JWR

Jewish World Review July 3, 2003/ 3 Tamuz 5763

Parents confront a summer full of violent movies pitched to children


By John Monaghan


http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) Amy Shimmel is the strictest, meanest mom in the world.

That is, if you listen to her 9-year-old son Tommy, who swears that every kid in his class has seen "Spider-Man" and the "X-Men" movies but him.

And, now, with the arrival of "The Hulk" ...

"I don't think it's necessary to fill my children's minds with these images," says the Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., mother of two. "Children grow up too quickly as it is."

Parents dedicated to monitoring their children's moviegoing habits are finding themselves in the old debate about the effects of violent media on children. While your 14-year-old probably will do whatever he can to see the summer's R-rated blockbusters like "The Matrix Reloaded" and "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," his little brother will be clamoring for PG-13 comic-book-based movies.

Though marketed for kids, these movies' bone-crunching, blade-wielding battles to the death have some adults worried that what their kids are seeing is really R-rated violence just slightly watered down.

Shimmel's biggest challenge comes from fellow parents who think she's being overprotective. An argument over the appropriateness of last summer's "Spider-Man" almost lost her a close friend.

Though resigned to her role as villain, Shimmel is also sympathetic to her son's plight.

"I remember when I was 12 and `Jaws' came out. It seemed like everyone in the world was seeing it but me. Of course, I thought my parents were too strict, but I was also the kind of kid who had bad dreams from watching `Lost in Space.' Now I realize they did the right thing."

On the way out of a matinee of "X2: X-Men United" at the Star Southfield, Richard Planta of Novi holds the hand of his 6-year-old son Cory. The movie is about a team of mutant superheroes, including the razor-clawed Wolverine.

At first put off by the question of whether it's appropriate to expose his young child to violent imagery, Planta says, "We'll talk about it ... he knows the difference between comic books and real life."

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Discussions are important, says child and adolescent psychologist Alicia Acey. Just last week, after a screening of the G-rated "Finding Nemo," she found herself fielding questions from her 2-year-old daughter about the brutal barracuda attack that opens the film.

"Kids take in so much more than they're able to express," she says. "They understand things differently depending on developmentally where they're at."

A statement in 2000 from the American Academy of Pediatrics and five other medical organizations notes that "viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children."

Among the concerns were findings that exposing children to violence at an early age "can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life" and cause them to "view violence as an effective way of settling conflicts."

"The Hulk" may be especially troublesome. Created in 1962 by Marvel Comics masterminds Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Hulk is a cross between Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein: The human Bruce Banner turns into a hulking green monster capable of nearly limitless destruction, his power growing exponentially with his rage.

He may seem cool to kids, but he's a nightmare for parents trying to work on anger management issues.

A report by psychologists at the University of Michigan, published in the March issue of Developmental Psychology, followed up on a 1977 study of 557 children between ages 6 and 10 who said they identified with violent TV shows. The new study resurveyed 329 of the participants and discovered that those with the most violent viewing tastes in their youth were more likely to have engaged in aggressive behavior, from pushing or shoving a spouse to being convicted of a violent crime.

The Motion Picture Association of America added the PG-13 rating in 1984 because of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." There were concerns that its depiction of a human heart torn from a chest by hand was too grisly for preteens. Now the rating is used for hard-edged material aimed at teenagers, leaving the PG rating to cover everything from "Rugrats Go Wild" to "The Lizzie McGuire Movie."

The MPAA describes PG films as those that "clearly need to be examined or inquired into by parents before they let their children attend." The PG-13 rating is "a sterner warning to parents to determine for themselves the attendance in particular of their younger children, as they might consider some material not suited for them."

The rating doesn't require theaters to keep out children under 13, though, so any kid can walk into "The Hulk" next weekend.

After the Columbine school shootings in 1999, Hollywood came under pressure to stop marketing R-rated movies to kids. The immediate result was studio reluctance to release potential blockbusters without the PG-13 rating, though the violence depicted in these films often stops barely short of an R. In "Daredevil," for instance, the Ben Affleck movie released this year and also based on a Marvel comic, there were graphic action scenes involving stabbing.

Of the 20 highest-grossing films last year, none received that restrictive R. But Brandon Gray, editor of the boxofficemojo.com Web site, says that trend may be changing, considering this summer's R-rated "Matrix Reloaded" and the upcoming "Terminator 3," whose distributor, Warner Bros., waited to submit its final cut to the MPAA until the new "Matrix" could prove its box-office mettle with an R. "Terminator" wound up getting an R.

Does this open the door for an R-rated Marvel Comics movie? Don't count on it.

"The studios are selling more than a movie; they're selling a brand," says Thomas Chau, editor of the CinemaConfidential.com Web site.

"Franchise films such as `The Hulk' earn a great deal from lucrative endorsement deals," he says. "Who are they trying to sell these products to? The children. Who will actually put up the money, though? The parents. Thus a PG-13 film allows a studio to grab the attention of both targets, leading to box-office and marketing success."

Gerard Jones is one parent who thinks comic-style violence has a place in kids' lives. Jones, the author of "Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes and Make-Believe Violence" (Basic Books, $25) who also has written for the Hulk, Batman, Green Lantern and Spider-Man comic books, specifically credits the green guy with giving him the self-confidence to be a writer.

"The Hulk gave me a fantasy self who was all about anger and power," he says by phone from his home in San Francisco. "He gave me a safe place to realize I felt dangerous rage and work through it in stories. He reflected a part of myself that I was afraid of back to me in a way that made it less scary, that enabled me to explore it creatively."

Yes, says Jones, the father of a 10-year-old boy, there are kids who have trouble processing violent imagery.

"Yet, the more I research this and talk to people, the fewer the kids I believe are negatively affected," he says.

"Some are disturbed by gore and horror, certainly. But when we're talking about superhero conflicts, I'd say the negative effects are basically nil."

A fan of some of the comic books Jones writes for - and the movies based on them - isn't so sure. Doug Grim, a 35-year-old Northville, Mich., cab driver who devours the Marvel movies the same way he did the comic books as a kid, points out that there's a difference between a comic-book page and a movie screen.

"These are really good times for a comic-book guy to be alive right now," says Grim. "We're seeing the heroes of our imaginations being realized in a very authentic, visual way.

"But with this translation to the screen comes an amplified element of violence that's too much for a younger audience."

"The Marvel comics themselves were geared for an older crowd," Grim says. "X-Men and Spider-Man played on the alienated feelings of teenagers, the adolescent idea that no one is like me; no one knows what I'm going through."

Grim doesn't have children, but if he did, he'd think twice about taking them to a movie like "X-Men."

"There's a different level of violence because the stakes are higher," he says. "Where a character like Superman is indestructible and can take a punch, the violence in these comics is life-and-death, definitely not for young kids."

He uses "X2" as an example: "There's a battle scene between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike, who has the same powers that he has, including lengthy, razor-sharp claws. They attack each other, they're locked in each other's abdomens inextricably for about two minutes, and while it's bloodless, it's still extremely visceral."

Graphic blood and gore are still taboo for PG-13 with the MPAA, though the guidelines are flexible, especially when gauging how much violence is too much for a PG-13 movie. According to the MPAA, a R rating comes when the violence is "too rough and persistent."

Grim laughs at that.

"For a half-hour, Wolverine mows down a room full of people. If this kind of sustained anarchy isn't rough and persistent, I don't know what is."

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John Monaghan is a reporter with the Detroit Free Press. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2003, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services