In my post about “Tom and Jerry,” I wrote about the exclusion and stereotyping of female characters. I didn’t write about the extreme violence in the cartoon. If I blogged about other animated male duos who relentlessly, brutally attack each other– Sylvester and Tweetie or Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd– I’d also complain not about the violence, but that the girls have gone missing as well. In fact, on my blog that rates kids’ media on how appropriate it is, I’ve hardly written about violence at all. Why?
I’m no fan of tons of blood and gore, but I also believe that violence is a crucial part of fantasy play. I don’t take the violence in fairy tales, myths, or stories literally. That is, I think of the violence in narratives mostly as a metaphor. For example, you could look at the story of David and Goliath as primarily a violent one (along with many stories in the Bible.) David kills Goliath. Or you can look at as story about the little guy going after the big one and winning: Erin Brockovitch taking on a corrupt power company. We all look at the story that way, right? So much so that the characters have become part of our language when we describe contemporary battles.
What happens when that language leave girls out?
Everyone slays dragons. In myths, in our dreams, in movies, we see it happen visually and literally on huge scales. In our own lives, we do it every day, in ways that are smaller and less dramatic, but can seem enormous in the moment: getting a project in on deadline, winning a debate, or organizing a messy closet.
I also think the violence in narratives provide useful metaphors and imagery for kids to experience emotions in a healthy way. Little kids live dramatic lives. They don’t get to go to a movie and they feel like their whole world is caving in. Narratives are a safe way to practice experiencing intense emotions: they actually see a world cave in.
Just in case you’re missing my point: I’m not advocating for violence where the males are always the heroes and the females are the victims. Violence shown as men hurting women in kids’ media, the way it is in the adult world of “entertainment,” is not my goal. I’d like to see female heroes acting bravely. If we had more female heroes, it wouldn’t be weird to show female victims as well.
If my opinions on violence sound too loopy for you, here’s what Peggy Orenstein wrote about it in Cinderella Ate My Daughter:
“Violent play is not by definition bad or harmful for kids. Any child shrink worth her sand table will tell you it can help them learn about impulse control, work out the difference between fantasy and reality, and cope with fear….Children of both sexes crave larger than life heroes. They need fantasy. They also, it seems, need a certain amount of violent play…something that allows them to triumph in their own way over this thing we call death, to work out their day-to-day frustrations; to feel large, powerful, and safe.”