Professor Jenkins Goes
By Henry Jenkins
This is the story of how a mild mannered MIT Professor ended up being
called before Congress to testify about "selling violence to our
children" and what it is like to testify.
Where to start? For the past several months, ever since my book, from
Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games appeared, I've been
getting calls to talk about video game violence. It isn't a central
focus of the book, really. We were trying to start a conversation about
gender, about the opening up of the girls game market, about the place
of games in "boy culture," and so forth. But all the media
wants to talk about is video game violence. Here is one of the most
economically significant sectors of the entertainment industry and here
is the real beach head in our efforts to build new forms of interactive
storytelling as part of popular, rather than avant-garde, culture, but
the media only wants to talk about violence. These stories always follow
the same pattern. I talk with an intelligent reporter who gives every
sign of getting what the issues are all about. Then, the story comes
out and there's a long section discussing one or another of a
seemingly endless string of anti-popular culture critics and then a
few short comments by me rebutting what they said. A few times, I got
more attention but not most. But these calls came at one or two a week
all fall and most of spring term. Then, with the Littleton shootings,
they increased dramatically. Suddenly, we are finding ourselves in a
national witch hunt to determine which form of popular culture is to
blame for the mass murders and video games seemed like a better candidate
than most. So, I am getting calls back to back from the LA TIMES, The
New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Village Voice, Time,
etc., etc., etc. I am finding myself denounced in The Wall Street Journal
op-ed page for a fuzzy headed liberal who blames the violence on "social
problems" rather than media images. And, then, the call came from
the U.S. Senate to see if I would be willing to fly to Washington with
just a few days notice to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee
hearings. I asked a few basic questions, each of which feared me with
greater dread. Turned out that the people testifying were all anti-popular
culture types, ranging from Joseph Lieberman to William Bennett, or
industry spokesmen. I would be the only media scholar who did not come
from the "media effects" tradition and the only one who was
not representing popular culture as a "social problem." My
first thought was that this was a total setup, that I had no chance
of being heard, that nobody would be sympathetic to what I had to say,
and gradually all of this came to my mind as reasons to do it and not
reasons to avoid speaking. It felt important to speak out on these issues.
A flashback: When I was in high school, I wore a trenchcoat (beige,
not black), hell, in elementary school I wore a black vampire cape and
a medallion around my neck to school. I was picked on mercilessly by
the rednecks who went to my school and I spent a lot of time nursing
wounds, both emotional and some physical, from an essentially homophonic
environment. I was also a sucker for Frank Capra movies -- Mr. Smith
Goes to Washington most of all -- and films like 1776 which dealt with
people who took risks for what they believed. I had an amazing high
school teacher, Betty Leslein, who taught us about our government by
bringing in government leaders for us to question (among them Max Cleveland,
who was then a state legislature and now a member of the Commerce Committee)
and sent us out to government meetings to observe. I was the editor
of the school paper and got into fights over press censorship. And I
promised myself that when I was an adult, I would do what I could to
speak up about the problems of free speech in our schools. Suddenly,
this was a chance.
I also had been reading Jon Katz' amazing coverage on the web of the
crackdown in schools across America on free speech and expression in
the wake of the shootings. Goth kids harassed for wearing subcultural
symbols and pushed into therapy. Kids suspended for writing the wrong
ideas in essays or raising them in class discussions. Kids pushed off
line by their parents. And I wanted to do something to help get the
word out that this was going on.
So, it didn't take me long to say yes.
I was running a major conference the next day and then I would have
one day to pull together my written testimony for the Senate. I didn't
have much in my own writings I could draw on. I pulled together what
I had. I scanned the web. I sent out a call for some goth friends to
tell me what they felt I should say to Congress about their community
and a number of them stayed up late into the night sending me information.
And I pulled an all-nighter to write the damn thing that was really
long because I didn't have time to write short. And then, I worked with
my colleague, Shari Goldin, to get it proofed, edited, revised, and
sent off to Congress. And to make arrangements for a last minute trip.
When I got there, the situation was even worse than I had imagined.
The Senate chamber was decorated with massive posters of video game
ads for some of the most violent games on the market. Many of the ad
slogans are hyperbolic -- and self-parodying -- but that nuance was
lost on the Senators who read them all dead seriously and with absolute
literalness. Most of the others testifying were professional witnesses
who had done this kind of thing many times before. They had their staff.
