MARTHA THOMASES: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
The horrific events this week at Virginia Tech have elicited the usual pompous political rhetoric about the evils of Hollywood entertainment – violent video games, rap music, movies and television are to blame. “Our kids are being trained to be murderers,” thunder the politicians. “They learn to shoot at their enemies instead of reasoning with them. They become calloused by this violence, which dehumanizes others. Let us regulate this evil, lest our children slaughter us in our beds.”
Except that’s not how it works. If the media were that effective, we would all be effective code crackers, physically fit from our active lifestyles, enjoying out fabulously large New York apartments. That’s what the non-violent media teaches.
I’ve been a non-violent activist since high school, where I regularly risked expulsion by distributing an anti-war magazine. I dropped out of college for 18 months to work with the War Resisters League, and I now serve on the Board of Directors for the A. J. Muste Institute (http://www.ajmuste.org). Doing this work, I’ve met a lot of people who are deeply and thoughtfully concerned about popular culture, and think it degrades people. After decades of rational and reasonable conversation, I need to disagree.
In Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, author (and sometimes comic book writer) Gerard Jones examines why children enjoy playing at violence, and why it can be a good thing for them. If I may grossly over-simplify an entire book into a few sentences, he says that children play to work out their feelings, including anger, frustration and helplessness. It’s far better to pretend to kill the monsters with rayguns or laser beams than to hit another kid because he’s got better stuff in his lunchbox than you do.
Kids aren’t the only ones who feel this way. As a human being and a New Yorker, I face frustration dozens of times a day. The traffic lights are slow, the tourists don’t know how to walk down a city sidewalk so other people can pass them, my neighbors don’t clean up after their dogs. I think about killing them all the time. Because I’m an adult, and because I understand that actions have consequences, I don’t do these things. Instead, I watch Kill Bill or read Punisher.
I also understand that other people have feelings. This understanding did as much to shape my politics as anything else – I saw people on television, dying in Viet Nam, realized I didn’t want to die, and the people I saw, even the Communists, probably didn’t want to die, either. From there, I could see that the people making the decisions to go to war weren’t the ones fighting, but they and their friends were getting rich.
Violence doesn’t come only from the barrel of a gun. It comes from poverty and ignorance, social inequality and propaganda, fear and envy. Kids playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men or Batman doesn’t make them grow up to be gang members anymore than it makes them grow up to be superheroes. If Jones is correct (and my own experience as a parent and playground observer suggests he is), it makes them well-integrated adults who know how to handle their emotions.
Ending violence would be easier if we needed only to restrict free expression in the arts. Ending poverty would be easier if we needed only to give our spare change to the panhandlers on the street. Ending war would be easier if we needed only to march on Washington once in a while. Unfortunately, all these problems are more complicated and more interwoven. It takes real and difficult work, long-term commitment, and sacrifice.
In my down time, let me have my anarchist war film, Duck Soup.
Writer and creator of Marvel Comics’ Dakota North and contributor to their Epic Illustrated, Martha Thomases also has toiled for such publishers as DC Comics and NBM before becoming Media Queen of ComicMix.com.