There’s a scene in the movie Small Soldiers where a bunch of marketing execs and big-time decision makers have gathered to discuss a new line of toys. As the conversation progresses, they agree that if they want to get little boys interested in these toys, they need to play up how violent they are, though violence isn’t quite the right word. One of the suits offers this bit of sage advice:
“Don’t call it violence. Call it action. Kids love action. It sells.”
It’s a telling line. Action does sell. It’s thrilling. It makes great theater. But action as an entertainment genre often comes with glamorized violence.
Please don’t stop reading now. I know exactly how I sound, and I want to assure you that I’m not about to start ranting on how we should stop watching action movies and reading action novels and playing action video games.
In fact, I love the action genre. I love the human confrontation, the completely improbable stunts, and the potential to show selflessness and courage in a crazy, over-the-top caricature. One of my all-time favorite movie moments is still the scene in RED when John Malkovich uses a grenade launcher like a baseball bat to send a grenade back to the guy who threw it at him.
I also happen to write novels with a fair amount of action in them.
So no, I don’t think entertainment needs to be violence-free. I think it’s an effective tool for raising the stakes, adding tension, and showcasing some very primal elements of a character’s personality.
But lately, I’ve really been wondering about the use of violence in young adult fiction.
A lot of young adult novels tell stories that could easily be about adults, but then there’s some sort of plot device that puts teenagers at the center of the story. Again, that’s not inherently a bad thing. It’s just a trope of the genre, the same way it’s a trope of the action genre that there isn’t a problem that can’t be solved with a car chase and lots of explosions.
The problem comes when we take these adult stories and put kids in them without considering that maybe, possibly, teenagers are going to respond to the things they go through differently from the way adults would. We have kids joining armies, becoming assassins, and facing the apocalypse.
And it’s so stinkin’ glamorous.
Not all young adult fiction falls into this trap. In Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card puts children and teenagers in the military to pose some really interesting questions and moral dilemmas. The Hunger Games trilogy shows teenagers slaughtering each other on national television to underscore its commentary on the way our culture glamorizes violence. The Harry Potter series uses the death of several key figures around Harry to help change his character from an arrogant brat into a selfless hero.
But these are the best examples.
I don’t want to specifically name bad examples – mostly because I don’t want to debate the merits of individual books – but too often, we authors give absolutely no weight to what these kids go through. They fight, they fall in love, they come to some sort of resolution, and that’s that. They may react briefly to the tragedies that happen around them and the things they have to do to survive or to save the world, but not in a way that lends much seriousness to the circumstances.
Again, I’m not saying violence and action need to be purged from young adult entertainment. I’m just saying that maybe we, as young adult authors, need to start thinking more deeply about how our characters will respond to what we put them through. Maybe we, as young adult readers, need to start thinking more deeply about what we’re applauding our favorite characters for enduring.
Teenagers aren’t small adults (sorry to break it to you, teenagers). They’re going to process things differently. The things some young adult protagonists go through would be enough to leave a mark on a well-adjusted adult. I know it’s impractical to dig into the psychological ramifications of every punch thrown and every shot fired, but maybe – just maybe – it’s time these young adult tropes were used for something a little more than audience positioning.