Commentary Magazine

The Sex and Violence Show

When, at the height of the presidential campaign in September, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a report detailing the movie industry’s efforts to attract children to its R-rated products, the reaction in Washington was not difficult to predict. Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee and a long-time scourge of Hollywood, vowed that, if elected, he and Al Gore would give movie-makers six months to “clean up their act” before devising a plan for government action; Gore himself soon seconded the motion during a widely publicized appearance on Oprah. Not to be outdone, Republicans deputized Lynn Cheney, the wife of GOP vice-presidential nominee Dick Cheney, to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee, where she too excoriated the peddlers of cinematic vulgarity and mayhem.

No less predictable, though diametrically opposed, was the response of the critics and commentators, who greeted the outcry over the FTC report with a collective yawn. Citing past instances of political grandstanding on the subject, Walter Goodman of the New York Times and Jack Shafer of Slate dismissed the current flap as little more than bourgeois hysteria. The author Richard Rhodes, writing on the oped page of the Times, pointed to the failure of researchers to establish any “link between entertainment and violent behavior” among young people, declaring the real problem to be not Hollywood but child abuse and the easy availability of guns. And in the New Republic, Andrew Sullivan wondered why, given our declining rates of juvenile murder and assault, everyone was getting so worked up. Indeed, Sullivan speculated, youth crime may be down precisely because of the success of violent movies and video games, which serve as a “giant sublimation of the urges most young males have a hard time controlling.”

As for the entertainment industry itself, its representatives also played their appointed role, noisily invoking the First Amendment and the prerogatives of “artistic freedom.” “We’re talking censorship here, plain and simple,” proclaimed Vince McMahon, chairman of World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, whose Smackdown!, a prime-time television show adored by young boys, features wrestlers grabbing their crotches and bellowing “Suck it!” to their scantily clad “whores.”

But the indignation of the country’s entertainment elite was both pro-forma and short-lived, assuaged within a few days by Senator Lieberman’s soothing declaration, at a $4-million Beverly Hills fundraiser, that he and Vice President Gore actually had “tremendous regard for this industry.” What this meant about the putatively worrisome problem of sex and violence in the media was not lost on Lieberman’s intended audience. As one movie director observed, “We’re not going to hear one more thing about it until 2004.”

And so, between the brazen pandering and flipflopping of the politicians, the reflexive dismissals of journalists, and the pious swaggering of Hollywood, the issues raised by the FTC report would seem to have been quickly put to rest. But not quite.



Protests against the supposedly corrupting effects of mass entertainment are nothing new in America. Early 20th-century reformers fretted about nickelodeons, with their garish crime stories and come-hither starlets; the Chicago Tribune denounced them as “ministering to the lowest passions of childhood.” In 1912, in perhaps the first example of a copycat crime to be blamed on the media, a young man cited the twelve-minute silent movie The Great Train Robbery as the inspiration for his attempted railroad heist.

It was not until 1934, however, that Hollywood, bowing to pressure from religious and other private groups as well as the threat of federal action, first agreed to regulate the content of its films. Under rules known as the Hays Code, not only were brutal killings banned from the big screen but so too were any mention of childbirth, words like “eunuch,” and (most ridiculous of all in the eyes of critics) scenes of tender passion in which the paramours’ feet did not remain firmly planted on the ground.

By mid-century, with the arrival of television and other new forms of entertainment for children, Congress finally got into the act, prompted in large part by the rising rate of juvenile delinquency. The era’s most famous investigation of the subject was conducted in the early 1950’s under the leadership of Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. The Kefauver hearings, as they came to be known, are remembered in particular for solemnly probing the deleterious effects of . . . comic books. The chief witness against the industry was the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, author of the luridly titled The Seduction of the Innocent, who argued that the comics were to blame for many a juvenile crime and suicide.

