The age of consent

This paper focuses on Peter Morris’s play 'The Age of Consent' based on the James Bulger murder. It argues that the English discourse about child crime is more disturbing than the fact that children commit crimes. What should have been a fair trial focused more on retribution than truth.

Acts of childhood: conceptions of identity, culpability and consent in Peter Morris's The Age of Consent

Peter Morris’s play The Age of Consent exposes the way in which children consent to conceptions of their identity that may not be healthy for them. It also reveals the way in which we may unwittingly accept assumptions which should be questioned about childhood and criminality.  One can say that the questioning by the child of the assumptions underlying what is imposed upon it, is inevitable. This implies that there will be a mismatch between the expectations of those bringing up the child, whoever they are, and the child concerned.  Parents, carers and those in the wider society will seek to influence children’s hopes and fears to correspond with their own notions of what these hopes and fears should be.  However, since it is reasonable to say that hopes and fears are evidence of the independence, which marks identity, and thus real consent, those bringing up children should be ready to accept the existence of that mismatch.  It is clear that this play presents parents and carers who fail to do this, resulting in the emergence of ironic, and therefore dramatic, clashes of understanding.

 The play, based on the killing of James Bulger, was written for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It has two alternating monologues: one spoken by Timmy, an 18-year-old child murderer on the eve of his release from a secure unit into a halfway house; in the other, a mother called Stephanie is pushing her six-year-old daughter, Raquel, to become an actress.  We see how the children’s behaviour and identity is shaped by their upbringing and wider context.  Peter Morris is asking how we can and do consent to so much without consciously questioning it.  He intends the play to be a ‘serious moral examination of what contemporary society is doing to children’ in his demonstration of the manipulation of consent (Morris 2012: 30).

 Consent can be viewed both in terms of what the characters consent to and in terms of the notion of ‘manufacturing consent’ which Morris refers to in his introduction to the play (Chomsky 1988: np).  The play evokes questions about the way in which we view, raise and treat children and suggests that we blindly accept certain assumptions as givens and that this leads to a loss of our essential humanity.  The way in which the discourse about children creates this blind acceptance is subtly unveiled.  Three areas of discourse dominate the play: childhood, evil and criminal justice. Lawler defines discourse as follows:

Discourses define what can be said and thought, and how these things can be said and thought. But this is about more than ideas or words. … They can be seen as verbal and non-verbal ways of organizing the world, creating some ways of conceptualizing that are seen axiomatically obvious and ‘true’, while others are outside sense. (Lawler 2008: 57)

 This needs to be considered in order to unpack the hidden assumptions and make them more explicit. One of the assumptions the play examines is the shaping of identity and consent to a particular construction of identity. So what are the psychological factors that influence identity?

Character is strongly shaped by environments, and there are many players involved in shaping environments – from parents, to teachers, to policy makers. Character building, then, is not a task to be accomplished in isolation, but rather a collective endeavour. (Lexmond and Gris 2011: 13)

 That this is a collective endeavour is backed up by a larger body of recent and ground-breaking research in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and genetics that suggest that our early life experiences set us up for how we will behave in later life. In fact researchers now believe the environment is much more important than previously thought. Marcus Pembrey, an epigenetics scientist describes our genetic code as being ‘rather like a set of piano keys, it provides a blue print for the type of music that can be played, but our environment and nurture determines what keys are pressed when, how hard, how long, and in what order.’ (Pembrey 2011: np). This suggests that the healthy development of a child’s brain will depend on the care that they will receive from adults.

 Attachment plays an enormous role in the development of identity:

Attachment yields representations of the self and other that can be likened to these attributes of a foundation that later shape the organization of identity. Identity, then, functions as a future-focused process connecting one’s individual development and history, if attachment if disrupted, identity is disrupted. (Keiley 2011:32)

 Attachment, indeed love, necessarily involves a respect for the identity of others, which brings with it a recognition that the child has a part to play – and that word ‘play’  is here not a metaphor. Timmy’s experience evidences the potential consequences of having an upbringing in which adults did not keep the child in mind; Raquel’s equivalent story happens in real time.  This powerful relationship between the two raises questions of responsibility.  Through consideration of these questions, one is drawn deeper into ideas of identity, consent, criminality and the implications of our wider society. Human existence, because of its fundamentally ironic nature, involves dramatic interactions. It could be said that the play makes plain that life cannot escape embodying changes and confrontations that really deserve the word ‘theatrical’ (Kearney 2002: 150-154).  Inside the play we find the play of life.

