Why Do Children Have To Watch Their Childhood Heroes Die?
From Rabbi Blog
In 2019 I took a course in Rhetoric and Composition which a focus on semiotics. I haven't functionally taken a writing class in 17 years and this was an accelerated seven week course: the wheels were rusty and moving quickly. My natural thought process is to dissect and list out items, which was helpful in this course, however I found that I don't take well to defensive\supportive writing. Even at the point of turning it, I felt like I needed to defend the work itself:
I dropped the majority of the things from the first draft, it was too much and after reading L****'s comments, I was further off track than I had thought. I think this has a little less crash and burn than the first draft yet I still don't feel like it sticks the landing.
My previous iteration that went through both professor and peer review bombed. It was long and it had a lot of background on the comics that paved the way for the movies that were being discussed. From an informational point, it was informative! I trashed the historic bits, carving out a lot of information, and worked on taking a stance, then going after it. One thing I tried in this that wasn't available, with the exception of email perhaps, the last time I wrote something for school was the ability to reach out and engage a citable source for conversation and input, and then include it in the text. Thanks to Dr. Strate for the indulgence and while I was curious if it would fly in the submission, it made it through the grading process.
Watch that source possibilities frontier expand!
Sorry, I'm in Microeconomics this semester....
Below is my final submission and I scored well in the 100 level course with it, but it felt really odd to push in that direction of writing against my natural flow. For posting here I did some basic formatting, but areas like the Works Cited will have formatting issues, and there were some basic things we had to do around linking it to our course book, otherwise here it is.
EH 124 Rhetoric and Composition II - Final Paper
30 June 2019
Why Do Children Have To
Watch Their Childhood Heroes Die?
If you’re a long time comic book reader like I am, the last 10+ years of moviegoing probably provided you with a long list of cinematic adventures. With a long list of subjects including Batman, Iron Man, Superman, Spider-Man, Justice League, The Avengers, Star Wars (which shares both books and comic books in its lineage), and Wonder Woman, the movie potentials appear limitless. Whether you are an ardent follower of Marvel comics, a devoted fan of DC comics, or perhaps you like both equally, you can simply indulge in the fact that some of your childhood heroes have been arriving on the big screen. If you're a parent as well, you may be sharing the experiences of your childhood coming to life with your family and if your children are young, you’ve probably started to see a particular theme play out over and over again in the stories: death. In fact, every one of the subjects just listed either has a major character or someone directly tied to the hero perishes in the course of the story. The death may be meaningful to the story, it may be gratuitous for shock value, it may not even be permanent, but the scenes are being taken in by young viewers and the messages about what death actually is are not being accurately represented all of the time. The portrayal of death in movies causes children to misunderstand death and movie companies do it for the money.
Fictional heroes have been around since the dawn of storytelling, their stories relayed through the oral or written word, through art. Through tales of fantastic feats, sometimes historical and sometimes allegorical, a connection with the hero is usually made with the recipient of the story. There may be a trait or ability that we identify with and that hero becomes something larger than life, something with a heavy anchor in our minds, and we make a direct connection with the hero. Lisa Libby, a researcher of behavior at Ohio State University, co-authored a study that showed that readers undergo a phenomenon known as "experience-taking" and that it can be powerful enough to shape behavior outcomes in people. “When you share a group membership with a character from a story told in first-person voice, you’re much more likely to feel like you’re experiencing his or her life events,” Libby said. “And when you undergo this experience-taking, it can affect your behavior for days afterward.” (Kaufman & Libby) With children, the connection with comic and movie heroes often runs deep and manifests itself with masquerading the part of the hero. I have many memories of my son running through the front yard with his red cape flowing behind him or jumping off his bed with his Batman pajamas on, dark mask, and spouting off Batman quotes with his young voice turned awkwardly raspy for effect. When a cartoon would come on with the television, he would load up with the latest scenarios and then dash off to reenact them with his friends or on his own. It was certainly easier to see his connection with these new heroes in his life as he was growing up and not only were they a part of his day to day playtime, they were a part of him.
