By K.J. Dell’Antonia
October 26, 2015
Are some words, ideas, stories or actions simply too much for children? Too violent, too racist, too sexy, too misogynist? Which ones, and for which children, and when?
|Tipper Gore and Susan Baker at a Senate hearing in 1985.|
Credit: Lana Harris/Associated Press
Retro Report has been looking at past instances of brouhahas over worrisome media content, one over gory comic books in the 1950s, the other over sex- and violence-laden rock songs in the ’80s. Both had lasting repercussions. Warning labels on CDs still beckon enticingly should one venture into a physical establishment to buy music in a nondigital form, and allow parents to exclude content from their children’s digital grasp.
On the comics front, what was once a thriving style was all but crushed by accusations that horror and crime comics, in particular, put children on the road to delinquency, addiction and lifelong ruin.
Although the impact of those earlier panics can still be seen, we have yet as a society to figure out how to approach media we consider questionable. As parents, we fret over song lyrics, movies and even frightening moments in Harry Potter books that we consider our children too young for; as they get a little older, we, as parents and schools, try to decide whether they should read books we think are important — like “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Diary of Anne Frank” in their original or altered forms.
One look at the image of Tipper Gore and Susan Baker testifying before Congress is enough to put most parents back in touch with the music-loving teenager they once were, yet who can deny that if your 6-year-old came home from a friend’s house singing the praises of “Call of Duty Black Ops 3,” you might just find yourself channeling a little Tipper?
I do not (any more) verbally edit the books I read aloud to my children (9, 10, 11 and 14). I include Pa’s racist views on Indians when reading the Little House books, I read Rudyard Kipling’s caption under one of the illustrations for “How the Leopard Got His Spots” (“The Ethiopian was really a negro, and so his name was Sambo.”), I don’t skip over the caricatures of Jews that appear in the work of E. Nesbit and — and I find this comes up most often — I read all the slighting commentary about the abilities, interests and expectations of girls that appears again and again in any book written before about 1975.
I rarely change the radio station when NPR warns of approaching graphic content, I don’t grab the remote control to avoid the commercials for the latest iteration of “Call of Duty” that pepper every sports broadcast.
Then, sometimes, we talk about what we read, hear or saw, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes I am just too tired for another discussion of violence, crime or sexist attitudes during the 19th and much of the 20th century; mostly, after so many go-arounds about the terrible things people are capable of, or the way writers once wrote and talked about women and minorities (and all the conversations about the ways in which some still do), I figure they must have it by now, or at least have enough working knowledge to go on.
As for the rest — the readily available graphic violence and sex that peppers even broadcast television now, the misogynistic lyrics, the video games festooned with warning labels, our family appears to be in a lull, with no one seeking out anything particularly objectionable (although a helpful friend recently introduced my 9- and 10-year-olds to the first-person shooter version of Minecraft). In the larger world, too, there has been a slowdown of content-provoked anxiety.
Although any case where a parent questions a book as part of a school curriculum will make headlines (see the recent headlines surrounding an objection to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”), and larger debates, such as that surrounding the assignment of Ann Patchett’s “Truth & Beauty” to the 2006 incoming freshman class of Clemson University, will always provoke even larger conversations, as Ruth Graham noted in honor of Banned Books week in Slate, if we define banned as removed from a locality’s library shelves, very few books are banned any more.
That is both a result of a changed culture, and a changed cultural landscape. It’s become all but impossible to place certain material out-of-bounds.
Which doesn’t end the discussions of what’s appropriate in media, not by any means. As Retro Report notes, the current debate is around “trigger warnings” that have been proposed on some college campuses, to alert students to curriculum material that may upset them or possibly cause post-traumatic reactions in, say, rape victims or combat veterans.” The writer Clyde Haberman asks, “Are these alerts a reasonable way to shield the more vulnerable from harm, as proponents assert?”
That is a reasonable question, and a reasonable debate, as well — one that addresses the material and its consumer and the experience the material conveys. I may think trigger warnings are foolish coddling, or an accommodation that allows a traumatized individual to prepare to engage with what he is reading, but either way, I can still read, watch or listen to the media — and maybe the consideration of the possible “trigger warning” will spur my own greater understanding.
Ironically, the result of even successful cultural censorship demands, either at the time or in the decades that follow, is to push us toward a closer examination of what it is we do and don’t want to see. At home, we could take the urge to avoid certain material the same way. I considered banning that first-person shooter version of Minecraft, but ultimately just said I didn’t like it, and that it seemed to subvert the very game they had loved. I haven’t seen it on our computer since.
"... ultimately, I would have had to deal with the fact that I’m not always there. I have to teach my children to choose for themselves."
My hope is that these children, raised with our values, choose as I would hope they would choose, but realistically it may simply be that Agar.io has taken over. Would I have behaved differently if the friend had pulled “The Many Faces of Death” up on video? Yes. But ultimately, I would have had to deal with the fact that I’m not always there. I have to teach my children to choose for themselves.
That was always true. Comic book standards codes and warning labels on music had more power in a pre-Internet age, but they never had the power to put the genie back in the bottle.
Maybe now that we can’t really shield our children’s eyes any more — not for long, in any case — the urge to ban, remove, warn or even abridge will begin to be seen more as a push to think harder about the media choices we ourselves make, examine what we’ve read, watched, played or heard more closely, and teach our children to do the same.
When politicians weigh in on the perils of popular culture, comedy sometimes ensues.
By RETRO REPORT on October 25, 2015.