Child out of mind

Raquel is learning what she needs to do to be approved of. The rules are set by her mother, Stephanie, who is trying to help her obtain power and money through being talented, sexually attractive and compliant.  On the first page, Stephanie explains the three T’s of entertainment - ‘talent, teeth and tits’ (Morris 2002: 3). Stephanie describes reading More magazine with Raquel leading to ‘arcane mummy-daughter chats’ (Ibid: 5). One becomes aware of how highly inappropriate this is and also how Raquel, at the age of six, is being treated as an adult. More evidence of this comes from Stephanie’s description of objects that Raquel’s dad has failed to send her ‘a gift certificate for Top Shop, or a couple of Max Factor Misty Pink Lip Glosses, anything that a girl of Raquel’s age might possibly appreciate’ (Ibid: 4). There is one hint of what Raquel would really like, which is to play ‘bat babies’ (Ibid). The crescendo at the end of the play is a picnic for Raquel and Mr Varady: ‘There was a hunk of pecorino cheese, and some Parma ham, and a nice loaf of Italian bread. Some Monster Munch for Raquel. A bottle of claret. And two glasses’ (Ibid: 34). Treating Raquel as a mini adult, alongside the story of Timmy who was tried as an adult, questions the way we treat our children:

While children are not without 'minds of their own', there is a powerful and imposed expectation on them to follow adult-prescribed roles during their socially constructed 'preparation' for adulthood. This is the process in which children are 'human becomings' as opposed to 'human beings'; excluded and marginalized from the decisions through which, and the arenas in which, the quality of their life is determined. (Haydon and Scraton 2002: 418)

 If children are viewed as incomplete adults then they have no agency, as we are constantly steering them towards what we think is the right way to for them to behave as an adult.  If they do not protest, they are effectively consenting.

One comes to wonder whether children have much of a voice in our society.  Raquel has no voice in relation to what happens to her.  In fact, her mother insists she conforms to the role she has decided for her, ‘You do whatever he asks. As they say in Hollywood, if you’re not kissing his arse, you should be wiping his arse. He tells you to jump, you say how high?’ (Morris 2002: 33). Indeed, in terms of the loss of childhood we are left with an incredibly haunting last image:

As I watched them walk down to his car, him with the picnic hamper, and her with her little hand reaching up to clutch his pinky finger, I just thought… he’s done so much. I know I’ll never forget this man. And you hope Raquel won’t forget it either. (Ibid: 35)

 It is clear that her childhood has now been completely corrupted.

Stephanie treats Raquel as having no mind of her own, like an animal.  Stephanie states that ‘the only difference between a prize poodle and a Bonnie Langford is the length of its ringlets’ (Ibid: 5). ‘Child rearing, such as it is, you’ve just got to be firm and communicate in one-syllable commands, and then the rest is down to breeding and grooming’ (Ibid). Ironically, ‘grooming’ has two meanings in this context. Raquel has no say in her identity.  In no part of the play do we get any sense of Stephanie loving Raquel. Raquel absorbs who her mother wants her to be and learns that approval will come from complying with her mother’s and Mr Varady’s requests. By not resisting she is effectively consenting, while inwardly her capacity for free choice, still unconsciously present, is being suppressed.

Timmy on the other hand, is consenting to his title of a perpetrator and is allowing himself to feel guilty and solely responsible.  However, we get hints throughout the play that he is still a child in some ways:  we see him sewing a teddy bear, hear about his enjoyment of a chocolate factory visit and his longing to see a mother he wishes would love him:

You wanted him so much, it’s like what a mum’s supposed to be like, that love… like a… like a light that just keeps shining all night… something that won’t be satisfied, ‘coz you got so much to give… so give it to me, if I’m still alive. (Ibid: 25)

