How the Companies Making Movies Like 'Toy Story 3' and 'The Incredibles' Are Teaching Our Children Militarism


This story was originally published on OpenDemocracy.

“Ten percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and ten percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction.” Susan Sontag.

Who would ever have thought that there would be torture scenes in G and PG-rated children's films, or that video games would allow someone to feel the rush of killing, or that the Disney corporation would try to trademark ‘SEAL Team 6’so that they could use it for toys, Christmas stockings and snow globes after this elite military group had killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani compound?

Who could have imagined that a child would write a few loving words on her desk and then be arrested in front of her classmates, or that the U.S. government would torture real children in the ‘war on terror?’ Alexa Gonzalez, a 12-year old girl from Queens, doodled “I love my friends Abby and Faith. Lex was here. 2/1/10,” adding a smiley face for emphasis. The next thing she knew she was escorted from school in handcuffs and detained for hours.

And what of 14-year old Mohammed El-Gharani, who was subjected to sleep deprivation and hung from his wrists while a U.S. soldier threatened to cut off his penis with a knife? Welcome to the new face of childhood in America.

Seeing “little Boo,” the toddler who can barely speak in Monsters, Inc., strapped into a seat with holes in the bottom for draining bodily fluids just like the electric chair on death row convinced me to take a closer look at what children all over the world are watching as their purported ‘entertainment;’ what this might be doing to their minds and their emotions; and how all this is related to public policy and the institutions of society.

I don’t think it’s accidental that—as cartoon images of violence, militarism and incarceration fill children's heads—the school-to-prison pipeline is increasingly active in the schools of poor neighborhoods and communities of color, many of whose children are slated for a life in jail or in the armed forces. Pushing students out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system—often for minor offenses such as getting behind in their homework—is as disturbing as the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instituting programs on the middle school level as a way of attracting new recruits, or the use of images in children’s films that justify the ‘war on terror.’

Yet the propaganda continues. In the film The Incredibleschildren are shown the 9/11 trope of a plane bent on destruction that’s heading toward a U.S. city while an entire family ends up on a torture table; the film also shows “Mr Incredible” being blasted by viscous bubbles similar to the supposedly non-lethal incapacitant sticky-foam weapons that are currently being proposed for crowd control in the U.S. and elsewhere. And what are children to think when their beloved Buzz Lightyear—shown as a friend to all for two of the three films in the series—is tortured, has his personality changed, and becomes a prison guard for the cruel overlord in the surveillance-laden dystopia of Toy Story 3?

These examples and many others like them matter enormously, because children's beliefs about other people are molded from a very young age—think how the characters in the Disney film Aladdin, for example, may have encouraged children to see the Arabic world as mean-spirited at a time when support for the first Gulf War was being consciously built up by the U.S. Government. The cultural critic Henry A. Giroux found that Disney not only included offensive language toward the Middle East in both this film and its sequel, but didn't even bother to write actual Arabic in the scenes where it was called for, choosing instead to substitute a scribble of nonsensical scrawl.

In addition to the language of death, war scenes, and general barbarism, there are other disturbing features of G and PG-rated children's movies. In Turbo, the tale of a snail trying to enter and win the Indianapolis 500 for example, nearly all of the African-American characters have an inner-city vibe. Spanish-speaking characters are presented as poor, lazy and/or loud, a stereotype repeated in Open Season, the story of a pet bear who is sent back to the wild.

Women are shown as either ‘bitchy’ or subservient—as in Beauty and the Beast, pretty much a primer for women to learn how to endure an abusive relationship (‘If I'm nice enough he'll come around’). Or watch how Ratatouillepresents a woman as psychotic when the character “Colette” stabs the sleeve of a fellow kitchen worker’s uniform. Native Americans are invariably depicted as mysterious figures who speak monosyllabically, as seen in Rangofor example. “Rango,” the new sheriff in town in what appears to be an old racist Western film, says to “Wounded Bird,” “You wanna sniff the air or commune with a buffalo or something?”