In Wertham’s defense, it must be said that the comic books in question were primarily of the “horror” genre—a sadist’s gallery of hangings, flagellations, severed heads, and bloody axes. But as the critic Robert Warshow noted at the time,1 prompted by his eleven-year-old son’s devotion to the offending books, whatever was legitimate in Wertham’s concerns was neutralized not only by his naive view of cause and effect but by his failure to discriminate between the banal and the noxious. No sooner had Wertham blasted The Vault of Horror than he turned his ire on Captain Marvel—for making children attempt to fly.

Nevertheless, Congress was duly impressed by such expert pronouncements, and new regulations for the comic-book industry soon followed. More important perhaps was the boost that the widely covered hearings gave to the career of Senator Kefauver, who was tapped shortly thereafter to serve as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate on the Democratic ticket for the White House.



Since the 1950’s, the issue of how the popular media affect the juvenile id has proved irresistible to politicians. Members of Congress have introduced some 30 bills over the years in an effort to regulate television violence (only two of them have passed). And high-profile youth crimes almost always spark official inquiries into the role of the media, the current FTC report being at least in part a response to the 1999 shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado.

But not only has just about every attempt to address this problem proved ineffectual, the level of debate on the subject has not advanced much in a half-century. Today’s experts on youth and the media generally share the same humorless, literal-minded spirit of Warshow’s Dr. Wertham. “By age 18,” intones a typical study, “the average American child will have viewed about 200,000 acts of violence,” including “8,000 murders before he finishes elementary school.” The numbers are meant to shock, but in reality they only inure. How can a phenomenon of such magnitude possibly be resisted? Would exposing children to just 100,000 acts of violence improve matters?

And what are “acts of violence”? One prominent researcher includes such things as the serial slapping of the Three Stooges and the death, by way of tornado-blown house, of the Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz. A study published this past summer by two Harvard researchers in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association tabulates the purportedly ominous number of violent scenes in G-rated movies, thereby managing to throw Pinocchio into the same junk heap as Natural Born Killers. Not only does such reductionism make no sense in itself, it also ignores the anarchic impulse that has always colored the best of popular culture, from Punch and Judy to vaudeville to The Simpsons, and it has served to alienate those who might otherwise sympathize with the antiviolence cause.

Research on the actual effect of children’s exposure to media, while sometimes suggestive, poses a different set of problems. Most studies are based on what is known as “social learning theory,” the idea that when children repeatedly see an aggressive behavior on television or in movies they will accept it as normal and imitate it. Thus, the theory goes, boys who spend hours viewing Mighty Morphin Power Rangers are more likely to bully their classmates than those who watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. What such studies obviously fail to explain is why this relationship holds true so infrequently. Perhaps the most striking counterexample is Japan, where young students consume enormous quantities of ferociously violent cartoons but seldom engage in playground brawls, much less any kind of serious violence.

No more satisfying is research that tracks viewing habits and behavior over time in an effort to demonstrate a correlation between the two. In a 22-year study of a group of individuals growing up in a semirural New York town, the psychologist Leonard Eron of the University of Michigan found that those who have watched a lot of violent television at age eight are more likely to commit acts of violence later in life. But does this prove that such shows make people aggressive or, rather, that aggressive types are attracted to entertainment matching their temperament?

In another famous study, Brandon Centerwall found a doubling of the white homicide rate in South Africa in the years after television was introduced in that country. Extrapolating from his research, he concluded that, without television, the United States would have 10,000 fewer murders a year and much less rape, assault, and child abuse. It is exactly the same sort of social-scientific logic, of course, that leads Andrew Sullivan to suggest that increasingly graphic violence in the media might have been responsible for recent declines in homicide and assault among young people. Such mirror-image conclusions prove nothing more profound than that correlation and causation are very different things.



But the most serious defect of our seemingly interminable debate over children and the media is not so much the poor quality of the evidence on offer but how the issue is framed in the first place. Whatever the exact role played by movies, TV shows, and video games in promoting acts of violence, large and small, there is more to be concerned about than whether the entertainment industry turns children into outright brutes. Violence may be the worst but is hardly the only instance of our failure to socialize our young.

