Sunday, 8 April 2012

Visual Images as Research Material



These two emotionally moving photos alert the audience to the desperate conditions of working children who are being robbed of both their childhood and dignity. Or do they? 

Holland asserts that images are mostly attractive, easy, “unemphatic” in its omnipresence and only occasionally shocking and remarkable (2004, p.1). The photos central to this paper however are neither easy nor unemphatic, but are clearly screaming for the attention of the audience and society, fulfilling in the intention of documentary photography, the genre to which the untitled Image 1 belongs to. The photo is simultaneously silent in the absence of a title, and loud in depicting the horror of child labour. The photo is shocking and remarkable as meaning making artefact and as a work of genius in light, tone and composition by the hugely talented, award winning photographer, 33 year old Bangladeshi GMB Akash. The photo is simultaneously gritty hands and smooth handle, out of focus body and pin sharp hands. The blurred gaze is straight and steady. The photo is a masterpiece of contrasts and contradictions. The photo is human life, the life of a child, the hands of a labourer. This is 8 year old Abjiheet[1], working 10 hours a day in a rickshaw parts making factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, earning 8 USD per month (Zoriah Photojournalist, 2009). 

Haraway in Rose discusses street photography, the genre to which Image 2 belongs “There is a kind of macho power being celebrated in that account of street photography, in its reiteration of toughness” (2001, p12). Photography however, is not merely an account of the way things really look like, as argued by some practitioners (Rose, 2001). Doing visual analysis demands a critical lens on images steeped in cultural significance, depicting social practice and power relations alike. Image 2 defies not only the macho toughness evident in the majority of street photography, but also the meaning making of the innocent audience. Even though street photography shares with documentary photography the desire to picture life as it apparently is, little is what it appears at first glance in this photo. The image is simultaneously gritty urban and smooth body, out of focus photo and steady gaze. Instead of depicting a “poor, oppressed or marginalized individual”, such as the child labourer in Image 1, the photo is a candid account of the richness of life (Rose 2001, p.13). This is Babai, a young boy from Calcutta India, not dirty as child labourer, but clean as spiritual being, drenched in colour pigments in celebration of Holi, the Hindu festival of colours. Babai was photographed by 10 year old Kochi from Calcutta, India, a child who uses the camera to escape the tragic surroundings of the red light district in which she was born and raised. A girl described as shy and sweet defies the audience expectations of what it takes to be a street photographer in a challenging, often dangerous environment. Kochi is shaping her own childhood and a quality of life; she is active agent living in the present. Kochi is one of a few children who were given cameras as participants in the documentary film Born into Brothels, a tribute to the resiliency of childhood and the restorative power of art (Kids with Cameras 2004). 

Whilst GMB Akash “pictures the relatively powerless to the relatively powerful” (Rose 2001, p.14), and alert the world to the plight of child labourers and potentially other underlying social, political and economical inequities, the power belongs to Kochi. What appears to be dynamic with “jagged fragments” (Rose, 2001) through the lens of her camera becomes fluid curves through the gaze of her eye. Holland (2004) stresses that it is not always easy to make sense of a picture in the absence of text since text direct the viewer towards an array of possible meanings. Whilst this rings true for Babai, the same cannot be said for the photo by GMB Akash. The image is brutal and powerful in its meaning, undeniably provoking the attention of an audience. The absence of text only serves to enhance the meaning making process. In her video-ethnographic research, Sparrman (2006) who studied conversations held between 16-18 year old secondary school pupils, after they watched the emotionally charged and distressing film Lilya 4-ever, highlighted intersections between language, image, identity and social. Holland (2004) refers to the mapping of social, political and emotional worlds. Both the images in this paper are highly effective as researchable material, gaining attention through visual dialogue, verbal discourse and critical reflection. The result is activism through the genre of documentary photography and social action through street journalism. Kids with Cameras gave rise to similar projects in Haiti, Jerusalem and Cairo. “Pictures of children contribute to a set of narratives about childhood which are threaded through different cultural forms, drawing on every possible source to construct stories that become part of cultural competence” (Holland 2004, p.3). Neither photos present a static “set of practices”; both “produce and exchange meanings” (Hall in Rose 2001, p.6). 