Children themselves are presented as either endangered beings or as monsters, and sometimes both, as in the Toy Story series and Nanny McPhee. Guns, cruelty, and bullying are woven through just about every children’s film in the U.S., but according to This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the Motion Picture Association of America doesn't care about the level of violence so long as no one hears any cursing or is a witness to drug use or alternative lifestyles.

This last point is especially harmful because ritual ridicule in a brutal gender binary system has been linked to a recent rise in school shootings. “Most of the boys who opened fire were mercilessly and routinely teased and bullied” as researchers Michael S. Kimmel and Matthew Mahler put it.  Our definitions of what it means to ‘be a man’ are injected early on. Seeing the character “Ken”—who is depicted as effeminate—being threatened by “Barbie” in Toy Story 3 tells boys to be wary of having nice handwriting or displaying any other purportedly-feminine behavior. Or take the example of the ‘minion’ in Despicable Me who is teased for wanting some affection.

Meanwhile, children are busy learning how to kill from video games, repeating the cruelties they learn from films, watching playground fights on YouTube, and being patted down for guns and knives at school. At the same time, American tax dollars are hard at work being used for nationalistic ceremonies at pro sports events and censoring directors who don't promote ‘patriotism’ and the virtues of war. Pro-war movies like Black Hawk Down had no trouble enlisting support from the U.S. military, but those with a different message like Forrest Gump and GI Jane were ostracized.

Where is all this leading? As Hitler’s deputy Hermann Goering said at the Nuremberg trials:

“Of course the people don't want war...That is understood...But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

Propaganda and other more subtle forms of media communication have always been used to build support for war, militaristic policing and government surveillance on the grounds of ‘national security.’ The images and messages contained in film, TV, popular music and video games form an important part of this process, especially because there are now only five big media conglomerates that control over 90 per cent of everything that is seen and heard across America.

Against this background we are growing accustomed to torture and militarism in children’s films. What next—Darryl the Drone or Larry the Land Mine and his escapades? When we laugh at the suffering of others we become complicit in the darkness of violence, cruelty and war. Is that the kind of upbringing we want to give to our kids? 

Author’s Update:

Dear All,

This is the author of the above article, the original title of which I did not come up with; this was created by whichever person posted it the article to AlterNet. I am grateful to be on AlterNet and I mention this only because I would never blame the children; they are victims of the Big Five media companies, much like the rest of us who are influenced by nameless, faceless executives. Let us be clear: It is these media companies which are monstrous. The children need our help.

We all want to defend the media we consume. At one time, not knowing what I do now, I too defended it. After all, I thought, one can choose not to consume it and besides, I was shocked by the whole heart-in-a-box-as-proof-of-her-death thing in Snow White when a child but, hey, I survived and am fine. 

But, you know what? The day I say next to my son watching Monsters, Inc. on the big screen as toddler Boo was strapped into the torture chair, I became aware of the expressions on her face - terror! - and on our own as we watched. I realized that I'm not over the heart-in-a-box thing. I realized I did not have a choice over whether I wanted to be scared by that film when I was too young for it. (I guess my parents trusted that Disney would provide wholesome entertainment for children.) I realized that my son was terrified - and so was I! - by this purportedly G-rated film. 

My experience in interviewing/speaking with others - from age 2 to 102 - has since taught me that pretty much everyone can tell you the first time they saw something violent or frightening on a screen. It stays with you. It becomes part of how one thinks life is. 

It is a truism that most do not ingest violence and then commit it directly - not to say that there are no examples of this (because there are) - but why is it that some may react to violence, well, violently? For this, we need to consult the research of brain scientist Jim Fallon. His job is examining post-mortem brain samples. He found that in order for someone to become a psychopathic killer, they had to have three things: 1) a particular gene - MAOA - which many of us have, 2) a frontal lobe or temple injury, and 3) exposure to a 3D violent event before puberty. We don't yet know whether this last must be in person or if it can be simulated. 

