Normally, Chapter By Chapter is me reading a fictional book one chapter at a time to study each part of the story. In this special review series however we are looking at Seduction Of The Innocent, a non-fiction book as the writer, Dr. Fredric Wertham, tries to make the case that comics were a bad thing for kids in the 1950s. The book had a huge impact on the comic industry and fans. We will examine what he is saying not exclusively by today’s standards, but the time in which the book was made to see where Wertham was right, and where he was horribly wrong.
Comic Books and the Psycho-Sexual Development of Children
“Give me good proofs of what you have alleged;
‘Tis not enough to say – in such a bush
There lies a thief.”
This is probably going to be the hardest one to go over for a number of reasons. Remember all the way back at the book reveal when I mentioned that I wasn’t going to necessarily judge by today’s opinions? Well, this chapter is the reason why but having read through part of it (I’d read the whole thing like usual but post time is coming up fast) there are a series of problems I need to address during this and going into it.
- Homosexuality comes later in the book but I really want to judge things based on 1950s standards rather than 2017s, where the subject is still hotly debated regardless of legal proceeding and what Hollywood likes to have in their stories. (Meanwhile I’ve seen more acceptance of interracial marriage in a Cheerios ad than I do any movie or TV show featuring an interracial couple.) Getting into that debate will derail what I’m trying to do with this series and BW as a whole so I’d really rather not. And yet it’s rather infamous for it thanks to the Batman/Robin connection, which actually does last longer than one paragraph like I thought in last night’s site update and also invokes Wonder Woman. If you know Wonder Woman comics of the period you should not be surprised.
- BW Media Spotlight strives to be a PG site. Where there have been videos featuring adult language it was only for demonstration and the proper warnings were added. There is some graphic accounts of things like sadomasochism and BDSM and not without some precedence. I haven’t read a lot of comics from this time period but if Wertham’s comments were “watch what your kids read” instead of “all comics are evil” we wouldn’t have a problem. So like last week’s chapter on violence there is little I want to quote. As usual the chapter title is a link to the posting I’m using so please read that before coming back here. Just don’t let the kids read it. Just the same parental discretion is strongly advised and this one may not always be safe for work, if you know what I mean.
- Some of the stuff Dr. Wertham brings up here are still being debated today, by less prudish fans no less. “Good girl” or “cheesecake” art may have started around this time but it’s still around today and backlashes against covers or scenes is something that has come up here at the Spotlight more than once over the years. So there may be more agreements from you guys with Wertham than you would have thought.
All of this means that going over this chapter is going to be using a lot more eggshell stepping that I would have thought. but we’re going to go through this anyway, because Dr. Wertham still gets a few things wrong while others I am not the person to judge. This should be a pain.
A comment a child actually made to Wertham, which he will work to tie to comics. And frankly this is a hard one to fight him on but that doesn’t mean he still isn’t off the mark. Just probably less so than usual or you expected.
To describe the morbid aspects of sex as purveyed in stories which have no artistic justification may sound obscene. But it can hardly be objected to in this book for adults since it is the common subject matter of what we give children to read.
Saying that the comics that contain some of the more sexual (of the period, less XXX and more…somewhere between PG-13 and R) content were in books never meant for kids would fall on deaf ears with Dr. Wertham. And that’s really the problem.
Does comic-book reading influence the sexual development of children? The question of sex education has been much discussed. Some preach almost unlimited openness and frankness, even at an early age. Others feel sex education must proceed very slowly, that it is best to begin with the birds and flowers. No correct answers can be given to such questions as, “should sex instruction be given at home or in the school?” because the questions are wrong. Children get it anyhow, and in both places. The problem is that what they get is so often instruction. And even if nothing is said about sex, that is a form of sex instruction too. The greatest error is to think of sexual problems in isolation. They are part of life. They influence other aspects of life and are in turn themselves influenced.
Just look at our sex-crazed society. Pornography isn’t as taboo as it once was, although still not something you bring up in polite company or with your parents, and you only admit to in jest even if you do still watch it. “Sex sells” is an advertising buzzword and making something sexy is an early go-to for marketing products to adults and even teenagers. Look at the flack Abercrombie and Fitch have gotten for their catalogs. Look at the campaigns to at least tone down the sexiness, and not just from militant feminists complaining so much about “body shaming” that they end up doing their own body shaming of thin women or women with naturally large breasts.