 Peter Morris shows Timmy was, and is still, a child, a child that has been made to feel bad, guilty and responsible.  He has been educated to accept he has committed a terrible crime (Ibid: 8). He now monitors all his actions, ‘In here… what they like is to set up the camera inside your own head. So that you’re watching yourself. So that every time you do something there’s a bit of you watching you do it. Inside your head’ (Ibid: 9). He appears to have consented to the perception of him as guilty of murder in an adult sense:

They made me act it out, they made me think how he felt, what it was like, what I did, how she felt when she couldn’t find him… what she screamed like… if I’ve got an imagination at least they make me use it till I sweat and use it for the right things now. (Ibid: 23)

 One wonders if he should consent to this identity given the evidence of his negative upbringing:

I remember going three days without food coz we were fucking broke, I remember being sent home from school coz my shoes had worn through, I remember my mum bringing boyfriends over that you’d be glad if they just kicked you in the stomach. (Ibid: 31)

Timmy’s early experiences may have had a strong influence on his identity. Timmy’s feelings towards himself are mirrored in his description of the toys in Toy Story. ‘They know they’re not unique… it’s only to learn how to accept the fact that they’re just these… things… like robots… these meaningless pieces of shit that can get broken and replaced… like slaves’ (Ibid: 16).  Timmy has been educated enough to realise just how broken he is.  He identifies with rusty machinery ‘in it’s own way it’s kind of beautiful’ (Ibid: 15). He’s broken and the machines are broken which he finds comforting. What is perhaps more capturing is his description of Winnie-the-Pooh:

This isn’t like Winnie-the-Pooh. It’s not about a boy who has his stuffed toys and they’re mates, the way mates are, like a pack of fucking lunatics and one’s a manic depressive donkey and one’s a slag rabbit and one’s a fucking pretentious overbearing owl. (Ibid: 16)

This is a powerful metaphor that rather poetically captures the image of a contaminated childhood. Timmy has effectively consented to an image of him as being wholly responsible for a horrendous crime and incorporated that notion into his identity resulting in him viewing himself as damaged and incomplete.

Here what needs to be emphasized is how Timmy uses narratives as analogies for what he feels.  He has spontaneously picked out two stories in which the aims of the powerless are shaped and determined by those that make no attempt to consider the independent wishes of the beings involved.  In Toy Story, the toys have no purposes other than the satisfaction of their owner’s desire; in the Winnie the Pooh stories, not only is the same true but Timmy also perceives the animal characters as pathological failures to arrive at an identity.

Little monsters


In writing The Age of Consent, Peter Morris is responding to the way that British society handled the death of James Bulger and he explores in the text the impact of the discourse of evil on Timmy. Timmy refers to being described as a monster: ‘Eight years ago the police were saying I was barely literate. Like I was some kind of fucking wolf-boy they found living under a rock’ (Ibid: 11). It is clear from the play that Timmy is tempted to adopt these characteristics himself: ‘Course if anyone says anything I’ll fucking rip his eyes out of his fucking sockets and eat them like pickled eggs, won’t I, Teddy?’ (Ibid: 15) What is ironic of course is that whilst saying this he is sewing a teddy bear, revealing the child beneath.  

The discourse around evil prevents any thoughtful analysis of what happens when crimes occur.  Eagleton offers the analysis that calling an action evil means that it is ‘beyond comprehension. Evil is unintelligible. It is just a thing in itself, like boarding a crowded commuter train wearing only a giant boa constrictor. There is no context which would make it explicable’ (Eagleton 2010: 29). Eagleton goes on to say that evil ‘is thought to be uncaused, or to be its own cause’ (Ibid). Therefore we do not need to search for other causes. However, we could use a different discourse from the ‘evil’ discourse, but that might mean, we would have to do something. Talk about evil allows us to abdicate all responsibility for taking any social action. This perception is apparent as a theme within the play. As Timmy says, and here note his immediate awareness of the story-form adopted by the tabloids in spite of themselves: 

It’s like reading a story you never read before, then you get told that it’s you, that’s your life, that’s what you were doing… but you look and you just don’t know the person. Who the fuck is this? This sarky, vicious ten-year-old…what he was like…is that still me? Can you expect me to understand who he was. (Morris 2002: 30)

 Labelling Timmy as evil is forcing him to incorporate this notion into his identity, and he struggles with this. Indeed, removing from the social ‘... erodes... responsibility for understanding and challenging the individual and social forces that have produced such an ... event. To demonise ... removes the [act] from the realm of social action' (Jackson 1995: 4).  Timmy is effectively forced to consent to a view of himself which accepts full responsibility for his actions even though he committed them as a child and he has no idea why he did it.

