In his book, Show Sold Separately (2010), Jonathan Gray’s notion of ‘offscreen’ studies has paratextuality at its heart. Simply put, paratexts are simultaneously a part of the text and apart from the text. They are the constellation of material that circulates around and feeds into the show or film – the making-ofs, websites, reviews, social media presence, games, apps and merchandising. Paratexts are therefore inextricably linked to branding, but they are also about viewer ‘mobility’ (or, the appearance of mobility) and how this is negotiated and managed. Gray uses the metaphor of the ‘airlock’ that allows acclimatisation of the consumer/reader/viewer in their movement from one ‘type’ of textual experience to another. Paratexts can also be seen as ‘boundary objects’ or, more accurately, ‘thresholds’.
In the case of the pre-school animation DirtGirlWorld (DGW) we can see a literal threshold in the way that the TV show encourages children to move from watching the screen to other activities, including going outside to play in the garden and learn about nature.
The interesting question, however, is not whether paratexts exist in relation to shows like DGW – that much is obvious and incontestable – but to ask what kind of engagement they expect, engender, demand. The paratextual asks that we mark a shift from one kind of text or sort of knowledge or activity to another; they act as a threshold between spaces but at the same time offer a continuity of the branding.
But what does this mean for a children’s TV show such as DGW? We are talking here about a ‘call to play’ and a sense of how certain types of activity (or learning) are validated or authenticated. Craig Hight has talked about a ‘call to play’ in relation to the cross-platform potential of mock-documentaries, clearly suggesting that viewer engagement with mockdocs, though complex and multifaceted, is all about active reading or participation. He cites JP Telotte’s use of Janet Murray’s terms describing levels of viewer engagement – immersion, agency and transformation. According to Hight
Immersion refers to a form of engagement where the viewer is taken out of their immediate context and brought into the realm of a digital fiction, agency refers to the ability to feel as if we are participating in the fiction, and transformation the potential to ‘role-play’ characters within that fiction (2008: 215).
Hight’s focus is the documentary-fiction interface, and Murray’s terms are concerned with mapping engagement with fictional narratives. However, these terms appear to be useful as they emphasise how paratextuality revolves around thresholds and moving from one register to another – and arguably in the case of DGW this is as much for pedagogic purposes as it is for branding purposes. The idea is for the audience to learn something. What they learn and how they learn it is of course open to debate and could form the subject of further research. What is clear, though, is that the paratextual relationship is one that can play a pedagogic or educative function and that Murray’s terms (immersion, agency and transformation) can help us to understand this function more clearly. Vicki Stevenson, who was Educational Advisor on DGW told me:
from the outset the website was designed to be much more than just a walled garden recycling the TV show themes and characters through levelled games, images and printables. The online presence was meant to be a very real way to build and connect a community of children and families interested in [the show’s ideas] … and engaging in actions – small, daily and incremental – that would add up to a very big difference. With proper security measures and moderators in place, children are welcome to upload their own images and comments to share with others in the DirtGirlWorld Club. The use of online community groups and social media to keep the momentum going, alongside or after the broadcast life of the TV show, is a relatively new but valuable tool for a property like DGW. [email to author]
If we look at the recent DGW app (downloadable for free from iTunes), we can see an extension of the sort of things that Stevenson is referring to here.
Sold under the banner ‘DGW app and organic smart seeds’, it appears to be the perfect synthesis of green-living, new technology and social media, framed as an educational experience for children. The key in such instances is the way in which the move from one sphere of activity (viewing) to another (doing) is managed and how the paradox I noted earlier – where something is both a part of the text and apart from the text – is negotiated.
In the specific case of DGW, I think there is a positive use of the ‘dialogue’ between paratextual elements in order to engage children with the real world: this is part of the DGW ‘brand’ – a form of ‘green activism’. Looked at on the larger scale of all children’s animated TV, there is a downside, one which further research should explore in some critical detail. This is the way in which the positive aspects of Murray’s terms (immersion, agency and transformation) have arguably become colonised by the ‘logic’ of branding strategies: paratextual convergence has, in effect, become the endgame of a hermetically-sealed corporatisation of the world.
Gray Jonathan (2010) Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York University Press.
Hight, Craig (2008) ‘Mockumentary: A call to play’ in Austin, Thomas and de Jong, Wilma (eds) Rethinking Documentary: New Perspectives, New Practices. Maidenhead: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill.
Paul Ward is Professor of Animation Studies at the Arts University Bournemouth, UK. He is Course Leader for MA Animation Production, teaches on the BA (Hons) Animation Production course and supervises PhD students. His research interests are in the fields of animation and documentary film and television. Published work includes articles for the journals animation: an interdisciplinary journal, Animation Journal, and the Historical Journal for Film, Radio and Television, as well as numerous anthology essays. He is the author of Documentary: The Margins of Reality (Wallflower Press, 2005) and TV Genres: Animation (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming; co-authored with Nichola Dobson). He has presented invited papers and keynotes in London, Edinburgh, Basel, Utrecht, and Copenhagen, and his work has been translated into Czech and Japanese. He serves on the Editorial Boards of animation: an interdisciplinary journal and Animation Studies and is a member of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council Peer Review College with special interest in animation and documentary research proposals. Professor Ward is the current President of the Society for Animation Studies.