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Youth Must Be Served--With Respect

Commentary: Take it from a script writer: Hollywood claims plenty of influence over kids when selling ads but denies its sway when violence results. It's time for an adult solution.

May 30, 1999|ROBIN SWICORD | Robin Swicord, the mother of two adolescent daughters, is the writer of such films as "Little Women," "Matilda" (with Nicholas Kazan), "The Perez Family" and the upcoming "Thing of Beauty," which she also will direct. She is participating in a seminar on censorship Friday entitled "Guns Don't Kill People, Writers Do," as part of the Writers Guild of America's "Words Into Pictures" forum, which runs Friday-next Sunday

"Where were the grown-ups?" was the refrain heard everywhere after the massacre at Columbine High School. I know where we were: at work, busy as ever, constructing a national culture that treats adolescents with unconcealed contempt.

Teenagers are under daily assault, all right--by us, the grown-ups. We design their clothes, manufacture and sell them their guns, produce the music that functions as the soundtrack for their lives, and control every aspect of their sprawling mega-high schools. In a dazzling display of cultural power, we also produce the movies, television shows, advertising and video games that entertain them and shape their minds.

We grown-ups in the entertainment industry trumpet our ability to sway young consumers but paradoxically claim that the content of our programs has no other power over the human mind. After the massacre at Littleton, Colo., that stampeding noise you heard was the sound of entertainment executives retreating from their responsibility--except for ABC Chairman Bob Iger, who had the courage to admit, "When the finger is pointed at them about violence, they say their media has no influence; but they turn around and say just the opposite to advertisers. We should all admit our medium has an influence."

What we have as filmmakers and television producers is a great deal more than simple influence: As we enter the 21st century, we are the dominant cultural force in this nation. Thirty years ago, our work was considered "pulp fiction." Today, movies and television programs are studied in academia, discussed in the workplace and cited in the Congressional Record. Our influence extends far beyond our borders. A Harvard Medical School study in Fiji found that bulimia and anorexia--previously unknown among Fijians--skyrocketed after the arrival of American television in 1995. When the Sun Vista cruise liner sank near Malaysia earlier this month, 1,000 international passengers kept up their spirits by singing the song from "Titanic."

The films we make shape minds. The movie "Top Gun" has been a phenomenal recruiting device for the Air Force and Navy--not only when it was released 13 years ago but also now, on video. We pride ourselves on being culture makers when we point to "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Schindler's List," but we won't own up to our influence when it comes to the flood of mindless movies that exploit violence and other bloody spectacle--this in spite of many studies at our nation's top universities that appear to demonstrate a link between watching violent entertainments and acting aggressively in life. (By the way, why are those ungrateful gun industry people trying to shift the blame to us when we're giving them all that free product placement? Movies are the best thing that ever happened to weapons manufacturers.)

Stories change lives and we know it, or we wouldn't be so passionate about writing and producing movies.

If the entertainment industry is careless about its influence on young people, it's only because we're embedded in a broader national culture that constantly demonstrates its disrespect toward children and adolescents, in every arena from child care to fashion.

Have you taken a young teenager shopping lately? Girls' clothing is available in two styles: "gangsta" or "whore," always with those two distinctive hallmarks of teen clothing--cheap fabric, poor workmanship. If your daughter's taste runs to anything more modest than Ginger Spice's, she might get desperate enough to do as our 12-year-old finally did: Ask for a sewing machine.

There's no problem finding "skater" fashions. We grown-ups sell skater clothes, shoes, magazines, skateboards and use skater images to market everything from skin care products to the new animated "Tarzan" movie. What we don't provide is a place to skateboard. All across the nation, we outlaw skaters in virtually every outdoor place where adolescents might be. When skateboarding serves commerce, it's cool. When it serves teens, it's illegal.

"Adults should face the fact that they don't like adolescents," says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, writing for the New York Times last month. He argues persuasively that the huge, dysfunctional high schools we've built for our teen children exist largely to warehouse and isolate "the pubescent and hormonally active adolescent" away from the rest of us. How big are those warehouses? In New York and Los Angeles, many schools have enrollments close to 5,000. When Ruth Messinger campaigned against Rudy Giuliani for mayor, she complained about school overcrowding so severe that students were being taught in lavatories. (How much do we hate our kids?)

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