Media Monsters: Militarism, Violence, and Cruelty in Children's Culture


Heidi Tilney Kramer I Society & Culture I Commentary I December 20th, 2016



"10 percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction." - Susan Sontag



Who ever thought there would be torture scenes in G and PG rated American children's films or that a video game would allow one to feel the rush of killing? Who would have imagined in their worst nightmare that the Disney corporation would try to trademark "SEAL Team 6," especially right after this elite military group killed Osama bin Laden, so they could use it for toys, Christmas stockings, and snow globes? Or that a child would write a few loving words on her desk and be arrested in front of her classmates? Who could have believed that the U.S. would torture real children in the "war on terror" campaign?

Consider that there are now only five big media conglomerates controlling over 90% of everything seen and heard. Media in the U.S. is engaging in post-9/11 rhetoric even in the world of children. Seeing little Boo, the toddler who can barely speak in Monsters, Inc., strapped in the torture chair - equipped with holes in the seat's bottom like electric chairs have for drainage of bodily fluids - convinces us to look closer at what American kids and children the world over are watching as their purported entertainment.

As cartoon images of militarism and prison fill children's heads, the school-to-prison pipeline is active in the schools of poor neighborhoods and those of color mimicking the prison system - and these children have largely been slated for a life in prison or the military. Pushing students out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system - often for minor offenses such as getting behind in their homework! - is as disturbing as the JROTC instituting programs on the middle school level as a way of getting especially inner-city, racially targeted recruits.

This is against the U.N.'s Convention on the Rights of the Child's (C.R.C.) Article 38: "Children under 15 should not be forced or recruited to take part in a war or join the armed forces...The Convention's Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict further develops this right, raising the age for direct participation in armed conflict to 18 and establishing a ban on compulsory recruitment for children under 18." The United States, along with Somalia and South Sudan, refuses to ratify this document under the guise of parental rights, but that decision allows the following problems: 21% of U.S. children are living in poverty; the U.S. is the only high-income country not to grant paid maternal leave; and the U.S. is the only country in the world sentencing under-18-year-olds to life without parole. These infractions are all against the C.R.C. Over twenty-five years old, the document will never be ratified by the United States because it interferes with business as usual, and Michael P. Farris, president of Parental Rights, actively fights the treaty. His group fears that, if instituted, "[a nation] would have to spend more on children's welfare than national defense." As the old saying goes, "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber." The grand total in 2013 for U.S. Homeland Security and National Defense was an astounding $931 billion, or nearly $1 trillion, and part of the funding has come from cutting the school-lunch program. China has the next largest military budget, estimated at $136 billion.

Yet the propaganda continues...The Incredibles shows the 9/11 trope of a plane bent on destruction heading toward a U.S. city while the entire family ends up on the torture rack; the film also shows Mr. Incredible blasted by viscous bubbles similar to new, real-life (theoretically) less-than-lethal incapacitant sticky foam weapons being proposed for crowd control in the U.S. and abroad. And what are the children to think when their beloved Buzz Lightyear - a friend to all for two of the three films - is tortured, his personality changed, and he becomes, in Toy Story 3, prison guard for the cruel overlord in the surveillance-laden dystopia?

Children's beliefs about others are molded from a young age - just think how characters in Aladdin contributed to persuasion for the first Gulf War as even children came to see the Arabic world as mean-spirited. Henry A. Giroux explains that Disney not only included offensive language toward the region in this (and its follow-up) film, it didn't even bother to write actual Arabic where it was called for in the film, instead choosing to scribble the substitute of nonsensical scrawl.

In addition to death language, war scenes, and general barbarism, there are other disturbing depictions in G and PG rated children's movies. Nearly all African-American characters have an inner-city vibe as we see in Turbo. Often Spanish-speaking characters are presented as poor and lazy or loud as observed in the aforementioned and in Open Season. Women are shown as either "bitchy" or subservient. If you want evidence, just watch Beauty and the Beast - it's a primer for women to learn how to endure an abusive relationship (as in, "If I'm just nice enough, he'll come around"). Or watch how Ratatouille presents a woman as psychotic. Native Americans are depicted as mysterious and speak monosyllabically, as seen in Rango. Children themselves are presented as either endangered or as monsters, sometimes both, as is the case in both Toy Story and Nanny McPhee. Guns, cruelty, and bullying are in just about every kids' film in the U.S., but the Motion Picture Association of America doesn't care that the violence component is through the roof as long as no one hears cursing or sees drugs or alternative lifestyles.

