A History of Violence

Long before the Newtown shootings last month and the insensitive timing of the NRA’s release of a first-person shooter video game this week, I had the children-and-violence issue on my mind while watching Jim Henson’s Wilkins coffee commercials on YouTube. The 10-second commercials were among Henson’s earliest works and their sometimes jaw-droppingly dark humor puts them in one of the more interesting chapters in Henson’s career, if not television history.

The message “buy this or we’ll torture and/or kill you” doesn’t show up too much in advertising, especially in coffee commercials. But as I was watching Wontkins get shot in the head, electrocuted in an electric chair, and, as a YouTube commenter put it, “shanked prison-style with the lights off” for refusing to drink Wilkins coffee, two things came to mind:

One was the artist James Cauty’s “Splatter” series that reimagines popular cartoon characters in the same violent scenarios they always get into—Daffy Duck gets shot in the face, for example—but adds blood. It’s a simple concept, but it’s amazingly effective. The artist explained that he got the idea from his 15-year old son, who thought it would be interesting to see the real-life consequences of seemingly harmless cartoon violence.

Ford's illustration for "The Girl Without Hands", another grim fairy tale.
H.J. Ford’s illustration for “The Girl Without Hands”, another grim fairy tale.

The other thing I thought about was a relatively obscure Grimm fairy tale called “How the Children Played at Slaughtering”. In it, a group of children decide to play butcher. The boy who plays the butcher slits the throat of the boy playing the pig and kills him. At that time, it was perfectly normal for kids to see adults slaughter pigs, but they were presumably too young to realize the difference between the pretend world and reality.

I didn’t know that there was more to the story until I was researching it for accuracy. The boy who was the butcher is tried in court for murder but ends up walking free. As he leaves the courtroom, he laughs. I suppose the message, if there is one, is that kids do know right from wrong inherently, but unless adults provide consequences, that knowledge won’t mean anything.

The story was included in the first edition of the Grimms’ collection of fairy tales, but it was not included in subsequent editions. The later versions shifted the focus from being a simple compendium of German folklore to a collection of morality tales for children, and this story was considered inappropriate. Author and Wayne State University professor Donald Haase suggests that the story was really a reflection of how adults perceive the inner workings of childhood, implying that these perceptions may be false. I’m beginning to agree.

I do think exposure to violent imagery could lead to an increase in children pretending to be violent. Look at the popularity of Westerns in the 1950s and the ensuing popularity of toy guns. However, I’m not so sure that children with enough brain development to play a game as involved as Call of Duty can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Young people convicted of violent crimes who say they were influenced by movies or video games are usually older and were obviously mentally ill to begin with. Does an otherwise healthy child who shoots another child while playing a cowboys and Indians-type game actually want to harm him or is that he wasn’t expecting the gun to go off so easily? I don’t know, but as someone who grew up during the initial wave of violent video game controversy, I suspect that our culture doesn’t give children enough credit for their intelligence.

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