At the same time, sex has been part of soap operas forever, not to mention romance novels that “love comics” get their story style from just in a smaller package. There were plenty of sexy ads and calendars all over back then. If Wertham was only making the case that these are kept from kids while comics depicting some of the things he discusses here do, that would be fine. However, we’ve seen how little he understands comics, how little he likes comics, so one who knew comics better would be less likely to buy in to his commentary on how sexually women are depicted in comics of the period. And let’s not kid ourselves: Ed Benes may be a modern artist who draws women overly sexualized but there were plenty back then. Heck, I’ve showcased comic covers from the time that proved that.
Pre-adolescence and adolescence are manifestly the most difficult periods in children’s sexual development. This is so not only on account of the maturing of the sexual instinct, as is commonly supposed, but also because of the awakening of social feelings at that time. All human beings have to learn a rationale of controlling, disciplining and, if you will, sublimating sexual impulses. Only a decent social orientation can lead to a decent sex life, for practically all psychological sex problems are ethical problems. In sexual education as in other education, one should also not forget that we are bringing children up not to be children, but to be adults.
There’s a video I’ve been meaning to post on why some people are “furries”, a term for fans of anthropomorphic animal characters who are often mistaken for being perverts who want to do naughty things to animals. This is not the case…for the majority, but that’s a discussion for another time. My point here is that in the video, produced by Lockstin from the Gnoggin channel, notes that what kids see just as their sexuality awakens has an influence on what they’ll be turned on by, making connections to what turns them on based on what was around them at the time. I’ll post this on Saturday and let him explain it better.
My reason for mentioning it is that Wertham makes a case in this chapter for this. If boys just entering puberty is being shown an attractive woman they’ll be turned on by the attractive woman. Duh. However, if they’re seeing these women being tied up, or mistreating a man, Wertham suggests that somewhere in that boy’s brain he will connect the two events if only subconsciously. Of course the problem is that he is automatically assuming this is the goal rather than the unintended byproduct. These were comics intended for people who already know what is happening to these women, or what the evil space woman keeping space males as space slaves are doing, are wrong and immoral. Meanwhile the boy transitioning from child to teen is just starting to form his own morals based on parents and other outside influences, which will be developed as a teenager and realized as an adult. So what they’re influenced by will affect their sexual appetites and attitudes as they develop sexually.
What he is either unintentionally forgetting or intentionally ignoring is that these kinds of stories were written for adults who have already learned that this stuff is wrong and is rooting against it…unless the writer or artist really is/are pervert(s). But Wertham is treating this as the goal rather than the fallout.
From comic books these children get just the opposite of what they learn at school or at home. They are taught, “Lead me not into temptation,” but temptation in the form of comic books is offered them everywhere. Even if the ethical teaching they get should prevail, we place on them the burden of an intense emotional, moral conflict. An eleven-year-old jungle-book reader said that “comic books are very exciting and very bad and dirty.” How is a child to distinguish between the excitement approved by the Child Study Association of America as good for children and the bad thoughts not approved by the parochial school?
They aren’t and they shouldn’t be reading those stories. And yet Wertham is making the same mistake he’s complaining about other parents making, assuming comics is a medium for kids and not adults. There are plenty of books (I hope) Wertham wouldn’t let a child read, including some of the classics. I know I’ve made fun of him for complaining about villains in comics that aren’t any worse than, say Long John Silver, but that’s not a bad story for an older kid. I was in my early teens when we read Treasure Island in school. But wouldn’t kids also get the wrong idea from Robin Hood, the Phantom Of The Opera, or Oliver Twist and his friends? And there are books filled with sexual imagery, like those romance novels, that kids shouldn’t read. I wouldn’t hand a teen Fifty Shades Of Grey and I’m not sure I’d hand them Twilight either. (Fifty Shades started out as Twilight slash fic, for the uninitiated.)
Had the fallout of all this been a better division of kids and adult comics like they did books and magazines, we would be in a better situation today. Instead the “solution” was to force out any comics that weren’t for kids so parents wouldn’t have to do any parenting and watch what their kids were getting. Kid-friendly comics wouldn’t be seen as an enemy by today’s creators and fans and everything would be okay. Instead they’re trying to insist comics cater to the everything for meeeeeeeeeeeee crowd and that means kids aren’t allowed in their playhouse.
That last quote came from a section in which a Catholic school was willing to undergo one of Wertham’s inquest, completely sure that their kids wouldn’t read bad comics because they were good teachers. Considering the jokes about Catholic girls today (never mind the priests), that’s already laughable, but not in a good way.
