The Parents Television Council released a new study, “Not for Kids Anymore,” that found broadcast TV shows based on child-beloved comic book characters are not safe for kids to watch.
The study’s author, Dr. Christopher Gildemeister, Head of Research Operations for the Parents Television Council, is an avid comic book fan, and he was shocked at the study’s results. We wanted to get his take on the study’s implications for families, and asked him to answer a few questions to explain.
PTC: Why should parents be concerned about comic book-themed TV shows becoming more graphic and more adult?
Gildemeister: Parents should be concerned about all the media content their children consume. Decades of scientific research has demonstrated that children are influenced by what they see in the media. Studies have shown that the more children and teens consume violent or sexualized media, the greater the chance their behaviors will reflect what they’ve seen.
The last decade has seen a huge boom in comics-themed entertainment. Some of this entertainment is appropriate for children, but much of it – and especially, broadcast network TV shows aired at times when kids are in the audience – definitely is not.
What’s particularly worrisome about this, and these TV programs in particular, is that comic-book characters were created to appeal to children, and have always been heavily marketed to them. Archie Comics are available in supermarket checkout aisles. The toy section of every department store is cluttered with toys based on Batman and other superheroes. T-shirts, Halloween costumes, coloring books, and cartoons featuring these characters are pitched directly at children. As a result, it’s only natural that kids are going to want to check out these TV series; and when they do, they’ll be traumatized.
PTC: What made you decide to research this topic?
Gildemeister: I’m a life-long fan of comic books. I have many fond memories of growing up with these characters, which at their best can inspire in kids an appreciation of heroism and courage, and the difference between right and wrong. And, at first, I was thrilled by the thought of so many new TV shows about my childhood heroes. But after seeing them, I wasn’t just disappointed; I was horrified by the direction the TV series in this study have taken.
These programs – based on characters created for children, remember – contain scenes of unbelievably graphic violence. I’m not talking about the “Biff! Bam! Pow!” of the Adam West Batman TV series. I’m talking about a man having his arm torn off and being beaten to death with his own severed arm, with all the blood and gore on display. I’m talking about hands being chopped off and blood spraying out, people being brutalized and tortured, eyes gouged out – content more appropriate for an R-rated slasher film than for network TV at 8 p.m., in full view of kids, on shows about Green Arrow, Black Lightning, and Batman as a boy.
I was especially disturbed by the CW series Riverdale. Archie Comics were never about anything but good, clean fun. Yet Riverdale has shown us Archie being raped by his teacher in the back seat of her car; Archie, Veronica, and their friends using drugs; Archie being beaten bloody in a boxing ring; and Jughead as the leader of a violent street gang.
PTC: You mentioned that comics-themed entertainment is experiencing a boom recently. Kids are seeing big-budget movies with the comic-book characters. Why are these TV shows different?
Gildemeister: The TV shows are different because they are so explicit and gory. By and large, the movies about superheroes – Sony’s various Spider-Man and X-Men movies, and the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – have been more or less safe for children. Sometimes the language might be a little strong, but there are no beheadings or graphic torture in the movies. And I don’t think there’s been a single sex scene in any of the 23 movies in the MCU.
By contrast, the TV shows feature torture, blood, gore, brutality, sex, drug use…all shown in prime time when kids are watching, on the broadcast airwaves owned by the American people.
There’s something wrong with the fact that the shows about comic-book characters that come into your home for free are filled with graphic violence and sex…but in order for your kids to see a clean adventure with superheroes, you have to drive them to a movie theater and pay $20 a person.
PTC: You say these stories based on comics are “dark” and “extreme.” But that’s really nothing new, it is? So why is this a problem?
Gildemeister: It’s true that, since the 1980s, comic books have been getting “darker” and more adult. This trend was kicked off by the graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns, a darker take on Batman, and Watchmen, a deconstruction of the entire concept of superheroes. And over the years, there have been many, many “darker” and more adult graphic novels and comics, and even TV shows based on them.
But here’s the thing: the adult-content comics, and the shows based on them, have never been intended for children, haven’t been marketed to children, and often, aren’t available to children. Shows like HBO’s upcoming series Watchmen, Amazon Prime’s The Boys, or the various now-cancelled Marvel shows on Netflix, were on premium cable or streaming services, to which adults had to make a deliberate decision to subscribe. (It’s also worth noting that the Marvel series on Netflix mostly used lesser-known Marvel characters, like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, not top-liners like Iron Man and Captain America.)
The Walking Dead and Preacher are on AMC, a basic cable network, and Lucifer and iZombie are on broadcast TV. These shows are all based on comics. But none of the graphic novels those shows are based on were ever intended for children; most carried a “Mature Readers” label. And those characters and concepts have never been marketed to kids, the way Batman, Green Arrow, and Archie have been.
When it comes to comics-themed characters, Hollywood is engaged in a huge bait-and-switch. They’re happy to produce movies and cartoons featuring comic-book characters for kids to see, and they use these characters relentlessly to sell toys, clothing, books, and other merchandise; but when it comes to TV shows about the same characters, airing for free in prime time, suddenly they say, “Oh, these shows aren’t for kids.”
PTC: Are there any comic book-themed TV shows that are safe for children?
Gildemeister: For a certain value of “safe,” yes. CW’s programs The Flash and Supergirl are very much in line with traditional comic-book storytelling. The Flash features a super-fast character whose adventures are pretty light-hearted; his best friend can stretch like putty, and he fights costumed villains right out of the comics. Supergirl mostly features scenes of super-powered people throwing cars and buildings at one another, or using raybeams from their eyes. Supergirl also has some pretty empowering messages for young girls and women.
Language is tame, and there are no sex scenes in either show, though there are characters in both shows who are involved in same-sex relationships, and who talk about that.
PTC: So, are you saying that everything involving comic-book characters has to be for kids?
Gildemeister: Not at all. It’s perfectly legitimate to use comic-book characters in dramas intended for adults; but those dramas should involve characters, or be shown at times and places, where children won’t see them.
And there’s one other point to consider: for decades, the broadcast networks were able to make shows the entire family could watch together. The movies about comic-book heroes prove this is still possible. The 1990s program Batman: The Animated Series was a perfect example of sophisticated, adult storytelling that was still safe for children. That series actually won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing, and thousands of adult comics fans loved it; but there was never anything in it a child couldn’t see.
Yes, it’s okay for some stories to be pitched at adults, with adult content. But can’t we agree that kids should be able to watch a show about Batman without seeing someone’s arm being chopped off, and a show about Archie without seeing him being raped by his teacher?
Here’s the bottom line: parents should be able to expect prime-time, broadcast television programs about characters that were created to appeal to kids, to be child-friendly; and kids ought to be able to watch the shows about characters that were created for them to begin with.
The PTC’s full report, “Not for Kids Anymore,” along with images for download and video clips with examples from the study, can be found here: https://go.parentstv.org/comic-books/.