The cause of Children - From falling through the cracks to being put on the map

From the beginning of humankind children have been subjected to unbearable heartache and misery but also incredible love and care. This is the poignant tale of the history of the rights of the child that lays bare the inhumane conditions children has had to endure during the industrial era and factory age, the world wars and global recessions.  This is also the story of hope and believe in our children and relieve for their existence, their conditions on earth.  From falling through the cracks to being put on the map - the cause for the right of the child, the response of humanity - is outlined in this paper. 

Black’s remark of the lives of children takes the reader straight to the core of the issue “Nothing sounds simpler than helping improve the lives of children. In fact, as every parent knows who stops to think about it, nothing could be more challenging or more complex” (1996A, p.15). The world is in agreement that humankind owes children their rights, according to the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, the best they can give. Economical and technological progress after the devastation of the world wars and the great depression highlighted co-operation amongst individuals, families, groups and within nations, and eventually also international co-operation: “the United Nations” (Black 1996A, p.15-16). 

With the rise of multinational companies and international organisations, the world shrank from size medium to size small. On 11 December 1946 the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) was established by resolution of the UN General Assembly (Black 1996A, p.15).  Unicef faced a mammoth mission focussing initially on developed states to aid in recovering and restoring the shattered lives of children in the aftermath of the wars. The organisation expanded their role and also brought and continues to bring relief to the uneducated, hungry, unhealthy, ill and dying children of the poorer developing nations.

In view of the above, one question that begs an answer is whether the fate of children is of political, economical, developmental or humanitarian concern? Even though the spotlight in the first half of the twentieth century was on humanitarian relief, the campaigns and movements in favour of children were influenced by the political culture of the wars (Marshall 2002, p.184).  The majority of children however had little if any political voice, children were vulnerable and left naked, deprived of a childhood.  Adults had a duty to protect children and people such as American philanthropist Herbert Hoover visualized a universal sense of responsibility. On one level he campaigned for the feeding of the hungry, a humanitarian effort, yet on another level his motives were political since he envisaged “better American international relations”, “economic competition between nations” maintaining the “social and political order needed for international trade” (Marshall 2002, p.185). Tragedy became a political commodity. Eventually American sympathy towards European children waned with the rise of institutional autonomy of previously shattered European nations.

History penned down significant changes in the scope of the fate of children during the century of the child. In the 1920’s Eglantyne Jebb founded the Save the Children Fund, later involved the Red Cross as well as other movements to eventually establish the first professional international movement for children - “Save the Children International Union” - raising money for international relief across borders and cultures (Black 1996A, p.18).  Societal changes brought on new ideological and political ideas, democratic and socialist, raising the price of human life, bringing effort through intervention of neutral parties (Black 1996A, p.19).

Over the past seven decades the cause of Unicef has changed significantly from the spotlight on humanitarian issues in the 1940’s, on medical issues in the 1950’s, on rural stagnation and neglect in the 1960’s, on famine and disease in the 1970’s and on poverty in the 1980’s to a focus on the whole child in the new millennium.  The International Year of the Child in 1979 became a watershed year and children were rediscovered as a special group, paving the way for the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Black, 1996B, p.13). By 1990, representatives of over 150 countries attended the World Summit for Children.

Influential and key figures in shaping the cause of the child included Maurice Pate, first Executive Director of Unicef, humanitarian and philanthropist Herbert Hoover, bacteriologist and one of the founding members of Unicef Ludwik Rajchman and Herbert Lehmann Director General of UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration that preceded Unicef (Black 1996A, p.31).

        Childhood should not be left to chance, especially in view of contemporary prolonged childhoods, a new focus on the individual child and concerns of identity, nationalism, global change and globalisation. It is about the physical as well as intellectual needs of the child, the progress rather than the development of the human child. Children furthermore are above political divide. Black (1996B, p.5) points out that Unicef chose a campaign strategy and cause of extraordinary universal significance, placing children on the map and once more reclaiming the humanitarian and moral spotlight. This is the coming of age of the cause of children.

