This is the penultimate post in a series that began with Part 1. I recommend beginning there, and following the links at the end of each section to work through the following posts in the series (of which there will be five).
Here’s the next segment of the criticism to which I’m responding:
“Kick-Ass” is rated R, which means that adults are free to take children to watch a child hurting adults: a neatly wrapped package, like “Home Alone” on growth hormones.
I’m going to rephrase this, critically, as the following argument:
Whatever one thinks of violence in film, children harming adults is, whatever the circumstances, something that ought to be verboten. We must protect children from the idea of violence, shepherding them carefully away from what those of us who know something about human nature also know is the nature of children.
The primary objection seems to be that adults taking a child to an obviously fantastical film in which a child is depicted as harming adults is morally objectionable. The first parallel that comes to mind is a racial one, or one based on gender: Kill Bill would be considered a bad film, in such a parallel, because involves a woman harming men (and other women), and a film like Lethal Weapon would be objectionable because Danny Glover’s character shoots white people in it.
But, our critic might respond, This is a distortion! A black cop, or a female assassin, harming another adult is not anywhere near as transgressive as this. After all, adults harming adults is an accepted thing in films. We all know adults are, in some cases at least, violent. Children, on the other hand, are [or should be] different.
Well, yes, we all know that this is how it is in film today. That doesn’t mean it ought to be that way, or ought to remain that way. Indeed, the idea that children are nonviolent, and do not harm adults, is problematic.
For one thing, it’s not true. There are child soldiers in many parts of the world who, on occasion, kill adults. There are, as many people I know have experienced, bullies in most schools, and some of them are extremely violent. There is the phenomenon of adults who abuse children — sometimes relatives, sometimes teachers. This isn’t a wonderful thing, but it is a fact of life.
And children know this. They may not know about child soldiers, of course. But kids instinctively know, and know from experience, that human nature is not, by default, nonviolent. Even in a nice and well-adjusted home, they will see violence in public, see its traces on the bodies of classmates, see it perpetrated at school — and it isn’t always intervened against, either. Often, in fact, it is conducted in secret, or in some way that forces witnesses to keep it secret.
Moreover, I think we can all agree that the adults whom Hit-Girl kills in the course of the film essentially “had it coming to them.” That is to say, wherever we stand on vigilante justice in real life, in the fantastical world of superheroes in film and comics, the people whom Hit Girl executes are just as deserving of their fates as thye bad guys who are executed in other superhero films like, say, Batman or X-Men movies. The film is more frank about its violence, of course… but ethically, it’s very little different in who deserves to be snuffed out by the good guys. Everyone Hit-Girl kills is scum: a gangster, a drug deal, a murderer… they’re all basically “evil” in the ethical cosmology of superhero stories, and more than any other superhero because of her size and vulnerability, Hit-Girl must, if she is to both mete out justice and survive, she must kill them.
One of the points hidden in this argument is this: in film, we are quite comfortable with white men, and to a lesser extent white women, running around with guns killing bad guys. Actually, we’re comfortable with them when they’re explicitly part of the authoritarian superstructure of modern technocratic civilization: cops, soldiers, and so on.
Almost all of our traditional superheroes are white men. They dress in funny costumes, but the costumes almost always fail to conceal the facts of their race and sex. There are no gender-ambiguous superhero costumes, are there? Not many, if any at all. And hell, even when they are aliens — like Superman, for example, or to some degree the Silver Surfer — they are andromorphic (like human males anatomically, if not in terms of genitalia) and, especially in Superman’s case, Caucasian.
(Caveat: The Silver Surfer’s “race” seems more ambiguous to me; sometimes his facial bone structure looks more ethnically African, but often he seems to have a more European bone structure — at least, in depictions where detail is enough to make this out. But I know little of the Silver Surfer, to be honest; Euro/West-Asian bone structure and silver skin — how white, or not-white, is that? I’m curious whether readers see an ethnicity inherent or implied in the Silver Surfer, despite his silvery skin.)
