To Morph Or Not To Morph
Author: John J. Pungente, SJ
Vol.9.No.1 Winter 1994
In early November, the Ontario Branch of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) declared that Mighty Morphin Power Rangers - a television show aimed at 9 to 12 years olds - was too violent for Canadian television. The program is aired on CBSC member station Global and on non-member stations YTV and Fox. YTV, the children's channel, immediately withdrew the show while the Canadian Global network said it would do the same if the program's content could not be modified. Meanwhile, Canadians with cable continue to receive the show on the Fox Network.
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is shown in about 30 countries around the world. It evolved from a Japanese original and features six teenage kids - four boys, two girls - who morph into superheroes [either in the form of uniformed ninja fighters or robotic dinosaurs] to protect the world from Godzilla-like monster sent by wicked Rita Repulsa or evil Lord Zed. This is the show's second season on television.
It all began in April 1994 when two parents from different regions of Ontario complained about the show to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The CRTC sent the complaints to the Ontario Regional Council of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council . After viewing two weeks of episodes, the Regional Council decided that the program contravened several articles related to children's programming in the industry's Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming.
In particular, the Regional Council agreed that the program depicted excessive violence and that the scenes of violence were not essential to the plot of the program and to character development. The members added that violence was generally the preferred means of conflict resolution and in fact, the program offered no alternative to violence in order to resolve conflict. The Regional Council concluded that the program glossed over the consequences of violence and , in this way, invited young viewers to imitate the martial arts techniques depicted in the program.
This is the Council's first decision relating to the Violence Code, which came into force on January 1, 1994. Public sector broadcasters (including Global), developed the Violence Code in consultation with community organizations and the CRTC in response to public concerns about violence on television. These broadcasters must adhere to the code. This does not apply to pay/specialty services or to foreign broadcasters whose signal is delivered by cable into Canadian homes. The Council deplored the fact that the systems designed to protect Canadian children from violence on Canadian private sector television do not exist for other services. The Council highlighted the need for all industry sectors - private, pay/specialty, and cable - to take responsibility for television violence.
The news release from the CRTC on November 2, 1994, contained the full decision of the CSBC. Included was a portion of the letter written the CSBC by the Legal and Regulatory Affairs Department at Global. In part, it stated:"We feel the episodes are action oriented , and these action packed scenes are essential to the development of character and plot. Each episode carries a redeeming message that promotes camaraderie and friendship. In keeping with this spirit, the stars of Power Rangers were chosen to spearhead anti-drug public service campaigns because of the positive image their characters relayed to young viewers. Power Rangers does not feature death, blood or dismemberment in any of the episodes. We feel that the producers of the series are very responsible in this respect."
At this point it might be helpful to highlight - by quotes - Article 2 of the Code which deals with aspects of violence in children's programming. Children refer to persons under 12 years of age.
- Very little violence, either physical, verbal or emotional shall be portrayed in children's programming.
- In children's programming portrayed by real-life characters, violence shall only be portrayed when it is essential to the development of character and plot.Animated programming for children, while accepted as stylized form of storytelling which can contain non-realistic violence, shall not have violence as its central theme, and shall not invite dangerous imitation.
- Programming for children shall deal carefully with themes which could threaten their sense of security, when portraying, for example, domestic conflict, the death of parents or close relatives, or the death or injury of their pets, street crime or the use of drugs.
- Programming for children shall deal carefully with themes which could invite children to imitate acts which they see on the screen, such as the use of plastic bags as toys, use of matches, the use of dangerous household products as playthings, or dangerous physical acts such as climbing apartment balconies or rooftops.
- Programming for children shall not contain realistic scenes of violence which create the impression that violence is the preferred way, or the only method to resolve conflicts between individuals.
- Programming for children shall not contain realistic scenes of violence which minimize or gloss over the effects of violent acts. Any realistic depiction of violence shall portray, in human terms, the consequences of that violence to its victims and perpetrators.
- Programming for children shall not contain frightening or otherwise excessive special effects not required by the storyline.
It would be interesting to know how many adults reading this have seen even one episode of Power Rangers.
Following the Council's decision, articles were written, letters to the editor were sent, and the debate was carried over onto television. While I cannot show you any of the television discussion, I would like to quote from some of the articles. Perhaps surprisingly most of them were written indefense of Power Rangers.
