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Media monsters: militarism, violence and cruelty in children's culture

Buzz Lightyear is tortured and becomes a prison guard in the surveillance-laden dystopia of Toy Story 3. Does it matter?

Credit: Pixabay/Jarmoluk.

“Ten percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and ten percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction.” Susan Sontag.

Who would ever have thought that there would be torture scenes in G and PG-rated children's films, or that video games would allow someone to feel the rush of killing, or that the Disney corporation would try to trademark ‘SEAL Team 6’ so that they could use it for toys, Christmas stockings and snow globes after this elite military group had killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani compound?

Who could have imagined that a child would write a few loving words on her desk and then be arrested in front of her classmates, or that the U.S. government would torture real children in the ‘war on terror?’ Alexa Gonzalez, a 12-year old girl from Queens, doodled “I love my friends Abby and Faith. Lex was here. 2/1/10,” adding a smiley face for emphasis. The next thing she knew she was escorted from school in handcuffs and detained for hours.

And what of 14-year old Mohammed El-Gharani, who was subjected to sleep deprivation and hung from his wrists while a U.S. soldier threatened to cut off his penis with a knife? Welcome to the new face of childhood in America.

Seeing “little Boo,” the toddler who can barely speak in Monsters, Inc., strapped into a seat with holes in the bottom for draining bodily fluids just like the electric chair on death row convinced me to take a closer look at what children all over the world are watching as their purported ‘entertainment;’ what this might be doing to their minds and their emotions; and how all this is related to public policy and the institutions of society.

I don’t think it’s accidental that—as cartoon images of violence, militarism and incarceration fill children's heads—the school-to-prison pipeline is increasingly active in the schools of poor neighborhoods and communities of color, many of whose children are slated for a life in jail or in the armed forces. Pushing students out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system—often for minor offenses such as getting behind in their homework—is as disturbing as the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instituting programs on the middle school level as a way of attracting new recruits, or the use of images in children’s films that justify the ‘war on terror.’

Yet the propaganda continues. In the film The Incredibles, children are shown the 9/11 trope of a plane bent on destruction that’s heading toward a U.S. city while an entire family ends up on a torture table; the film also shows “Mr Incredible” being blasted by viscous bubbles similar to the supposedly non-lethal incapacitant sticky-foam weapons that are currently being proposed for crowd control in the U.S. and elsewhere. And what are children to think when their beloved Buzz Lightyear—shown as a friend to all for two of the three films in the series—is tortured, has his personality changed, and becomes a prison guard for the cruel overlord in the surveillance-laden dystopia of Toy Story 3?

These examples and many others like them matter enormously, because children's beliefs about other people are molded from a very young age—think how the characters in the Disney film Aladdin, for example, may have encouraged children to see the Arabic world as mean-spirited at a time when support for the first Gulf War was being consciously built up by the U.S. Government. The cultural critic Henry A. Giroux found that Disney not only included offensive language toward the Middle East in both this film and its sequel, but didn't even bother to write actual Arabic in the scenes where it was called for, choosing instead to substitute a scribble of nonsensical scrawl.

In addition to the language of death, war scenes, and general barbarism, there are other disturbing features of G and PG-rated children's movies. In Turbo, the tale of a snail trying to enter and win the Indianapolis 500 for example, nearly all of the African-American characters have an inner-city vibe. Spanish-speaking characters are presented as poor, lazy and/or loud, a stereotype repeated in Open Season, the story of a pet bear who is sent back to the wild.

Women are shown as either ‘bitchy’ or subservient—as in Beauty and the Beast, pretty much a primer for women to learn how to endure an abusive relationship (‘If I'm nice enough he'll come around’). Or watch how Ratatouille presents a woman as psychotic when the character “Colette” stabs the sleeve of a fellow kitchen worker’s uniform. Native Americans are invariably depicted as mysterious figures who speak monosyllabically, as seen in Rango, for example. “Rango,” the new sheriff in town in what appears to be an old racist Western film, says to “Wounded Bird,” “You wanna sniff the air or commune with a buffalo or something?”

Children themselves are presented as either endangered beings or as monsters, and sometimes both, as in the Toy Story series and Nanny McPhee. Guns, cruelty, and bullying are woven through just about every children’s film in the U.S., but according to This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the Motion Picture Association of America doesn't care about the level of violence so long as no one hears any cursing or is a witness to drug use or alternative lifestyles.

This last point is especially harmful because ritual ridicule in a brutal gender binary system has been linked to a recent rise in school shootings. “Most of the boys who opened fire were mercilessly and routinely teased and bullied” as researchers Michael S. Kimmel and Matthew Mahler put it.  Our definitions of what it means to ‘be a man’ are injected early on. Seeing the character “Ken”—who is depicted as effeminate—being threatened by “Barbie” in Toy Story 3 tells boys to be wary of having nice handwriting or displaying any other purportedly-feminine behavior. Or take the example of the ‘minion’ in Despicable Me who is teased for wanting some affection.

Meanwhile, children are busy learning how to kill from video games, repeating the cruelties they learn from films, watching playground fights on YouTube, and being patted down for guns and knives at school. At the same time, American tax dollars are hard at work being used for nationalistic ceremonies at pro sports events and censoring directors who don't promote ‘patriotism’ and the virtues of war. Pro-war movies like Black Hawk Down had no trouble enlisting support from the U.S. military, but those with a different message like Forrest Gump and GI Jane were ostracized.

Where is all this leading? As Hitler’s deputy Hermann Goering said at the Nuremberg trials:

“Of course the people don't want war...That is understood...But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

Propaganda and other more subtle forms of media communication have always been used to build support for war, militaristic policing and government surveillance on the grounds of ‘national security.’ The images and messages contained in film, TV, popular music and video games form an important part of this process, especially because there are now only five big media conglomerates that control over 90 per cent of everything that is seen and heard across America.

Against this background we are growing accustomed to torture and militarism in children’s films. What next—Darryl the Drone or Larry the Land Mine and his escapades? When we laugh at the suffering of others we become complicit in the darkness of violence, cruelty and war. Is that the kind of upbringing we want to give to our kids? 

About the author

Heidi Tilney Kramer is a mom and independent scholar focusing on Critical Children's Studies and U.S. Media. A former elementary school teacher, she teaches Childhood in America at Eckerd College in Florida and lectures widely. Her new book is Media Monsters: Militarism, Violence, and Cruelty in Children's Culture

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