Children and the changing media environment – The USA, Europe and Dubai

In this paper the changing landscape of children, culture and media in the United States of America (US) and Europe is compared, contrasted and discussed. Articles from the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood serve as point of departure to outline the development of modern classic media such as comic books, radio, television and film back to the 18th century. The second half of the paper reflects on the organisation of media in the business and strategic hub of the Middle East, Dubai. Attention is given to the differences and commonalities in application of current mediating technologies amongst Arab/Emirati children and expatriate children, otherwise referred to as Third Culture Kids (TCK’s). Even though the meaning of childhood is continuously changing through time, across places and social context, children from these three regions share a common pattern balancing time between school, friends and family, and accompany a good deal of this with media. This paper illustrates the dual nature of media, explaining how media fit into the lives of children, what place it occupy (media-centred approach) and at the same time how children utilise media in their daily lives (child-centred approach). A new sociology of childhood proposes that children are actively constructing their own social lives and peer cultures and are no longer only understood through adult assumptions. Therefore the central thesis of the paper put media in context following a child-centred approach.

The 18th century signified the replacement of manual labour by new inventions and machinery in the industrialised world. Central to this period was also the development of modern childhood. A demographic shift took place with the decline in the mortality rate and parents became more affectionate towards their children as they no longer were an emotional burden (Robert et al 2004). Modern media developed parallel to modern childhood and continue to hold a vital position in the lives of children both as a “set of concrete technologies” in which it differentiate children according to access and application, as well as a “set of symbolic meaning making processes”, connecting people, periods and places (Drotner 2004, p.584). Ballads, broadsides and chapbooks carrying emotive topics aimed at an adult readership during the French Revolution of 1789, also reached a young audience. Media simultaneously unite and divide children, shape children and is shaped by them. These relations between media and children evidently evoke adult reaction, debate and discourse on social and cultural norms. Religious groups and educationalists in Europe and the US spoke out against popular fictions. The universality of media, how quickly information reaches the masses worldwide, power struggles and children as vulnerable beings, were emphasised through this early development of media (Drotner 2004). Industrialisation and urbanisation during the 19th century set the basis for a wider juvenile readership of printed books catering for lower-, middle- and upper-class children. By the end of the 19th century the magazine market diversified too and catered to children of all ages, including the very young. Discussion took on a more optimistic perspective with adults realising the beneficial effects of reading (Drotner 2004).

Audio-visual media such as film, radio and television took over from print media during the 20th century. Radio programmes in the 1930’s and 1940’s broadcast children specific content, enjoyed by children of all ages. The introduction of crime and horror topics in comics in the 1950’s became an emotive topic amongst adults who already felt strongly against crime, alcohol, drugs and sex portrayed in film and television which rapidly became mass media with children (Breuning 2004; Rydin 2004). In both Europe and the US it was argued that the use of pictures in comics left too much room for violent graphic gore and sexual imagery, that the words and pictures content in comics threatened not only literacy of children but also morals and morality. The Comics Code Authority (CCA) and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) were established in the US as forms of self-governing censorship to ensure not only wholesome content for families but also commercial enterprise. Whilst Europe showcased a strong tradition of public regulation and reform for the public good with the aim to inform, educate and entertain, the ultimate aim of industry regulated censorship in the US was consumerism (Drotner 2004). At the same time concern and later moral panic arose regarding the role of radio in the lives of children.  It was recognised that teenagers preferred listening to the radio thus providing opportunity for educational radio stations in the US to obtain licenses for classroom broadcasting. Radio in Europe on the other hand were organised as nationwide networks, held social and cultural policy implications and eventually gained place in social welfare policy (Lindgren 2004). Radio became the leading contender in recognising children as actors in their own social worlds, placing children as active agent on the map.

