Based on the classical Greek words ideo, meaning idea, and ology, referring to a branch of knowledge, a systemic set of ideas, or a form of discourse, the concatenated word “ideology” derives from the French ideologie. The concept arose as part of a French philosophical movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century period of Enlightenment, and its original meaning was to denote a science of ideas. In the nineteenth century, the term was taken up by Karl Marx to label the unconscious system of beliefs in a social group, and specifically socioeconomic class structures (Bennett, Grossberg, and Morris 2005). Louis Althusser (1971) then revised the concept by using Jacques Lacan’s theories of psychoanalysis, principally his concept of the imaginary, to explain the role of language and representation in producing ideological positions. Althusser’s work was taken up by later Marxist scholars, notably by Fredric Jameson in relation to capitalism and modernity.
While the Marxist usage of the term has been employed in the analysis of children’s texts—for example by Jack Zipes (1980), Ian Wojcik-Andrews (1993), and Elizabeth Parsons (2005)—the more general definition of “ideology” employed in children’s literature analysis is “the system of ideas that define a culture.” This system includes the larger scale of political, cultural, and economic ideas like democracy, Christianity, capitalism and individualism that dominate in the Western world, but also the more intimate identity politics within a culture, in particular those that surround gender, sexuality, race, and class and that effect the distribution of power among individuals in a society. All cultures have ideologies. Sometimes these are recognizably very different from those of the West, particularly in societies that adhere to different religious traditions or in cultures that see the society or the family as more important than the individual. All things produced in a culture are expressions of that culture’s ideology—from architecture, to fashion, to laws, to scientific endeavors, to children’s literature.
Peter Hollindale’s (1998) early essay on ideology in children’s literature was instrumental in generating debate in the field. He works outward from the Oxford English Dictionary when he describes ideology as “[a] systematic scheme of ideas, usu. relating to politics or society, or to the conduct of a class or group, and regarded as justifying actions, esp. one that is held implicitly or adopted as a whole and maintained regardless of the course of events.” As he indicates, ideologies also work to justify the system they underpin; they are usually normalized and seem to be naturally “the way things are.” That is, they appear unquestionable to the people who belong to that culture. As Perry Nodelman (1992) explains, “Ideology works best by disappearing, so that people simply take their ideological assumptions for granted as the only whole, and unquestionable truth.” For example, in the past white people felt that having black slaves was simply part of the natural order of the world, and based on an assumed “natural” superiority, slavery therefore went unquestioned. Depictions of nonwhite people in children’s literature from such periods reiterate that belief, as in the case of Elsie Dinsmore (1867) (see Sekeres 2005). Even when government policies change, attitudes can remain in place in the culture. Although British imperialism had halted by the time Maurice Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are (1963), the story shows a white boy who travels to foreign lands where he easily suppresses the natives and becomes their king in an unproblematic rehearsing of the colonial project (Ball 1997; see also the entry on “Postcolonial”).
Children’s literature tends to be a largely ideologically conservative genre in that it often upholds the values of the culture in which is it produced and consumed as part of an inherently didactic agenda. This is typically the case because, as John Stephens (1992) argues, “[c]hildhood is seen as the crucial formative period in the life of a human being, the time for basic education about the nature of the world, how to live in it, how to relate to other people, what to believe, what and how to think—in general, the intention is to render the world intelligible.” The tensions this produces in children’s literature scholarship, then, can emerge at the fundamental level of a contest over what we, as a society, wish to teach children to believe and value. This teaching can come through language, image, and plot-structures: a story usually rewards or celebrates a character because he or she is acting (or learns to act) in line with the kind of values espoused by the empowered adult culture. Some narratives, however, work to reject the social norms (or the dominant ideological positions) of a culture, such as M. T. Anderson’s Feed (2002), set in a dystopic future where the protagonist gradually learns to question the ways in which capitalism is destroying the world.