Jonathan Freedman, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has spent years researching and speaking on media and violence. His conclusion is that there is no convincing evidence that violent programs make children more aggressive. Writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Freedman states: Yet even if one were to accept that violent programs can have harmful effects, it would be ridiculous to ban Power Rangers. Certainly the show has a great deal of fighting, but it is pure and obvious fantasy.
In a recent episode, a huge pig was sent down to earth and began eating everything in sight. (It was) estimated that in two days the pig would devour all the food on the planet. The Rangers attacked the pig, but it ate up their weapons. Eventually they noticed that it did not like spicy food and they defeated it by feeding it horseradish. Pretty scary stuff! It is inane, silly nonsense and the kids seem to love it. The watchdog committee complained that the program does not show the consequences of violence. True. When the Rangers are hit they fall down but are never bruised or apparently harmed in any way. When the monsters are defeated they disappear in a puff of smoke. Would we really prefer if people's faces were smashed in and they bled ? Obviously, that would make it more real, but then it would no longer be harmless fantasy. It would be more like the prime-time cop shows that most people do not want their children to watch.
In that same issue of the Globe and Mail, the entertainment writer, John Doyle, points out that both Norwegian and New Zealand broadcast councils want Power Rangers removed. He also mentions the commercial implications of the show with a quote from Toys R Us President, Elliott Wahle: The Power Rangers line is probably the biggest thing since Cabbage Patch Kids. There's everything from doll figures to games to pillows. The toy chain has received no complaints about the heroes.
Doyle also quotes parents on both sides of the issues including one mother who says: If our children are more violent because of the Power Rangers, we're not watching our children. Don't people realize that Power Rangers " are just a small part of what children learn every day?" A day care supervisor says "We're trying to teach children to deal with conflict and steer them away from violence." I say to them, "You have to use your words, not your hands." This show has them imitating fights.
In his final paragraph Doyle makes a good point: While it's true that " the show's format requires spectacular, unrealistic fight sequences every few minutes, it also includes forceful teaching about friendship, team play, respecting authority and helping others." Last week, a Fox broadcast of the show was followed by a short warning that the fights are performed by skilled stunt persons staging a choreographed dance remote from real violence. Another broadcast was followed by a playet in which a young girl was ready to hit her brother. Two Power Rangers appeared and taught her to channel her aggression into another activity. This type of instruction and warning isn't mentioned by the Standards Council in its decision.
Writing in the Toronto Star on November 8, 1994, Carmela Matarozzo noted that she thought months ago that Power Rangers would be in trouble but not because of its fantasy violence, She was convinced that problems would arise from its use of stereotypes and clich's. She writes: "If my son gets carried away and makes likes a Mighty Morphin, it's my job to make it clear that it is not cool to pretend to kick his sister " Real violence breeds violence. Kids learn more from real-life example than from moving picture boxes. Those who do serious damage likely come from damaged homes, damaged neighborhoods. The mental imprint of human relationships and role models, good and bad, is more powerful and lasting than any 30 minute TV episode. Let's deal with the real issues and stop messing around with kid stuff.
And in the midst of all the discussion came the publication of the November issue of "Parenting", a respected U.S. magazine aimed at parents of young children. In this issue the magazine says that Power Rangers' antics are not harmful. The violence in it is balletic, Susan Stewart, contributing editor of Parenting and mother of two young children, told USA Today. "It's little lambs frisking around on the meadow. There's nothing vaguely frightening about it . . . and any promise of violence is never fulfilled." In its listing of the ten best television programs for children, Parenting ranks Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in 6th place - between The Magic School Bus and Reading Rainbow. The show in the number one spot is My So-Called Life followed by Barney.
Meanwhile, the Canadian cable industry which is not bound by the Violence Code replied to the CRTC's suggestion that they begin to explore regulatory changes. Ken Stein, president of the Canadian Cable Television Association, says that cable operators are legally incapable and philosophically opposed to blocking out the show. In a November 9, 1994 article in the Globe and Mail, Stein said: "The law is clear cut. We are legally not allowed to alter or curtail a signal wherever it may originate under the current regulations. If the CRTC wants to go ahead and change the law, then let them and we see if the Canadian public will accept us in that role. We're opposed to censorship and we don't want to be sitting there with a little switch deciding what people can or cannot watch.
Playwright and critic, Rick Salutin wrote a column in the Globe and Mail on November 11, 1994 where he talks about Adultcult, a counterpart to Kid Culture, a term used by Canadian writer Kathleen McDonnell in her new book by that name. He believes that the frenzy over Power Rangers is a form of adult culture - like wearing a suit and tie or paying a lot of money to see a show like Phantom of the Opera.
