Violent Media is Good for Kids by Gerard Jones




Renowned comic-book author Gerard Jones argues that bloody

videogames, gun-glorifying gangsta rap and other forms of 'creative

violence' help far more children than they hurt, by giving kids a

tool to master their rage. Appeared in Mother Jones online, June 28, 2000.




At 13 I was alone and afraid. Taught by my well-meaning,

progressive, English-teacher parents that violence was wrong, that

rage was something to be overcome and cooperation was always better

than conflict, I suffocated my deepest fears and desires under a

nice-boy persona. Placed in a small, experimental school that was

wrong for me, afraid to join my peers in their bumptious rush into

adolescent boyhood, I withdrew into passivity and loneliness. My

parents, not trusting the violent world of the late 1960s, built a

wall between me and the crudest elements of American pop culture.

Then the Incredible Hulk smashed through it.

One of my mother's students convinced her that Marvel Comics,

despite their apparent juvenility and violence, were in fact devoted

to lofty messages of pacifism and tolerance. My mother borrowed

some, thinking they'd be good for me. And so they were. But not

because they preached lofty messages of benevolence. They were good

for me because they were juvenile. And violent.

The character who caught me, and freed me, was the Hulk:

overgendered and undersocialized, half-naked and half-witted, raging

against a frightened world that misunderstood and persecuted him.

Suddenly I had a fantasy self to carry my stifled rage and buried

desire for power. I had a fantasy self who was a self: unafraid of

his desires and the world's disapproval, unhesitating and effective

in action. "Puny boy follow Hulk!" roared my fantasy self, and I



I followed him to new friends -- other sensitive geeks chasing their

own inner brutes -- and I followed him to the arrogant,

self-exposing, self-assertive, superheroic decision to become a

writer. Eventually, I left him behind, followed more sophisticated

heroes, and finally my own lead along a twisting path to a career

and an identity. In my 30s, I found myself writing action movies and

comic books. I wrote some Hulk stories, and met the geek-geniuses

who created him. I saw my own creations turned into action figures,

cartoons, and computer games. I talked to the kids who read my

stories. Across generations, genders, and ethnicities I kept seeing

the same story: people pulling themselves out of emotional traps by

immersing themselves in violent stories. People integrating the

scariest, most fervently denied fragments of their psyches into

fuller senses of selfhood through fantasies of superhuman combat and


I have watched my son living the same story -- transforming himself

into a bloodthirsty dinosaur to embolden himself for the plunge into

preschool, a Power Ranger to muscle through a social competition in

kindergarten. In the first grade, his friends started climbing a

tree at school. But he was afraid: of falling, of the centipedes

crawling on the trunk, of sharp branches, of his friends' derision.

I took my cue from his own fantasies and read him old Tarzan comics,

rich in combat and bright with flashing knives. For two weeks he

lived in them. Then he put them aside. And he climbed the tree.

But all the while, especially in the wake of the recent burst of

school shootings, I heard pop psychologists insisting that violent

stories are harmful to kids, heard teachers begging parents to keep

their kids away from "junk culture," heard a guilt-stricken friend

with a son who loved Pokémon lament, "I've turned into the bad mom

who lets her kid eat sugary cereal and watch cartoons!"

That's when I started the research.


"Fear, greed, power-hunger, rage: these are aspects of our selves

that we try not to experience in our lives but often want, even

need, to experience vicariously through stories of others," writes

Melanie Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist who works with urban teens.

"Children need violent entertainment in order to explore the

inescapable feelings that they've been taught to deny, and to

reintegrate those feelings into a more whole, more complex, more

resilient selfhood."

Moore consults to public schools and local governments, and is also

raising a daughter. For the past three years she and I have been

studying the ways in which children use violent stories to meet

their emotional and developmental needs -- and the ways in which

adults can help them use those stories healthily. With her help I

developed Power Play, a program for helping young people improve

their self-knowledge and sense of potency through heroic, combative




We've found that every aspect of even the trashiest pop-culture

story can have its own developmental function. Pretending to have

superhuman powers helps children conquer the feelings of

powerlessness that inevitably come with being so young and small.