The core conflict for the “ideology” in children’s literature analysis is politicized around this question of values. The work becomes implicated in the so-called culture wars—that is, the battle between the religious and secular conservative right versus leftists who seek greater equality for women, nonwhites, queers, and lower-class peoples (with the inbuilt left assumption that the white, male, middle-class powerbase has employed capitalism to maintain its position of power). Feminist, queer, and postcolonial theorists, as well as theorists who focus on classism, employ ideological modes of interpreting stories. The social/political right denounces them, branding this kind of reading as overtheorizing what the general public often assumes to be the innocent fun of children’s texts. These criticisms of ideological analysis can also be linked to a social belief in the idea that children are, or should be, apolitical beings, and that the stories adults give them, and the analysis of such texts, should be somehow outside politics. Although ideology itself is the neutral description of the system of beliefs that underpin a culture, conservatives wish to claim that children’s literature is not ideological (a position that conveniently works to mask ideology), while those on the left argue that revealing the ideological nature of children’s texts will help readers perceive structural imbalances of power. As T. Purvis and A. Hunt (1993) explain, ideology “always works to favour some and to disadvantage others.”
Ideological scholarship is also criticized because it rejects a focus only on the book/text and instead looks at the real world in which stories are being consumed in order to ask “what children’s literature does to its readers by, for instance, encoding ideological assumptions or disseminating strategies for resisting them” (Reynolds 2007). To interrogate a text’s ideological stance is to use a theoretical framework that pays less attention to the aesthetic qualities of the story because the critique is more interested in the embedded ideological messages of the narrative than in the literary merit of the work. Research therefore does not demarcate high- versus popular-culture texts—unsurprisingly, since those interested in a text’s impact on children are more likely to focus on the most popular or highly trafficked works, regardless of their perceived quality. Ideological analysis might be less concerned with the literary ideas J. K. Rowling “borrowed” in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) than on the ways in which the narrative privileges the dominance of a white, middle-class boy as the hero whose quest is supported by the lower-class Ron Weasley and “Mudblood” female character Hermione. Similarly, ideological analysis would consider the way the fantasy dimension of the novel (the “wizarding world”) uncritically reproduces a male-run society with the same educational, governmental, economic, and consumer-driven environment of real-world contemporary Britain. The story thus confirms and naturalizes the current state of the world as both typical and impossible to imagine in different terms—even with all the potential a fantasy location offers for reimagining social orders and structures.
Ideological interpretations of children’s literature also tend to be less interested in the views or biographical details of the author and instead focus on the ways in which a story positions the reader to accept a set of values. In addition, the ideological landscape of a fictional story may unconsciously reproduce the author’s values and assumptions without the author’s direct awareness of her or his own biases (Hollindale 1998). Given this, the author’s view of what the story is about or what it teaches children may not give access to ideological positions in the text, many of which exist as covert curricula beneath the overt story. The difference between the surface message and the deeply embedded ideologies in children’s stories can also be at opposite poles. On the surface, the film Shrek (Adamson and Jenson 2001) appears to reject fairy tale norms with a feminist-inspired, empowered princess. On closer examination, Fiona is only able to fight emasculated men like the camped-up Monsieur Hood and his merry men (in tights) and still requires her prince, Shrek, to rescue her and enable their happily-ever-after ending, in a reversion to old-fashioned (or conservative) gender norms.
Given that ideology is often hidden beneath the narrative surface, academics engaging in ideological analysis of children’s literature are criticized for intellectualizing about stories in ways that would not be part of the reading experience of the child. This causes tensions between practitioners of ideological analysis and scholars working with a reader-response paradigm for children’s literature research, and these same tensions also circulate in the popular consciousness, which pits “ideology’” against “common sense” (Sarland 1999). Proponents of ideological analysis, however, agree that no text is innocent of values. They also agree that ideology is always connected to politics, social relations, language and representation, and the distribution of power. In this sense, ideological analysis scrutinizes the cultural work a children’s story does: who it rewards or punishes (and why), how it depicts stereotypes and power-relations, and how it is oriented (as celebrating or critiquing) the existing social, political, and economic structures of the society in and for which it has been written or produced.