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.
This sudden wave of concern about media violence is not altogether baseless; violence in popular culture may not be new, but aggressive marketing and commercialization have reached unprecedented heights, and there are plenty of bloodthirsty (not to mention sexist and racist) shows being sold to kids. The problem is with the prescriptions being offered. Clearly, government censorship is a hazardous path, and even seemingly gentler measures, such as Clinton’s tougher ticket rules, are unlikely to work: Kids are already adept at buying tickets for Notting Hill and sneaking into spicier fare. Likewise, cartoon versions of The Book of Virtues (or, for that matter, the Ten Commandments), in which morals stick out like sore thumbs, are likely to inspire more suspicion and resentment than reflection.
Yet the media may indeed be useful in helping children to deal with the complicated social causes of violent behavior. There are creative programs that teach skills and values like tolerance and conflict resolution. One example is Willoughby’s Wonders, a live-action comedy about an urban coed soccer team designed to help kids acquire coping abilities, created by Susan Lin with Alvin Poussaint, both of Harvard Medical School. The pilot aired on Boston public television in 1996, was awarded two regional Emmys and has attracted funding from the Ford Foundation.
But Willoughby’s Wonders hasn’t found a network sponsor. These days successful kids’ shows need to be accompanied by a plush doll or an action figure. Even PBS, threatened by decreasing government funding, caters to the bottom line, choosing vacuous shows like Teletubbies that rank high with toy stores, according to Lin. In 1990, the Children’s Television Act set limits on advertising and created an endowment to fund innovative programming for kids (such as Willoughby’s Wonders, which received seed money from it)–but the Republican Congress eliminated the fund in 1995.
Teaching kids media literacy is another useful tactic. What do they like about the much maligned Quake or Doom? Why does the local news lead with the latest murder? In Maryland, media literacy sessions co-sponsored by the Maryland Education Department and Discovery Communications (owner of the Discovery Channel) will be presented in public schools next year.
The media should take “personal responsibility” for looking beyond marketing tie-ins when developing children’s programming. If that proves to be a fleeting impulse, reinstating the federal fund for children’s TV might begin to turn things around. It would certainly go further toward educating kids about violence than blocking entrance to Summer of Sam