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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.3 (1999) 76-106

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Child's Play

Gillian Brown

A ten-year-old American boy vacationing in Ireland met an Irish boy of the same age. "Have you got a gun?" the Irish boy immediately asked. "No, but I've got a stick," replied the American. "Let's play!" said the Irish boy, and delighted with each other, the two boys spent the rest of the day together. 1

Incidents like this one might signify the long-standing association of America with guns and violence or the universality of boys' interest in weapons. The most significant point of this encounter, however, is not that boys in a global culture dominated by American productions commonly desire gunplay, but that they readily see the possible identity of sticks with guns. In child's play, a stick can serve as gun; the instant convertibility of one thing into another is the very condition of play violence. Just as children pretend to kill and to be killed, they pretend toy guns are real guns, garden hoses are blasters, and whiffle bats are light sabers. Objects aren't even necessary. One can always point a finger as if it were a gun and emit shooting noises.

Last spring, in the wake of the Columbine High School ravage, when the yearbook picture of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold pointing their [End Page 76] fingers in just this fashion appeared throughout American media, the connection between play and real violence immediately became the subject of conversation nationwide. Besides sparking renewed concern about gun control, the shootings at Columbine and other American schools sparked criticism of video games and spurred attacks on Hollywood for producing entertainment in which violence figures so prominently and relentlessly. Clearly, the picture of the boys suggested that play violence presages real violence. But the picture, when not cropped, as it often was, to focus on Klebold and Harris, included at least five other adolescent boys and girls in the same pose: shooting at the camera that was shooting their photograph. If pretend violence prefaces and portends real violence, shouldn't we be worrying about when the other kids in the picture are going to act?

Of course, most parents do not worry that their children's play shooting is preparation for future killings. They don't worry, even if they find this kind of play distasteful, because pretend shooting and toy guns are not actual shooting and guns. They assume that even though make-believe involves innumerable transformations, it does not translate into reality. The space of child's play is one of the sacred spaces of modern life, a realm rationalized and promoted by psychology, a domain celebrated and perpetuated by literature, a sphere served and stocked by innumerable products. Thus it is now common to speak of the culture of childhood, and the recent school shootings and bombings have inevitably generated intense concern not just about the weaponry children may acquire but also about the representational materials within children's lives: the movies they see, the television and video they watch, the internet and arcade games they play. This concern about the effects of culture upon citizens of course is an ancient one, a form of criticism familiar since at least the time Plato articulated it in Book Ten of the Republic, in which he banned poets from the perfect state because of their emotional appeal. For American society, the anxiety about cultural influence has been soldered to worries about modern mass consumption, the unprecedented production and consumption of objects that has accompanied the history of the United States since its institution at the end of the eighteenth century.

Many of the features that characterize the contemporary sense of American culture as dominated by consumerist technologies--in particular, by the communicative and representational media of video and computers--have been with the nation since the early nineteenth [End Page 77] century. Transformations in transport and communications have proceeded with the history of the United States, from the coming of the railroad to the coming of...


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pp. 76-106
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Archived 2004
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