Dr Jessica Balanzategui – 2020 AFIRC Research Fellowship Winner

By Kate Tranter
Bachelor of Communication (Public Relations), RMIT
WIL internship with RMIT Culture

Jessica, holding the doll from Australian children’s TV show Lift Off (ABC/ACTF, 1992-1995)

Dr Jessica Balanzategui has always had a passion for film and television and an equally ardent interest in creepy child characters in gothic movies.

The winner of the 2020 AFI Research Collection fellowship is keen to delve into the unique holdings of the AFI archives to explore how definitions of “child-appropriate” television emerged and have changed in Australia in tandem with children’s television genres.

“In my recent research, I’ve become increasingly interested in how “child-appropriateness” is defined both culturally and in the film, television, and streaming video industries, and how ideas about “child-appropriate” screen content change over time.”

The fellowship is awarded annually by the AFI Research Collection and RMIT’s School of Media and Communication, providing established researchers and audiovisual practitioners with the opportunity to generate research while showcasing the Collection’s holdings.

However, COVID-19 restrictions have meant that the Swinburne Cinema and Screen Studies lecturer hasn’t been able to visit the RMIT city campus to conduct her research.

“My schedule has been rather overwhelmed with online teaching, administration and Zoom meetings as we all struggle to come to terms with our new remote working and socially isolated existence.

“It has just made me more excited about the prospect of getting into the archives.”

According AFI Research Collection librarian Olympia Szilagyi, the lockdown has provided an opportunity to prioritise plans to digitise aspects of the collection so that researchers can complete their work remotely.

“Particularly with publications in the AFI Research Collection that are very difficult to locate generally, we have found that people are contacting us all the time from around Australia to access material for their research.”

Jessica’s winning application is entitled Children’s Television Genres in Australia 1960 – 2000 and Changing Paradigms of Quality Child-Appropriate Screen Content: Assessing cultural and policy discourses surrounding paradigmatic shifts in Australian children’s television genre trends.

“The restrictions might have slowed down my progress a little bit, but more than anything I can’t wait to have some dedicated, focused time exploring the history of Australian children’s TV and away from my webcam!” said Jessica.

How did your fascination with screen culture evolve?

I have always found it exciting how film and TV can invite you into other worlds, countries, states of mind, and character perspectives.

I can’t remember ever not being interested in screen media and pop culture! Growing up in North Queensland and in rural environments probably made me value how screen media can open up your world to new experiences even more, and how it can make you feel like part of a wider world and culture.

Why is children’s TV culture and content an important area for research?

I think it’s very important to be attentive to the complexity of childhood and children. This means thinking carefully about how our ideas about what childhood is – both on a personal and cultural level – might influence the lived experience of contemporary children.

People tend to assume that childhood is a universal state, and that ideas about children and childhood aren’t impacted by social constructions, expectations, and ideologies about what children are and should be.

But in fact, definitions of childhood have changed substantially over time, and across different cultures. Studying how children’s TV and associated cultural definitions of childhood have changed over time helps us to see our own present cultural understandings – and thus, treatment – of children with more clarity.

What role does children’s television really play in children’s lives?

I absolutely think children’s TV plays a crucial function in an individual’s life – it contributes to a child’s identity formation, and I think to the kind of adult a child grows up to become.

Shows like Round the Twist had a profound impact on me and my sense of cultural belonging. You only have to look at the strength of Round the Twist fandom in contemporary adults to see the evidence of that: there have been podcasts, live screenings, and countless articles published about Round the Twist in the last couple of years.

Now that Round the Twist is available on Netflix, I bet many parents are eagerly introducing their children to this beloved show of their own childhoods.

Similarly, the ABC show Bluey is probably influencing a generation of Australian children and helping to shape their ideas about cultural and familial belonging.

Children’s TV lets kids enter worlds other than their own and reflect on their own and others’ ways of life, so I think it’s hugely valuable and significant.

Your research focuses on children’s screen genres and childhood in global film, television, and digital cultures What can children’s television tell us about society?

My book, The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2018), examines how creepy child characters are used to interrogate constructions of national identity and progress in transnational horror and Gothic movies at the turn of the millennium.

I’ve published on the emergence of the children’s horror genre on television in the US, Canada, and Australia, and the controversies and changing ideas about children’s content that accompanied the rise of children’s horror TV (Goosebumps, Are You Afraid of the Dark? and even Australia’s Round the Twist).

More recently, there have been high profile global controversies about content on YouTube that is seemingly aimed at child audiences but is entirely inappropriate for children.

Streaming video services are currently transforming how children’s content is produced, consumed, and defined. This is quite a fascinating phenomenon that has implications for how we define and understand childhood and children.

What do you hope to explore in the AFI Research Collection archives?

The AFI Research Collection have a wealth of unexamined material – newsletters, policy documents, and reportage and production notes on television shows – that illuminates how understandings of child-appropriate television have changed since the 1960s in Australia.

It was only upon discovering the collection’s wealth of historical materials from different organisations like Young Media Australia and the Australian Children’s Television Foundation that I realised I could do a deep dive into changing cultural expectations around child-appropriate TV genres in Australia specifically.

A better understanding the history of Australian children’s television genres will help us to shed light on how the Australian children’s TV sector can best respond to the current moment, in which US-based streaming services are increasingly dominating Australian childrens’ TV consumption habits.

How did you go about preparing your application for the AFI Research Collection fellowship?

I went into the AFI Research Collection to have a chat with the librarians before I prepared my application, but from the outset I knew I wanted to propose something on the history of Australian children’s TV genres and changing ideas about “child-appropriate” screen genres in Australia.

I was delighted when I realised they had so many valuable materials that shed light on these histories, including TV shows and their production notes, like Halfway Around the Galaxy and Turn Left, that haven’t been addressed in prior research.

The content of children’s TV is usually not the focus of children’s media researchers. However, the content and the ideas and agenda behind it can tell us so much about changing cultural definitions of childhood in Australia.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering applying for the fellowship?

Go for it! The fellowship is a really valuable opportunity to further your research, and our understanding of Australian history and screen culture.

My main advice is to make sure you chat to the very helpful staff – and if possible, visit the AFI Research Collection before preparing your application, because once you’re aware of the kind of materials they hold, all sorts of research inspiration might strike.

More information

Applications for the 2021 AFI Research Fellowship Collection open on 11 October 2020.

The Fellowship provides a stipend of up to $5000 to the winner.

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