Saturday, September 24, 2011

Taking a Bite Out of Crime

I've come to realize that my 19-month-old son bears an affinity for anthropomorphic bipedal characters. He visibly recognizes Milwaukee Brewers mascot Bernie Brewer and Sesame Street's Elmo. Just today he thrilled to a live mall appearance by Curious George. And when needing him to get a couple minutes of downtime while watching him, I have exploited this by finding Youtube videos that mesmerize him, such as the trailers for this fall's Muppets movie. Recently, while racking my brains for characters that he might enjoy seeing, I somehow alighted on McGruff the Crime Dog. I realized that although I know I have definitely seen live McGruff mascots through the years, most of his television appearances (and therefore Youtube videos) were of an animated McGruff. Still, even though it wasn't quite what I was looking for, I couldn't help but click on one particular video, one that I think I saw every day for a stretch circa 1987, but hadn't subsequently seen in well over 20 years.

The video is a fairly typical 1980s anti-drug PSA, McGruff co-starring with a one-hit wonder of the day who delivered a sixty second ditty about the importance of saying "no." You couldn't watch children's TV for more than 10 minutes in the 1980s without seeing an anti-drug message, and they aren't all that uncommon today, either. But there is one line in the song that stuck out upon my recent listen, one that my childhood brain didn't question at all, but one that now fascinates me: "If you know a user even part of the time/tell 'em to stop/take a bite out of crime." Obviously, the last part directly references McGruff's famous slogan, but I still don't think it would be used today.

There are numerous reasons why young people are urged today to intervene and attempt to influence their peers not to experiment with drugs, but helping to decrease crime is not even on the list. While individual criminal acts are often the subject of public propaganda campaigns, the general sentiment that crime in the abstract must be curtailed is not something that resonates the way it used to.

One can see further evidence of this in the superhero genre. We are undoubtedly in a golden age of superhero films, with several now being released every year. But it is interesting to consider how today's superhero films differ from the original golden age of heroes. When Superman and Batman first appeared in comic book form in the late 1930s (and Superman's radio show took off in popularity a couple years after that), the primary antagonists for the heroes were street criminals, gangsters, mobsters, robbers, and thugs. Superman is considered the first superhero, and his first appearance in a comic book was basically a series of confrontations with the above. Later, superheroes would branch out and fight Nazis, monsters, and aliens, and eventually supervillains.

But even when superheroes would finally transition to the silver screen, an emphasis on superheroes stopping street crime and common criminals remained. The 1978 Superman movie saw a protracted sequence where the Man of Steel halted robberies and apprehended bad guys on the night of his public debut. Even when he was stopping nuclear missiles, his primary antagonist, Lex Luthor, was billing himself as "the greatest criminal mastermind the world has ever known." Batman's origin is famously connected to random street crime, but his 1989 film took that origin to another level by breaking with previous versions and making the psychotic Joker the antagonist in the Wayne murders. Although the updated 2008 film version starts with the Joker's bank heist, this film would later make clear that his pursuit of criminal activity is only a means to his real goal of psychological and philosophical warfare with society. And other contemporary superhero films rarely portray heroes stopping non-superpowered criminals. (In fact, many recent superhero films show heroes called upon to stop threats of their own making; Green Lantern and Iron Man come to mind in particular).

Part of the reason for this evolution could be attributed to narrative convenience--it's easier to tell compelling stories about heroes when they are facing threats more equal to themselves. But I'm convinced that part of the explanation is also sociological; people in this generation don't fear crime as much as they used to. Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel's dad was a merchant who died after an armed robbery (how the death actually occurred is disputed; the most likely account is that he had a heart attack brought about by the stress of the robbery). And for the initial generation of consumers of superhero stories, the threat of violent crime was real. It was a time when gangsters and mobsters were celebrities. And the 1980s was also a time when the "War on Crime" was a tremendous concern. There was a real fear that the crack epidemic and gang warfare in urban areas would lead to a large scale societal breakdown. But now that crime statistics have bottomed out and we have seen a dramatic decrease in violent crime, we no longer hear regular exhortations to "take a bite out of crime." McGruff would have never been born in today's climate. But we've got so many anthropomorphic bipedal characters that we probably wouldn't even miss him.


Blogger The Hungary Traveler said...

Today's hyper-segregated urban-suburban dichotomy has also reduced the cultural obsession with crime. "White flight" from city centers has resulted in street crime having primarily become a black on black phenomenon, so therefore, not a concern to society at large.

10:54 PM  

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