Boys and Girls Alone (Apart from the Camera Crew)

I hadn’t originally intended to get involved in the debate currently raging over the Channel 4 show ‘Boys and Girls Together’, but it seems to be cropping up in discussions everywhere I go, including two workshops I delivered recently. The first was with Camden Council on privacy and play, covering adult power structures, surveillance and childhood, so no surprise that when time came around for discussion the first episode of ‘Boys and Girls Alone’ which aired the evening before was at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

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Taken from a London Times article here.

Interestingly, the concerns of playworkers I have spoken to have focused entirely on the (in)ability of the children involved to consent to being filmed.  The accusations of bullying, peer violence and exclusion that have been so prolific in commenting sites were of little interest to playworkers.  We understand that children engage in the same variety of social interactions as any adults, that children are not purer versions of grown-ups and do not exist in a world entirely composed of hugs and flowers.  Whether seen by adults or not, children jostle for position among their peers, experiment with power, express individuality and fall in with the crowd, at times employing coercive tactics or targetting those more vulnerable than themselves – just as adults do.

Similarly, when freed from the restrictions and responsibilities of lives in which they have many restraints and little or no control, children tend to go a little bonkers.  Anyone who has seen University students away from home for the first time, or office workers on a sunny beach holiday, knows what this can look like.

Actually, the point I wish to make is not that children are ‘just like us’.  They are not.  Their points of view and interpretations of the world can be radically different from ours, and they are above all individuals.  What they ought not to be is exploited through manipulated events for a televised peep show masquerading as a social experiment.

The real question here is not whether boys will learn how to cook, or girls to cooperate.  It is one of adult voyeurism and the misuse of the trust of these children and their parents for the sake of ‘good’ television.  These children will grow up soon, but who they were (or were edited to be) will be remembered.  As we’ve seen from any number of D-list celebrity train wrecks, this is an inheritance that is tricky to say the least.

I think that this show, for all of its faux-science, has the potential to be highly educational.  When I saw the most recent episode in which they were each given money for food and entertainment, I saw a great deal of learning going on.  Children today have so few opportunities to create a world of their own, to govern their own lives, however briefly.  They are under more control, wider surveillance, and experience tighter restrictions in their movements than any previous generation.  While they are under tremendous academic pressure to succeed, children today do not tend to have household responsibilities or to contribute to the running of the house in terms of labor.  These children arrived in the house knowing neither how to cook, nor to make their own decisions, and in this I believe they are entirely indicative of their generation.

Without the chance to test themselves without adult boundaries in place, children do not learn how to do things for themselves, or others.  That’s what they’re doing in this program, learning that power over one’s peers is often followed by a dizzying crash in popularity, that if funds are shared then everyone can enjoy the privileges (as well as the community cohesion that follows), the compromises of self that can make one appear ‘cool’, and that all throughout the mundane concerns of keeping body and soul together are the more complex and intricate negotiations of keeping a house together, of soothing tempers and standing up for oneself.

I imagine that in a few years they’ll look back and have learned something too, about the rights of adults to administrate the lives of their children, the perils of minor celebrity and the long, fickle memory of the public, and of the nature of informed consent.

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