A study created by researchers from University College London (UCL) and the University of Ottawa and published in the British Medical Journal found that in children’s animated movies, the characters were three times more likely to die, particularly in the first ten minutes of the film, than characters in adult movies.
Another finding was that creating an orphan hero is a technique that draws the hero into his or her adventure. The study’s lead, Ian Coleman, who is a professor of epidemiology, theorizes that this story line could be a literary device to get the hero’s parents out of the way so that he or she can get on with the adventure without the constraints of parental input.
The Big News Network reports that the study found that death in films can actually be good for children as it introduces them carefully to this natural occurrence.
“It is also possible that such exposure could have a positive impact on children’s adjustment and understanding of death, if treated appropriately. Films that model appropriate grief responses could help children to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of death,” they wrote in the study.
However, children’s animated movies normally do not show the moment of death, nor the mourning that follows the death, both of which play an important part in a child’s development. Another discovery is that deaths in these movies can be gruesome and violent, and are from gunshots, stabbings and animal attacks. The study’s authors say while these deaths can be a developmental teaching tool, it is best when parents are with their children to support them through the darker moments in animated films.
In a commentary for The Independent, Jane Merrick writes that “even a four-year-old can tell the difference between a cartoon and real footage.” She claims that the study is flawed. She explains that the UCL studied content of films over a 70 year span, but did not clinically analyze the films’ long-lasting effects on children. If the group of educators and experts had done so, they would have seen that no damage has been done. If there had been negative effects on children, we would be able to identify generations of traumatized children. Merrick adds:
“These stories also tell children hard and fast rules about the real world – the difference between right and wrong, for example – in a way that is exciting and fantastical.”
Naomi Schaeffer Riley writes in the New York Post that Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which were originally written for adults, are filled with violence, not to mention Bible stories, which can be frightening as well. She argues that American kids today lead very sheltered lives, and movies and books are the only times when children are exposed to the real, gritty, sometimes violent world. Pixar films, she believes, are the best at understanding that children grow by dealing with emotions.
“Just because we live in a safer, more healthy world doesn’t mean children don’t benefit from learning how to deal with tragedy. Dealing with pain, loss and fear are lessons like any other — as important as sharing and tolerance.”
In a column for The Guardian, Tim Lott references a play he saw over the holidays, Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, and commented on the “gulf between traditional fairy tales and the more anodyne, modern stories for the young.” The reason traditional fairy tales resonate with not only children, but adults as well, according to Bruno Bettelheim in his study, The Uses of Enchantment, is that they “speak to something deep in the reader’s unconscious” – murderous and violent instincts that are universal, but are legitimized in these stories, which frees the reader from the guilt these instincts cause. Archetypal stories, says Lott, speak to our secret selves.