To draw a little deeper into personal experience, it took roughly seven more years for heroes and death to collide in a way that was a tangible moment. During the rise of comic-based movies, my family was growing up and I was wasting no time in sharing my geek childhood with them. From reprinted old Spider-Man comics to watching the original Star Wars trilogy numerous times with them, we bonded on the stories of sci-fi and comics, and we were excited to be at the first local showing of Disney’s “Episode 7 - The Force Awakens.” I remember this movie quite well as I went to it waiting to see my childhood heroes on the screen again however instead of simply watching Luke, Leiah, and Han pull off another great escape or stunt, it handed the parent in me an interesting event and my son a horrifying experience. The general story was action packed and moved forward quickly, at least until we came to a very specific scene which played out in the following manner:
My wife and I sat at the theater on opposite sides of our children and we watched the movie unfold on the screen.
Han, having infiltrated an Imperial base with Chewbacca (once again), sees his estranged son and decides to make a move towards reconciliation with him. He calls out to him by his birth name...
I can read this scene from a mile away. I look over at my ten-year-old son and he’s watching intently.
...Han walks slowly out along the bridge walk to confront his son Ben and to convince him to return with them, to leave his current life of evil. Han’s son steps closer as they exchange words, his face a billboard for anguish.
I reach over to put my hand on my son’s hand and he’s outwardly stoic has he brushes my hand away. Is he waiting to see if Ben (Kylo Ren) gives in and returns home with his father? Can he read this scene as I can? Does he have years of retold stories behind him and the jaded wisdom that I have?
As they stand on the bridge over the large Empire Strikes Back-like shaft, Kylo Ren turns his lightsaber on, right through Han’s chest…that didn’t end well for Han.
And I look over again to see my son’s chest had heaved. The tear hangs there on the edge of his left eye, visible in the projector light, but he holds everything else in.
There we were as a family watching one of my childhood heroes die and I was less concerned for Han plummeting off the bridge than I was for the reaction of my son. He’s known the character for a fraction of the time I have yet I can tell he’s made those heroic connections already. As we watch one of his heroes die on screen, I realized at that moment that he was processing some very negative emotions from the scene.
In 2005, Meredith Cox, Erin Garrett, and James A. Graham published a study, “Death in Disney Films,” in the journal OMEGA - Journal of Death and Dying that studied the potential influence of films in relation to children’s concepts of death. The study analyzed ten full-length Disney animated films and focused on how the death that was depicted might fit into a child's understanding of death “and accepting the emotions that come along with that realization.” (Cox 269) The parent plays a significant role in helping a child understand what death is and sometimes is a limiting factor. Often when a death occurs and explanation is required, parents shift their main objective from teaching about the subject and instead take a protective path of explanation. “Though their intentions are good, many adults often hinder children’s understanding of death by using confusing terms and abstract language to explain the concept to them.” (Cox 270). The analysis relays a list of analogies used to soften the impact of death and, having grown up on a farm with many animals, many of them sounded familiar: “passed away” or “seeping for a long time” or “taking a long trip.” (Cox 270) Vague terms like these work to avoid the finality of death and even work to confuse the status of the person or thing that has died. A child is left to wonder if the person will “wake up” and, if not, the child may link sleeping to death in a way that causes them to be afraid of going to sleep. Without the understanding of what death is, children will make their own linkages and understandings.
Movies exacerbate the complex problem for children by depicting death in an unreal or even fantastical way and it affects the grieving process. Depending on who has died (hero or villain), how the death occurred (violent or non-violent), and the type of attention given to the death (grieving or ignoring), the factors that a child must add together in order to process the death is a lot for a young mind to put together to reach a resolution on how to handle the death. Cox points out that some movies handle this well, like The Lion King, where the movie not only acknowledges the death and “offers a realistic view of grief as well as a resolution to sadness.” (Cox 271) Other movies, even a classic children's movie like Bambi where the death of the mother is acknowledged but not grieved, carries this issue where death has obviously occurred but there is no solid resolution emotionally for the viewer. Even worse, movies will sometimes distort death and allow a fallen character to be spoken with or even brought back (through various means including resurrection, passing of the mantle, or even ghostly visages). While it progresses the story, for children it warps what death should mean and leaves it without finality.
Processing death is complicated and I have no doubt that seeing Han Solo taking a lightsaber through the abdomen and falling off a catwalk into a deep shaft was a trying scene. Han’s death pushed my son headfirst into processing what had just happened: Han Solo, a hero of both of ours, was just definitively killed by his son. Three years after that scene I still remember his physical reaction to the shocking moment and I wonder now how he reconciled his thoughts after the loss of a prominent, albeit fictional, hero figure. Even at such a young age, the pantheon of heroes that individuals have collected are often reflective of the search to create one’s own identity. In Denial of Death, Ernest Becker’s 1974 Pulitzer Award-winning book, Becker wrote “what most people do is to follow one person’s ideas and then another’s, depending on who looms largest on one’s horizon at the time. The one with the deepest voice, the strongest appearance, the most authority, and success, is usually the one that gets our momentary allegiance; and we try to pattern our ideals after him.” (Becker 255) When a hero has been woven into the pattern with this much importance and then torn out abruptly, the impact can be devastating and hard to process for the younger mind. This seems like a pretty bold move on the part of comic book and movie writers. Why do they do it? There’s apparently a lot of money to be earned through it.
