Won’t you think of the (fictional) children?!

A lot of things in your life and attitude change when you become a parent. That is, of course, not exactly a brilliant insight for the ages. But I was unprepared for one minor but very definite change in myself that took place almost immediately upon the birth of our daughter three years ago: I became utterly unable to handle the sight, or even the thought, of a child’s suffering in books, movies, or the newspaper.

Before our daughter’s birth, my tastes in entertainment were pretty “mainstream American”—that is, jaded. While I didn’t enjoy the extreme end of cinematic violence, I could watch a Tarantino movie without flinching (much). I played ultra-violent video games. I approached fictional violence and death involving children the same way I approached violence and death involving adults: sometimes unpleasant, sometimes tear-jerking, but nothing that merited emotional investment beyond what the film’s (or book’s) narrative called for.

Then our wonderful, beautiful daughter was born.

I noticed the change a few months after that. My wife and I were watching an episode of The X-Files during one of those rare breaks in between infant care. In the episode, two young children—a toddler and a slightly older boy—are murdered by the villain. Nothing graphic; the deaths take place offscreen.

I can confidently say that before parenthood, this wouldn’t have bothered me in the slightest, beyond establishing that the bad guy was really bad. But I was physically shaken. I wanted to turn off the episode. Afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How impossibly cruel, to kill these fictional children! How impossibly painful for this fictional family!

Beyond being upset—something I could easily explain as anxiety about my own daughter’s safety—I felt something stronger: real anger and resentment toward the episode and its creators. On one level I was angry that the writers had successfully exploited my new emotional weakness. But I was actively angry just at the thought of somebody using the suffering and death of a child in something so tawdry as a TV show. I tried to imagine the sort of empty-souled shell of a human being that would use a child’s death (even a fictional one) as a mere plot device.

Since then, this emotional hot-button of mine has shown no signs of going away. I can’t watch or read even the mildest instance of cruelty or violence inflicted on a child without wanting to physically get up and leave… and punch the screenwriter/author. Just seeing a kid threatened with violence—say, by a villain trying to blackmail a movie’s protagonist—is enough to freak me out. The other day I actually threw a book down in anger, something I don’t think I’ve ever done before, when a character in the story cruelly hurt a child. When I read or watch such a thing, I wonder about how the fictional child’s fictional parents will ever cope; and now even when an adult is hurt or killed, I wonder if the fictional adult has fictional kids whose lives have just been ruined.

I had never really thought about how common it is to use threats against children to drive plots and increase suspense. Intellectually I don’t have a problem with that storytelling device, but these days I demand that there be a really good narrative reason for it.

I imagine this will fade a bit with time. But right now, I find myself avoiding movies, books, or video games where I even suspect a child may suffer.

I can understand why my mind has reached this point, but the suddenness and completeness of the change caught me off guard. And I should note that I don’t especially miss being jaded about this topic—it’d be nice to feel less emotional wimpy while watching movies and TV, but I’m not really interested in going back to being a person who didn’t bat an eyelash at the fictional portrayal of violence against kids.

It makes me wonder at all the other commonplace narrative setups—rape, domestic violence, murder, grief, loss of a loved one, etc.—that go right past me without registering but prey on the emotional vulnerabilities of people who’ve experienced them in real life.

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10 Comments

  1. KDC says:

    Good for you guys. This is why we don’t want SVU and its ilk any more, I think, though also from the standpoint of not wanting to watch stuff we wouldn’t want our kids to see.

  2. Topher says:

    I know so much what you mean. There’s a scene in Pirates Of The Caribbean where a toddler is standing in a street screaming for his mom while a building burns. I was SO afraid he would be hurt, but they saved him. Even that was hard.

    Regarding grown up hurt, I can’t watch Law and Order anymore, and even worse is Criminal Minds. The plot of the entire show is rooted in agony.

    And of course the worst is when it’s on the news as non-fiction.

  3. Andy says:

    Glad to hear I’m not the only one. And yes, I don’t watch Law & Order type shows anymore either (particularly of the SVU variety) for pretty much this reason. And I’ve learned to skip over the seemingly daily reports in the newspaper of child abuse…

  4. Odin says:

    I completely agree. Since I have had a child, I cannot stand to see children in fiction get hurt or suffer, or even their parents. Sometimes I’ll be watching a show like Star Trek and when some security officer with no name gets shot, I feel awful. That guy probably had a family, children, who will grow up never knowing their father, a wife who will cry herself to sleep for who knows how long. I feel bad for him. Before I had a child, I would revel in the body count of movies. Now I’d rather everyone just get along.

  5. Andy says:

    I’m totally with you, Odin. I never imagined that one day I would be wincing at the death of Star Trek redshirts or nameless soldiers in movies, yet here I am 🙂

  6. Topher says:

    “I imagine this will fade a bit with time.”

    Has it?

  7. Andy says:

    Topher: a little bit, yes. But honestly, I still avoid books/movies/games that feature endangered children as a major plot point. Even if it doesn’t make me incredibly uncomfortable, the added stress (however minor) of thinking about that topic takes a lot of the fun out of the experience. So I can’t say my feelings on the matter have changed significantly, although I do feel a little less sensitive about it than I did a year or two ago.

  8. Topher says:

    I refer people to this post all the time, particularly new parents who express the same sentiments in amazement.

    I was thinking again about whether it will fade, and I can honestly say it hasn’t for me in the 13 years I’ve been a father.

    I was looking to the future and realized how much more strongly I’ll feel as a grandparent.

  9. Andy says:

    Topher, I’m glad you found my ramblings worth bookmarking and referring to 🙂

    Our daughter is five now (and our son just turned two), and my feelings on this matter are largely unchanged. And if I make it to grandparent status one day, I’m sure that I’ll have this experience anew.

  10. “It makes me wonder at all the other commonplace narrative setups—rape, domestic violence, murder, grief, loss of a loved one, etc.—that go right past me without registering but prey on the emotional vulnerabilities of people who’ve experienced them in real life.”

    On the one hand, I think we do paint a picture of our life and times as being overly bleak from a historical perspective when it comes to violent crime. On the other hand, it is by perceiving things that move us, be they joy or grief, that storytellers reach out to us.

    I react viscerally to the portrayal of people abusing animals- or animals abusing animals (Damn you, ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’!), but I can’t be mad at the creators for my reaction to people (portrayed as bad) doing terrible things. It would be like being mad at the makers of Planet Earth for showing a big cat taking down prey animals.

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