Monday, May 5, 2008

Things Ain't What They Used to Be

The heavily publicized release of the video game Grand Theft Auto IV last week triggered a predictable firestorm of controversy and criticism. Not surprisingly, guardians of morality across North America were on hand to lament the decline and ruin of an new generation. The video game includes characters who drive drunk, steal cars, run over innocent bystanders and frequent strip clubs. For these reasons, a number of pundits and politicians condemned Grand Theft Auto IV as yet another sign that the collective moral compass of today's youth has been shattered by video games. Even the presidential candidates are weighing in. Senator Hillary Clinton weighed in that "the disturbing material in Grand Theft Auto and other games like it is stealing the innocence of our children." Added Senator Barack Obama in a recent speech in Indiana: "Now, this isn't intended for kids, although I promise you there are kids who are playing it, but these video games are raising our kids.

To make matters worse, following the record sales of Grand Theft Auto IV last week, there have already been a few isolated incidents of violence blamed on the game.

This isn't the first time that people in high places have expressed fears that the "youth of today" are going straight to hell. In many ways, the Great Depression was actually the first heyday of wild youth in popular culture. At a time when the economy had bottomed out and millions of Americans stood in unemployment lines, fears of out-of-control young people were widespread. Years ago, I remember watching an early thirties film on American Movie Classics (AMC) called Are These Our Children? (1931) about a teenage lad (played by Eric Linden) who becomes mixed up with a group of fast-living, heavy drinking youth. He ends up getting involved with a botched armed robbery and spends the final moments of the film saying goodbye to his loved ones before he is taken away by the warden to the electric chair. Are These Our Children? was one of the first in a long line of juvenile delinquent films in the 1930s. A number of exploitation cheapies focused on young men and women running amok, without the supervision of adults. Many of them involved sex and drugs (Reefer Madness, Cocaine Fiends, Human Wreckage -- a.k.a., Sex Madness, etc.).

By the late 1930s, the youth exploitation genre in motion pictures and literature had pretty much run its course, only to be replaced by more positive, all-American portrayals like the ones found in the Andy Hardy movies. But youth rebellion did not remain dormant for too long. The 1950s and early 1960s was the Golden Age of Juvenile Delinquent (JD) pop culture in American society. Books and movies about psychotic teenagers were a dime a dozen in this period. Movies such as my personal favorite High School Confidential (1958), along with The Violent Years (1956), Teenage Bad Girl (1956), and So Young, So Bad (1956) depicted an America full of young people doing exactly the kinds of things that happen in Grand Theft Auto IV: taking drugs, stealing, having sex, etc. Only a few films, such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) sought to portray teenagers in a sympathetic way. At the same time JD movies were packing 'em in drive-in theaters, book stores were flooded with numerous hard-boiled pulp books that were equally sensational and over-the-top.

Over the past thirty years, there have been countless films about youth in trouble. From the stark drama Over the Edge (1979) about high school kids self-destructing in America's suburbs to the nihilistic slacker drama The River's Edge (1986) to Larry Clark's bleak portrayal of amoral young people in Kids (1995) to more recent examples of troubled youth dramas like Bully (2001) and Mean Creek (2004), it is safe to say that stories with the theme of young people as crazy, immoral and dangerous have become a permanent part of American popular culture.

All of this is meant to say that anxiety about Grand Theft Auto IV is part of a much longer tradition of fears of young people in America. Each generation of youth must listen to their elders lamenting the immorality of teenagers and twentysomethings. It's almost a rite of passage -- an unfortunate ritual that has become an American tradition. Like the adolescents of the past, young people today will ride out the storm. But give it time. It won't be long until another controversial video game or film or CD or book like Grand Theft Auto IV comes along and triggers widespread anxieties about the state of young people in contemporary America. And once again, you can expect the deeper, underlying causes of those anxieties will go unexplored.

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