Compared with earlier generations, today’s children are fatter and more prone to diabetes. There can be no doubt that much of the blame falls to the passive, sedentary entertainments that dominate their leisure time; playing electronic basketball on a Nintendo Game Boy is no substitute for shooting hoops at the playground. In addition, accustomed as children now are to a constantly changing array of visual stimulation—and to the remote control’s power to wipe away any scene that does not immediately engage them—they often have exceedingly short attention spans. An enterprising researcher might do well to look for a connection between the dizzying pace of today’s screen images and soaring rates of Attention Deficit Disorder.

The imperious need for variety and intensity does perhaps its greatest harm in stunting intellectual and aesthetic development. Patience does not come naturally to children, and those who have become habituated to the glittering surfaces of movies, television shows, and popular music quickly lose interest in forms of literature and music whose pleasures yield themselves only with time and effort. Many educators now complain about students who, expecting to be entertained, seem to lack the mental equipment necessary for a serious engagement with books and ideas.

Not that these students are without imagination. To the contrary: their minds are filled with the most grotesque plots and images of our popular culture. Writing recently in the Gettysburg Review, a creative-writing teacher named Cathy Day described how her college students populate their stories with homicidal maniacs, battered women, maimed children, and prostitutes. When she asked one student about the unhappy fate of her story’s protagonist, a high-school cheerleader, the young woman shrugged, “I didn’t know what to do with my character, and my friend came into the room and said, ‘Why don’t you have her get raped?’ ”

What such seeming worldliness conceals is its opposite: a remarkably naïve, not to say infantile, view of adult attitudes and responsibilities, much of it courtesy of popular culture. Though the entertainment industry is often—and rightly—taken to task for appealing to the juvenile imagination on its crudest level, a no less common strategy for boosting ratings and sales is to flatter children with images of themselves as hip and aware. Eight-year-olds get a wise-acre cartoon character like Bart Simpson, ten-year-olds a strutting Britney Spears, and twelve-year-olds a hormonally charged Dawson’s Creek, a television show featuring splendidly endowed, bed-jumping high-schoolers. Such fare, an irresistible lure for the young, who naturally long to grow up, persuades them of their own moral and sexual maturity long before they have begun to achieve it.



Many of these problems have been at least dimly understood for a long time—it was in 1961, after all, that FCC chairman Newton Minow famously described television as a “vast wasteland”—but in our increasingly media-saturated world they have taken on a new urgency. What was once a mere diversion in the lives of children now provides much of the infrastructure of their minds. There are some 250 million televisions in the country, one for almost every American, with two-thirds of children aged eight to eighteen having sets in their own bedrooms. And television is just a small part of today’s panoply of entertainment. The Kaiser Foundation reports that the various products of the mass media now occupy an average of six-and-a-half hours of a child’s day.

Writing in 1954, Robert War-show well understood that his son’s beloved horror comics provided a fantasy of lawless freedom, but also knew that this slightly unwholesome interest was balanced by the restraints and complexities learned in activities to which the boy devoted most of his time: reading real books, drawing, painting, playing with toads, writing stories and poems, looking at things through a microscope. Today, this list of activities would sound hopelessly boring, even childish, to the average eleven-year-old familiar with the “sophisticated” products of an ever-more shameless entertainment industry.

So what is to be done? By government, not much—though even small measures help. For all the grandstanding inspired by the FTC report, it did actually shame movie companies into accepting certain limits on their advertising and forswearing the exploitation of children in the market-testing of R-rated productions. Local governments can make a difference as well, though some measures now being contemplated are at best palliatives, more often placebos. A recent Indianapolis ordinance requiring public arcades to place some distance between sexually explicit or violent video games and those more suitable for children would have been a tiny step in the right direction—had it not been struck down in court.

