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Bad art creates bad narratives for revenge

By Gina Arnold

LAST WEEK, I read in the newspaper that the day after the shooting at Santana High School in Santee, there were five plots of similar shootings uncovered at various high schools across the country--five plots, and one real incident, in which a girl at a private school at Pennsylvania nicked a classmate in the shoulder with her daddy's 22-caliber pistol.

Of course, kids are natural copycats, but it makes you wonder how the news today is being interpreted by young people. Apparently, some of them don't find the alleged actions of Charles Andrew Williams all that hard to understand, and the consequences of his actions clearly don't concern them at all either.

Could be, being copycats (and thus not the brightest bulbs in the school yard), they're just stupid and reckless. But it could also be that there is something innately appealing to them about the particular revenge-fantasy narrative Williams was enacting. Because it strikes me, upon reflection, that it is a different narrative entirely from the one that held our imaginations in the past.

The adolescent revenge fantasy is, of course, an age-old plot device. Weakling teen gets picked on by bullies; bullies get comeuppance. You can see it in the novels of Dickens and Kipling, in The Scarlet Pimpernel and Vanity Fair, in Mickey Rooney/Andy Hardy movies of the 1940s, in Rebel Without a Cause, in Beezus and Ramona, in The Little Princess and in Catcher In the Rye.

Then came the '60s, and the revenge fantasy began to permeates the very fabric of rock & roll as well, as kids who were odd or puny or gay or whatever went out and formed rock bands and became sex gods in the process.

Hey, was Prince Rogers Nelson popular at his high school? Jerry Garcia? Fat chance. From Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen to Pete Townsend to Marshall Mathers, the nerds-revenge story line is so ingrained in the genre's structure that there isn't a rock star on earth who would own up to having been popular in high school--even if he had been.

And rock's not the only field where being unpopular is considered a plus. Indeed, judging by the number of our heroes who were total dweebs in their youth, having been unpopular ought to be a badge of honor, and in fact, it is among most of my friends. Unfortunately, there's a big, big difference between "having been" unpopular and "being" unpopular: I guess you have to survive the experience before you can begin to boast about it.

BUT THAT'S WHERE fairy tales and parables come in, where stories about Bill Gates and Paul Allen and even Harry Potter come into play. What kids need to see are examples of people who were ridiculed in their youth--and ended up with the last laugh.

What they don't need to see are revenge fantasies that consist of the hero or heroine walking into a room with two machine guns blazing, blowing everyone away--a visual image that gets repeated in countless video games, TV shows, movies and now on the TV news.

That is one given. The other given is that parents who own a gun shouldn't be surprised if their kids want to go out and use them. What's a kid to think if his household contains a weapon? That it is there to be used against enemies, of course. How easy it would be to decide that a particular tormentor--or even just society at large--is a more immediate enemy than some mythical burglar or rapist.

Now, I don't think for a moment that pop culture causes these terrible events, but I do think parents should take note of the fact that their children live in an environment where violence is constantly condoned and glorified. And speaking of environments, another thing they should take note of is the stultifying nature of the ones many kids are being raised in.

About a year ago, I read an article in The New York Times Magazine about people who'd moved to the suburbs in order to raise their children, only to find that kids raised in quiet suburbs were far more likely to get into trouble than ones raised in the so-called dangerous environs of New York City.

Why? Because it's so damn boring in the suburbs. There's nothing for teenagers to do there that doesn't involve a car. Add to that the inevitable use of alcohol that suburban life seems predicated on, and you have a lethal mixture.

That's obviously why school shootings take place in relatively affluent white suburbs like Littleton and Santee, rather than in inner-city ghettos or big cities. So you want to stop children from shooting up schoolyards? Easy. First take away their guns. Then take away the sad, boring, banality that passes for artistic content in their lives--that is, the stupid songs by bad bands, the boring beige buildings that all look alike, the brainless movies they see at the Cineplex. Give them higher standards, a richer inner life and maybe a better sense of humor, and I swear to God, all will be well.


OF COURSE, that's easier said than done, especially the part about instilling a sense of humor in them. Judging by most television these days, the concept of humor in America has recently become so degraded it's almost nonexistent, completely caught up in toilet jokes, pratfalls and what Bobby on King of the Hill calls "prop comedy," and I can't help but think that this--almost more than the violence kids hear in rap music--is part of the overall problem. After all, pratfalls and prop comedy are only one step removed from teasing and bullying. No wonder kids today can't seem to behave, if that's the stuff they see being applauded.

I am also often struck by the mean-spiritedness of most television sit-coms. So many shows seem to be based on the idea of a bunch of pretty people who hate each other, standing around making nasty little quips at each other. Some characters--like Will and Grace and Frasier--merely surround themselves with loathsome people, whom they for some reason call their buddies. Others, like Drew Carey and Ted Danson, delight in playing assholes. It doesn't seem like there are any genuinely funny people on TV right now, or any genuinely funny situations.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Kids would appreciate really humorous humor if they were confronted with it. I know, because about a year ago, I was sitting with a group of 10-to-13-year-olds who were repeating episodes of Monty Python to one another; and not one of them realized the shows were 30 years old.

Somehow, I feel like a kid who can laugh at Monty Python could laugh off a kid bullying him better than a kid who thinks the height of humor is Jackass on MTV, but maybe I'm just speculating wildly now, about things that are way beyond my ken.

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From the March 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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