People often ask me about the violence in fairy tales. Indeed, these were most violent; however, these were cautionary tales about not straying far from home, etc. and they were spoken. This is quite different from watching incredibly realistic characters commit violent acts a few feet away on a screen over and over again. 

The Bobo and Stanley Milgram experiments prove that aggression models teach aggression and influence behavior whether the model is a cartoon character or a real person. We learn from Pratkanis and Aronson's Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion that: "Watching aggressive models has led people to kick a Bobo doll, electrically shock a classmate, verbally assault a stranger, and harm a small animal." In the former Bobo example, when children saw the plastic blow-up doll being treated aggressively by others, they also treated it aggressively. The Milgram experiments proved how easy it is to make an adult blindly follow authoritarian dictates, even at someone else's physical expense. We know in adult world that "heavy readers of newspaper accounts of sensational and random crimes report higher levels of fear of crime...repeated viewing of R-rated violent 'slasher' films is associated with less sympathy and empathy for victims of rape." According to the same source, three or four days after well-publicized boxing matches, there are eleven killings of those who resemble the fighters beaten by winners. The fact that some citizens murder in cold blood after seeing violence glorified indicates how people can be influenced by those on television they admire. Could a president influence one's behavior? Further, "[If], hypothetically, television technology had never been developed, there would be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the United States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults. Violent crime would be half of what it is." That is according to a 1999 Senate Committee report called "Children, Violence, and the Media: A Report for Parents and Policy Makers." I guess no one read it; certainly, no policy changes were made so children's media had a free rein to extend its violence. 

And children are especially vulnerable, particularly given that they have a difficult time differentiating between reality and fiction before the age of 7. Children exposed to violence - in front of them or on a screen - often have difficulties as a result: violent TV shows spark the fight-or-flight response, increase heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure and can create an increased stimulation for more violence. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed." They don't have to learn the world is mean before even getting out in it; the result is often double exposure. Besides, don't they deserve comfort in their entertainment, not harshness? Is it truly a good thing that children be exposed to themes of bullying, gender policing, sexism, racism, murder, and incest in their media? My book, Media Monsters: Militarism, Violence, and Cruelty in Children's Culture is rife with examples of such from post-9/11 G and PG rated films. 

At the very least, viewing said media makes children develop what George Gerbner called the Mean World Syndrome. Constant exposure to violence causes people to come to think of the world as meaner than it is and, accordingly, to only want to be with those like themselves. That's dangerous in a world which is getting more fragmented daily.  

The fact of the matter is that in 2002, at a Department of Defense funded bash for Motion Picture Association of America (M.P.A.A.) president, Jack Valenti, hosted by Defense Secretary William Cohen, spokesman Kenneth Bacon explained why the D.O.D. fraternizes with image-makers: "If we can have television shows and movies that show the excitement and importance of military life, they can generate a favorable atmosphere for recruiting." Propaganda which goes in line with permanent enemies and perpetual wars make the rich richer and the poor poorer. And it is planned poverty and a good deal of propaganda which produces soldiers. The U.S. Dept. of Defense is one of the world's largest employers. No wonder they are also working with video game creators. (Read Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies by David L. Robb, Nick Turse's The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, and Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie, and Video Game Violence by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano.)

Also, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society tells us that the military had to find a way to make soldiers more willing to kill since there is a natural aversion to killing one's own kind. Even snakes don't bite each other when they fight. And did they ever find a way, well, many ways actually. 

My aim is not to imply that children are becoming more violent, but to implore us all to stop these companies from exposing children the world over to excessive violence. In pursuit of this, I've started a petition to John Lasseter: "Pixar and Disney: No more torture, extreme violence, and militarism in G and PG films." I hope you'll join me in protecting kids. 

My best to all and wishes for a better world,

Heidi Kramer 


Ralph Nader Radio Hour interview (2017):

"Monsters Under the Bed: An Analysis of Torture Scenes in Three Pixar Films" (2013):

WMNF Radioactivity with Rob Lorei interview (2016):

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