To Morph Or Not
Author: John J. Pungente,
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.
It would be interesting to
know how many adults reading this have seen even one episode of Power
- Very little violence,
either physical, verbal or emotional shall be portrayed in children's
- 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.
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
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
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
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.
John J. Pungente, SJ
Jesuit Communication Project
300 - 47 Ranleigh Avenue
CANADA M4N 1X2
Phone: (416) 488-7280
Fax: (416) 488-8360