickshaw driving father and mentally handicapped garbage collecting mother scoured the city for work. His Father told the newspaper Lao Lu was chained for his own protection. Leaving him alone in the tiny family home was out of the question, due to his parents very real fears that he would be kidnapped by child snatchers to whom Lao Lus sister has already fallen prey. Lao Lu being too young for school (2 years old) and the family being too poor to afford childcare (the family were disallowed state subsidised care because they are not native to the region; migrating from the Szechuan province in search of work), Lao Lus father felt that he had no choice but to chain the toddler securely to a lamp post, while he and his wife made a living (Mail Online Feb 2010).On first glance, one could be forgiven for understanding this article to be enlightening the reader on a discourse of cultural relativism, by gesturing to an apparent gap that lies between ideas of childhood held in China and in the UK where the article was written. The article presents China as a land that defies every concept of childhood the West has, by allowing a child to be put in this position, and shows the West writing about this incident with shocked and rather condescending cultural superiority. One only has to look at the headline of the article: Childcare, Chinese style (Mail Online Feb 2010). It is obvious that by childcare the Daily Mail is inferring quite the reverse, or the lack thereof. But is there a childhood presented here that is entirely specific to time, place and culture that confounds any discourse of childhood being universally understood as a period of innocence in everyones lives? (White 1999, p.133) Perhaps, on the surface, it breaks with the UN convention on childs rights, particularly Article 32 which states… State parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the childs education or be harmful to the childs health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development (White 1999, p.133).

Although Lao Lu is not working explicitly, it could be said that he is being exploited by work, as his fathers need to work is hindering his health and well being by being placed in the street, alone and chained up. One could easily say that this is the complete reverse of what sociologist Viviana Zelizer has called the priceless child, the child whose value stood apart from the economy, who literally had no price attached to his or her being(Fass 2003, p.966). But I believe that the situation presents Lao Lu as exactly that, a priceless child, and that his parents idea of childhood is one that flies closer to the Western idea of childhood as a time of innocence and vulnerability, than the Daily Mail is willing to admit (Fass 2003, p.967).

The method in which Lao Lus father has decided to protect his child could be seen not as a sign of his divergent view on childhood, but as his adherence, to the best of his abilities, to it. The reason perhaps why one is instinctively led to condemn the actions of Lao Lus parents is because we are seeing Western ideas of childhood not disregarded, but viewed through the challenges of poverty, priority, necessity and economics that Lao Lu and his parents have to face every day (Fass 2003, p.968);(Russell, Harris & Gockel 2008, p.97). Also we see the Wests idealization of the private sphere of the home, which according to Jeni Harden, has been a central feature of (western) modernity (Harden 2000, p.47), inverted as it is in Lao Lus case not a safe place. Lao Lus fathers idea of the childhood that he wants his son to have might be in line with what Fass describes as a childhood freed from labour and devoted to individual development and play; a protected period of innocence sheltered from the cares of adults(Fass 2003, p.965), i.e. a universal experience. But cultural specifics dictate the situation in which Lao Lu can even begin to enjoy this. Fass writes that every society must have and raise children to survive, and seeks to protect them in a fashion, and what is displayed in this article is just that, a father protecting his child in a fashion (Fass 2003, p.964). This article shows us the interplay between the universal experience of childhood and the culturally specific, not their dichotomy.

This sad story still challenges the Western idea of the public/private dichotomy, with the public being unsafe for our children and the private being safe and synonymous with ideas of the home (Harden 2000, p.44). Instead, to protect his child, the father is relying on the realm of the sociable, as a corridor between the public and the private where there is a parochial social order of communality that will protect the child from further harm (Harden 2000, p.45). It is these points of cultural specificity that are foreign to Western conceptions of childhood and serve to possibly blind to the reader of this article to the sad reality of a parents attempt to preserve a childs universal experience of childhood with the only means available.

The discourses on childhood in this article are superficially ones of cultural relativity and the Western medias assumption of historical and cultural superiority when it comes to an understanding of childhood. But when one delves beneath the articles initial polarisation of Western and developing world norms, one discovers the discourse of childhood approached as a universal experience. The experience of the childhood itself however, is dependent on cultural and economic specifics.

PRODUCER OF DOGMEAT, GLYN ROBERTS

REFERENCES

Fass, P 2003, Children and Globalization, Journal of Social History, Vol.36, No.4, pp.963-977

Harden, J 2000, Theres no place like home: The Public/Private distinctions in Childrens theorizing of risk and safety, Childhood, Vol.7, pp.43-59

Holloway, S & Valentine, G 2000, Spatiality and the New Social Studies of Childhood, Sociology, Vol.34, pp.763 783

Lancey, D. F. 2008, The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, Chattels, Changelings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp.1-23

Liebel, M 2003, Working Children as Social Subjects: the Contribution of Working Childrens Organizations to Social Transformations, Childhood, No.10, pp.265-285

Mail Online Feb 2010, Childcare, Chinese style: Rickshaw driver chains two-year-old son to a post while he’s at work, viewed at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1248252/Chinese-boy-chained-lamp-post-dad.html, viewed 15 May 2010 Redmond, G 2008, Child poverty and child rights: Edging towards a definition, Journal of Children and Poverty, Vol 14, No.1, pp.63-82

Russell, M,. Harris, B & Gockel, A 2008, Parenting in Poverty: Perspective of high-risk parents, Journal of Children and Poverty, vol.14, No.1, pp.83-98

Ryan P 2008, How New is the New Social Study of Childhood? The Myth of a Paradigm Shift, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol.38, No.4, pp.553-573

White, B 1999, Defining the Intolerable: Child Work, Global Standards and Cultural Relativism, Childhood, Vol.6, pp.133-144