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Slaying Dragons

Fantasy and make-believe violence play a necessary role in helping our children mature.

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In case you missed it in the news, they took away Wilbur the Wildcat's guns. The University of Arizona recently stripped its popular sports mascot of his six-shooters in all licensed cartoon logo interpretations. Guess that makes sense--the wildcat I saw crossing Silverbell Road the other day wasn't strapped either.

But Wilbur's brandishing of firearms might actually be therapeutic. In his new book, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes and Make-Believe Violence, sociologist and comic-book writer Gerard Jones posits that for children play violence within controlled contexts is about experiencing power in a world of powerlessness.

Jones has written histories of comic-book heroes as well as comics from X-Men-related titles to Pokémon. He also conducts storytelling workshops in conjunction with psychologists and schools.

At 231 pages, not including notes and index, Killing Monsters may appear short, but it is a densely-packed book. Sometimes, Jones seems to repeat his arguments over and over, as if reiterating points on a college debate team. But he writes well enough, and his material is engaging for parents and non-parents.

Jones takes on well-known clinical studies about TV, cartoons and other media, and handily debunks those that attempt to discern a causal link between entertainment violence and children's misbehavior. But he also clearly praises those that honestly try to understand why children like rough-and-tumble play and violent entertainment.

Jones also interviews dozens of sources: media watchdogs, entertainment industry analysts, parents and psychologists, creating a well-rounded collection of real-world observation in which anecdotal evidence is as valid as expensive studies. The author also refers to a diverse collection of cultural influences including Stan Lee, Bruno Bettelheim, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sigmund Freud and "Reviving Ophelia."

In one chapter, Jones argues that toy guns and shooting games stand in for a magic wand that children can point at problems and bring about change, gaining a feeling of power in the process.

Basically, he argues that children who act out violent fantasies in play life will do less acting out as adults. Referring to a pre-school child invoking a troubling, violent scene from The Lion King, he writes "By playing with the idea in the sandbox, she was trying to make sense of it in the safest way she could find."

In other chapters, he wrestles with the differences between "Fantasy and Reality"; children's need for personal transformation ("The Courage to Change"); the battle between good and evil ("The Good Fight"); and the power of emotional release ("Calming the Storm").

The chapter "Vampire Slayers" is especially insightful. First, he conscientiously summarizes the fears of parents and therapists who worry about the prettiness of violent heroines such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer; their arguments essentially reflect objections to the idealized physicality of Barbie.

But Jones learns in workshops with middle-school students that Buffy Summers is one of the most commonly idolized mass-media heroes because girls confused about their "sexual power" feel a sisterly bond with her. And he finds that many boys identify to a great degree with violent female characters such as Buffy, Elektra and Lara Croft.

As children get older, entering the teen-age years, some maybe reluctant to engage in childish play. For them, rap and heavy-metal music, comic books, violent movies, TV and video games can allow them to explore feelings they otherwise might suppress, according to Jones.

Jones necessarily addresses the issues surrounding the Columbine attacks, with which we all are too familiar, bringing no special new revelations to the page. But he would be remiss to ignore the incident in such a book, and he doesn't devote an undue amount of attention to it.

No matter your take on the Columbine killers, they certainly lacked in their lives a feeling of empowerment that heavy metal and computer games such as Doom gave them vicariously. But when it came time for those boys to do their killing they focused outward when it was more likely the monsters were inside.

Whether a toy or an idea is a tool or a weapon depends on the children who wield them, and on those who would teach our children the proper ways to play. As Jones argues, perhaps if we allowed more killing of monsters in the imagination there would not be so much of it in real life.

Jones points out that some parents frown on aggressive play or fantasy peril because they fear violence in the real world and misunderstand its role in the make-believe world. They project their fear onto their children.

He writes that children can learn valuable lessons from so-called violent films such as The Karate Kid and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or whatever. The lessons are important, not the means.

How, then, do we know what lessons our children learn from make-believe violence? Jones has the answer: Ask them.

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