Ce ci n’est pas une gun {guest post by Claire Bertolus}

Pop quiz….What does this image say to you?

Poss does Tarantino

When my sister sent this picture across the world to me the other day I received the mms with some bemusement. My niece puts the blackness of black comedy unintentionally to shame with a party dress, a pair of sunglasses and a plastic gun. She is Tarantino in a photo booth. Naturally, I immediately recirculated the image across several social networking sites.

The reaction that followed was an intriguing experiment in seemingly deeply embedded cultural perceptions of the media, childhood and violence. Within hours of the image appearing online, I noticed several comments to the effect that, ‘Children should not be playing with guns, whether they are real or toys.’

Although I don’t have my own children, from a liberal perspective, this is probably something I agree with. True or not, there is an associational link between letting your kids play with toy guns and encouraging the trivialization of violence generally. Besides, in my limited experience there are a plethora of other non gun related toys out there for kids to get their hands on. If they must play at violence what’s wrong with a stick?

But let’s focus on the image again. The interesting thing about the commentary on these pictures was not that people seemed scared that my niece might actually grow up to shoot them. The issue seemed to lay in the fact that viewers were challenged by the image itself.   What they wanted to say was, ‘This image makes me uncomfortable.’

There are a couple of prominent fallacies about media and childhood that drive this concern. The first is that children are directly effected by the media they consume. That children who play violent video games, for example, will be heavily influenced by this exposure in a way that manifests itself in violence towards people in the real world. Let me be clear in saying that there is absolutely zero evidence to suggest that this effect exists. I am luxuriating in the fact that I am not required to heavily reference this piece, but if you would like to do some reading about direct effects the Wikipedia article on ‘media influence’ is a good place to start.

What studies do suggest, is that any influence media products have on populations is highly dependent on a number of variables including the cultural context in which the media message is received by the individual, how the message is interpreted by others around them and the channel by which the media is received. For example the difference between fiction and documentary can usually be easily perceived even by children.

The image of my niece glaring at the camera with a gun (an image seemingly reproduced so casually for mass consumption) raises fears amongst some adults about the media causes violence beast. Could it be that this child is a monster of the media generation? Have we raised a group of kids so desensitized to violence that they will hurt people just to gain celebrity? This is where the emotional reaction leads us. In fact, it seems to have lead us so far that even a recent half hour film about the LRA (I think you all know what I’m referring to), included not one image of the armed and mutilated children it claimed to be speaking for, presumably for fear of hurting the sensibilities of a middle class audience.

What changes if I reveal that this child not only doesn’t own a toy gun at all, but that she mainly subsists on a media diet of iCarly and Super Mario Galaxy? Although she (like any child) has had moments where she has lost self control and lashed out, she seems to take no pleasure in hurting people. However, the power of the image is so strong that the context is all but lost to our fears.

The second fallacy is that of a loss of childhood innocence driven by the media. Research here is more murky, driven by a plethora of areas in which it is possible to argue that adults are systematically undermining the ability of children to lead a a ‘normal’ childhood. Putting aside the debate about what a ‘normal’ childhood might be, this argument cannot be refuted completely, especially when considering areas such as advertising and marketing. However, we should be aware that most media operates in the context of economies, cultural forces and legal frameworks. In this sense we create the childhood innocence imperative and then systematically undermine it as if creating a rod for own backs.

This image looks undeniably manipulated by adults. Everything about it screams carefully choreographed post modern juxtaposition of child/adult elements, from the choice of over sized sunglasses and outsized beads, to the childlike poses and angry facial expressions.

It begs the question: who made this child act like an adult? Except that this image has not, in fact, been choreographed by an adult. It was made in a photo booth at a birthday party, without direction or instructions. A combination of luck and what I like to think is my niece’s artistic talent produced this image. Not a marketing plan to sell sunglasses or underwear.

In 1928 the artist Magritte painted The Treachery of Images. The painting depicts a pipe with the caption ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (this is not a pipe). His point was simply that the image he produced was not a real pipe, it was a representation of one.

We might well caption our image with ‘Ceci n’est pas une gun’. This image is nothing more than a representation of a child at play. What she was hoping to communicate with this photograph I can’t know any more than the audience at large. The point is that the pictures of a little girl firing a gun down the barrel of a camera are only invested with the power that we, as viewers, give them.

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  1. I agree!!!
    But I also believe that children only play with the ideas that are accesible to them,
    When somehing becomes accesible to our thinking, who knows where it ends.
    Most kids can tell when they are playing and when they shouldn’t… not everyone can!
    The extent of that accessibility and the extent that they play/entertain them are individual variables, that parents have to work out for their children,
    Thanks for some quality thinking stuff!!
    Hannah recently posted..Big DreamsMy Profile

    • Just thinking my eldest could watch anything and I’d just about let him, but he doesn’t want to because he gets scared easily. My younger wants to watch anything but we cant let him because he has trouble knowing where the lines are between reality and play….
      All very interesting… I think individuality is key…
      Hannah recently posted..Big DreamsMy Profile

      • Claire Bertolus says:

        i completely agree hannah. there is no one size fits all with how kids handle media and i’m always interested to hear how different kids handle violence differently. but as adults we should also work to be aware of the high degree to which we have the power to control images- both by editing them and interpreting them with our kids 🙂

    • Thanks Hannah. I think you are spot on. Similar to the saying “we do what we know”, I guess a similar principle applies – “we play what we have”. If you have access to violence, then surely you are more likely to incorporate it into play?