They had their props. They had professionally edited videos. They had
each other for moral support. I had my wife and son in the back of the
room. They are passing out press releases, setting up interviews, being
tracked down by the major media and no one is talking to me. I try to
introduce myself to the other witnesses. Grossman, the military psychologist
who thinks video games are training our kids to be killers, won't shake
my hand when I wave it in front of him. I am trying to keep my distance
from the media industry types because I don't want to be perceived as
an apologist for the industry -- even though, given the way this was
set up, they were my closest allies in the room. This is set up so you
can either be anti-popular culture or pro-industry and the thought that
as citizens we might have legitimate investments in the culture we consume
was beyond anyone's comprehension.
The hearings start and one by one the senators speak. There was almost
no difference between Republicans and Democrats on this one. They all
feel they have to distance themselves from popular culture. They all
feel they have to make "reasonable" proposals that edge up
towards censorship but never quite cross the constitutional lines. It
is political suicide to come out against the dominant position in the
One by one, they speak. Hatch, Lieberman, Bennett, the Archbishop from
Littleton.... Bennett starts to show video clips which removed from
context seem especially horrific. The fantasy sequence from The Basketball
Diaries reduced to 20 seconds of Leonardo DiCaprio blasting away kids.
The opening sequence from Scream reduced to its most visceral elements.
Women in the audience are gasping in horror. The senators cover their
faces with mock dread. Bennett starts going on and on about "surely
we can agree upon some meaningful distinctions here, between Casino
and Saving Private Ryan, between The Basketball Diaries and Clear and
Present Danger..." I am just astonished by the sheer absurdity
of this claim which breaks down to a pure ideological distinction that
has neither aesthetic credibility nor any relationship to the media
effects debate. Basketball Diaries is an important film; Clear and Present
Danger is a right wing potboiler! Scorsese is bad but Spielberg is good?
Meanwhile, the senators are making homophobic jokes about whether Marilyn
Manson is "a he or a she" that I thought went out in the 1960s.
These strike me as precisely the kind of intolerant and taunting comments
that these kids must have gotten in school because they dressed differently
or acted oddly in comparison with their more conformist classmates.
By this point, we reach the hour when the reporters have to call in
their stories if they are going to make the afternoon addition and so
they are heading for the door. It's down to the C-Span camerawoman and
a few reporters from the game industry trade press.
And then I am called to the witness stand. Now, the chair is something
nobody talks about. It is a really, really low chair and it is really
puffy so you sit on it and your butt just keeps sinking and suddenly
the tabletop is up to your chest. It's like the chairs they make parents
sit in when they go to talk to elementary school teachers. The Senators
on the other hand sit on risers peering down at you from above. And
the whole power dynamics is terrifying.
Grossman starts to attack me personally, claiming that a "journalism"
professor and a "film critic" have no knowledge of social
problems. It takes me a while for the attacks to sink in because they
are so far off the mark. I am not a journalism professor and I am not
a film critic. I am a media scholar who has spent more than 15 years
studying and writing about popular culture and I do think I have some
expertise at this point on how culture works, how media is consumed,
how media panics are started, how symbols relate to real world events,
how violence operates in stories, etc., etc. And that's what I was speaking
I am doing OK with all of this. I am surprisingly calm while the other
people speak, and then Senator Brownback calls my name, and utter terror
rushes through my body. I have never felt such fear. I try to speak
and can hardly get the words out. My throat is dry. I reach for a glass
of water and my hands are trembling so hard that I spill water all over
the nice table. I am trying to read and the words are fuzzing out on
the page. Most of them are handwritten anyway by this point because
I kept revising and editing until the last minute. And I suddenly can't
read my writing. Cold sweat is pouring over me. I have visions of the
cowardly lion running down the halls in OZ escaping the great blazing
head of the wizard. But there's no turning back and so I speak and gradually
my words gain force and I find my voice and I debating the congress
about what they are trying to do to our culture. I take on Bennett about
his distorted use of The Basketball Diaries clip; explaining that he
didn't mention this was a film about a poet, someone who struggles between
dark urges and creativity, and that the scene was a fantasy intended
to express the rage felt by many students in our schools and not something
the character does, let alone something the film advocates. I talked
about the ways these hearings grew out of the fear adults have of their
own children and especially their fear of digital media and technological
change. I talked about the fact that youth culture was becoming more
visible but its core themes and values had remained pretty constant.
