The Power of Imagination: Valuing Children's Connections to Media Icons

March 07, 2024

Jarvis is an eight year old boy, obsessed with Star Wars. He has blond hair, a green light saber and he can ‘use the force’. Through his video games and hours spent watching the Star Wars movies, Jarvis in himself, believes in some real way that he is Luke Skywalker. He sees a figure fighting the evils of the dark side for the good of the Universe. This helps him make sense of the world and has become a measure for understanding ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in the real world.

Children’s interactions with culture and media deserve to be taken seriously. Often, children and young people find that their passions are dismissed and devalued by adults, whether it is a TV show, a film franchise, a band - children’s interests are often infantilised, sidelined, and treated as a meaningless ‘past-time’.

Meanwhile, children themselves profess that media matters. In speaking to children over the years about the media they love, I have heard them speak about the sense of connectedness they feel, the excitement and inspiration they draw from the experience of engaging with various media, and the extent to which their favourite shows, films, songs, and artists form a meaningful part of their lives. One 13-year-old girl reflected on the sense of companionship that comes with watching films and TV shows, “You feel connected to the characters. You really care about them… you really feel for them.”

Children explore stories that reflect their own lives that pose new and exciting possibilities. They connect with role models, heroes, and endless imagination that speaks to them in many different ways. They often see themselves in the media they engage with, and through this reflection, they gain a better understanding of who they are and who they might yet become.

Lately, Taylor Swift has been the topic of many conversations, particularly in Australia with the advent of her Eras tour in Australia. Swift has also been the focus of the ‘Swiftposium’, a conference focused on conversations about the artist’s influence and impact. Many children and young people are thrilled to see Swift visit Australia, and for those who were fortunate enough to get tickets, it is an exciting chance to experience Swift in the flesh as an extension of themselves.

Swift is an important case study in the ways in which children interact with media: they bring many different perspectives and passions; they engage with enthusiasm; they develop expertise and amass knowledge about the star, her works, and her many accomplishments. As many parents and educators can attest, a lot of children are excited about Swift and want to talk about the lore surrounding her. The question is: are we listening?

In collaboration with the Curtin University Gender Research Networks, and my colleagues Elizabeth Baca and Associate Professor Samantha Owen, I am undertaking a project which examines Swift and her relevance and significance in the gender research space. We will explore multiple perspectives about Swift and how her works illuminate different ideas about girlhood, womanhood, and femininity. Critical to our project is working with children. To erase their voices here would be an unfortunate omission: children have a lot to say about Swift. They have ideas and points of view that are worthy of our time and attention.

This is true of children’s perspectives across the board. Children ought to have a say about all issues that impact upon their lives. In the past, I have worked with children to seek their perspectives about play, school, their wellbeing, and the climate crisis. Much of this work has been undertaken in partnership with the Valuing Children Initiative, which strives to create greater societal awareness of children and their needs. In considering children, who they are, and how they live in our world, there is much opportunity to take the time to talk with them, to truly listen, and to try to understand how they feel across a range of different topics.

In speaking to children about an artist like Swift, adults can get curious and creative. There is opportunity for families to have fun with thinking about Swift, and for educators to engage in innovative practice – for example, Swiftposium included a focus on pedagogical possibilities, teaching poetry, and media literacy. Perhaps more importantly, we can connect with the children in our lives and allow them to take us on a ‘child’s-eye view’, about Swift or about anything else that inspires our children and brings joy into their lives.

As with all matters relating to children, young people, and their lives, it is essential that we as adults seek to listen and learn. By honouring children and young people in this way, we can bolster their sense of belonging in our communities and we can build trust with them. In doing so, we set ourselves up for success in supporting and protecting children. This way, we can establish a sense of connectedness which is vital for children’s sense of self, their pride in who they are, their wellbeing and their rights.

Insights from Associate Professor Madeline Dobson VCI Ambassador