Film and television hold educational value since it provide an insight into life and society in general and assist children in some cases to ease pain and overcome challenging situations (Breuning 2004; Rydin 2004). Movies bring stories to live with moving images. Television introduced gradually after World War II in Europe and the US rapidly gained popularity and by the 1970’s the majority of households had at least one television set and eventually replaced radio as the medium host used by younger children. At this point it is interesting to note that the television market was more regulated in Europe than the US and in both regions was popular especially amongst the younger ages. Differences also occurred within Europe with England opposing children acting in television programmes whilst children in Sweden played central roles in the production of programmes. Children remained mainly underrepresented with little voice worldwide bar the portrayal of a sweet wholesome image for the sake of advertising (Rydin 2004). Furthermore time spent watching television varied significantly between countries depending on both society as well as production; and researchers concluded that children do not react uniformly to the same programmes (Rydin 2004). This reinforces the role of cultural relativism in addition to universalism in gaining an understanding of the relationship between media, culture and children.

The superhero genre with main characters such as Batman and Superman reinvigorated in comics in the 1960’s, gained countercultural relevance, influenced youth movements and eventually challenged CCA restrictions resulting in a lesser control after the codes were revised in 1989 (Kannenberg 2004; Breuning 2004). Opening of new bookshops gave rise to alternative comics with more focus on children whilst Hollywood turned to comic characters for source material to produce films. A significant moment in the child/media relationship took place in Europe in 1958 when a psychologist published results from a child-centred study “. . . which asked what individual children did with media rather than what media did to children” (Drotner 2004, p. 588). By the 1960’s the learning and social benefits of television was recognised by the US, Europe and developing nations in regions such as South America.

By the 21st century questions regarding children, culture and media were still being asked. The current organisation of media in Dubai is highly interesting and remarkably very little research on this topic has thus far been conducted with children as rightful and competent research participants within media debate and discourse. Two very distinct groups of children live side by side in Dubai namely a minority 20% local Arab/Emirati children following the national curriculum of the UAE at schools catering for locals only; and a majority 80% TCK’s attending the various international curriculum private schools.  The organisation of media amongst these two groups illustrate that application of media can never be totally universal, nor totally cultural but seek to strike a balance riding the edge of a double edged sword. Both Emiratis as well as TCK’s are highly adept at using new as well as traditional media and spent considerable time and money consuming and investing in new media. This is incidentally also linked to the society being mainly a high income one opposed to other Arab societies within the region such as Jordan that is mainly middle and low income.  TCK’s are more adept at producing media content socially and educationally across platforms and devices.  On the internet they do so via blogging, micro-blogging, streaming sites, micro-sharing, podcasting and social networking utilising sites such as Facebook, Twitter, mxit, tumblr, ning and pbs works amongst many others. Emirati children prefer to utilise language other than their native tongue whilst TCK’s are adept at producing media with equal ease in their mother tongue as well as in English, the lingua franca (Melki 2010).  TCK’s in Dubai not only use media for entertainment, networking, connectivity and education, but remarkably also for current affairs and expressing opinion, positioning them firmly on the global map. Television, mobile texting, e-mailing and online social networking remain the media of choice among Emirati children.

Recent suspension of Blackberry services in Dubai due to security concerns and regulation raised great protest amongst children and adolescents in Dubai.  The UAE National Media Council is the highest authority in Dubai controlling access to media and even though Dubai promotes itself as a country with freedom of press, access to media remain government regulated and heavily censored.  TCK’s and their families apply virtual private networks (VPN’s) in order to gain access to Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) such as Skype and other internet based media. VPN internet sites are incidentally also deemed inaccessible by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of the United Arab Emirates although the establishment of new VPN sites leave a small gap for access. According to Melki (2010) Emirati children portray weak levels of media and news literacy and strong levels of new media adoption and technological knowledge.  In contrast TCK’s portray very strong levels of media and news literacy, socially as well as in the classroom. Neigh in Gray-Block (2003, p1) makes a profound statement about the lives and experiences of TCK’s:
The benefits for children include their development of a three-dimensional view of the world in which media images of different countries carry greater depth. TCKs have a tangible link to such images and a greater sensitivity to the world in which they live.

