Doomed to Clichés

Teen Culture Leaves Media Quaking

The responses to Littleton relied on dated net exoticizing. The media 'we' customized their own Doom-style killing rooms, again and again conjuring a world of two-dimensional other-ized teenage monsters.

"That's just like Quake," my friend said, looking over my shoulder at the labyrinthine, computer-generated Columbine High floor plans in the New York Times. It was not Quake, however, but the 1993 game Doom that the media latched onto, perhaps because of its resonant name. (I bet Littleton's bloodthirsty teens preferred the fresh Quake to the passé Doom.)

The youth-in-crisis media story was full of such misunderstandings. Soon, teen outcasts in general were under attack. Adult commentators on weekly news shows and in editorial pages summoned petty rejections of adolescent subcultures (albeit white, middle-class ones). The media responses combined dated Net-exoticizing and culturally conservative censoriousness, à la Sissela Bok. (In her 1998 book, Mayhem, Bok used Aristotle to beat up on "violent media"— media that bore an eerie resemblance to plain old popular culture.)

With daffy, distancing phrases, the media "we" customized their own Doom-style killing rooms. Again and again, the media professionals conjured a world of two-dimensional Other-ized teenage monsters. This press-world fantasy of adolescence as an empty, strange, and powerful teen army was just the sort of scene that Eric Harris would have wished to be part of.

The New York Times pressed the video-game moral panic button, asserting, on April 26, that game producers have "a hard time telling the difference between their apologist fantasy and grim reality." Then the paper held fast to experts' "unassailable" evidence that linked gaming to increased aggression.

All week, pundits and columnists wrung their hands over the unchaperoned hours teenagers spend on the Web. On the day after the murders, a CNN reporter said succinctly and ominously: "What is known is that the members of the Trench Coat Mafia spent a lot of time playing computer games on the Internet." Then there was Ed Bradley's sage head-nodding about the dangers of shooter-game violence on 60 Minutes. And Slashdot.org— the headquarters of techie cool— teemed with the commentaries of angry netizens. On Slashdot, avuncular media interloper Jon Katz challenged the media's "knee-jerk, ignorant stereotypes" about "the Net, geeks, and the violence allegedly inspired by the digital screen culture."

But Web geeks were not the only ones stereotyped in the media melee. High school outcasts and "freaks" were given a predictable, if slightly baroque, treatment, as Time magazine offered one of the most lavish portraits of Columbine's master-slave dialectic: "One athlete in particular liked to taunt them," Timewrote of the outcasts at Columbine. " 'Dirtbag,' he'd say, or maybe, 'Nice dress.' Others called them 'faggots,' 'inbreeds,' harassing them to the point of throwing rocks and bottles at them from moving cars," the story continued.

Despite the media's sensationalist rendering of teen abjection, few reporters or television producers had the heart to remark on the peculiarities and failings of Columbine's social desirables, who exhibited rampant consumerism. In interviews, they defined themselves by brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, and the Gap.

It was easier, of course, for writers and television reporters to critique the murderers' garb. Immediately, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were bracketed as deranged not for their acts, or their inner lives, but for being goths, boys costumed in "signature black dusters" and nail polish.

Soon enough, the media's reassuring name-calling morphed into a more "open-minded" anthropology of the goth movement. "Poetry, literature, music, fashion and art— not firearms and bombs— are held in high regard," wrote one paper. Goths are "a mysterious, withdrawn, ghoulish group of pierced people," wrote another. Reporters following this angle searched for meandering black-clad teens in cities as far away as Washington, then wrote pie-eyed accounts of goths and "trenchies," kids who wear leather coats and "420" (code for marijuana) necklaces.

Music critic Ann Powers was given the cringe-worthy task of explaining industrial music to New York Times readers: "Popular art aimed at adolescents often trades in alienation. Its lyrics are harsh, like its sound, sometimes expressing destructive urges in blatant terms." The New York Post was at its silly best when describing these teenage "outsiders": "They wear black trench coats. . . . They go in for drama and creative-writing classes."

The hoariest Littleton media narrative of all was ye olde generation gap: "Too many of today's youths have not had a culture of hope to counter an insidious culture of despair, a culture reflected by so-called 'goth' fashion, 'gangsta rap' CDs, and heavy-metal rock videos," wrote syndicated columnist Clarence Page. "Their world is different from ours."

"But within a few hours, the more shocking news dribbles out: Just how much deviance is overlooked these days by parents, school authorities, teachers, and society in general," wrote the unintentionally and reliably hilarious conservative columnist Mona Charen. "[The Trench Coat Mafia] frequently wore dark sunglasses indoors. Why was that permitted?"

"Picture-perfect suburbs," intoned The Washington Post, "mask an insidious reality. Today's teens are a tribe apart."

 
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