Book Review: Killing Monsters

Killing Monsters

Note: This is #46 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008.

The full title of the book here is Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence. In it, author Gerard Jones presents a thesis that exposure to violence –especially fantasy violence– is not unhealthy to children, but actually critical to proper emotional, social, and mental development. It’s the inverse of the “violent media makes violent kids” angle that most of us are used to hearing, and it’s pretty interesting and compelling in places.

Basically, Gerard’s book boils down to the fact that when kids watch violent media, it helps them develop emotional coping mechanisms to work through the stressful and frightening things in their lives. When a kid picks up a coat hanger, points it at her playmates and pretends that it’s a gun, she’s not practicing for some future school shooting as much as coping with stressors in her life by feeling powerful and in control. The key is that the kid knows it’s make believe and can tell the difference between, say, cracking someone on the head with a bat and having a mock sword fight with the empty cardboard tube. It’s about facing and triumphing over their imaginary monsters. It’s about the sense of power and control that this brings.

Gerard returns again and again to the point that kids are attracted to things that make them feel powerful in the face of what we adults may have forgotten is a very intimidating world. Whether it’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Pokemon, Superman, or professional wrestlers, kids dig it because humans like to feel powerful and safe. Jones even hits some impressive insights when he talks about why pop idols like Britney Spears infatuate little girls so much: Spears is, in some very important ways, just like the ass kicking Power Rangers. She moves around the stage with powerful, kinetic energy, with backup dancers and even the camera reacting extravagantly to every kick, punch, and hip thrust in her routine. Girls like that kind of power, and they like pretending to have it. It’s just in a different package than ninjas, barbarians, or super heroes.

This is just one example of the kinds of things that Killing Monsters presents in ways that I wasn’t used to, and I enjoyed seeing different perspectives and conclusions. Jones mixes in reports from his own workshops that he’s done with children of various ages with real research done by psychologists, sociologists, and other scientists. And for someone not trained in as a scientist, Jones displays an impressive amount of acumen for understanding and critiquing research on the effects of violent media. Even though he may use different terms, I often caught Jones talking about things like the confirmatory information bias, overgeneralization, and selection bias in the research he examined. It’s not just some dude with an opinion. It’s some dude with an informed and thought out opinion.

So while I’m not about to sit down with my 4-year old daughter to watch the Die Hard trilogy with her, Killing Monsters has made me rethink some of my assumptions and I’m not about to freak out just because she points her fingers at me, makes “pew! pew!” sounds, and gleefully shouts “I KILLED YOU!” Instead, I’ll just clutch my chest and fall down. She loves that.

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Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week:

  • Jeremy reviews Stiff by Mary Roach and Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross
  • Heliologue reviews Watchmen by Allan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
  • Nick reviews Gravity Journal by Gail Sidonie Sobat

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