Saturday, August 18, 2007

Moral Panic and Popular Culture

This is actually a research paper I wrote earlier this year; now that it's behind me, I felt like sharing it. It could use a lot of work, I'm sure, but as the closest thing I'll probably ever get to a scholarly dissertation, I don't think it came out too badly. I've removed the citations for ease of reading.

Moral Panic and Popular Culture

On April 20, 1999, two teenage boys named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold came to Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado and gunned down their classmates, murdering twelve students and one teacher and leaving twenty-four wounded. When it was learned that they had planned their attack ahead of time using a popular violent video game as a simulator, the American mass media launched into a feeding frenzy, blaming this game and others like it for the boys' murderous rampage.

Between 1988 and 1989, an introverted print-shop employee, Tsutomu Miyazaki, kidnapped, killed, and performed acts of necrophilia on four girls of preschool age before being apprehended by Tokyo police. When the authorities searched his apartment, they found it filled with nearly six thousand videos, including gory "slasher" films and animated child pornography, as well as many comics of a similar nature. The Japanese media leapt upon the incident, and many soon believed that all otaku – fans of comics and animation – were just as deranged as Miyazaki.

In 1950, a fourteen-year-old boy named Willie was tried and sentenced for the murder of a man whom he supposedly shot from the roof of his building. An avid fan of violent comics about gangsters, Willie had seen many ads in his comics for hunting rifles, and eventually obtained one for himself. Though the case received little nationwide attention, to a child psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham, who had known Willie since infancy, it was symptomatic of a mass breakdown of societal morality caused by trashy comic books.

These are but a few examples of moral panic, that tendency of people to believe en masse that something poses a greater threat to society at large than it actually does. The term was popularized in 1971 by sociologist Jock Young in his studies on drug culture. For the purposes of this paper, we shall focus on the phenomenon in relation to popular commercial culture. We shall see in the end that moral panic directed against popular culture is not justified at all.

At least as far back as the 1790s in Great Britain, growing industrialization and urbanization, mass publication, and the creation of mass transit led to the birth of a nationwide commercial culture, in contrast to the communal pastimes that had previously provided entertainment. Even then there were those who railed against "the poison continually flowing thro' [sic] the channel of vulgar and licentious publications.” By the 1830s, British legislators were speaking out against penny gaffs, inexpensive plays with bawdy or sensationalist content, which were supposedly corrupting "the children of the lower classes" and leading them to crime. Thus, we see that moral panic is nothing new.

A classic example of moral panic was the crusade of Doctor Frederic R. Wertham against American comic books in the 1950s. Comic books were wildly popular in the 1940s and 1950s, having enjoyed widespread popularity among United States soldiers during the Second World War thanks to their colorful heroes fighting against the Axis powers. After the war, comics about masked mystery men fell out of popularity, to be replaced by comics about gangsters and supernatural horror – Tales from the Crypt, still popular today, got its start in this era, then published by EC Comics. A 1950 survey showed that 41 percent of American adult males and 28 percent of adult women regularly read comics; another survey in the same year revealed that 54 percent of comics readers were twenty years of age or older. Comics were even more popular among young people, however: 95 percent of boys and 91 percent of girls between the ages of six and eleven read comics, as did 80 percent of all teenagers.

During the war, the likes of Superman and Captain America had drawn criticism from parents for their might-makes-right message. Intellectuals viewed comics as a drug for children and the mentally deficient, keeping them occupied with colorful characters and black-and-white conflicts settled through brute force. This concern turned to outright panic with the ascendancy of horror and crime comics, which regularly portrayed cold-blooded murder, wanton sex, and supernatural elements such as occultism, vampirism, and walking corpses. Despite being sold to children, however, these stories were written with adults in mind. "We were writing for ourselves at our age level," recalled EC Comics editor and artist Al Feldstein in 1972.

