A new bride returns from a romantic honeymoon and opens a locked door in the family home, only to discover the mutilated corpses of her husband’s six ex-wives. A teenager runs away from home to stop her father from forcing her to marry him. A man rapes a woman while she sleeps, who then bears twins without waking up. Later her mother-in-law attempts to eat the illicit offspring.
Cannibalism, rape, incest, decapitation. Precisely the diet of violence and depravity that cultural critics claim have enveloped once-wholesome children’s entertainment. But the plots of these violent stories are not taken from Sega games or Saturday morning cartoons. Rather, they are from fairy tales (Bluebeard, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, respectively) that were all the rage in the eighteenth century.
Depictions of violence are now more visually graphic than ever, but they are nothing new to children’s entertainment, as believers in a direct link between Armageddon and Littleton would argue. Yet like never before, the country is rallying fervently around the idea that something has to change. Hollywood executives are repenting, using the once Republican-owned language of “personal responsibility.” The season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was postponed because it featured a showdown between high school students and a demon-spawn mayor. In recent Congressional hearings the entertainment industry was compared to the tobacco industry, with accusations that they knowingly woo children into becoming addicts of their cancerous products, and the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission are now investigating these claims. Clinton has extracted a promise from theater owners that they will get tough on underage patrons of R-rated films by checking IDs at the box office.
Littleton was a trigger–but what deeper interests are behind this momentum, which seems to be gaining credibility among liberals and conservatives alike? In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries we consumed our violence mostly in small familial or community settings (even a public execution could only attract so many). Today we consume this violent culture as a national “community” of millions. The phenomenal growth of the Internet has accelerated our anxiety about these changes. It’s not just our own responsible, well-brought-up children consuming violent messages around the hearth but a whole nation of Other People’s Children, some of whom, thanks to Littleton, we now know have Very Bad Parents.
Another big difference between 1799 and 1999 is that two powerful middle-class traditions have come together to exploit fears aroused by mass consumption. First, we have liberals who use the authority of psychological studies to judge what is suitable for all children. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat, supported legislation to ban violent television while children might be watching, arguing that the evidence is already beyond debate. “We’re past commissions to study [violence],” she said. “The time has come for the entertainment industry to take action.” Second, there is the Christian right, which wants to put the remote in God’s knowing hands. The Family Research Council’s former president, Gary Bauer, preached, “In the America I want, those Hollywood producers and directors, they would not be able to show their faces in public,” as he announced his entry into the presidential race.