TCS Daily

Bad Cartoons Make Bad Citizens

By Douglas Kern - May 27, 2004 12:00 AM

Bad cartoons tend to make bad citizens. And my generation suffered from the worst cartoons of all. Pity the poor male children of Generation X: there we sat, on Saturday mornings in the '70s and early '80s, clutching our bowls of Count Chocula and enduring the soul-sucking monotony of ugly Filmation cartoons populated by heroes who fought without actually fighting. You could watch cartoons for hours and never see a superhero actually sock a supervillain in the gut, or a commando pump hot lead into a live non-robot terrorist, or a ranger thrust a pointy-sharp arrow into some dragon's malevolent guts. Preachy mini-sermons abounded, though; the Super Friends couldn't lay a gloved fist on Lex Luthor, but they could sure manhandle those sugary in-between-meals snacks. ("Super Friends," they called them, instead of the Justice League. The difference tells you everything you need to know about the seventies.)

Consequently, we Gen Xers grew up achingly bereft of simulated mayhem and destruction. We turned to cap guns, stick fights, and dodgeball to meet our aggressive needs, but it wasn't the same. We craved red meat, but our cartoons served up tofu.

I always assumed that the threat of litigation had driven violence from Saturday morning. After all, if you show Superman frying a supervillain with his heat vision on Saturday morning, then, sure enough, some idiot kid in Dubuque will fry his little brother with heat vision one fine Saturday afternoon, and then everyone loses except the lawyers. But I was wrong. Federal regulators, rather than nervous trial attorneys, wussified Saturday morning TV in the early seventies. Uncle Sam made our cartoons insipid, in the hope that a nice stiff dose of cultural chloroform would deaden our proto-male violent tendencies and transform us all into prissy poindexters who would eat our vegetables, sit still in our seats, and eventually vote for French-speaking politicians.

That same castrating impulse informs much of our society's approach to violence among teens. God help the poor kid who puts a butter knife in his lunchbox, if he attends a school with a zero tolerance weapons policy. If you squirm in class too often, mouth off too regularly, or act like a boy during mandatory androgyny intervals, expect Uncle Ritalin to move in for a permanent stay in the mischief-making corners of your mind, courtesy of America's peerless public school system. Guns? Behold the spectacle of Rosie O'Donnell at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, exhorting kids to "never touch a gun," lest they get bullet cooties or something. And what about violent video games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City? That game alone is surely responsible for the surge in motor-scooter car-jackings and golf-club assaults on prostitutes, committed by thugs who dress like Ralph Lauren and talk like Ray Liotta.

In each case, the real or proposed government "solution" is the same: outlaw the offending "violent" matter or regulate it to death. And in each case, the result is the same: violence, the forbidden fruit, is marginalized and thus glamorized, and young men start to suspect that civilized behavior is for girls. Thus the state ties itself in knots trying to fight human nature.

The fight against teen violence often degenerates into a proxy war against young men. Don your bureaucrat-colored glasses and behold teenage males: surly, under-socialized, and enamored of physical mayhem, they're a bad influence on the other genders, and probably ought to be outlawed. No one worries about hordes of marauding teenaged girls holding up 7-11s and shooting up high schools. The problem is boys, says the state; crush the social origins of their boyishness, and solve the problem.

Little boys are aggressive, not because their cartoons make them so, but because their Creator saturated them in testosterone. Is ham-fisted state-sponsored nannying the only way to make citizens out of the little hooligans?

One author has a better idea. In his superb and unfairly overlooked 2002 book, Killing Monsters, former comic book author Gerard Jones proposes that society needs an entirely different approach to the issue of violence in children's entertainment. He suggests that children respond strongly to violent entertainment because the violence mirrors their own feelings of aggression -- and those feelings of aggression are legitimate and worthy of expression. Rather than struggling hopelessly to eliminate childhood aggression, we should teach children to harness and employ aggressive feelings in socially useful ways.

Innumerable examples confirm Jones' point. Consider guns again. Each year, thousands of teenagers learn to employ deadly assault weapons for the explicit purpose of killing people in the most efficient way possible. It's called basic training -- and basic rifle marksmanship is part of basic training for every branch of the military. Does that training and exposure to weapons make teenagers criminals? Obviously not. The discipline attached to that training allows soldiers to use rifles in the patriotic defense of their nation and its values. If our society struggles with teen violence, perhaps the fault lies not with our guns but with the inadequate discipline and malnourished moral imaginations of the teens holding them.

Consider also violent video games. According to Jones, most children know perfectly well that video games aren't reality. Kids understand video games for what they are: caricatured representations of a mock-reality, not reality itself. It's true that some notorious teen monsters (like Klebold and Harris from the Columbine tragedy) enjoyed violent shooting games - but so do most teenaged boys. Most likely those savage young men turned to video games as an outlet for the chaotic impulses that they could not control. Perhaps we should be grateful for games that transform adolescent rage into harmless electronic depictions on a screen. Perhaps transformation can succeed where suppression fails.

Male teenage aggression is a fact, not a problem. And that fact is an embarrassing reminder that sex differences don't permit us to choose everything about ourselves, or about our children. If the aggression of boys is scandalous, then it's easy to see why society is tempted to pretend that teachers and bureaucrats can bind the boyish heart with rules and restrictions. But if we accept that sex differences are something to be celebrated, not denied, then we can get back to the age-old task of taming - but not breaking - the male spirit. If the government wants to help this process, it could start by butting out. Raising men is a job for men, not bureaucrats.

Despite our bad cartoons and the spineless regulators who required them, my generation is finding its way. We produced Pat Tillman. We produced the brave men and women keeping Iraq safe. And we produced Batman, Superman, and Justice League cartoons wherein heroes pound the snot out of bad guys, and damn the FCC. Our cartoons have learned to use violence to promote the greater good. Perhaps we've learned that lesson, too.

Doug Kern is a frequent TCS contributor. He recently gave Super Size Thanks.


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