He goes on to describe himself in the paper, ‘a picture of me with evil written underneath and what’s the point?’ (Morris 2002: 30).  The play reminds us that the discourse of evil allows those who have a much more authoritarian view of society to shift the culture away from more liberal attitudes and a deeper understanding of the causes of crime. Phillip Cole in his book The Myth of Evil talks about a discourse of evil which created an imagined split between the victim and the victimiser: those that are killed embody the innocence of childhood; those that did the killing are seen as evil adults and monsters in disguise (Cole 2006: 133). We find it impossible to conceive that a child can be both innocent and guilty because it is more comfortable if things are simple.  We do not want to think that child killers could be like ‘us’ so they become ‘them’.  

In fact Peter Morris not only presents Timmy’s humanity but also reminds us poignantly that he was just a child at the point of the killing through Timmy’s description of putting a battery in the toddler’s mouth because he thought it might start him up again (Morris, 2002: 24). In addition Timmy shows he is perfectly capable of empathy because he is able to imagine what it was like for the child and also what it was like for the mother:

But her because she turned away for five minutes, to - what? Look at something? … It doesn’t matter what it was, even just for five minutes, no excuse will ever be good enough, for the rest of her life she’ll be going back over that. (Morris 2002: 24) 

Morris presents Timmy as a victim of the society’s inability to conceive of the possibility of rehabilitation. This comes from the notion of evil being a permanent characteristic. ‘What seems to terrify here is the idea that these individuals cannot be safely reintegrated into society, that they are in some sense ineducable, permanently outside the control of adults.  Their problem is that they know too much’ (Moore 2005: 739). If this is part of the discourse, it seems impossible to rehabilitate them, because they cannot be made innocent again.  To leave out the possibility of self-transformation, as this view of evil does, is to ignore the sources of dramatic change that are open to persons that retain a sense of responsible identity.

In parallel, Stephanie fully embraces the notion that children can be evil, ‘I don’t know what side of the nature-nurture debate this will put me on, but I now have definitive proof that a six-year-old girl can be a raging hysterical werewolf bitch’ (Morris 2012: 21). By demonizing her child and by referring to her as a ‘werewolf bitch’ Stephanie is acting within the discourse against which the play is working.  Haydon believes the demonization and condemnation of children is motivated by a fear of children’s rights as challenging adult’s power and refers to this as adultism. ‘Adultism is expressed via a language of exclusion and denial, confirming children and young people as outsiders; the “other” to adult essentialism’ (Haydon and Scraton 2002: 448). Stephanie’s attempts to treat her as a different species reflects this ‘other’.   

 Initially Raquel does not consent to the identity that Stephanie has intended for her and we see signs of healthy rebellion. Stephanie interprets this as evidence that Raquel is the problem: 

Raquel and I get into these stand-offs, really, it just feeds on itself and gets worse and worse. Because I will take her in for our first audition of the day, and she’ll already be in a bad mood, and then she’ll bollocks up the audition and that makes me livid. (Morris 2002: 19) 

Stephanie gives Raquel adult responsibility, ‘Raquel ruined it for herself. It’s like the old story of she curtsied then she farted’ (Ibid: 20).  

Stephanie describes Raquel as a monster, ‘I might need to have her put down for the public good before PMT unleashes another Godzilla in a few years’ (Ibid: 21). Again, a character in the play refers to her ‘real life’ in terms drawn from drama itself, from the Gothic tradition, as was the ‘werewolf’ remark.  She construes Raquel’s behaviour as signs of defiance when they could be interpreted as signs of trauma, ‘And her latest technique? For domestic terrorism? wetting the bed. It’s absolutely foul… so now I’m simply refusing to change the sheets’ (Ibid: 21).  It is almost as if Stephanie has become the child here and she is projecting a negative identity onto Raquel which doesn’t fit. One rather pivotal moment in one of these episodes is when Raquel refers to her mum and dad as ‘dumb and mad’, a very poetic rejection of what her mother is trying to do to her.  Raquel is employing the rhetorical device of the spoonerism (an interchange of initial consonants) resulting in an ironic comment on her upbringing.  Her absent Dad is dumb and her Mum is mad. 