Doctor Fredric Wertham abhorred all this. A German-born New York psychiatrist, Doctor Wertham believed that there was a direct link between comics and juvenile crime. A resident psychiatrist at the free Lafargue Clinic in Harlem, Wertham cared greatly for the mental health of children and was an ardent supporter of civil rights for people of color. Wertham drew many disturbing conclusions from his studies on comics and published them in his 1953 book, Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham was convinced that violent imagery led children to perform violent acts. For instance, one ten-year-old child he interviewed said:

"Once I saw in a science comic where this beast comes from Mars. It showed a man’s hand over his eyes and streams of blood coming down. I play a little rough with the kids sometimes. I don’t mean to hurt them. In a game I said I would gouge a child’s eyes out. I was playing that I was walking around and I jumped out at him. I scratched his face. Then I caught him and sucked the blood out of his throat. In another game I said, 'I’ll scratch your eyes out!'"

The boy later said, “I played such games because I got them from comic books.”

Wertham picked and chose his examples, however, often citing fringe comics with low readership and exceptionally gory content as the norm; none of them were from major, mainstream publishers like DC or Fawcett. He spoke at length about comics leading children to homosexuality, displaying the prejudices of his day. He condemned Batman and Robin for promoting a gay lifestyle and Wonder Woman for partaking in un-feminine activities. He went out of his way to attack the use of onomatopoeic words as "thunk" and "blam," apparently believing that they degraded children's reading skills.

Wertham also never addressed whether his case studies were true of delinquents across the board and tended to jump to conclusions without considering all evidence. His case studies were just a random assortment of juvenile delinquents who all just happened to read comic books.

Doctor Wertham’s accusations toward the comics industry weren’t all hyperbole. For instance, he was immensely troubled by the comics’ depiction of blacks, Asians, Native Americans, and other racial and ethnic minorities as sub-humans and savages. He was concerned with the hypersexualization of women in comic book stories and ads and the effect they had on girls’ self-image. Despite this, however, most of his declarations amounted to alarmist hype.

Regardless, people listened. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, already at odds with EC publisher Lev Gleason due to his leftist political leanings, turned an ear to Wertham. Despite one 1950 congressional hearing that found that crime was actually decreasing when crime comics were at their most popular, Wertham pushed on. A 1953 Senate hearing in which Wertham testified – described by a British comics authority as a show trial much like the anti-communist witch hunts of the era – ultimately fell in Wertham’s favor. In 1954, in response to veiled congressional threats of censorship, a group of major comics publishers formed the Comics Code Authority, a draconian self-censoring committee. Over 100 comics series were put out of publication due to failure to comply with CCA standards. The CCA essentially neutered the industry, reducing comics to harmless fluff for children. Comics sales would not begin to pick up until the introduction of Stan Lee’s popular characters at Marvel Comics in the early 1960s (the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, etc.), and comics written for adults would not appear again until the “underground” comics late in the same decade, and in either case the damage was done: Comics sales never rose above a fraction of what they were after the war, even to this day.

Japan in the 1980s and 1990s provides an interesting parallel to Wertham's America. Unlike America, comics in Japan (manga) never experienced significant censorship, and by the 1980s they were regarded as a mainstream medium for readers of all ages, much like television or video is in America. Toward the end of the 1980s, pornographic manga was as easily available as adult videos are in America, some of it containing elements of rorikon (from "Lolita complex") – child pornography. It was in this time and place that Tsutomu Miyazaki went on his killing spree.

The Miyazaki slayings would not be the only time the Japanese media turned the spotlight on manga. Media outcry against manga and anime (Japanese animation) repeated in 1995, due to their use as promotional tools by the doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyō. Aum's leader, Shōkō Asahara, directly lifted some of his ideology from popular science-fiction anime of the 1970s, such as Space Battleship Yamato and Future Boy Conan, and many of his converts were culled from the otaku subculture. Aum was responsible for the deaths of twelve people when they unleashed nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system. The idea that a fevered mind could draw such grisly plans from cartoons shocked parents.