Our findings, based entirely on what the children themselves said, showed that, like most other adults, the school authorities had misjudged the comic-book situation, and that under their very eyes many of these children are being seduced by the industry. A large number “read” comic books from the age of four or four and a half, long before school age. Many know and read the “bad” comic books which we had found to be the most disturbing to ethical development. They named as “bad ones” Crime Does Not Pay, Mr. District Attorney, horror comics like Vault of Horror, Superman, Jungle Comics, crime, murder and mystery comics, Crimebusters, Captain Marvel, Western Comics, Classics, Tales of the Crypt, True Love.
Yep, Captain Marvel and Superman are stuffed on a list with murder dramas and horror comics. It’s like putting Super Friends with Spawn.
Their comments are revealing. One boy said about Superman, “It teaches ‘crime does not pay’ – but it teaches crime.” Another said, “Superman is bad because they make him sort of a God.” Still another, “Superman is bad because if the children believe Superman they will believe ‘most anything.”
Granted some writers uses Superman as a Jesus analog but that was never the intention. It’s just a fun sci-fi story about a hero who can do what we can’t and using those talents to try to better the world. Instead of a inspiration, Wertham sees this as “counting on someone else to do things so you can be lazy”, basically the exact opposite of what a good superhero story should do, deconstructionist tales aside of course. As far as the “believe most anything” part, John Stossel, during the fallout of kids imitating the martial arts moves on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, went to a group of kids who admitted they knew the show was a work of fiction. They didn’t believe “most anything”. That kid really doesn’t trust his own, but what Wertham calls a “kid” can include a 15 year old.
Then Wertham gets into kids using the sexy women in comics for masturbation, and he doesn’t mind that depending on the fantasy involved. I’m simply acknowledging this section exists because we don’t talk about that stuff here. Also, again…catalogs of women in their underwear or National Geographic. It’s not like comics are the only thing used for that. Yes, the comic actually gives a story and we could worry about that influence, but Wertham still follows the overkill solution. Remember, he didn’t think the Comics Code went far enough.
At some of the sessions of the Hookey Club, when there were only adolescent boys present, no younger ones and no girls, discussions about comic books were sometimes pretty outspoken. One boy discussed the comic book, Crimes By Women. “There is one that is sexy! Her legs are showing above her knees and her headlights are showing plenty! She has a smoking gun in her hand as though she had already shot somebody. When you see a girl and you see her headlights and she is beaten up, that makes you hot and bothered! If she will take beating from a man she will take anything from him.” Another boy defended Crimes by Women and showed a copy of Penalty which he said was worse. “It shows how to commit burglaries, holdups. A gangster has a hand on a girl’s shoulder He is working his way down to her headlights.”
I kind of find it interest that instead of the clinical term, breasts, most boys are using “headlights”, like they were working on a car or something. This is a good stopping point for today but I want to make one more notation going into the rest of this chapter. Over the years I’ve seen a number of controversies regarding the depiction of women. Give some of them a read and see where I’m coming from before we go into the next chapter. I already linked to one above.
- Is Breast Size The Problem With Women In Media
- The Problem With Ms. Martian’s Panties
- Sugar, Spice, And Everything…Naughty?
- In Which I’m Forced To Discuss Wonder Girl’s Wonderbra
- The Truth About Female Superhero Outfits
- Breaking The Comics Code: Sex
I am not against sexy women in comics or insisting no woman character be sexual. It’s how that is depicted that I get concerned. While Ed Benes puts a women in a sexy pose specifically to show off how sexy they are, there’s a problem. I expect an athletic person to have an athletic body and she may well be attractive by nature or necessity, like Catwoman, but she can be drawn without looking like she’s ready for action…unless that’s her character. Black Canary isn’t an overtly sexual woman by nature but Benes would draw her that way and Frank Miller wrote her that way in All-Star Batman & Robin. In fact, Miller writes and draws pretty much every woman as angry, manipulative sex bombs. The problem isn’t being drawn sexy, but overtly sexual. And even that works for some women if you have a counterbalance of women who happen to be sexy or women who aren’t traditionally attractive, something relatively new to comics unless she’s a crotchety old bad or a badass. Remember how DC altered Amanda Waller into Halley Berry during the New 52?
I’m no prude but there are limits just like in real life. Lois Lane is attractive but not sexual, even back then. I’m not sure how Superman even comes into this, but Wertham will gladly shove his hate of Superman on us. And I’m betting there will be more of that tomorrow.