Towards the end of the play we are disturbed by Raquel’s moving from healthy resistance to reluctant compliance: ‘Raquel has turned up and was staring at us, in that way she has these days, kind of accusatory and macabre, popping her eyes at you like an Anglo-Saxon golliwog’ (Ibid: 34). It is clear that Raquel has consented to her identity as sexual slave but is also still inwardly conflicted.  Not only do children consent to unhealthy identities, but to what extent are these misconceptions of children institutionalised?

The criminal injustice system

Turning to the correspondences with the real life incident, in which James Bulger was killed, helps to explore the discourse about the criminal justice system that led to Timmy’s incarceration and loss of his real identity. Peter Morris aimed to speak on behalf of Thompson and Venables because they would risk their lives if they did so themselves (Morris 2012: 31). One of the key messages that Morris conveys within his play is that Timmy was just a child when he committed the crime and did not understand why he did it. Regardless, the criminal justice system in the UK treats any child over 10 as an adult in the courts. This is a political decision made by the government of each country:

The age of criminal responsibility is seven in Cyprus, Ireland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein; eight in Scotland; thirteen in France; fourteen in Germany, Austria, Italy and many eastern European countries; fifteen in the Scandinavian countries; sixteen in Portugal, Poland and Andorra; and eighteen in Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg. (Molan 2008: 100) 

The key question is when children can be said to consent to a crime in an adult sense. The battery incident is the one that most powerfully reminds us of Timmy’s nature as a child. Morris has used this to reflect a new angle upon childhood and innocence.  To return to the notion of children being ‘human becomings’ one is asked to consider if it is appropriate that ‘children are tried as small adults’ (Haydon and Scraton 2000: 426). Peter Morris presents us with the idea that Timmy was, after all, just a child and questions to what extent he even understood what he had done. 

Morris explores the conflict between punishment and rehabilitation. He presents the outside world as desiring punishment. Timmy comments on the newspapers, ‘That’s why I’m in the paper still. ‘Cos I don’t deserve it so good’ (Morris 2002: 11).  What is most poignant is Timmy’s recognition of the mother’s desire for a longer sentence.  ‘All she wants is for me to be back in, for another five years, or seven, or… or just long enough, really, so that when I get out I’ll be so broken and dead that it will hardly matter’ (Ibid: 37).  His discernment of the prevailing discourse of retribution even for children has scarred him, ‘Why hang a kid when you can convince him to hang himself’ (Ibid).  Peter Morris invites questions about the sense of this approach. Dr Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England recently commented: 

In most Western European nations they have a completely different way of intervening with youngsters who've committed crime. Most of their approaches are more therapeutic, more family and community-based, more about reparation than simply locking somebody up. (Cited in Atkinson 2010: np) 

Peter Morris asks what use punishment is, if those receiving it become incapable of living a normal life.  The play considers how Timmy will cope after his release. A powerful moment within the text is when Timmy wonders what he would do if he meets a girl, ‘I can’t even make up the story… it’s what I want so much and I don’t even know how it will go’ (Morris 2002: 9).  He realises that if he does meet anyone, he will need to tell them who he is before they have got to know him, ‘If she’s still there she’s probably fat and desperate, or else she’s mad, or else she wants to sell her story to the papers’ (Ibid: 10). 