How are people affected by that last one? Ritual ridicule in a brutal gender binary system is largely responsible for the mass school shootings. Our definitions of what it means to "be a man" are injected early on. Seeing Ken - depicted as supposedly effeminate - bullied and threatened by Barbie in Toy Story 3 tells boys to be wary of having nice hand-writing or any other purportedly feminine behavior. There are many, many examples of gender policing in American kids' films - take how the minion is teased for wanting affection in Despicable Me as just one example.

Meanwhile, over 6,000 were killed from the U.S. drone assassination program in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestine in 2015 alone - some of the victims are children and 90% of victims are innocent bystanders. You won't see this on American TV or in the country's films. The U.S. veteran homelessness rate is appalling - and suicide rates among armed services veterans and active duty personnel have sky-rocketed. You won't see this either. The world is grappling with how to handle refugees from the fashionably long-lasting wars amid - and aiming specifically for - civilians. You'll see the refugees but no coverage of why these victims are fleeing. You won't hear the name Omar Khadr, a 15-year old Canadian citizen tortured by the U.S. or that of 14-year old Chad-citizen Mohammed El-Gharani who suffered the same fate. You won't see coverage detailing that those of Arabic/Islamic origin or background rounded up in the U.S. after 9/11 were ALL found innocent. Instead, you will see over 900 mostly Hollywood films vilifying these groups over the past century so the military-industrial complex has an eternal "enemy."

U.S. children are busy at school being patted down and going into lockdown mode, learning how to kill from video games, repeating cruelties learned from their films, and watching playground fights on YouTube, while American tax dollars are hard at work being used for nationalistic ceremonies at pro sports events and censoring directors who don't promote "patriotism." That citizens shudder at fellow hijab wearing citizens shows how the U.S. public has been sucker-punched.

We are undergoing a paradigm shift of monumental proportions wherein some are awakening to possibilities on a dimming horizon. Doing so has never been more imperative because our very survival depends on seeing what is true: that we are more alike than we are different and that the "have nots" have a my-voice-matters stake in which way life proceeds. It is time for us, "the 99%," to stand against the media and political giants engaged in separating us from one another. God bless the whole world: NO EXCEPTIONS.

"Of course the people don't want war...That is understood...But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

- Hermann Goering (at the Nuremberg trials)



Heidi Tilney Kramer is a mom and independent scholar focusing on Critical Children's Studies and U.S. Media. She has written two theses: "Visionary of Control: The efficiency, expertise, and exclusion of Alexander James Inglis," which reviews elitist changes made to the U.S. education system during the Progressive era in order to ensure a stable workforce - said changes resulted in sexist, racist, and classist policies which continue in the modern world; "Monsters Under the Bed: An Analysis of Torture Scenes in Three Pixar Films" highlights the ways in which torture is framed in G and PG rated films - as state/corporate control in Monsters, Inc., the prison/concentration camp theme of Toy Story 3, and the 1960s spy thriller trope used in The Incredibles. She lectures and teaches about childhood in the U.S. Her recently released book, Media Monsters: Militarism, Violence, and Cruelty in Children's Culture, available through Amazon, explores the history of propaganda and exposes the powerful forces pouring billions into influencing children with militaristic, violent, and cruel images at increasingly younger ages. Her quest is two-fold: 1) to identify negative messages children are receiving in their formal training and entertainment (and she would love for you to send her any examples you find), and 2) to uncover the ramifications of being conditioned to accept cruelty. Her latest project is the analysis and categorization of the entirety of American children's films. There is a Facebook page, Media Monsters R Against Kids, as well as a website, mediamonsters.us. She can be reached at: megamediamonsters@gmail.com or mediamonsters2016@gmail.com.