I talked about how reductive the media effects paradigm is as a way
of understanding consumer's relations to popular culture. I attacked
some of the extreme rhetoric being leveled against the goths, especially
a line in TIME from a GOP hack that we needed "goth control"
not "gun control." I talked about the stuff that Jon Katz
had been reporting about the crackdown on youth culture in schools across
the country and I ended with an ad-libbed line, "listen to your
children, don't fear them." Then, waited.
The Senator decided to take me on about the goths, having had some
staff person find him a surprisingly banal line from an ad for a goth
nightclub which urged people to "explore the dark side." And
I explained what I knew about goths, their roots in romanticism and
in the aesthetic movement, their nonviolence, their commitment to acceptance,
their strong sense of community, their expression of alienation. I talked
about how symbols could be used to express many things and that we needed
to understand what these symbols meant to these kids. I spoke about
Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience as a work that spoke to the current
debate, because it spoofed the original goths, the Aesthetics, for their
black garb, their mournful posturing, and said that they were actually
healthy and well adjusted folks underneath but they were enjoying playing
dark and soulful. The Senator tried repeating his question as if he
couldn't believe I wasn't shocked by the very concept of giving yourself
over to the "dark side." And then he gave up and shuffled
me off the stand.
The press warmed around the anti-violence speakers but didn't seem
to want to talk to me. I just wanted to get out of there. I felt no
one had heard what I had to say and that I had been a poor messenger
because I had stumbled over my words. But several people stopped me
in the hallway to thank me. And dozens more have sent me e-mail since
having seen it on C-Span or heard it on the radio or seen the transcript
on the web or heard about it from friends. And suddenly I feel better
and better about what had happened. I had spoken out about something
that mattered to me in the halls of national power and people out there
had heard my message, not all of them certainly, but enough.
I know the fight isn't over -- at least I hope it isn't. There will
be more chances to speak, but I felt like I had scored some victory
just by being there and speaking. Someone wrote me that it was all the
more powerful to have one rational voice amid a totally lopsided panel
of extremists. People would see this was a witch hunt of sorts. I'd
like to believe that.
The key thing was that I got a statement into the record that was able
to say more than I could in five minutes and people can now read
it on the web.
What follows is the text of my oral remarks that are rather different
from the written statement because I was still doing research and writing
on the airplane.
I am Henry Jenkins, Director of The MIT Comparative Media Studies Program.
I have published six books and more than fifty essays on various aspects
of popular culture. My most 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. I am also the father of a
high school senior and the house master of a MIT dormitory housing 150
students. I spent my life talking with kids about their culture and
I have come here today to share with you some of what I have learned.
The massacre at Littleton, Colorado has provoked national soul searching.
We all want answers. But we are only going to find valid answers if
we ask the right questions. The key issue isn't what the media are doing
to our children but rather what our children are doing with the media.
The vocabulary of "media effects," which has long dominated
such hearings, has been challenged by numerous American and international
scholars as an inadequate and simplistic representation of media consumption
and popular culture. Media effects research most often empties media
images of their meanings, strips them of their contexts, and denies
their consumers any agency over their use.
William Bennett just asked us if we can make meaningful distinctions
between different kinds of violent entertainment. Well, I think meaningful
distinctions require us to look at images in context, not looking at
20 second clips in isolation. From what Bennett just showed you, you
would have no idea that The Basketball Diaries was a film about a poet,
that it was an
autobiographical work about a man who had struggled between dark urges
and creative desires, that the book on which it was based was taught
in high school literature classes, and that the scene we saw was a fantasy
which expressed his frustrations about the school, not something he
acts upon and not something the film endorses.
Far from being victims of video games, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold
had a complex relationship to many forms of popular culture. They consumed
music, films, comics, videogames, television programs. All of us move
nomadically across the media landscape, cobbling together a personal
mythology of symbols and stories taken from many different places. We
invest those appropriated materials with various personal and subcultural
meanings. Harris and Klebold were drawn toward dark and brutal images
that they invested with their personal demons, their antisocial impulses,
their maladjustment, their desires to hurt those who had hurt them.
