Saturday, August 26, 2006

Dead Children On Television

Much has recently been written about the JonBenet Ramsey murder case and the incredible media focus it has garnered. James R. Kincaid speculates about some of the reasons here:

The case does many things for us, of course. It makes us feel both titillated and virtuous; it makes us feel smart. Most centrally, it makes flattering distinctions between good parents (us) and bad parents (the Ramseys). Even if the Ramseys didn't kill their daughter, they exposed her to lascivious eyes in beauty contests, which is about as bad. Notice how much press is directed to abusing the Ramseys, to suggesting that (unlike us) their relationship to their child was unhealthy, vicious, exploitative. This whining at beauty contest parents generally is a favorite pastime of ours, as if such pageants were freakish, rather than a version of a central parenting activity: parading kids, sexualizing them, putting them on display.

Ezra Klein points out that it is not the murder of just any odd child that would provoke such media interest; it certainly helps if the child is white, beautiful and upper-class.

I'd add that it helps if the child didn't die in a war. Like the one we are waging in Iraq. Or indeed, in any manner that is regarded as a common cause of death for children. - No, it is the rare kinds of cases that attract media attention, the rarer the better in fact. A child being kidnapped from her very own bedroom by a mentally ill stranger. Things like that.

Yet Kincaid notes in his article that

And when kids are indeed abused, who is doing it? Mom and Dad and Uncle Ted and Aunt May. As little as 2 percent of child abuse is committed by strangers. Again, why are we exercised over JonBenet?

I believe that we are exercised over this case for the very reason that it's so rare, that it presents in some ways both the worst nightmare of any parent and something that is almost totally certain never to happen in our own lives. The details of the case, including the beauty pageants, allow us to feel superior to the Ramsays as parents, to feel sorry for the little girl in more ways than one, and the social and income class of those affected allows us to express some of the bitterness we might feel towards those who have more than we do.

A confession here: I haven't followed the case until now, and hence I can't say very much about the attention it drew in 1996. But I wonder if anyone wrote anything about the fact that JonBenet Ramsey appears to have died because she was a female child and that it was also her femaleness which resulted in her commodification by her parents. The winners of those beauty pageants for children are called Queens. Though a real queen could be a young girl the term usually refers to an adult woman. It's as if JonBenet's life was a speeded-up film, one forcing a little girl to grow up far too soon and then to die before she had really managed to live at all. Horrible.

Horrible, but also atypical. Most children who die young don't die in this way, and most children don't die young at all. This is a truth that is worth repeating for the simple reason that the rare and shocking abduction stories that we get in the media have made some parents dreadfully frightened of letting their children play outside.

Just drive or walk around in any middle-class neighborhood. What you will notice is the absence of children playing outside. Instead, children have arranged playdates and arranged activities, all necessitating driving by some adult. The more you drive the more likely you are to die in a traffic accident. What do you think we might find in a study which looks at the extra traffic deaths of children caused by parents' fears of pedophiles? I doubt that we have the data for such a study, but I'm willing to bet that the overall impact of the pedophile panic is to cause more children to die prematurely.

Or to cause more childhood obesity. Playing outside with other children consumes a lot of calories, and so does walking or biking to school. But it is exactly these sorts of activities that parents curtail when they fear pedophiles.

What is the media responsibility in all this? If parents confuse the stories about something rare and shocking with information announcements about how to keep their own children healthy and safe, should the media work to correct this misconception?