Review of Gerard Jones’ Killing Monsters
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/30/05
I recently came across Gerard Jones’ 2002 book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, And Make-Believe Violence, wherein the author basically argues that all the nonsense that you hear about media violence warping children is overdone, and merely part of the general hysteria of the age, wherein the personal responsibilities of parents to guide their kids has been shriveled to nonexistence:
We don’t help children learn the difference between fantasy and reality when we allow their fantasies to provoke reactions from us that are more appropriate to reality. When a child is joyfully killing a friend who loves being killed, we don’t make things clearer for them by responding with an anxious, ‘You shouldn’t shoot people!’ Instead we blur the very boundaries that they’re trying to establish. We teach them that pretend shooting makes adults feel threatened in reality, and therefore their own fantasies must be more powerful and more dangerous than they thought. The result for the child is more anxiety and self-doubt, more concern over the power of violent thoughts, less sense of power over their own feelings, and less practice expressing their fantasies.
It echoes what I’ve always said, and Jones, a former comics writer and the author of The Comic Book Heroes and Honey, I'm Home: Sitcoms Selling the American Dream, does a good job of backing up his claims, by debunking many spurious claims linking violence in media to violence in children, by distinguishing the difference between a correlation and a cause. He writes, ‘We don’t ask whether game shows predispose our children to greed or love songs to bad relationships.’ Jones argues that identifying with powerful, violent fantasy figures allows children, especially males, to build self-esteem (that buzzword of the last decade)- even to the point of stating that the sexuality of Britney Spears, or even Tomb Raiders’ fictive Lara Croft, is a similar thing for young girls, because the girls emulate her not for sex, but because they see the power her sexuality holds over men, a feminine analog for violence. He writes: ‘Nearly all violent stories that kids love enact powerful lessons about courage, resiliency, and development. It doesn't matter who the good guys and bad guys are, who wins or loses, or what values are espoused by the characters in the course of the action.’ He even asserts that the Harry Potter books use violence, even though they lack guns, because the wands he uses occupy the same phallic spheres as guns- point and destroy the enemy.
This book has been compared to Bruno Bettelheim’s classic The Uses of Enchantment, which similarly exploded many of the myths surrounding fairy tales’ dark themes and violence. The innate power that violence embodies allows many young children that are bullied or outcasts to not descend to depths they cannot recover from. By releasing aggression in fantasies children are less likely to release them in reality. Jones also shows that such infamous cases as the Kip Kinkel shootings, or those at Columbine, actually support his thesis, since those kids had no ‘safe’ release for their aggressions, and acted upon them in a real way.
Jones also lets the reactionary elements on both the Left and Right have it, for condemning or punishing kids who are simply doing normal and healthy things when they play aggressively, in person or on video, as well as foisting their own unfounded insecurities and fears on their descendants. Yet, while this trend has accelerated in recent years, it’s always been with us- at least here in America. In the 19th Century the dime novel Westerns were condemned for their violence. In the 1950s crime novels by Mickey Spillane and his imitators were demonized. Even more absurdly, the crime comics of that era were vilified in the now patently ridiculous exposé by notorious charlatan Dr. Frederic Wertham’s Seduction Of The Innocent, even leading to Congressional investigations. Jones also shows the abject silliness of equating gunplay in cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians with real violence. As a child who grew up in a violent neighborhood, and witnessed my first murder (of many) at the age of six, the idea that make believe death, in play or film, or on tv, could ever be mixed up with a real violent death has always struck me as absurd, and evidence of the claimant’s sheltered existence. Jones provides some common sense approaches to the annoying hysteria that screeches out at and from within society.
In one of the best portions of the book Jones argues how the Japanese were much smarter in marketing their monster films to kids, knowing that kids identified with the monsters, often crying when one was killed off. Thus, even to this day, the Japanese monster film market thrives, whereas the American one resuscitates only now and then with a big screen hit. If violence in the realms of fantasy was so bad then why the perdurance of it in all myths from all cultures, in films, television, plays, and media of low and high origin? Comic book superheroes are popular, as are the adventures of the Star Trek and Star Wars universes. Growing up in the 1970s I recall William Shatner’s Captain Kirk as the ideal American, the way John Wayne’s and Jimmy Cagney’s onscreen personae were before that.
Imagine the sort of mind it takes to try to equate Columbine or the
Manson murders or Jonestown or 9/11 with Wile E, Coyote’s falling off a cliff,
or Moe, Larry, and Curly eye-gouging each other into eternity. After 9/11 it
became all too easy to see the idiocy of overreaction. Kids dealt with 9/11 very
easily, yet parents went gonzo. There were reports of kids being rebuked for
dying their hair, writing or drawing scenes deemed too violent, etc. In a
chapter on the spurious Columbine linkage to violent video games Jones writes
convincingly: ‘Those games have been
played by millions of people, and only two of them did that. Only two out of
millions. I’d say the problem was with those two people, not the games.’
He’s right, of course. He’s also right when he decries the claims that video
game players are slack-jawed, by countering that to be successful at such
requires the players’ to be almost hyper-aware. This is just more of the
mindless stereotyping that goes into the arguments against violent
That all this hysteria has occurred in the Politically Correct age is no coincidence. Think of the banal mind-numbing things that such shows as Barney the Dinosaur or The Teletubbies spew up, and The Three Stooges seem like Greek philosophers. Jones stands tall in defense of the intellect of children, arguing that their minds are not as pliable as many seem to think: ‘The slickest commercials ever made, inundating every kids’ show, wouldn't make him want to eat Brussels sprouts or clean his room.’ And to tell a kid that he may grow up to be warped and violent if he plays with toy swords or guns is itself very warped, as well as confusing to a child that instinctively recognizes the difference between reality and fantasy. Ask yourself, the first time you saw Wile E. Coyote dangling in mid-air, before falling to the canyon floor, did you really believe it was in any way realistic? Jones argues that parents seemingly have forgotten the power of metaphor, which kids indulge in precisely because they are the most powerless people in society- even old folk at least have vast stores of knowledge in knowing how to cope with certain things.
All in all Jones’ arguments are coherent, strong, persuasive, and based in reality. Too often, in their zeal to ‘do right’, people on both ends of the political spectrum rush to foolish conclusions, often unsupported by science, such as the endless streams of studies that merely repeat the fallacies about violence in the media and violence in reality, despite not a single causal connection being shown. Jones states: ‘One thing the study pointedly does not show is that children became less aggressive because they saw less violence.’ And he similarly disposes of the idiotic arguments that fake violence desensitizes people to real violence, using 9/11 as the perfect example of that not being so, by quoting children who described their horror at witnessing a real violent act that looked like make believe, thus doubling its horror. He even goes back to the modern genesis of this ‘desensitization’ argument, the Kitty Genovese case in 1964, where a woman was murdered and dozens of people heard her scream for help but did nothing. Jones brilliantly shows that this was not, in fact, due to her neighbors being desensitized to violence by living in a violent neighborhood, and thereby not caring, but being far too sensitized to violence, to the point of being paralyzed with fear over interceding in the crime. That incident, like Columbine, the Oklahoma City bombings, 9/11, and even the 1920s Leopold and Loeb ‘thrill killing’ case were not harbingers of violence, but freakish deviations from the norm. He also shows how violence in the media usually peaks after violence statistically wanes, thereby powerfully supporting the argument that violence in the media reflects and follows reality, not the other way around. Because of these and many other insights I heartily recommend Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, And Make-Believe Violence for all people, not just parents. It takes well-researched and argued analyses like this to sometimes ground the well-meaning, but hell-bound, worst elements in our society from killing fleas and gnats with machine guns.
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