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Controversies in Children's Programs

Updated on January 13, 2016

Thundarr the Barbarian


Thundar the Barbarian (ABC 1980-1982)

The perfect kids' show: Take a barbaric role model, hook him up with a futuristic, yet still stereotypical, female witch and a creature that is not quite a rip-off of Chewbacca, place it a post-apocalyptic world where the moon had been ripped from it's orbit and civilization has been destroyed and you have Thundarr the Barbarian. Oh yeah, mix in an average of sixty-four violent acts per show (and realize the the show did not run the standard twenty-two to twenty-four minutes) and you have the perfect program for your children to watch on Saturday morning.

Thundarr's Story

Kukla, Fran and Ollie


Ookla the Mok


The controversy

Thundarr the Barbarian was the most violent TV show, either prime time or Saturday morning for its entire run of 1980-1982, as determined by the National Coalition on Television Violence. In fact, Thundarr still ranks as one of the most, if not the most, violent shows of all time. Thundarr, Princess Ariel and Ookla the Mok (not to be confused with Kukla of Kukla, Fran and Ollie) struggled to survive in what used to be the United States. Prominent cities such as Manhattan ("Manhatt") and Beverly Hills lay in ruin, but not ruined enough that you couldn't recognize them. Thundarr's main weapon was his sun sword which made him somewhat immune to the effects of magic. He used the sword to protect the remaining humans from magical warlords and mutated beings (like giant bipedal rats--why is it always rats?) that roamed the earth seeking to harm humans for some reason.

Violent Media and Desensitization

The violence on Thundarr was like the violence on another 1980s classic, The A-Team--always non-fatal despite the high number of explosions and mayhem. No one ever got killed or even slightly maimed (although they probably should have when they got whacked in the face by the amazing sun sword). Still, sixty plus violent acts in a short period of time has to have some sort of effect. If, as George Gerbner and his colleagues are right, and viewing violence desensitizes us to real-life violence, what is the cumulative effect of viewing(extremely) violent television over the course of sixty to seventy years? What effect, gentle reader, does it have on not only the individual who views the violence, but also the society at large when millions of individuals do not react to real-life violence? How do we up the level of simulated violence to keep the viewers, saturated by violent content, happy? I am a big proponent of the first amendment to the United States Constitution, but I realize that I, as a speaker, writer or producer of media content, have a responsibility to the people who listen. At what point does producing violent content become equivalent to yelling "fire' in the crowded theatre?

OK, getting off my soapbox now. . .

The show produced two years worth of episodes, although the episodes re-ran over several seasons. The show is now available on DVD and individual episodes can be found on YouTube if you want to experience the full range of emotion and high-quality dialogue the show produced. Hey, I like it . . .

"Thundarr" and Violence

Do you believe that the violence in "Thundarr the Barbarian" might have a long term negative effect on children>

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It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown


It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

The program presents a different case--what happens when the line between television and life blurs? This is seen in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the follow-up to A Charlie Brown Christmas. It is a sweet little tale of children celebrating the traditions of Halloween. What could be the problem. I will give you a hint--it wasn't controversial for its use of an invisible member of the squash family as the central character.

Trick or Treat!

The controversy

Charlie Brown went trick or treating and got rocks. This led to children sending candy both to CBS and to Charles Schulz's studio for many years after airing. This begs the question, though--was this the result of the generosity of children or the inability of adults to distinguish between reality and fiction?

Soupy Sales "Green Pieces of Paper"

This is not the first time children sent things to television characters. Soupy Sales famously told children to send the contents of their parents' wallet to him. He was joking of course, but many children took him seriously and sent him the money.

Children are not the only people who behaved in this way. Many adults send wedding and baby shower gifts to soap opera characters.

Fan Mail.

Have you, personally, ever sent fan mail to a character (not the actor) in a television show or film?

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Fantastic 4 (1978)


Fantastic Four Cartoon (1978)

The 1978 version of the Fantastic Four cartoon featured Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards), the Invisible Girl (Sue Storm), the Thing (Ben Grimm) and H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot. H.E.R.B.I.E? This was not your parents' (much cooler) Fantastic Four!

The Fantastic Three and H.E.R.B.I.E.

The Controversy

NBC was afraid of putting the Human Torch (Johnny Storm) in the series because they were afraid that children would try to "flame on." Television was already reeling from a series of events where children imitated what they had saw on television. NBC did not want children setting themselves on fire in the same way they tried to fly like Superman.

The Bobo Doll (Learned Aggression) Experiment



Have you either imitated a television or film character when you found yourself in a tricky situation?

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Imitative Behavior and Television

Albert Bandura, in the 1960s, demonstrated that children learn how to act from social cues that they see on television. When a child sees an adult hit a Bobo doll (punching bag) with a mallet, the child learns that type of behavior is appropriate. There have been several high profile cases involving children being killed when their friends have applied wrestling holds that they had seen professional wrestlers use on television--Lionel Tate in Florida in 1994 and Devalon Armstrong in Louisiana in 2013 being the most memorable. Several children have been injured or killed when they attempted to fly "like Superman" (including Ronald Rockett (age 3) and Charles Green (age 4) in 1979 and Julian Roman (age 9)--who died from his injuries--in 2001).

Would a child set himself on fire trying to imitate the Human Torch? Unlike the wrestling cases--where a child would need a slightly open area--or the Superman cases--a high spot and a cape, children would need access to flammable chemicals of some kind and an open flame. This certainly would take more planning than simply deciding to grapple with a friend or to fly away. A child would also need some stimuli in which setting oneself on fire would solve the problem. I won't discount that it might happen nor that it may have happened (at least I cannot find a case where this has happened), but I think it is a reach that children will believe that it is ever appropriate to set yourself on fire.

The Torch

Do you believe that a child would ever imitate the Human Torch by setting themselves on fire?

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Thundarr the Barbarian
Extreme violence
Desensitizes children to violence
It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
Charlie Brown getting rocks for Halloween, children sending him candy
Identifying reality from fiction
Fantastic 4
The Human Torch is replaced by H.E.R.B.I.E.
Fear of imitative behavior


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    • Shelly Nun-Chucks profile image

      Shelly NunChucks Ninja 4 years ago from worldwide

      too bad we didn't have flying cars :) that would be cool

    • jeffshires profile image

      Jeff Shires 4 years ago from Lake Station, IN

      Thanks for the comment. Yeah, "Thundarr" looks extremely tame now, but in the 1980s . . .

      Look at the difference between Japanese animation between the 1980s and today. The violence really has really ramped up not just in the number, but in the intensity and the graphicness of depiction. If the violence ramps up by the same factor, what will animation be thirty years from now (please not "Strawberry Shortcake." :) )? And what will the society be like that surrounds it?

      That said, there are a multitude factors that trigger societal change and they all work together in a web of influence. The media is just one of them. I have several books that "predict" the future of the 1980s (these were written in the 1950s and 1960s)--most are wrong. The only two writers that I have come across that actually nailed the ethos of today were Lewis Mumford and Marshall McLuhan, primarily (I think) because they talked about attitudes underlying technology and not try to make specific guesses about flying cars and things.

    • Shelly Nun-Chucks profile image

      Shelly NunChucks Ninja 4 years ago from worldwide

      the violence I think is pretty tame, basically I'm an action chick, but watch anime, now that's incredibly violent, but then again, you were referring to a different time period in America