Salutin writes: "The main traits of Kidcult are its exuberance and vitality . . . I haven't watched many episodes of Power Rangers right through, but I know those kicks and leaps are more about ebullience than hurting, since you can see them miss. It's only when the kids morph into huge battle machines that they lose the juice and become merely efficient and destructive, in other words like the adult world they'll one day enter. It's the vitality which Adultcult generally lacks, however well constructed and laced with correct values (right or left) it might be. Somehow it gets drained out of kids before they're grown."
Not only has the show been attacked, so has the Power Ranger wardrobe. The Toronto Sun, November 13, 1994, carried a story about a six-year old boy in Sarnia, Ontario who can't wear his Power Rangers clothes to school unless he turns them inside out. The Power Rangers, like Batman, the Ninja Turtles and any other overtly violent TV figures are prohibited at Lansdowne School which is in the fourth year of an anti-violence campaign.
Media Literacy has an important role to play in these discussions. And this point was mentioned a number of times both in print and on television. Perhaps it was best summed up by Barry Duncan, President of the Ontario based Association for Media Literacy, in his letter to the Toronto Star on November 7, 1994. Duncan writes: "The answer is not in banning such programs but in finding meaningful contexts for discussion . . . Both elementary school teachers and parent teacher groups need to confront these issues through learning media literacy skills. These are democratic, media based, critical thinking skills which address the social, political, and commercial messages in media and popular culture and how we can make sense of them. Armed with the right critical tools, why can't we get these groups together to listen to the voices of our children and their experience with the media?"
And published at the same time as these articles were one or two which pointed out that video games would now carry warning labels about sex, graphic violence and foul language. The Toronto Star ran an article on these new labels and immediately below that article ran one on a new CRTC decision on infomercials. The CRTC approved showing of infomercials - extended sales pitches running at least 30 minutes for everything from food processors to car wax. - at any time of day. Previously they were restricted to being shown between midnight and 6 am. Infomercials often consist of frantic demonstrations, chit chat and celebrity testimonials, with a 1-800 number for viewers to place orders. Is the Toronto Star trying to tell us something?
There is no final word on the Power Rangers saga but as I write this article word is received that a cleaned-up Power Rangers will air on Global. A brief article in the Toronto Star, November 13, 1994, carried the following quote by Doug Hoover, national vice-president on programming for the CanWest Global System:
The vast majority of the responses we have received maintain that watching this program is a personal decision for parents and children to make together and that we should continue to broadcast Power Rangers. A number of parents strongly supported Power Rangers because of its reinforcement of positive social values and role models. We have successfully modified the series to reflect the Canadian environment. Effective the week of November 21, we will be presenting this revised Canadian version . The portions of these programs where the Power Rangers fight the Puttys will emphasize the athletics and action of the conflict and de-emphasize direct kicking and hitting.
Louise Brown, writing in the November 19, 1994, Toronto Starweek Magazine, refers to the Power Rangers as a camp cross between a Godzilla rock video and cheesy high school soap. She goes on to say that . . . "with all the other tributes to testosterone on the tube, from X-Men to Transformers, to say nothing of Power Rangers clones, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, yanking one show off the air is like fighting a plague of locusts with a fly swatter. It makes more sense to teach kids to enjoy the super-hero genre safely than to try to stamp out individual shows."
And Brown offers some Media Literacy tips for dealing with Power Rangers. Point out the fact that two of the six are girls, and their races are different but they all get along. Turn the sound down and show them how big a role the deafening guitar plays in glamorizing the fight scenes, which doesn't happen in real life. . . "The trick is to help them play creatively, not destructively," says educator Jane Meyer of British Columbia, who has done much research on superhero play. "Tell them violence is out in real life, even though they fight on TV. Provide a variety of other creative toys not based on TV shows and if necessary, limit the time they can play TV superhero so they'll be forced to diversify their games. Rather than trying to ban shows like Power Rangers, parents, schools, and even church groups might be better to let children express their interest in creative ways." Besides, parents can't hope to wipe evil from the race of TV. That's a superhero's job.
While Global, in what has been called a typical Canadian compromise, will emphasize the positive and tone down the negative, there is no word as to whether or not YTV will reinstate Power Rangers in the new Canadian version. Those wishing to see the original will still be able to watch it via cable on the U.S.-based Fox network. And so it goes.