To conclude: the most pertinent question regarding media, culture and children in the 21st century concerns children’s rights – the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and access to diversity of media. Within a socio-cultural context the main arguments concern discourse of pessimism and optimism; protection and rights; and citizenship and consumerism (Drotner 2004). Children are taking a central position in the organisation of media worldwide, especially in view of increased global mobility and interconnectivity. Interdisciplinary perspectives on childhood involve children as contributors and negotiators and it is thus recognised that children affects media.

Interpreting media produced for children – A visual analysis of the W.I.T.C.H. comic strip

This paper explores the organisation of media and the interpretation of edutainment in the lives of children. Edutainment is the concept that learning can be fun and entertaining; and that fun encourages learning. It consists of two equally important components namely the format (entertainment) and the significance (education). Even though the emphasis is on learning, edutainment relies heavily on “visual material, on narrative or game-like formats, and on more informal, less didactic styles of address” (Buckingham & Scanlon, 2005, p.46). Comics as visual edutainment convey messages and provide glimpses of events, stories and experiences through images and dialogue. Central to this paper is a visual analysis of two images from W.I.T.C.H., a European superhero comic series, featuring five multicultural teenage girls saving people and solving problems namely Wilma, Irma, Taranee, Cornelia and Hay Lin (their initials form the title acronym W.I.T.C.H.). The paper reveals how comics in particular and mass media in general continue to serve as a vehicle for upholding notions of children and childhood. A dualism is at play since comics simultaneously distort as well as represents society.

            The edutainment market is mainly unregulated with a growing concentration of ownership by large multinational companies globally dominating book and software publishing. Educational policy in many countries is increasingly centralised whilst media and communication policy is gradually deregulated. When government policies on education in the UK for example resulted in increased pressure on children to achieve academically, commercial, media and publishing companies were quick in recognising the business potential. Parents under increased pressure to invest in the education and futures of their children, resort to private home tutoring by utilising an array of learning material and media resources. The commercialisation of out of school learning results not only in blurring of lines between entertainment and education but sadly also in an ever growing digital divide and educational inequalities (Buckingham & Scanlon, 2005). Government policy and ensuing competition between publishers narrowed the range of educational material available, resulting in a rise of edutainment material on the one hand and curricularised informal home learning on the other. Publishing companies adopt their content to suit local markets but cannot afford to produce media that is too culturally specific (Buckingham & Scanlon, 2005). Illustrations are thus frequently generic taking on an international, often faceless fashion, rather than showcasing ethnic and cultural diversity.

            Interestingly enough, the opposite can be observed in comic strips with illustrations, characters and dialogue depicting the diversity of human nature and experiences. Children love comics as it makes them laugh at their own silliness and pretence and highlights mundane and tiny moments of life. W.I.T.C.H.; a monthly comic magazine originally created in Italy in 2001 by Elisabetta Gnone and now distributed worldwide; incidentally is about five teenage girls living ordinary lifestyles. The girls, Wilma, Irma, Taranee, Cornelia and Hay Lin, have families, friends and attend school. Wilma, the leader of the group is also the keeper of the Heart of Kandrakar, a world from another dimension. The comic is aimed at younger children but has an older teenage and even adult readership too. It later became a book series in Europe and is now also published as a cross cartoon television series by Disney (Autumndreamer 2010, Cutler 2005) and as a manga version with some minor differences (rather than the original pseudo-manga) for the Japanese market (International Catalogue of Superheroes: W.I.T.C.H., 2002). Manga comics as noted by Singer & Singer portray a more complex and realistic view of life than traditional superhero comics originating in Western society (2001).  Comic strips are likely to lead the reader to introspection. It can be entertaining and educational, convey strong messages, is important for children’s culture, and is also significant source of information for social scientists since it provide insight into the lives of children. Comics also create fantasy worlds with superhero characters where readers can be amused and bemused simultaneously. The W.I.T.C.H. characters have superpowers over the five elements on which they draw to save the world from evil. What messages can be gained by conducting a visual analysis of two pictures from the comic strip? Would the relevance of this comic strip also exceed the boundaries of entertainment in much the same way as Disney cartoon heroines analysed by Lacroix (2004)? All five characters, Wilma, Irma, Taranee, Cornelia and Hay Lin, appear in both pictures analysed. In Picture 1 they appear as normal teenagers and in Picture 2 as their superhero alter egos.