We are left with the harrowing impression that Timmy will leave the unit completely alone and anonymous.  He is not able to use his real name, so his true identity has been taken from him. His lack of identity is expressed throughout Morris’s play as a clear consequence to Timmy’s treatment.  The allusion to Toy Story recurs in his seeing himself as the useless and self-misconstruing Buzz Lightyear:  ‘I am totally the same as everyone else out there my age, and totally useless, a meaningless fucking robot, another up-his-own arse space ranger who can’t even fly’ (Ibid: 17). Because it is impossible for him to resume his identity, he feels that he has to be nobody, ‘Once I’m gone, no one will ever listen to me again. I’ll be one of the people whose voices don’t get heard, one of those people who never speak up or speak out’ (Ibid: 38).  The irony is that this lack of identity is his only means of survival but unless you are somebody, you are nobody, and you don’t exist. In contrast societies that don’t treat children as criminals enable them to keep their identities.  When a 5 year old girl in Norway was killed by three 6 year old boys in 1994, the boys were swiftly reintegrated into the community. These children kept their original names, their families and their identity, whereas Timmy was sentenced to be anonymous for the rest of his life (Green 2007: 596).  He really has been given a life sentence. 

The Age of Consent forces us to question what we have consented to. Morris brings to light the fact that there was not enough effort to understand and as a result all the blame was placed on Timmy and he was asked to account for his behaviour:

You got the facts but really want the reasons and it’s me alone who has the reasons, what you’re thinking, so you press, you take me up to squeeze the answers out, but all I’ve got is telling you the facts, the things that happened and that’s not enough. (Morris 2002: 30)

As stated above, Peter Morris provides hints throughout the play of Timmy’s difficult background. This echoed the case of James Bulger where the criminal justice system did not allow any consideration of the social causes of the offending behaviour, because of the way the trial was run:

Once these psychiatrists had handed over their written reports, these became in effect the property of law. Law was free to deal with the medico-scientific explanations they contained as it saw fit within the context of its own procedures, and in the Bulger case it saw fit to ignore them. (King 2007: 123)

The murder happened a year after a call from the then Prime Minister, John Major, with his suggestion that society should ‘condemn a little more, and understand a little less.’  King points out that by treating the act as evil, which needed punishment, that the establishment contained the moral panic. It would not have been contained so well if the killing had been attributed to ‘sociological, psychological or biological causes’ (Ibid: 124).

 Morris makes some sophisticated gestures towards underlying problems within our society, such as inequality, ‘poor people, the ones who in years of trying can’t get anything accomplished that would make their life easier, can’t get someone elected who even gives a fuck, so they just stop trying’ (Morris 2002: 31). We are forced to wonder if our society is equal and what consequences this has regarding criminality:

Depends if you think that justice is taking the happiness and spreading it equally over everybody, like… like fucking marmite, or if you think there’s not enough marmite to go round, and rationing will have to be imposed, and we attack people who get more than their share… like me, since now I have an education… just enough of one to realise how hopeless the whole thing is… and to ask well who should be happy if not everyone… which is hopeless… not that you care it only makes me more and more unhappy asking it.  (Morris 2002: 38)

 Timmy believes the world to be hopeless because he has realised the world is not equal and is never going to be. There are not enough resources for everyone, but even those available are not distributed fairly.  He has realised that those with a negative label like him will be penalised and used as a distraction from the real inequality. What this also highlights is the danger of allowing real acknowledgement that we have common assumptions because sometimes this can lead to an insistence on conformity.  Stephanie wants absolute obedience in pursuit of a private goal of narcissistic success, which is inevitably proved to be self-defeating: Timmy is being inserted into a system that has, for him, no goal at all.  The fact is that the assumptions are not ‘common’:  everyone assumes something different.

 Morris uses Raquel’s story to make some similar, yet more subtle statements about the criminal justice system. Raquel is acknowledged as a victim by the audience whereas her mother sees her as a perpetrator. Stephanie as a mother is embodying an attitude towards children that sees them as needing to be controlled. We can see evidence of how she does this to Raquel; ‘you just starve them into submission’ (Morris 2002: 17).  Along with physical punishment; ‘I was so fucked off I slapped her across the face and she fell over’ (Morris 2002: 20). We can see how she is dealing with resistance through punishment. Haydon suggests that there is a ‘powerful adult construction that children inherently are “bad”; that left to their own devices they will be barbarous, out-of-control’ (Haydon and Scraton 2002: 447). The result of this belief is greater surveillance, more discipline and more punishment instead of support, therapy and opportunities to have a voice.

 In the play, Raquel, as a child victim, and her mother, an adult perpetrator, appear to exist unnoticed by the rest of society. It becomes frighteningly clear that if Raquel were to commit a crime then finally she would be noticed, but for all the wrong reasons. Why is our society sleepwalking into this treatment of children?