More promising, because less inhibited by constitutional concerns, are the efforts of grassroots movements and watchdog groups to discourage what William J. Bennett has called “the race to the bottom” in popular entertainment. The Parents Television Council, a Hollywood watchdog group, has waged an impressive campaign against the lurid television spectacles of the World Wrestling Federation, prompting many advertisers to jump ship. Other groups have urged an outright ban on advertising targeted at preschoolers. What is most interesting about these protests—especially in light of the media’s tendency to portray the battle as one between prigs and progressives—is their wide political appeal. The activists who have recently resisted the expansion of Channel One—a company that provides television “news” to classrooms in exchange for being allowed to advertise to this captive audience—run the gamut from Gary Ruskin, the Naderite director of a group called Commercial Alert, to Phyllis Schlafly, head of the deeply conservative Eagle Forum.



In the end, however, no amount of government tinkering or organized protest can take the place of the individual adults who have direct influence over children. And here the news is disheartening, for not only are those adults failing to provide a meaningful alternative to the culture of the mass media, many are in fact embracing it.

In the name of “appealing to children’s interests,” for example, many teachers now welcome popular culture into the classroom. Instead of requiring students to write essays, they ask them to produce soap operas or music videos. A second grader of my acquaintance, recently assigned a library project on an important woman, was delighted to find that one of the suggested subjects was Madonna (not the Virgin Mary, needless to say). A recent article in the New York Times featured several teachers and the nation’s poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz, praising the classroom use of hip-hop music—some of the lowest around—for its capacity to “excite young people about language and the creative act.”

And parents? According to polls and surveys, they express profound alarm at the trash that threatens to colonize their children’s minds. Yet their actions tell a different story. The Kaiser Foundation found that half of all parents impose no rules on what their children may watch on television. Indeed, the FTC report itself unwittingly confirmed that the childrearing practices of many American parents are not so out of sync with Hollywood’s marketing needs. After all, the nine- and ten-year-olds who were used by the movie studios in their focus groups were allowed to participate only with their parents’ consent. Nor was much adverse comment to be heard about the supposedly child-friendly magazines and television programs that ran the offending advertisements for R-rated movies—places like MTV and Cosmo Girl, a junior version of Helen Gurley Brown’s racy magazine. Protesting that your ten-year-old son was subjected to a trailer for the Rrated Scream while watching Smack-down! is a little like complaining that he was bitten by a rat while scavenging at the local dump.

The dissonance between what Americans say about the entertainment industry and what they actually do about it at home reflects a deep anxiety about exercising parental authority. Parents may be disgusted by much of what their children are exposed to, but they seem even more disturbed by the prospect of actively asserting their own beliefs. They simply hope that somehow their children will learn, on their own, to “make good decisions”—a ubiquitous phrase among experts that now appears to represent the highest aspiration of American childrearing.

Why are parents so inhibited in this regard? Some seem to worry they will damage their children’s self-esteem (by suggesting that the little ones’ judgment is not trustworthy), or that playing the heavy will otherwise harm the parent-child relationship. Others shrug that their children will find a way to watch and listen to what they want anyway. Most telling are those parents who are reluctant to manage their child’s media diet on the grounds that they “do not believe in censorship,” as if telling an eight-year-old he may not listen to rap stars like Dr. Dre (“If it was slightly darker, lights was little dimmer/my d—be stuck in yo windpipe”) or Eminem (“Don’t you yell, bitch/No one can hear you /Now shut the f—up and get what’s comin’ to you”) were the household equivalent of Stalinist thought control.

But censorship is clearly integral to effective child-rearing. A child cannot be prepared for adulthood without learning he may not say and do certain things, either because they are wrong in themselves or because he is not yet prepared for them. Indeed, such moral education is perhaps nowhere more necessary than in a free society like our own, where so many restraints are largely self-imposed. American children, in short, need to learn not just the formal meaning of the First Amendment but the responsibilities that go along with it. And they need to learn them from their elders.



1 “Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham,” COMMENTARY, June 1954.


About the Author

Kay S. Hymowitz, a contributing editor of City Journal, writes frequently for COMMENTARY on social and cultural issues.

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