I swear, if I hear the word violence one more time, I’m gonna slap somebody. The problem with the current brouhaha over violence on television — which reached some sort of peak with an Aug. 2 Los Angeles summit meeting on the subject sponsored by the National Council for Families & Television — is the terms of the debate. Why stir up what amounts to a national referendum on the state of television and only focus on the slippery subject of violence? Why not browbeat TV industry leaders about the general level of stupidity, banality, and smarminess that characterizes so much television programming? Personally, I’d rather my children watch a supposedly harmful-to-kids show like Fox’s Cops, which presents police work as honorable and violence as appalling, than, say, NBC’s Empty Nest, a sitcom that presents adults as utter ninnies.
You’ve undoubtedly heard most of the news-making tidbits: that a slew of psychologists and academics believe that violent acts on TV desensitize us to real violence; that as a consequence, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox have agreed to use an advisory label for particularly violent shows — though no such show has yet popped up on their fall schedules; that Sen. Paul Simon has made a vague. threat that if there isn’t soon ”some indication that we’re moving in the right direction…my colleagues are going to be pushing and pushing hard” to pass some federal legislation on this matter.
This controversy hits home — millions and millions of homes — because it speaks to the legitimate frustrations of so many parents who know televised junk when they see it and who also know what a powerful pull that junk exerts on children. But too much of what’s being said in this debate doesn’t add up logically; you really get the feeling that the antiviolence brigade hasn’t seen much of what it’s yelping about. For instance, much is made of the fact that millions of kids watch TV unsupervised after school, before their working parents come home. George Gerbner, the University of Pennsylvania researcher whose studies of TV violence have been touchstones in this debate, said recently, ”One third of our children come home to an empty house.” Well, if that’s true, what they’re watching is, to be sure, largely inappropriate for children — soap operas, afternoon talk shows like Oprah Winfrey and Maury Povich, tabloid trash like Hard Copy and Inside Edition — but for the most part, it ain’t violent, folks. Again, it’s the mind-numbing tripe, not violence, that should be criticized, and made to disappear.
This vision from academia — of America as a place where everyone works 16 hours a day and ignores the offspring — is more frightening than the worst made-for-TV thriller. And heaven forbid you should suggest that parents, when they are home, should regulate their kids’ viewing. Gerbner said at the Aug. 2 meeting that ”passing the buck to parents” is ”the greatest…cop-out.” Since when did asking parents to raise their children become ”passing the buck”?
Gerbner also asserted that ”the notion of parental control is an upper-middle-class conceit,” injecting class animus into the debate — as if providing guidance and discipline for one’s children has now become a fantasy that lower- and middle-class people cannot hope to achieve. Some have said that you can’t expect parents to monitor their children’s viewing because many kids have TV sets in their bedrooms. May I make a suggestion that won’t require federal legislation? Take those TVs out of your children’s rooms.
If we want television to achieve anything culturally — if we want it to be more than an electronic babysitter — it can’t have children as its target audience all the time. Yet this is what so many of the antiviolence crowd insist the TV industry should do. Many of the antiviolence critics seem to think that the solution is for TV networks to program no show that could possibly wrinkle the brow of any impressionable tyke in America.
”We should be allowed to put on some adult shows,” Christine Hikawa, a vice president for Capital Cities/ABC, fretted rather pathetically at the Aug. 2 summit. Really, why everyone feels the need to kowtow to the antiviolence bullies is beyond me. The always-sensible children’s-television advocate Peggy Charren has characterized the possibility of congressional action to curb TV violence as ”terrifying.” It would be nice if some parent would step up and say, ”Government has no right to poke its nose into what we watch after working all those long hours that the government’s economy obliges us to work, making the supervision of our children’s viewing habits that much harder. So buzz off.”
For all the words that have been spoken about violence over the past couple of months, the subject has nonetheless been considered in only the most limited, narrow way. Violence in entertainment fascinates us because it represents an extreme aspect of life, and speculating on how people behave in extreme circumstances is one of the basic inspirations for any sort of drama, whether it’s in novels, films, plays, or on TV.
In 1954, the pioneering pop-culture critic Robert Warshow made an observation about Westerns that is startlingly apt for all sorts of entertainment today: ”Really, it is not violence at all which is the ‘point’ of the Western movie,” wrote Warshow, ”but a certain image of man, a style, which expresses itself most clearly in violence. Watch a child with his toy guns and you will see: What interests him is not [as we so much fear] the fantasy of hurting others, but to work out how a man might look when he shoots or is shot.”
If you expand Warshow’s notion to include women and girls as well as men and boys, then what Warshow says makes sense at a time when the chances of shooting and being shot are substantially better than when Warshow wrote. My advice to the TV-violence brigade isn’t new but seems more appropriate than ever: Urge your government representatives to stop grandstanding about television and to do something about kids’ easy access to guns. And whenever you feel the urge to use the word violence, employ the phrase ”Turn the TV off” instead.