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From Sprouts to Spotify, a watermelon-shaped television looms over impressionable tykes as a simple melody plays. The chorus of children's voices cries: "CoComelon!" Caregivers have increasingly relied on the show, a highly-branded singalong available for free on YouTube and many major streaming services, during pandemic parenting.
The show follows a white toddler named JJ as he learns about the world, and according to the CoComelon website, "the videos impart prosocial life lessons." In one of the YouTube descriptions, the company appeals to parents looking to distract their children with a wholesome show: "We also make life easier for parents who want to keep their kids happily entertained, giving you the peace of mind that your children are receiving quality educational content."
Controversy around the content arose in 2021 with shareable junk-science posts about the show's frames-per-second being "akin to crack." The turn of phrase is tied to a racialized and harmful era in popular culture when crack, which was more prevalent in low-income Black communities, was considered more dangerous and harmful than its counterpart cocaine—resulting in disparate sentencing and a failed war on drugs that fueled the prison industrial complex. Although this fear around frames-per-second has been debunked, there is a more legitimate cause for concern. As I watched a recent episode with my toddlers, I began to realize that CoComelon regurgitates police narratives in insidious ways.
As part of Scalawag's 3rd annual Abolition Week, pop justice is exclusively featuring perspectives from currently and formerly incarcerated folks and systems-impacted folks.
In particular, the show's "Jobs and Career" song features Miss Appleberry, JJ's teacher, writing 12 careers on the chalkboard, including builder, dancer, and police officer. Nina, a cheerful girl, begins as an athlete, while Bella paints a unicorn, and JJ bops his head with a stethoscope. Then, Nina dons a cop cap and sings, "I can be a police officer and help keep people safe." She polishes her shiny badge. Her classmates echo her line about keeping people safe and then cheer, "Yes you can!" as she pulls JJ's cardboard car over. Look closely and notice: All the while Nina keeps her left hand on her hip openly grasping at the place where a gun and holster would be. Little Nina the cop is prepared to make-believe shoot beloved JJ. Miss Appleberry even salutes Nina-as-cop at the end of the song, placing police firmly in the realm of aspirational career choices for young viewers.
Other episodes incorporate cop-related imagery more slyly. If you pause the video, you'll notice what toys are in the playrooms. As previously mentioned, the frame rate is high, and the show moves quickly—but Netflix comes in handy with a 0.5x viewing speed. "Learning With JJ" shows the titular character playing with a cop car alongside anthropomorphic friends. "CoComelon Fun Club" features the same cop car in a toy bin in Miss Appleberry's classroom.
Cartoons can be a child's first, most long-lasting and formative introduction to the idea and role of a police officer. Children are vulnerable and susceptible to media, more so than any other group. Offering the cop car as a fun, educational toy in their favorite pretend classroom teaches children cops are safe when stories from our real-world counter this almost daily.
Owned by Blackstone, a company with a controversial CEO and major influence—it owns Blippi and other popular childrens' media—CoComelon continues to expand. The franchise is planning an amusement park in the Caribbean and launching a spinoff all about Cody, JJ's Black best friend and neighbor. The show is growing ever more present in culture, to the point where recent copaganda from a Minnesota radio show detailed a story about a police officer who used the mind-numbing show to calm an arrested man.
As the show's influence grows, so too should the calls to question what imagery it's offering our children. In the practice of seeking anti-racist and community justice-oriented parenting practices, engaging in criticism of the media our children consume is vital.
Join Scalawag on June 23 for an evening of abolitionist entertainment that's ready to rise to the task of disbanding our cop-laden media.