Henry Jenkins Congressional Testimony on Media Violence

Professor Henry Jenkins
Testimony presented before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, Violence and Youth
Washington, D.C.
May 4, 1999

1     I’m Henry Jenkins, Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. My recent books The Children’s Culture Reader and From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games deal centrally with the questions before this committee. (Discussion about mic) I am also the father of a high school senior and the housemaster of an MIT dormitory which houses more than 150 students. I spend my life talking with kids about their culture.

2     The massacre in Littleton, Colorado provoked national soul searching, and we are only going to find valid answers if we ask the right questions. The key issue isn’t what are the media doing to our children, but rather what are our children doing with media. The vocabulary of media effects which has long dominated such hearings has been challenged by numerous American and international scholars as inadequate and simplistic representations of media consumption and popular culture. Media effects research often empties media images of their meanings, strips them of their context, and denies their consumers any agency over their use.

3     *Mr. Bennett asks us to make meaningful distinctions here. As a media scholar, I believe meaningful distinctions should be made looking at works as a whole, not twenty seconds out of context. From the presentation here, it might not be clear that the Basketball Diaries is an autobiographical film about a young poet’s struggle between his creativity and his violent urges, or that the sequence that you saw was a fantasy sequence that was a …. stories taken from many places. And we invest these appropriated materials with personal and subcultural meanings. Harris and Klebold were drawn to dark and brutal images, which they invested with their personal demons, their antisocial impulses, their maladjustments, their desire to hurt those who had hurt them.

4     Shortly after learning about these shootings, I received email from a 16-year-old girl who shared with me her website. She had produced an enormous array of poems and short stories drawing on characters from popular culture and had gotten many other kids to contribute stories which would have been the pride of many creative writing classes. She had reached in the contemporary youth culture, including many of the same products that had been cited in the Littleton case, and found their images had emphasized the power of friendship, the importance of community, and the wonder of first romance. The mass media did not make Harris and Klebold violent and destructive, and it didn’t make this girl creative and sociable, but it provided them both the raw materials necessary to construct their fantasy.

5     Of course we should be concerned about the contents of our culture, but popular culture is only one influence on our children’s imagination. Real life trumps media images every time. We can shut down a video game if we find it ugly, hurtful, or displeasing, but many teens are required to return day after day to schools where they are ridiculed, and taunted, and sometimes physically abused by their classmates. School administrators are slow to respond to their distress, and typically offer few strategies for making the abuse stop. As one Littleton teen explained, “Every time someone slammed them against the locker, they’d go back to Eric or Dylan’s house and plot a little more.”

6     We need to engage in a national conversation about the nature of the culture our children consume, but not in the current climate of “moral panic.” Moral panic is being fed by three things, I believe. One is a long-standing adult fear of adolescence. Popular culture has become one of the central battlegrounds through which teens stake out a claim for their own autonomy from their parents. The intentionally cryptic nature of these symbols often means adults invest them with different meanings, their own fears rather than what they mean to the kids. However spooky looking, goths aren’t monsters. They’re a peaceful subculture committed to a tolerance of diversity. It is, however, monstrously inappropriate when GOP strategist Mike Murphy advocates “goth control not gun control.”

7     Second, they’re fueled by adult fear of new technology. The Washington Post reported last week that 82 percent of Americans cite the internet as a potential cause of the shooting. Such statistics suggest adult anxieties about the current rate of technological change. Many adults see computers as necessary tools for educational and professional development, but they also fear their children’s online time is socially isolating. However, for many outcasts like Harris and Klebold, the online world potentially offers an alternative support network helping them find someone out there somewhere who doesn’t think they’re a geek.

8     Third, the moral panic has been fueled by the increased visibility of youth culture. Children 14 years or younger now constitute roughly thirty percent of the American population, a demographic group larger than the baby boom itself. Adults are feeling more and more estranged from popular culture, which reflects their children’s values and not necessarily their own. Despite our unfamiliarity with the new technology, most of the values articulated by contemporary video games are not profoundly different from those which shaped backyard play a generation ago. Boys have always enjoyed blood and thunder images, always enjoyed risk-taking and roughhousing. But these activities often took place in vacant lots out of adult view. In a world where children have diminished access to outdoor play spaces, American mothers are now confronting directly the messy business by which we’ve historically turned boys to men in our culture and justifiably they’re not liking what they’re seeing, but let’s not confuse the increased visibility with the increase of these kinds of attitudes.

9     We’re afraid of our children, we’re afraid of their relations with digital media, and we suddenly can’t avoid either. These factors may shape the policies that emerge in this discussion, but they shouldn’t. Banning black trench coats and abolishing video games doesn’t get us anywhere. These are symbols of youth alienation and rage, not the causes and we need to get back to the causes.

10    Journalist Jon Katz has described a backlash against popular culture in our high schools. Schools are shutting down student net access, parents are cutting their children off from their online friends, students are being suspended for displaying cultural symbols or expressing controversial views. Katz chillingly documents the consequences of our adult ignorance and fear of our children’s culture. Rather than teaching students to be more tolerant, high school teachers and principals are teaching students that difference is dangerous, that individuality should be punished, and self-expression should be constrained. In this polarizing climate, it becomes impossible for young people to explain to us what their popular culture means to them. We’re pushing this culture further and further from our understanding. I urge this committee to listen to the young voices in this controversy and I’ve submitted a selection of responses from young people in my extended testimony. Listen to our children, don’t fear them.

Thank you.

*William Bennett, Education Secretary under the Reagan Administration

Henry Jenkins’ submitted testimony: “Congressional Testimony On Media Violence.” Media in Transition. http://media-in-transition.mit.edu/articles/index_dc.html.

C-Span Video of Henry Jenkins oral testimony before the committee: http://www.c-span.org/video/?123015-1/marketing-violence-children

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