The sleep of reason [1]

[1] Smith uses this to challenge our assumptions that children reason like adults. It can also refer ironically to the lack of rationality shown in society and the media (Smith 2011: np).

How much of life do we accept passively, without asking questions or taking time to think? How much is forced upon us? How much of what takes place around us do we actually consent to? (Morris 2002: np) 

Peter Morris explicitly refers to Herman and Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent in the introduction to his play and links this to his title (Ibid).  This refers to Chomsky’s view that media is controlled by the dominant groups in society who want to ensure that the public support their agendas. ‘And they do this in all sorts of ways: by selection of topics, by distribution of concerns, by emphasis and framing of issues, by filtering of information, by bounding of debate within certain limits. They determine, they select, they shape, they control, they restrict - in order to serve the interests of dominant, elite groups in the society’ (Chomsky 1988: np).

An illustration of this is Stephanie’s unquestioning embrace of the media’s objectification of women to make money. She takes it on trust that this is the best thing for Raquel without seeming to have any awareness of the danger she is putting her daughter in:

I have spent long evenings describing to Raquel what canapés are, and trying to make them sound particularly toothsome and exciting, in the hopes that she will start clawing her way to the top a little faster. (Morris 2002: 18)

 Stephanie is seduced by good living and is trying to persuade her daughter that money is what life is about and any means are appropriate of getting it. This becomes apparent through Stephanie’s views on men; ‘you do whatever he asks’ (Ibid: 33). What is disturbing is we can see the belief that Stephanie buys into which is that power is only available through men, and women can only get that from them by being sexually attractive. An interesting moment is the only time within the play that consent is mentioned: 

I’m just sitting there with Mr Varady, and finally I get to a sheet that says ‘consent’. As in parental consent. But I said ‘Ooh, Mr Varady, does this have something to do with the age of consent? Because I’m not as young as I look, you know’. And Mr Varady took my hand, and tickled his fingers across my palm, and he smiled and said, ‘Miss Dunn… we’re living in an age of consent’. (Ibid: 28)

What is ironic here is that Raquel is not giving her consent; this reflects Morris’s initial statement of how serious it can be to go along with something without challenging it. We can see the horrific consequences for Raquel of Stephanie’s blind acceptance of the prevailing discourse.

 Moving to Timmy, we can see the implications of acceptance without challenge of the messages from people in power:

This is what the poor people should be outraged about, you know, won’t it be fun to see them getting up in arms about this one…evil children… that’ll entertain them, let them get vigilante about the evil children of Britain. (Ibid: 32) 

Timmy has quite a sophisticated understanding of the way in which the media can manipulate the public’s response to events to achieve the aims of those in powerful positions. Green states that there is an unhealthy interaction between politicians in England and the sensationalist media. The media wants to sell newspapers and focuses on the extreme emotional reaction of the public. The politicians then feel they have to respond to this emotional reaction by making tough statements about the perpetrators and the need to punish them. This is partly because the public is becoming more distrustful of politicians. But because they are not addressing the real problems, the politicians are not seen as having any impact (Green 2007: 593).  Green goes on, disturbingly, to say that, ‘In this cyclical pattern, English political culture undermines its own legitimacy by perpetuating a process whereby existing policy is portrayed as ever in crisis and in need of reform’ (Ibid).

However Timmy’s reference to poor people is accompanied by another meaning, we feel there is no empathy for him because he has been labelled as the perpetrator. We see a clear example of this through Timmy gesturing towards our romantic sentimentalisation of little children and cute animals:

You ask me what I think of puppies or kittens, if I said honestly, kill them all, whack them with fucking shovels, because as long as you’re willing to shed tears over a stupid animal, like it was a person, then it’s going to be even easier for you to take a person and treat him like a stupid fucking animal. (Morris 2002: 31)

What Timmy is getting at here is actually very powerful; he is suggesting that, in regard to the real life event, that James got all the sympathy because he was sweet. Timmy on the other hand, past the point of sweetness, from a poor background was labelled as something rather different as people don’t have any sympathy for someone like him. He raises the question of why people were not outraged about what his background had done to him rather than on the imaginary ‘evil’.