            Picture 1 - The setting is a winter’s day in the park - the trees are devoid of leaves and the girls are all wearing winter outfits. The reader views the girls from the top down. Posture and poise of all five girls is representative of their ages as 13-14 year olds. Wilma, Irma and Cornelia represent Caucasian girls with blonde Cornelia the fairest of the three. Hay Lin with distinctly slanted, smaller eyes presents a girl from the Far East and is also the fairest skinned of all five. Dark skinned Taranee with big round eyes and fuller lips appears to be a girl from African descent. Her full, but cropped hair indicate possible heritage from the sub-continent. Wilma in a grey hoody-style jacket and androgynous hairstyle looks like a tomboy and distinctly less feminine than Cornelia with her long blond hair and softer, tailored, lavender coloured jacket. Through direct, forward gazes, Irma and Hay Lin make contact with the reader. Wilma takes the focal position in the foreground, however does not face the other four girls directly, but gazes back over her shoulder, with a tilted head, downwards to the other four girls. She glances at the group in general and do not make eye contact with any specific girl. Could it be that the girls are slightly upset after a falling out with Wilma and that Wilma is indeed walking away from them? Taranee gazes upwards and tilts her head towards Wilma in the foreground. Hay-Lin and Cornelia take the rear position furthest away from the reader, and it is apparent that Cornelia is the tallest of all four girls in the background of the frame. She is also the only character showing her hands, crossed in what can be described as a demure position in front of her upper chest area. It appears as if she is holding something delicate to her body. Taranee wears spectacles but probably doesn’t need to, due to the spectacles resting low on her nose. (In neither pictures does she actually look through the spectacles). The spectacles, the round shape thereof, the red jacket with an interesting collar and the orange sweater indicate an intellectual character type. Hay Lin wears goggles pushed back on her head, and an interesting colour combination of a lilac sweater and turquoise jacket giving the impression of a quirky type of personality. Irma with wavy hair and green eyes wears a sensible and conservative - in both colours and style - jacket. She has a clean, open face and gaze indicating a certain je ne sais quoi.

            Picture 2 - The setting is distinctly different from picture 1. The blue sky and slight clouds indicate a daytime scene although the season cannot be gained from analysing the picture. The girls appear as superheroes, all wearing wings, and purple/green outfits, in a fantasy setting within either an old town or perhaps even a castle courtyard. Smoke/heat rises from an opening in the ground filled with “sludge” (as can be gained from the dialogue). 

Taranee, Irma, Hay Lin and Wilma stand in front of this opening, all four gazing down into the depths of the opening. Cornelia stands in the background to the right of all the girls, with both her body as well as her gaze to the right as well, drawing the reader’s eyes to the edge of the frame – reinforcing her position as one of being disconnected from the group. She is simply neither within, nor part of the moment in the foreground. Her features are not visible and she is for the bigger part shrouded in shadow. She is the only superhero wearing a full length skirt, with a long sleeved top, although her midriff is completely bare. Hay Lin looks surprised, unsure and fragile as can be observed through her body langue and comport. The fingers of one hand is pressed to her mouth whilst the other hand points in what can be described as a hesitant manner towards the ground, the positioning of her legs gazelle-like, her eye brows raised in surprise. She is dressed in what can be described as a flimsy whimsical outfit compared to the other girls. Hay Lin is ready to turn around and take flight. Taranee, Irma and Wilma display aggressive attitudes.  Taranee stands straight, strong and courageous, hands fisted at her sides and legs planted apart, carrying equal weight. She wears a cropped, sleeveless top, emphasising her muscled arms. Her legs even though covered in leggings are also muscled. Her shoulders are straight, her breasts pert. In this picture the character Irma reinforces an impression gained in picture 1 of having a certain je ne sais quoi. She bends over towards the hole, one leg in front of the other, fists planted on rounded hips, her tiny waist reinforcing her voluptuous figure. Irma and Wilma both take on the deportment typical of pin-up girls. Wilma presents a daring, provocative and defiant stance, her hips are tilted, her bellybutton emphasised by the cut of her top and skirt as well as the positioning of her folded arms.  She challenges. Yet underneath the demeanour, a slight hesitance can be sensed. The dialogue affirms this. Whilst Irma declares that they need to “get back to Heatherfield” and Irma expresses her interest in making “another trip in that yucky sludge”, Wilma asks for alternatives “If you know a more comfortable way, let us know.”