In any case it seems to me, rather, that this argument suggests that violence — the use of force, direct or technologically aided — is the domain and province of men (preferably white), and maybe women (if they must, and if they are white). Nonwhites do get to be violent, but mostly in the role of villains. But as for children, they should never be depicted or even imagined to have a capacity for violence, should not be depicted using violence, even in self-defense, or in the same vigilante mode that is tacitly acceptable when it’s adults doing the avenging.
Now, I will note for a moment that this whole vigilante mode thing is a part of the fantastical component of the superhero narrative. As such, I will be dealing with it in part 5 of this series. But for now, I want to focus on the idea that children in films should never be depicted or imagined as using violence against adults.
This is really, truly problematic. And the reasons for this are pretty upsetting, so if you’re easily disturbed, you may want to skip the next paragraph, and I’ll suffice it to say, I can think of a number of cases in the news of late when women and especially female children being aware that they can defend themselves using violence might actually save lives.
Sure, most kids can’t beat up an adult man with their bare hands. Lots of women can’t, either, but I’ll be frank: I think that if every woman and child in Korea were carrying a cannister of pepperspray, we’d be hearing about such crimes far less. If every woman who lived alone kept a taser by her bed, and alarm systems were a little more affordable (or installed by law into apartment complexes) then I think we’d hear of less break-ins turning into nightmares.
I don’t advocate little girls being given handguns, or wearing bulletproof vests around and being shoit by their daddies, but I do think little girls knowing how to punch a man in the throat, or kick him in the crotch, or break his nose to distract him long enough to run away… that kind of knowledge is a good thing, given the fact that sometimes this could be useful knowledge.
Our critic would like to pretend that girls need no recourse to violence. The childhood experiences of several (maybe even many) women and some (maybe many) men I know suggests otherwise. Realistically, probably no twelve-year-old girl could be trained to be as lethal a killer as Hit-Girl, nor do I think any ought to be. (This is, after all, a fantasy movie.) But how about buying your twelve-year-old daughter a can of pepperspray for when she goes out with her friends to the mall? How about teaching her where to hit someone if it gives her a chance to get away from a violent or abusive adult?
Yes, yes, we need cops to catch those violent adults. We need to teach kids about safety in numbers, about avoiding dangerous situations. But there are always a few crazy people walking around — sometimes relatives, sometimes random adults from other contexts, and occasionally total strangers. Some of them aren’t even adults. Some of them are fellow kids. What’s a better idea to put into girls’ heads: that girls don’t ever fight back? Or that when push comes to shove, girls are as entitled as boys, women, and men to fight back, defend themselves, and use whatever is at their disposal to protect themselves from assailants? That girls are allowed to try and kick some ass if need be?
Which is not to say I think girls ought to be encouraged to pick fights with adult men, as Hit-Girl did, but I think only a few nutters could really think this is the take-home message of the movie.
Kick-Ass is, after all, a superhero movie. It’s a fantasy. As I mentioned in another post earlier this year, Ursula K. Le Guin has pointed out, there’s a deep distrust and fear of fantasy in American (I’d say North America) culture. In the comments section of that post, I note how people seem hell-bent on “protecting” youth from things that don’t harm them — like superhero stories, vampire films, and so on — and yet seem so lax on fighting for protection for kids from things that do harm them — like abusive parents and teachers, a dehumanizing educational system, drunk drivers, and so on.
Kids are intimately familiar with violence. Where I live, it seems an ineradicable part of the primary/secondary educaitonal experience. Don’t believe me? This is a video from a few years ago. If you don’t care to watch it, I’ll summarize:
An adult male teacher punches a high school girl in the face and head multiple times. The news story behind the video is, if I remember right, here:
In the clip, a teacher is seen hitting a frightened girl over 10 times on the head in the classroom while other students are looking on.
The teacher was reported to have beaten the student out of anger after she talked back while being reprimanded for not having opened a bank account for school fees.
The television news aired an interview of the girl, saying, “I admit I answered somewhat rudely, but I don’t think I did something that wrong to be beaten in front of 35 classmates.”
After the scene was released on TV, people rushed to the guest board of the school’s homepage to denounce the teacher.
