Commentary

Comic Book TV Shows Target Kids with Violence, Profanity, Sex, Drugs

Christopher Gildemeister
By Christopher Gildemeister | August 13, 2019 | 3:45 PM EDT

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

As an eight-year-old, like most young boys I became spellbound by the adventures of Superman and Batman. They were, and still are, colorful, exciting, and full of adventure. My young mind appreciated the tension between the good guys vs. bad guys, and even more that the good guys won.

First having watched them on TV in cartoons, I turned to comic books to continue the adventure – which made me a lifelong fan.

Comic books have been an integral part of childhood in America for nearly a century, and have provided millions of children with fun, exciting adventures. Children are innately attracted to comic-book characters, and big screen movies today capitalize on this passion.

I recently had the opportunity to research broadcast TV shows about comic book-themed TV programming, and was shocked to see the results.

Beloved icons like Batman, Green Arrow, Archie, and Betty and Veronica are being used in graphic, gory television series containing explicit sex, profanity, and unbelievably horrific violence. While comic book fare has gradually gotten darker, it was shocking to me that broadcast TV – the medium most likely to be safe for families – has followed suit.

In this new study, Not For Kids Anymore: Comic Book-Themed Prime-Time Broadcast Network Programming Unsafe For Children, the Parents Television Council analyzed nearly 300 episodes of comic book-themed television programming, aired from 2012 to the present. 

We found that, taken together, series like Fox’s “Gotham,” ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and the CW’s “Arrow, Black Lightning, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” and similar programs showed over 6,000 incidents of violence – including over 500 deaths, more than 500 instances of gun violence, 59 instances of graphic torture, 57 depictions of decapitation or dismemberment, and almost 2,000 uses of profanity. 

The CW’s series “Riverdale” – based on the previously wholesome, clean Archie Comics – featured 78 instances of sex and multiple scenes of casual drug use, in addition to graphic violence and profanity, even though all the main characters in the show are minors and still in high school.

Hollywood clearly has a huge intellectual disconnect concerning comic book characters.

Heroes like Batman, Green Arrow, and Black Lightning are marketed to children practically since birth. Toys, Halloween costumes, t-shirts, cartoons, video games, and big-screen movies all feature these characters, in a family-friendly format. 

But then, when kids want to watch a live-action TV show about the same heroes, Hollywood says, “These shows aren’t for you, kids. They’re for adults” – while airing the shows, not on a premium cable network or streaming service, but on the publicly-owned airwaves, in the early evening of prime time. Naturally, kids want to watch … but risk being traumatized by what they see. 

Hollywood is engaged in a colossal “bait-and-switch” where child viewers are concerned; and it is the height of hypocrisy for the entertainment industry to claim they are making “adult” series about comic-book characters, while raking in millions of dollars of profit from toys and other merchandise based on those same characters.

This is not to say that all storytelling involving comics characters must return to the simplistic, child-centered style of the past. No one objects to sophistication in storytelling, and nobody is calling for a return to the campy style of the 1960s “Batman” TV series. 

But it is possible to tell entertaining, and even deeply serious and moving, stories involving superheroes and other comics characters, without explicit content or graphic gore. This was proven by the 1990s “Batman: The Animated Series,” which consistently offered excellence in its stories, to the point that it won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing. No one can credibly condemn that program as insipid or childish. Millions of adults watched, and relished, the show; yet it was always safe and appropriate for children to watch. 

Decades of scientific research has demonstrated that children are harmed by graphic violence, profanity, and sex in entertainment. Netflix acknowledged this recently, when the company banned scenes of smoking from programs rated TV-PG, and re-edited its teen-targeted series, “13 Reasons Why,” to omit a scene of a teenager committing suicide.

When characters with an innate appeal to children – indeed, which were specifically created to appeal to children – are involved, parents should be able to expect prime-time broadcast television programs about the same characters to be child-friendly.

When we as a nation are contemplating solutions to curbing societal violence, we should certainly evaluate the media targeting our children.

TV executives can reverse today’s disturbing trend, especially at times and places when kids are most likely to be watching TV. And creative artists and writers should remember that it doesn’t require graphic, adult content to tell compelling stories using comics characters … as comic books themselves have demonstrated for more than 80 years.

Dr. Christopher Gildemeister is head of research operations for the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. (www.ParentsTV.org) Twitter: @ThePTC

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