      But in saying that, all our lessons learnt through play therapy have taught me that kids use play to work out things they are unsure of, what the societally correct way to act is. So, just because the themes come out in play doesn’t mean you will grow up to use a gun. In fact, in a supportive or ‘normal’ environment, it should be something that is worked through, correct ‘ideals’ embedded and societies norms applied.

      Given that… I think Claire is right. My own uncomfortableness with the picture is my own views, my own experiences. Certainly nothing that Poss has done – she is simply playing with a toy she doesn’t have access to at home.

      • Claire Bertolus says:

        if this blog had a like function i would go there with this comment…

      • Play is kids making sense of their world for sure!
        And that is a ok!
        We dont have toy guns in our house, because that is what their imaginations are for!!
        The toys we make available to kids encourages them to play with the ideas attached to it.. thinking toy kitchens, laptops, dolls etc.
        I dont want to encourage gun play, but far be it from me to put rules on what they can and cant play!
        Hannah recently posted..Big DreamsMy Profile

  2. Great topic, the image is powerful. The image shows a sweet innocent child with a deathly weapon, one that has one purpose only. To kill. Mix the sweet child with death and you are sure to get comments from people who are uncomfortable looking at it.

    Me? I sit on the fence with these a bit. I am more concerned about the violence that parents deem ok, simply because it is a cartoon or produced by Disney. Watching Tangled I was shocked at the level of violence…if you watch it, imagine that it is real actors, not cartoon, because that is how children see it, would you still think it ok for pre school girls? I certainly don’t, but it seems I am one of the few concerned about such things.

    Great article, and excellent photo of Poss to start conversations about this topic!
    Claireyhewitt recently posted..Thoughts from my head when doing the grapevineMy Profile

    • Thanks Claire. I am with you – I tend to sit on the fence with it. Having only a girl, we haven’t really had to worry about guns (despite what the picture might show!!) or war or fighting games.

      But you are so right, some of the violence of the Disney movies scares the crap out of me…. we watched The Lion King the other day for the first time with Poss – for gods sake, his uncle kills his brother and then fights to the death with the nephew… I never looked at it that way before I had to watch it with Poss…

    • Claire Bertolus says:

      Thanks Claire! the difference between live action and cartoons is an interesting chestnut. again, research suggests it seems to be all about context and how the people around children receive violence…the impact will always depend on the child…

  3. Just to clarify… Claire Bertolus is my sister, Poss’ aunt. She lives in Copenhagen and is a Communications specialist, currently doing her Masters degree. Occasionally I will get her to guest post for me, occasionally she will demand to. She has things to say and thankfully, she writes well (and it makes mum happy) so I don’t mind sharing 😉

    With this particular post – I also wanted to clarify… As Claire states above, this picture was not in any way manipulated. I was not at the party and it was in an un-manned photo booth with 6 of her friends, at their home. There was 122 pictures taken, she has her finger up her nose in some and is pulling faces in another. In some she even smiles. This is just a single picture, a single moment in time. And for those who may ask, we don’t have any toy guys (or real guns for that matter) in our home and she has never had access to one. This was a prop that came with the photo booth.

  4. Claire is brilliant. That is all. x
    Carli (@tinysavages) recently posted..We Need to Talk about KevinMy Profile

  5. Love your work Claire and look forward to reading more guest posts.

    In this image I see a kid playing. That’s all. Our own experience dictates the interpretation.
    Kate Sins recently posted..Second time round I’m not so tough…a confessionMy Profile

    • Thanks Kate… you know I was actually going to send this to you today prior to posting it to get your opinion. But you know what – your response is exactly what I thought it would be. Thank you xx

  6. Great post! I’m surprised – astounded, in fact – to realise that I didn’t see the gun the first time I looked at the images. I viewed it as a child at play and, while I can understand some feeling confronted by the image, I believe any other interpretation of the imagery is based on our own experiences and beliefs. If one hadn’t seen the Tarantino films, they would not make the same association. It is through our individual experiences that we view the world how we do.

    Even with the best intentions, it is impossible to shield children from violence (many of our G-rated movies have horrifying storylines when you really look at them and even if you have a no-tv household, it only takes a trip to the playground or kinder/school to expose children to it) and children can find difficulty in differentiating the reality from the creative… however, in my experience, even without exposure to those types of programs, children will play with what they have. Imagine. Create. Explore. My own children are not permitted bought weapons, yet for as long as I can remember have used their fingers as guns and sticks from the garden as swords. Instead of being confronted by it when they do, I see it as exploration by them and an opportunity for me to talk about society, violence, consequences and appropriate behaviour. A learning experience that I would rather they go through in youth than when older.

    Truly, ceci n’est pas une gun. I see a child at play.
    Natalie recently posted..Oh, what a glorious warningMy Profile

    • Claire Bertolus says:

      Well said, I find it interesting that even children exposed to a minimum of violence still express themselves violently at times- it makes no sense to deny that this is sometimes where our instincts naturally lead us- better to explore it in a photo booth than coop it up! Thanks so much for your thoughts 🙂


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