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The metaphors of Woody Woodpecker

Research analyzes the effects of the ideology of animated designs on children

Over the last 20 years the fonoaudiologist, pedagogue and psychologist Dr. Elza Dias Pacheco has dedicated herself to the study of those which normally leave parents and educators with their hair standing on end. During the decade of the 80’s, having agreed to attend to children in her consultancy, in which she developed the activity of language therapy, Dr. Elza began to become occupied with the effect that the high number of hours in front of a television could have on the children at the age of basic learning and alphabetization. That is to say, those between the ages of 5 and 11 years. “I was worried that the ideology of the programs and cartoons was prejudicial to them.” said the researcher, today a teacher/professor at the School of Communications and Art of the University of São Paulo (ECA/USP).

Dr. Elza’s preoccupation, at that time, resulted in her doctorate thesis which she transformed into a book Woody Woodpecker: Hero or villain? Social representation of the Child and Dominant Reproduction of Ideology (Editor Loyola). Last year, with the support of FAPESP, she finished the research Animated design on the TV: Myths, Symbols, and Metaphors .

Organized by the Research Laboratory on Childhood, Imaginary and Communication (Lapic), which Dr. Elza directs at ECA, the research deepened the understanding developed by the professor about the relationship between the child and the television. The work was carried out with the help of scholarship students of scientific novitiate and specialization. The contribution of R$ 14,000 by FAPESP was a grant directed towards permanent and technical reserve material.

Dominant ideology
The research developed by Lapic based itself on interviews with 311 children from 5 to 11 years of age, resident in São Paulo. Some time before, when she had done her research for her doctorate, Dr. Elza had surprised herself by noting that, after intense acquaintanceship and the work of interviewing children in public schools, which, contrary to what she had thought, the dominant ideology present in the cartoon designs in general had not influencedthe mind of the children. However, she had already noted during that research, that the preference was always for North American cartoons, principally Woody Woodpecker, number one on the list of favorites.

It is not really so strange. In the decade of the 80’s, Brazil still did not have cable TV and the designs of Japanese origin had not become a mania among the youngsters. The observation of the professor had been confirmed when she had visited Spain at the beginning of the 90’s, when she had done her post doctorate at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. “There Woody Woodpecker was the favorite and the Spanish were more globalized, the children saw cartoons form all around the world.” Related Dr. Elza.

The discovery led her to question if the myths, symbols and the metaphors present in traditional cartoons such as Woody Woodpecker and others, were, as well as being the favorites, able to remain for a long time in the children’s preference, whilst technological cartoons and those of oriental origin caused great interest, but it was short-lived. To study the nuances of these myths, she made use of, together with her researchers, a methodology which involves reflections of various psychological thinkers, in education and culture such as Freud, Piaget, Vigotsky, Melanie Klein, Winnicott and many more.

Clown’s clothes
The interviews were carried out in the public parks of Ibirapuera, Previdência, Água Branca, Independência and Aclimação in São Paulo. To attract the children, the interviewers dressed in clown’s clothes. “The environment of the park is appropriate because the more freedom the child feels, the more freely he will speak.” Explained Dr. Elza. When she took her doctorate, she first of all spend some time as a teacher in the schools, afterwards she carried out interviews, and when she already knew the favorite cartoons of the children, she showed some of the favorite episodes, in order to find out what were the motives as to why the children adored them so.

Woody Woodpecker also headed the list of favorites in the research carried out by Lapic, which was done between August of 1997 and December of 1999. “Children adore Woody Woodpecker because he is small, good looking, has pretty colors and distinctive calls; as well as this, he is lazy, very smart, does everything he wants to do and defends what is his.” Analyzed Dr. Elza. On the list of favorites, Woody Woodpecker had 82 votes, followed by Goofy with 70, Bugs Bunny with 58, The Mask with 42, and the Japanese Yu Yu Hakusho with 41.

It was noted once again that the North American and traditional cartoons, many of them having been created in the decade of the 40’s such as Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny, were ahead of the Japanese cartoons which appeared in fifth place. There are various reasons for this to happen, according to the explanation of the professor. “The child at this age still has not got the conditions to organize a group of many people and the Japanese cartoons have many personalities whilst the North Americans are more focused on the main character itself.” she explained.

As well as this, she stated, in the Japanese cartoons there is a difficulty in identifying who is the hero. The language, based on the use of various close-ups and lots of movement, in the strong contrast between light and dark and in the strong notion of depth, makes the understanding difficult for the child between 5 and 11 years of age.

