It was some six years ago, and my youngest boy, Reid, along with his best friend Mitchy, both 3, had browbeaten me into taking them to the matinee of the "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" movie. We had settled into our seats, they with their popcorn and soda, and I with the mission of an afternoon nap — a goal I was well on my way to achieving when I was jolted awake by the dialogue in the preview of the upcoming "Rugrats" movie. Scene after scene concluded with a comedic punchline revolving around soiled diapers, flatulence, mucus and God-knows what other bodily excretions, while my little boy and his friend giggled in delight. Thanks, Hollywood.
And here’s the worst news. While most of what is offered as children’s programming at the movies and on television is wholesome in its innocence, it is also true that even here, even in the programming produced for the youngest of the young, there are cultural landmines everywhere. The topic matter and language in the "Rugrats" preview wasn’t the exception. It is the rule for much of what young children are now receiving, particularly on television, as entertainment.
The Parents Television Council has released the results of a new study that examined what Hollywood is producing for children ages 5-10, before and after school and on Saturday mornings, on eight different networks. The numbers should be enough to trigger a double-take for any parent.
First there’s the violence. In 443.5 hours of programming, researchers documented a staggering 3,488 instances of violence. Now hold on, Bozell, I hear the apologists saying already, surely you’re not going to condemn silly cartoons, are you?
It’s a good point. Just how many times did Jerry dismember Tom? How many sticks of dynamite eviscerated Wile E. Coyote, and how many times did Elmer Fudd open fire on Bugs Bunny with that shotgun? This isn’t serious violence. It is fantastic and fanciful, meant to elicit laughter because it’s comedic and inconsequential. After the smoke clears, the character is back. So take all those "cartoony" instances out.
And you’re still left with 2,794 other examples of violence. This violence is very different. It is realistic, oftentimes dealing not with goofy farm animals but with humans, and children to boot. It is dark: There is evil. It is consequential: There is pain and suffering. There is death. On Fox’s "Shaman King," a fight between two characters ends when one kicks the other in the head and knocks him unconscious. The victor picks up the loser by his hair and reaches into his chest. The loser screams. The victor takes out the loser’s soul and puts it into his own body. The loser appears dead. That’s the kind of violence being presented to little boys and girls, ages 5-10, on television today.
What about language? Researchers found no less than 250 incidents of offensive language. There is the ever-present "potty humor." On the Cartoon Network’s "The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy," Billy shows his guardian Grim (a cartoon Grim Reaper) what he thinks of his "stupid rules" by passing gas, but then announces he has to change his pants, implying he soiled himself. In another scene, Billy’s dad picks his nose so much he pulls his brains out, and thinking his brain is mucus, eats it.
Euphemisms for obscene language are also prevalent. In the cosmic order of things, most are mild to be sure — but not all. One episode of "SpongeBob SquarePants" deals with the discovery of dirty words, with the childlike characters SpongeBob and Patrick trading sound-effect-covered cuss words, and you can only imagine the obscenity of the sailor talk they’re exchanging. More common still was verbal aggression, like abusive yelling and mean-spirited insults. There were 858 examples of these. And another 622 examples of disruptive, disrespectful or otherwise problematic attitudes, of which 53 were aimed at teachers or parents.
And there’s sexual content, too, certainly something of great interest to one on the back end of teething. On Nickelodeon’s "Fairly Odd Parents" a character uses his magic copier to make the things in his "dad’s magazines" real. He pulls out the magazines; one is titled "Under the Bed Monthly." On Disney’s "Sister, Sister" there are references to pornography, descriptions of foreplay, and discussions about a "Gay Policeman’s Ball."
All of which begs — screams — the question: Why? There is no market demand for this. It is clearly out of bounds, offensive and dangerous. It shatters the innocence of childhood deliberately. And yet there are people out there writing these scripts. There are people — not companies, people — producing this garbage. And there are people distributing it with the goal to reach, and influence, as many millions of little boys and girls as possible.