Timmy comments on the fact that in stepping across the threshold into the real world, he is losing his identity and becoming anonymous; ‘you’ll forget my face and the sound of my voice, but that’s all good, my life depends on it’ (Morris 2002: 38).  Those with power are able to have a strong identity and deny others the ability to have an identity at all:

The meaning of ‘underclass identity’ is an absence of identity; the effacement or denial of individuality, of ‘face’ – that object of ethical duty and moral care. You are cast outside the social space in which identities are sought, chosen, constructed, evaluated, confirmed or refuted. (Bauman 2004: 39)

By having power your voice matters and you will be heard, but without it you are irrelevant. If you do not question the assumptions, you are silent and you are consenting:

Applaud. For yourselves. Clap hands for you and me and all of us whose voices count for nothing in this world. I mean we made it this far in silence, didn’t we? We might do something about it yet. (Morris 2002: 39)

We are encouraged by the media to leave our rational brains behind and respond emotionally and illogically to sensational events. We consent to this when we do not question the assumptions underlying the media stories but it does not have to be this way.  We do not have to be silent.

Conclusion

The English discourse about child crime is more disturbing than the fact that children commit crimes. There needs to be a public debate with a much more sympathetic understanding of the optimum conditions for the development of empathy, moral development and the ability to regulate emotions.  If children are dealt with in the criminal justice system, then at the very least, it must be a system which treats them as children first and criminals second. However, in an ideal world, children would not encounter the criminal justice system. We should be much more curious about the physiological, psychological and sociological causes of crime.  

Perhaps as a society we should also take a moment to think about how we view our children, as Suzanne Moore concluded in the Guardian (26TH March 1993) that children ‘have only to look around them to see that ours is a culture that does not actually like children very much’ (Cited in Davis and Bournhill 1997: 55).  I propose that we should adopt childism as the opposite of what Haydon refers to as ‘adultism’.  Childism would not romanticise the child, but it would allow the construction of identity through childhood as a negotiation, and at least allow the possibility that the child's natural questioning of the assumptions that underlie  the discourse in the adult world, might allow for new lenses through which we might look at the world.  What the continual allusions to drama within the play make plain is that the negotiation of identity is dramatic in form.  Morris has been able to empower his play as an act of persuasion by showing acts of mispersuasion at work, and the dire results of the misconceptions they contain.  Therefore the development of identity should be a dramatic negotiation in which misunderstandings are, if possible, hopefully resolved by the desire to compromise, even willingly to sacrifice a cherished expectation of one’s own, a ‘common assumption’.  In this endeavour we are invited to consider the common assumptions that, unwittingly, we might be consenting to.

 

Appendix

On the 12th Febuary 1994, James Patrick Bulger, a boy aged two from Kirby, was abducted, tortured and murdered by repeated blows to the head with a brick. Blue paint had been applied around one of his eyes and there was some evidence of mutilation of the genitals. He killers were two ten-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. Thompson and Venables were sentenced to a minimum of eight years and a year later the home secretary Michael Howard tried to extend this to 15 years but was not successful. They were freed after 8 years resulting in huge condemnation in the press at the time (Green 2007: 596). Cole describes some of the background of Venables and Thompson. Robert Thomson was the 5th of 6 sons, his father left the family home when he was 5 and there is some evidence that his mother and father had a violent relationship. His mother turned to drink and left the children in the charge of their 17 year old brother who hit them if they did anything wrong. There was evidence of bullying within the family. The two eldest boys were taken into care leaving the next oldest in charge (Cole, 2006: 129). Later Thompson is claimed to have disclosed that he was sexually abused in childhood (Smith, 2011: np). Jon Venables’ parents divorced when he was three and his elder brother and younger sister attended a special school.

Jon Venables had been referred to a psychologist by a teacher because he banged his head against a wall to attract attention, threw things at other children, cut himself with scissors, stuck paper over his face and, on one occasion, nearly choked another boy with a ruler. (Newbury 2001: 110)

The killing triggered a media storm, which was so long lasting and intense that the response to the perceived pubic angst has had a lasting impact on criminal justice policy in the UK.

 

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