Small heroes
However, finally, what myths, symbols and metaphors are in the cartoons such as Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, Goofy and The Mask? “In the first place, the hero, the winner, is always small.” said the researcher. “And it is to the small hero that the child self identifies.” Immediately after, she affirmed, comes the question of good and evil, always present in these cartoons. “In general, the antagonist is never good, as he always begins by wanting to take something from the protagonist, such as in the case of Tom and Gerry. Tom is always after Gerry and Gerry is the little one.” In the same way, the favorite Woody Woodpecker, commented the professor, is as well a dubious personality. “He is aggressive, but only attacks who is provoking him.”

The transformation of the personalities is another item which makes these cartoons the most popular. The fact that Ipkiss can transform himself into the Mask has the significance for the child of power and magic. “It can be compared with the magician of the circus who takes what he wants from the top hat.” As well, the non-existence of death calls the attention of the children. “This is part of Western culture, because we adults are accustomed to hiding death from children as we are not prepared for it.” she said. The same does not happen in the culture and the cartoons of the orient, another factor which results in the children keeping themselves at a distance from the Japanese episodes.

Psychological time
The notion of time in the American cartoons is also important for the children. “Metronome time doesn’t exist, only psychological time.” explained Dr. Elza, and this, stated the professor, has a lot to do with the reality of the child. “If he is playing and is called for lunch, he is furious because he is being taken from a moment of pleasure.” It might not appear so, but the carrot of Bugs Bunny is an important element, as well as other objects of self esteem, shall we say, personality. “We are speaking of transitional objects, as the nickname Winnicott, which represents the personality himself.” explained Dr. Elza. “And there is also what I call “support'” crutches.

Nobody would believe in Bugs Bunny if he appeared without his carrot.” analyzed the researcher. Other symbols which contribute to the preference of certain cartoons are in the world of fantasy. For example, the transgression of order, which does not normally happen in real life. “For the child chaos doesn’t exist. Who coordinates the world is the adult; therefore he adores it when sees a transgression of order.” In the same way, it is delightful for the child to see animals acting with personality, as if they were human beings. “The child adores the anthropomorphization.” she affirmed.

The teacher and professor defends the use of cartoons in the educational process, even within schools. “Terror, for example, it is important for the children to understand that in the world there exist things which are not good.” she affirmed. “We have the tendency to want to protect our children from terror, but they defend themselves naturally from this, covering their eyes when the scenes are very frightening.” she said. Another use for cartoons is to provide situations from which one can teach about love and respect for others. “Our cartoons, in general, have a defense of oneself and a treatment of others as strangers.” This has to be worked at by the family and even in the school.

According to Dr. Elza, the partnership of FAPESP in relation to the conclusions of Lapic indicate that the study is apt to be published,and should turn into a book. More than acontribution towards a reflection about the relationship between children and television at a time when this means of communication appears to be more important even than other human relationships in the universe of the child, the study of Lapic is visionary in the sense of considering the child as a historic being and not someone who is always owing, to whom it only remains to ask what they are going to do when they grow up.

The irresistible Japanese invasion

The classics would appear to be the favorites of the infantile public as well when the question is about comic strips. At least during the more tender years, or during the period of alphabetization. That is what Gal Ferreira says, and she has been responsible for the course of comic strips at SESC-Pompéia, in São Paulo for the last 17 years. “It is customary to have an evolution in the taste that the children have for comic strips.” said the professor.

“A few years ago the preference was always for the comics with Walt Disney characters. With time, Disney was substituted by Maurício de Souza, who as well overtook the American in terms of sales.” narrated the comic strip artist. However, she analyzed, when the children turn into adolescents, around 12 years of age, they normally abandon the classics and divide themselves among the great heroes – the most sought after at the moment are X-Men, The Spaw and Batman who is for ever returning – and the mangás, the Japanese comic strips, from which came the animés, or that is, the Japanese animated cartoons.

“The great Oriental hero of the youngsters is Akira, a character who lives in the future, in the year 2050.” she related. A portion of these youngsters, a small part, remain with the classics such as Asterix and Tin Tin. For her, the taste both for comic strips and for Japanese animated cartoons is restricted to a public which is almost specialized in them. “Those who read mangás don’t read any other kind of comic strip.” she stated. In Japan, the mangás are written for all age groups, from children of 9 years of age up until men and women, with stories specially written for and directed towards the young university public and others exclusively for young girls.

The project
TV Cartoons: Myths, Symbols and Metaphors (nº 97/10054-6); Modality
Assistant research project; Coordinator Dr. Elza Dias Pachedo – School of Communication and Arts of the University of São Paulo (ECA/USP); Investment R$ 14,000.00