In a recent interview, beloved actor Dick Van Dyke, who is currently filming a Mary Poppins sequel scheduled for release next year, raised a concern that the graphic violence and scary intensity of today’s video games and movies are having a detrimental influence on generations of young viewers.
So many productions today are “all gunfire and killing,” said Van Dyke. “Violence and entertainment have almost became interchangeable.” He worries that this toxic ingredient incites violent behavior and affects impressionable young people who “idolize it as a romantic way of life.”
“When I was a teenager,” Van Dyke explained, “I modelled myself after the way Fred Astaire or Cary Grant dressed. Now kids emulate street gangs. They like to dress like hoods. That’s just a reversal. They’re picking the wrong role models.”
It’s an issue that parents have groused about for decades, and yet the entertainment industry continues to shrug and do little, if anything, to scale back on violent fare aimed at our youth. This is not to absolve parents of their responsibility to police what their kids see, but in the age of the internet and ubiquitous personal technology the dark undercurrents of the culture are all but inescapable. It has become exponentially more difficult in our time to prevent children and teens from being exposed to debasing influences.
Van Dyke said that Walt Disney “would have spoken out about” the explicit nature of some of today’s entertainment. “Walt said kids like to be scared. It’s a delicious feeling. But he did it with witches, evil queens and things like that. Now it goes into blood and violence.” The actor didn’t name specific examples of harmful films, only that “almost any of them” could be mentioned, even the Harry Potter movies, the tone of which is a far cry from the joyful innocence of such films as the 1964 classic Mary Poppins in which he starred.
Van Dyke claims he receives letters from kids as young as eight, who write to him after watching Mary Poppins. “They ask, ‘Why aren’t there movies like that now? What has changed?’ Even kids sense that there’s something gone wrong,” he continued. “It’s all about the money and pandering to the lowest possible taste.”
He has raised such criticisms with producers, but they are “all in their 20s. They, of course, don’t think they’re doing any harm.” But Van Dyke insists, “We know that isn’t true. I remember walking out of movies that were uplifting and feeling inspired. We’d go to a cowboy movie, we’d come home playing cowboys… All that rubs off on kids.”
Indeed, it does, but the producers of such entertainment will find it easy to dismiss the ninety-year-old Van Dyke as just another prudish old-timer complaining about the younger generation. He’s right, however, as old-timers often are. This is not to say that entertainment violence alone creates killers, only that overexposure to extremes of it gradually desensitizes viewers, encourages aggression, and degrades our cultural standards. People like myself who have been around long enough have already observed this cultural devolution firsthand; for younger skeptics like the producers Van Dyke mentions, there are studies that confirm it.
Most of us, even cultural conservatives, have simply surrendered to this development as inevitable. It’s too late to turn back, the argument goes; that horse has left the barn. The envelope of graphic violence – not to mention graphic sexuality and moral relativism – has been pushed too far for us to seal it back up and recover our cultural innocence.
But that is a defeatism we cannot afford to embrace, nor do we have to. Of course we can recover our innocence, or at least that of future generations. Once upon a time we had less degraded sensibilities, and some sense of appropriateness and judgment. Losing that sensibility need not be as irreversible as losing one’s virginity. As traditionalist Anthony Esolen puts it in his recent book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, “We have done it before. We can build it again.”
Turning the ocean liner of our decadent culture around will require a Herculean effort, but it can and must be done, for the sake of our children, or at least our children’s children. “We need to clear out the garbage, admit our errors, and rebuild,” writes Esolen. “That requires humility, patience, and determination. But nothing else will do. When your only choices are repentance or oblivion, you repent. It is time to get to work.”