The video was captured on a classmate’s camera phone, and posted to the internet.
The response of a number of schools?
Well, I don’t know how widely it was enacted, but I remember hearing that in reaction to this event, a number of schools attempted to ban camera-phones in classrooms.
Which is baffling, if you think protecting children is the point. But then, if protecting children were the point, this guy would have been jailed and never work as a teacher again. (From what I remember, he wasn’t, and continued working after this incident, though I can’t find any news about it and would appreciate clarification if anyone has a link.)
My students say this kind of thing remains common enough even up to high school. They say there’s always one or two teachers in every school.
And lest you get the wrong idea, I’ll note here that violence against children is depressingly common in schools worldwide. (Though, tellingly, South Korea has not only one of the biggest list of videos there, but also mostly recent ones in contrast with the other big video sets, which are often historical in nature. I’m not sure what it’s telling of — better distribution of cameraphones in Korea? More phenomena? More coverage?) Still, when I hear my Korean students talk of violence they endured in middle and high school, I think back to this guy I went to middle school with, a guy named Jim.
Jim was a big guy. Jim, in an earlier grade of middle school — or maybe the end of elementary school — decked a teacher in the face after that teacher reportedly leaned up against Jim’s desk, setting his own testicles to rest on the desktop in a way that made Jim uncomfortable. Jim didn’t just deck the teacher, actually; as the story went, he shoved him across the room and started pounding on him, and the teacher lay splayed upon the desk, as Jim landed punch after punch on his teacher’s face, until other teachers pulled him off.
Jim was suspended from school for some period of time that obviously was less memorable than the legend of how Mr. Whoever was beat up by Jim.
The thing is: I’m with Jim. Why should adults have all the power? School’s already a coercive, prison-like place: where else are humans forced to dress a certain way (even in uniforms) and engage in tasks they hate — regardless of whether they’re interested — and which are embedded in a program that it isn’t hard to see was designed to bore the shit out of everyone involved?
I don’t think teachers should always — or even often — be subject to the violence of students; and I don’t think kids should think of violence as the first response — nor should they be forced to do so. Emergency help tracking devices, for example, like this one reported back in 2005, are a great idea. Teaching them how to avoid dangerous situations, organizing walk-home groups or pick-up carpools, all kinds of measures should be enacted.
But I also think that kids should be aware that in situations where there is sexual harassment, or violence at the hands of adults (or their peers), that the use of violence as a counter-response is not beyond their options. Kids should not be brainwashed into thinking that they need to just sit there and take it, because a kid cannot and must not hit an adult.
I speak from experience. More than one teacher during my educational career used violence on me or a classmate. Some of them, if I’d retaliated, would probably have harmed me seriously. But others probably would have backed off, and feared legal proceedings. Me, I would have at least had a sense of dignity in having tried to defend myself, instead of the humiliation at having been headbutted or punched in front of my peers for actions that did not warrant such punishment, and to which other students who did the same thing were not subject. (Teachers are very adept at figuring out which kids have been trained to take it without repsonse, and which will lash out in self-defense. And since my parents were of that generation where if a teacher used violence, the student must have provoked it, nothing was done about it, the teachers got away with it every time.)
It’s not just schools, by the way. A girl takes an elevator up to her apartment in her building. A man is in the elevator when she gets in. When he assaults her, what is she supposed to do?
If you ask me, that video has a happy conclusion. I don’t know if it is staged, though it needn’t necessarily be. A kid who is fighting for her life can stun an adult, and run away. She can save her own life, or fend off assault. She at least might be able to do so, where sitting passively pretty much guarantees that the adult assailant is free to do what he likes.
There’s way more positive message in Kick-Ass, when it comes to girls and violence, than there is negative… given the world that little girls actually live in, which is rather unlike the fantasy world the critic seems to live in, where no child will ever find himself or herself in a situation where violence might become a necessary response to a threatening adult’s actions.
Which is ironic, since the fifth part of this response focuses exactly on that issue: fantasy and its influence on the mind of the viewer. More on that next time!