Monday, March 17, 2014

Three Generations of Moral Panic in Pop Culture

After watching Mazes & Monsters several times, I continued to think about the "moral panic" that Dungeons & Dragons caused back in the 80s. The varied responses many of you gave regarding parental restrictions of Dungeons & Dragons as a result of the film, and responses about news back in the day got me thinking about my own parents and what exactly, if anything, they considered when the D&D controversies were in full swing.

I called my dad (a second time) and asked him if he remembered back in the 1980's when I was playing D&D.  Did he remember the news that D&D might be influencing young kids to commit suicide or violence as a result of playing the game?

He remembered. Vaguely.

I asked if he gave any thought to restricting D&D or taking the game books away from me.

"No," he said. "It never crossed our minds."

"Why not?" I asked. I was curious as to how he could have dismissed such news without even giving it a consideration. As a dad myself now, I know I have restricted violent video games for my older child until I felt he was mature enough, and I also put limits on the amount of time spent playing video games because I know how much time they can often suck away, with little to no obvious benefits.

"Because of all the nonsense with the comics code back when I was a kid," he said. "I had already been through that nonsense myself. We read other things too. Monster and horror comics were not all I read anyway. There was Little Lulu, Donald Duck, science fiction comics, Captain Marvel, strange adventures. Comics of that type."

"The comics code," he went on to explain, "was formed in 1954 to police monster & horror comics." He went on to tell me how back when he was a kid there was an even greater moral panic over comic book content and their alleged influence on kids reading them then there was over the D&D panic. The code was formed and restrictions put in place that homogenized and toned down most of the comics of the time. Mad magazine, (a favorite in our house while I was growing up) was formed as a satirical magazine, in an effort to move away from the humor/horror comic format that its early issues had. According to Wikipedia, Mad switched from a comic to a magazine to bypass the code after issue #24 in 1955. He was 10 when the code when into place and the restrictions started.

I asked him a few more questions.

Did your parents restrict you at all with what comics you bought, especially after the comics code was in place?
No. They had no idea. No concept of any of it. They were completely oblivious and it was just something they paid no attention to at all.  

Back to D&D. Any thought on it? Memories?
No. We never gave it a thought. No one paid attention to any of that.

What about heavy metal? Worries about any media having a negative influence on me as a child?
None.  You will always find someone who is negatively impacted by something. Tiddlywinks. Marbles. You will always find something, anything, that could somehow have an influence on someone.  In any upsetting case there could possibly be something to point at. People want to blame something external. Today it's violent video games or violent filthy rap music lyrics. 

Then after we chatted I kept thinking and I remembered a few more things from my own childhood. One was when I was 10. He took me to see Saturn3, my first R-rated film, in 1980. It is a horrible science fiction film. I think Farrah Fawcett appears partially nude in the film. So I was 10 and I remember the thrill of being allowed to see this R-rated film with my dad and then he goes and lets my younger brother come along who was 6 at the time. The privilege became empty to me once my brother was allowed to come. Now though looking back, I see he knew there was no problem even for a 6-year old kid. He knew who we were and he knew we could handle it. And if we couldn't, he'd have been there to help.

In recent years my son told me he was only allowed to bring PG films to school on the day before winter break for the kids to watch as a reward and celebration. Jokingly I suggested Barbarella. The film is PG and opens with Jane Fonda floating around her space ship nude. Obviously standards have changed. See nude PG Barbarella here.

Another such example is Kramer VS Kramer from 1979. In that film, also PG, we see a nude JoBeth Williams standing in front of a little boy. See picture here.  Link has gone bad. Just Google JoBeth Williams Kramer VS Kramer nude to see what was not big deal back then. PG rated films like these today would surely cause an uproar. I personally could care less and never could see the deal with hangups on nudity. Once I went to art school seeing nude models became common. I'm still amused by people's hangups and aversions to nudity. 

My bedroom from the 80s. Notice the Dead Kennedys poster
in the upper left with a blue border. 
I thought more about controversies of my younger years, and remembered when I got the Dead Kennedys album Frankenchrist it was supposed to come with a H. R. Giger poster called penis landscape. Some restrictions kept the poster from being distributed with the album but inside was an address you could mail away to to get the poster. I remember getting my mom's help with sending out for this art. It eventually came and neither of my parents ever even noticed what the poster was of. The repetitive pattern of the art along with my chaotic room kept them from ever batting an eyelash at it. I remember waiting for them to notice and take it down but they never did.


Today, like my dad said, it's video games and music getting the bad rap. Cell phones and mobile devices are often criticized too. Music it seems, has the most staying power overall as seeming to have alleged influence over the youth. To be sure, music is important to teens. It helps with forming identities and taste. It is an outlet for rebellious behavior, even if only vicariously.

Ultimately though I have yet to know of anyone who was influenced in an overtly negative way due to music, movies, comics, video games, or even Dungeons & Dragons. That is not to say no one could be negatively influenced, but a myriad of factors, I'm supposing, not just one thing, is often to blame with troubled individuals.

I am no stranger to suicide either. I lost my best friend from childhood to suicide. We listened to the same music, watched the same films, both played D&D, and ran with the same crowds. In the end it was drugs, not anything else, that led to the suicide.

Drugs, I often tell my kids, is the worst thing in the world.

And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is drugs that is the worst. Staying away from drugs is pretty much the best decision a person can make. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the most recent prominent example.

I'm sure some form of media will be scapegoated as the possible catalyst in horrible situations going forward. Some accusations may even have merit, and as the world becomes increasingly complex and our lives ever busier, it is not a bad idea to have ratings systems, and different forms of restrictions in place to help people make decisions on behalf of young people.

Here at home we put limits on video games, especially restricting and/or policing the violent ones. Maybe in another 20 years this will seem as ludicrous as I think the comic or D&D restrictions are now. We can only do what we feel is best, and not having everything you want whenever you want it is certainly an important part of any good childhood. Like I wrote in an earlier post, I still have yet to see Blood Beach and I'm in my 40s now.

We all know the TV babies/kids/pop stars in the media and how they behave with unlimited money, and have no restrictions. I won't mention any names. A few restrictions can benefit anyone.

If you are interested, check out: The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You To Read. The comics and art are awesome and the book gives some great bits of information about restrictions long ago.