Through a brief Twitter exchange with Dr. Lance Strate (Professor of Communication and Media Studies and Associate Chair for Graduate Studies at Fordham University and one of the founders of the Media Ecology Association) on this overall subject, he tweeted “I also think there’s the problem related to the medium/format of serialization & never-ending stories that make it hard to find new plot lines. Also with declining sales, crossing the old taboo of death of a major character is a boost.” (Strate 1) Dr. Strate also points out that death represents change symbolically and that the “death of a hero allows for another to take up the mantle, again more novelty for writers.” (Strate 2) The novelty of death and the draw of heroes returning, either by new title holders or by resurrecting heroes through fantastic means, appears to continue to drive sales and movie attendance so much so that comic book hero movies are now a multi-billion dollar industry. In the last 10 years alone, the Walt Disney Company (Disney) purchased Marvel for $4 billion dollars (Smith) and Marvel continued to deliver profitable movies for the following three years, one of which currently still holds the #7 spot for “All Time Worldwide Gross.” (“All Time Worldwide Box Office Grosses”) In 2012, Disney acquired LucasFilms LTD, for $4 billion dollars (Grocer), and became the owner of the book series turned movie franchise Star Wars. Since those purchases, worldwide, the Marvel purchase has yielded $21 billion dollars in 23 movies and the Star Wars purchases have brought in $5.5 billion in 4 movies. Not to leave DC out of the conversation, Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, and specifically the Dark Knight Returns which was "a box-office smash unlike anything a DC character had ever seen," (Reisman) raised $2.4 billion. (“All Time Worldwide Box Office Grosses.”)
With a combined billion dollar industry at stake, the demand for such material will certainly continue the drive the stories that are produced. Perhaps if writers could reach beyond using death as the draw, to craft stories that were challenging, we might be able to share these experiences on the big screen without wondering which hero will give up his or her life in exchange for cash in the movie company's coffers. Until that time comes, kids will be watching their heroes die and the money will continue to flow.
“All Time Worldwide Box Office Grosses.” Box Office Mojo,www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. The Free Press A Division of MacMillan Publishing Company, 1975.
Cox, Meredith, et al. “Death in Disney Films: Implications for Children’s Understanding of Death.” OMEGA - Journal of Death and Dying, vol. 50, no. 4, 2005, pp. 267–280., doi:10.2190/q5vl-klf7-060f-w69v.
Grocer, Stephen. “Disney to Acquire Lucasfilm for $4.05 Billion.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 30 Oct. 2012, blogs.wsj.com/deals/2012/10/30/disney-to-acquire-lucasfilm-for-4-05-billion/.
Kaufman, G.*, & Libby, L.K. (2012). Changing beliefs and behavior through experience-taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 1 – 19.
Riesman, Abraham. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Batman and Superman.” Vulture, 22 Mar. 2016, www.vulture.com/2016/03/batman-v-superman-c-v-r.html.
Smith, Ethan, and Lauren A. E. Schuker. “Disney Nabs Marvel Heroes.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 2 Sept. 2009, www.wsj.com/articles/SB125172509349072393.
Strate, Lance. “I Also Think There's the Problem Related to the Medium/Format of Serialization & Never-Ending Stories That Make It Hard to Find New Plot Lines. Also with Declining Sales, Crossing the Old Taboo of Death of a Major Character Is a Boost. Problem Is No One Really Stays Dead.” Twitter, Twitter, 22 June 2019, twitter.com/LanceStrate/status/1142461680821121024
“And Symbolically, Death Represents Change. Death of a Hero Allows for Another to Take up the Mantle, Again More Novelty for Writers. The Superhero Genre Is Very Much about Identity, E.g., Secret Identity. AA Berger in Comic-Stripped American, Disassociated Self, RD Laing.” Twitter, Twitter, 22 June 2019, twitter.com/LanceStrate/status/1142462645280432130.