Shortly after I learned about the shootings, I received e-mail for
a 16 year old girl who shared with me her web site. She had produced
an enormous array of poems and short stories drawing on characters from
popular culture and had gotten many other kids nationwide to contribute.
Though they were written for no class, these stories would have brightened
the spirit of
writing teachers. She had reached into contemporary youth culture, including
many of the same media products that have been cited in the Littleton
case, and found there images that emphasized the power of friendship,
the importance of community, the wonder of first romance. The mass media
didn't make Harris and Klebold violent and destructive and it didn't
make this girl creative and sociable but it provided them both with
the raw materials necessary to construct their fantasies.
Of course, we should be concerned about the content of our culture
and we all learn things from The mass media. But popular culture is
only one influence on our children's imaginations. Real life trumps
media images every time. We can shut down a video game if it is ugly,
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 can offer few strategies for making
the abuse stop. As one Littleton teen explained, "Everytime someone
slammed them against a locker or threw a bottle at them, they would
go back to Eric and Dylan's house and plot a little more."
We need to engage in a rational conversation about the nature of the
culture children consume but not in the current climate of moral panic.
I believe this moral panic is pumped up by three factors.
1) Our fears of adolescents. Popular culture has become one of the
central battlegrounds through which teens stake out a claim on their
own autonomy from their parents. Adolescent symbols from zoot suits
to goth amulets define the boundaries between generations. The intentionally
cryptic nature of these symbols often means adults invest them with
all of our worst fears, including our fear that our children are breaking
away from us. But that doesn't mean that these symbols carry all of
these same meanings for our children. However spooky looking they may
seem to some adults, goths aren't monsters. They are a peaceful subculture
committed to tolerance of diversity and providing a sheltering community
for others who have been hurt. It is, however, monstrously inappropriate
when GOP strategist Mike Murphy advocates "goth control" not
2) Adult fears of new technologies. The Washington Post reported that
82 percent of Americans cite the Internet as a potential cause for the
shootings. The Internet is no more to blame for the Columbine shootings
than the telephone is to blame for the Lindbergh kidnappings. Such statistics
suggest adult anxiety about the current rate of technological change.
Many adults see computers as necessary tools for educational and professional
development. But many also perceive their children's on-line time as
socially isolating. However, for many "outcasts," the on-line
world offers an alternative support network, helping them find someone
out there somewhere who doesn't think they are a geek.
3) The increased visibility of youth culture. Children fourteen and
under now constitute roughly 30 percent of The American population,
a demographic group larger than the baby boom itself. Adults are feeling
more and more estranged from the dominant forms of popular culture,
which now reflect their children's values rather than their own. Despite
our unfamiliarity with this new technology, the fantasies shaping contemporary
video games are not profoundly different from those that shaped backyard
play a generation ago. Boys have always enjoyed blood and thunder entertainment,
always enjoyed risk-taking and rough housing, but these activities often
took place in vacant lots or backyards, out of adult view. In a world
where children have diminished access to play space, American mothers
are now confronting directly the messy business of turning boys into
men in our culture and they are alarmed at what they are seeing. But
the fact that they are seeing it at all means that we can talk about
it and shape it in a way that was impossible when it was hidden from
We are afraid of our children. We are afraid of their reactions to
digital media. And we suddenly can't avoid either. These factors may
shape the policies that emerge from this committee but if they do, they
will lead us down the wrong path. Banning black trenchcoats or abolishing
violent video games doesn't get us anywhere. These are the symbols of
youth alienation and rage -- not the causes.
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 on-line friends. Students are being
suspended for displaying cultural symbols or expressing controversial
Katz chillingly documents the consequences of adult ignorance and fear
of our children's culture. Rather than teaching children to be more
tolerant, high school teachers and administrators are teaching students
that difference is dangerous, that individuality should be punished,
and that self expression should be constrained. In this polarized 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
underground and thus further and further from our understanding.
I urge this committee to listen to youth voices about this controversy
and have submitted a selection of responses from young people as part
of my extended testimony.
Listen to our children. Don't fear them.