The dual-identity concept at the heart of many superhero stories

helps kids negotiate the conflicts between the inner self and the

public self as they work through the early stages of socialization.

Identification with a rebellious, even destructive, hero helps

children learn to push back against a modern culture that cultivates

fear and teaches dependency.

At its most fundamental level, what we call "creative violence" --

head-bonking cartoons, bloody videogames, playground karate, toy

guns -- gives children a tool to master their rage. Children will

feel rage. Even the sweetest and most civilized of them, even those

whose parents read the better class of literary magazines, will feel

rage. The world is uncontrollable and incomprehensible; mastering it

is a terrifying, enraging task. Rage can be an energizing emotion, a

shot of courage to push us to resist greater threats, take more

control, than we ever thought we could. But rage is also the emotion

our culture distrusts the most. Most of us are taught early on to

fear our own. Through immersion in imaginary combat and

identification with a violent protagonist, children engage the rage

they've stifled, come to fear it less, and become more capable of

utilizing it against life's challenges.

I knew one little girl who went around exploding with fantasies so

violent that other moms would draw her mother aside to whisper, "I

think you should know something about Emily...." Her parents were

separating, and she was small, an only child, a tomboy at an age

when her classmates were dividing sharply along gender lines. On the

playground she acted out "Sailor Moon" fights, and in the classroom

she wrote stories about people being stabbed with knives. The more

adults tried to control her stories, the more she acted out the

roles of her angry heroes: breaking rules, testing limits, roaring


Then her mother and I started helping her tell her stories. She

wrote them, performed them, drew them like comics: sometimes bloody,

sometimes tender, always blending the images of pop culture with her

own most private fantasies. She came out of it just as fiery and

strong, but more self-controlled and socially competent: a leader

among her peers, the one student in her class who could truly pull

boys and girls together.

I worked with an older girl, a middle-class "nice girl," who held

herself together through a chaotic family situation and a tumultuous

adolescence with gangsta rap. In the mythologized street violence of

Ice T, the rage and strutting of his music and lyrics, she found a

theater of the mind in which she could be powerful, ruthless,

invulnerable. She avoided the heavy drug use that sank many of her

peers, and flowered in college as a writer and political activist.

I'm not going to argue that violent entertainment is harmless. I

think it has helped inspire some people to real-life violence. I am

going to argue that it's helped hundreds of people for every one

it's hurt, and that it can help far more if we learn to use it well.

I am going to argue that our fear of "youth violence" isn't

well-founded on reality, and that the fear can do more harm than the

reality. We act as though our highest priority is to prevent our

children from growing up into murderous thugs -- but modern kids are

far more likely to grow up too passive, too distrustful of

themselves, too easily manipulated.

We send the message to our children in a hundred ways that their

craving for imaginary gun battles and symbolic killings is wrong, or

at least dangerous. Even when we don't call for censorship or forbid

"Mortal Kombat," we moan to other parents within our kids' earshot

about the "awful violence" in the entertainment they love. We tell

our kids that it isn't nice to play-fight, or we steer them from

some monstrous action figure to a pro-social doll. Even in the most

progressive households, where we make such a point of letting

children feel what they feel, we rush to substitute an enlightened

discussion for the raw material of rageful fantasy. In the process,

we risk confusing them about their natural aggression in the same

way the Victorians confused their children about their sexuality.

When we try to protect our children from their own feelings and

fantasies, we shelter them not against violence but against power

and selfhood.  What do you think?


This essay is excerpted from the book, Power Play, by Gerard Jones

and Melanie Moore, Ph.D., coming from Basic Books in 2001.


Gerard Jones is a veteran writer of comics, cartoons, and

screenplays, including "Batman," "Spider-Man," "Ultraforce," and the

forthcoming "Pokémon" newspaper comic strip and the Web strip The

Haunted Man. He is the author of several books, including "Honey I'm

Home: Sitcoms Selling the American Dream" (St. Martin's Books).

Melanie Moore, Ph.D. is a former fellow of the Stanford Center on

Adolescence and a consultant on children's issues and education

government agencies and nonprofits.



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