I am a mother as well as a writer, and one of the types I have encountered over my parental career is the parent (usually but not always the Mom) who is trying to raise her child without violence. I don’t mean, No Spanking, I mean “we don’t talk about the news in front of Little Smedley.” I mean no Warner Bros. cartoons because of “all the terrible things Wyle E. Coyote does to that poor wee bird.” I mean the mother whose son horrified her by picking up a stick, pointing it and saying “pew pew pew” (gun sound effects, for those without benefit of three year old boys). And on and on.
Thing is: children are violent beasts because humans are violent beasts, emphasis beast. We’re a predator species that has evolved some very sophisticated ways to get what we need without actually hunting. But violence is in our genes; part of parenting is, not avoiding it, but harnessing that power For Good Instead of Evil. No, Fluffy Bunny, you may not hit little Wilmer, you may not take his toys, but if a Bad Person tries to snatch you, you are permitted to kick him in the shins. Etc.
I was pointed to an article a few years ago about–I’m not making this up–The Culturally Sanctioned Violence of Toy Story 3.
Written by Patrick Vergara in The Huffington Post, the article starts out saying, much as I did above, that humans are violent creatures. It then veers waaaaay off the mark to cite Toy Story 3 as an inoculation of “young and malleable minds” to violence.
As the characters on screen were subjected to the most vile of allegorical deaths, I realized that movies such as this do little more but create a generation of connoisseurs of violence. Having cut their teeth on sadism “lite” at an early age they will move onto the more heady offerings soon enough.
Imagine, if you will, a scene in which a collection of castoff people are thrown into a massive body bag and sent to their certain deaths in a trash incinerator; piled atop one another they frantically try and escape the suffocating atmosphere. Who but the most hardened among us would not cringe watching them shout in fear as they clamor to make sense of their situation? Is it any better, then, when one replaces the humans with a collection of animated figurines who have been carefully and deliberately been endowed with distinctly human features and personalities? Hardly. In fact, it may be far worse. By sugar coating such imagery (using toys as human surrogates) we are merely rendering violent imagery accessible to the very young among us.
Oh, my. Where to begin? As far back as drama goes–whether it’s the Greeks poking out Oedipus’s eyes off stage or Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrassling with Humbaba–there has been violence in human stories. Because menace, hazard, violence, raises the stakes. If we care about a character, the threat to her moves and engages us, allows us (pardon, my Theatre Studies BA is rising up again) catharsis, and sends us home whistling. There’s emotional jeopardy, too–some of it more harrowing than mere physical danger–and a lot of it I would not subject a child to. When Titanic came out, I knew my then-eight-year-old daughter would be far more disturbed by the emotional violence of a mother forcing her daughter to marry a clearly loathesome person, than by the gruesome carnage of the shipwreck itself. I kept her home and was the mean mommy because everyone else had seen it and….
In Toy Story 3 I saw characters being genuinely heroic (and petty, and loving, and stubborn) all while staying true to their individual natures. I loved it. At the same time, I would not take a very young child to see it–the scene with the toys facing extinction (however bravely) had me and my fourteen year old clutching hands and gasping, and we’re pretty hardened, plus we were pretty sure that it’s Toy Story, and nothing terrible is going to happen and… But we were involved, we cared. Which is what the creators of the movie want, yes?
I am not a fan of violence-porn. Saw, and the various Chainsaw flicks, and things of that sort, leave me beyond cold. But there are forms of violence–samurai movies, and the ridiculous cartoon violence of the Die Hard films–that I enjoy. As a kid who fell for it every single week when Lassie and Timmy were in danger, I think that jeopardy, not for its own sake but as part of the story, is absolutely necessary to storytelling, even in children’s stories. Maybe especially in children’s stories, because children live with their own internal violence every day and are struggling to define and tame it. I don’t see it as de-sensitizing our children to violence; I see it as helping them harness their experiences and impulses.
And I think that’s one of the proper uses of fiction.