            In direct contrast to Picture 1 where the reader views the picture head on, in Picture 2 the reader takes a worm’s eye view, a view from the bottom which seems to have a dual result – the girls appear taller and older and at the same time their identities as superheroes, as girls from a fantasy world somewhere “above” are cemented. All four girls in the foreground showcase very long legs, wasp-thin waists, exposed midriffs and interesting hairstyles. According to Lacroix (2004) there is an increased emphasis on sexuality and the exotic, evident in the construction of the heroines of animated Disney films.  What is peculiar however is that in the Disney films – the more exotic – the more sexual the character.  This contrasts with the two W.I.T.C.H. pictures where the most provocative stances are those by Caucasian girls Irma and Wilma. Taranee as an “exotic character” also appears sexual, but her sexuality is overshadowed by muscle and intellect – she is less sexual being, more strong, intelligent woman.

            The characters are attractive girls and their wardrobes are important to their image. Whereas with regard to their bodies, clothing and conduct they look almost androgynous in Picture 1, they become curvy, more mature and grown up, female beings in Picture 2. They appear intelligent and for the most closely bonded in both pictures analysed, emphasising relationships with friends – a notion most important to teenagers and younger girls. In both pictures one girl is separated from the group, also signifying social exclusion and position as is so clearly negotiated during socialisation amongst girls. Even though the comic strip might appeal to boys too, it focuses mostly on the girl market. This is distinctly different to the majority of comic strips and cartoons published and produced as films where the female characters mostly play second fiddle to the male characters. To quote Lacroix “Numerous films and feminist critics have noted the paucity of numbers of roles, the types of characters, and the limited agency of Disney female characters in both past and recent Disney films.” (2004, p.218). The girls in W.I.T.C.H have strong senses of self, clearly carrying agency both as teenagers and as females.
            Jacqueline Cutler’s article “For young viewers - Growing Up Galactic” published in the New York Times (2005) is particularly revealing with regard to the notions of children and childhood as gained from the W.I.T.C.H. comic.  She confirms that the setting of the comic, the city Heatherfield, visually represents most big cities with many high rise buildings, bridges and a variety of neighbourhoods so that children from anywhere in the world could identify it as their country. She further confirms that Hay Lin is a kooky dresser with a funky fashion sense – as was evident in the visual analysis as well.  She represents a character who girls interested in alternative fashion can identify with. Hay Lin is incidentally also the fairest skinned of all the girls. This reinforces Savages observation that children regard whiteness as cool, that Asian girls with light skin are highly regarded “Of fundamental note was the data that reinforced the extent to which being brand-savvy, white, straight and attractive held major currency” (2008, p.55).  Her character was created obviously bearing this in mind. Cutler confirms that the characters are very different, different in the way five girls who socialise and hang out would be different.

            Disney is often criticized for its distorted portrayal of female images and that this can have a harmful and negative influence on young children. Lee (2008) argues that “representations in popular culture can provide a social paradigm which illuminates how such concepts of what is considered to be female are socially constructed.” It is important to note that the reproach against Disney is taken within the context of female and male characters within particular stories.  Comics simultaneously distort as well as represent society – it is all about context.  The W.I.T.C.H comic represents a new genre of comics – one where the majority of characters are female, where they are sexual, but where they also can be sexual within the context of the comic strip, storyline, dialogue and other characters.  These are girls firmly grounded in strong own identities.  They represent the newfound emphasis on child as person with agency.