Some claim that violent and sexual imagery in the media is leading to societal breakdown. For instance, one commentator claimed that adults and youth alike receive "inspiration" from television featuring "casual sex and filthy language," leading them to commit acts of molestation and adultery. The same source notes that in 1996, cases of STD infection, divorce rates, and television viewing were at an all-time high in America. Yet in Wertham's America, the rate of murders per year was at an all-time low when comics, then filling the niche that television fills today, were experiencing the highest sales they would ever attain. In Japan, comic books regularly portray acts of sex and violence that make anything American television has to offer seem tame in comparison; yet two 1994-5 studies on crime revealed that Japan experiences about one-tenth as many murders and one-fortieth as many rapes as the United States. Despite the constant barrage of sexuality in popular culture, dating back as far as the erotic ukiyo-e art of the 1600s, people in Japan continue to present an air of staidness and repression. As the commentator above himself admits, "No cause-and-effect relationship can be absolutely proven."

All too often, self-appointed moral guardians use popular culture as a scapegoat, an excuse not to deal with legitimate social problems such as poor education or poverty. Sensationalism is easy: A headline that reads “Gory video game turns boy into killer” sells more papers than “Lonely boy turns against classmates.” Hip-hop music, wildly popular among French youth (the country being the second largest market for the music after the United States) was blamed by some in the media for the devastating Paris riots of 2005, ignoring France’s long history of neglect towards its ethnic minorities. The rioters’ outrage may have been reflected in hip-hop, but it was fuelled by poverty and racism.

Throughout the ages and especially in the past few centuries, popular culture has been blamed for everything from individual acts of violence to the breakdown of society at large. Looking beyond this alarmist hype, however, we see that other forces are at play: Individuals’ personal experiences, cultural influences, and society’s own failure to look after its members. Moral panic, we see, is simply not warranted at all.


Chagall, David. “Television – The Phantom Reality.” The Media & Morality. Ed. Robert M. Baird, William E. Loges, Stuart E. Rosenbaum. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1999. 259-76.

Dudley, William, ed. Opposing Viewpoints: Mass Media. Farmington Hills: Greenhaven Press, 2005.

McBride, James. “Hip-Hop Planet.” National Geographic. Apr. 2007: 100-19.

Perry, George, and Alan Aldridge. The Penguin Book of Comics. Norwich: Jarrold & Sons, Ltd. 1967.

Schodt, Frederik L. Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga. Berkley: Stone Bridge Press. 1996.

Springhall, John. Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gangsta-Rap, 1830-1996. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1998.

Thompson, Jack. “Violent Video Games Promote Violence.” Opposing Viewpoints: Popular Culture. Ed. John Woodward. Farmington Hills: Greenhaven Press, 2005.

Wertham, Frederic. Seduction of the Innocent. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company. 1953.


Ami Angelwings said...

This is rly interesting :O

Wertham picked and chose his examples, however, often citing fringe comics with low readership and exceptionally gory content as the norm; none of them were from major, mainstream publishers like DC or Fawcett.


All alarmist studies seem to do this! XD

What's weird tho, is that ppl concerned about the treatment of women in comic books (ie. us darn feminazis) often point to mainstream publishers and popular books and story arcs, and then get criticized for not talking about minor, indie books or stories that have better treatment. XD

NEWAYS, ppl always love blaming other ppl. :\ They want to feel like they're doing something, like they're AGAINST these horrible acts. And the idea that these things aren't easily explainable is difficult for them to stomach b/c ppl like easy answers :(

janarius said...

This is a good essay, I recommend a good book on the subject: Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence A Critical Look at the Research by Steven J. Kirsh.

Will Staples said...

@Ami: Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. That was the main gist of what I was getting at, really: blaming pop culture for the deterioration of our culture is too easy an answer. I'm not denying at all that gangsta rap, for instance, can and does have negative impact on youth, or that racism and sexism in the media can influence our opinions, but at the same time we need to understand that racism, sexism, and violence in the media are reflections of the real problems, and that their root causes lie elsewhere.

Barry Green said...


Great post. The CBC Radio show Search Engine aired a show on 27 Mar 08 linking the recent push to classify Internet Addiction as a mental disorder with the moral panic over comic books in the 1950s. In covering that story for our website, I tracked back to your blog as a backgrounder on the comic phenomenon.

Barry Green
Ottawa Skeptics

Will "Filby" Staples said...

Really? Oh, my -- I'm honored.

Thank you!