In a 2014 article, “Honey, You’re Scaring the Kids,” Rebecca Onion wrote about the impact on children of a 1983 TV movie depicting nuclear warfare, and also about the adults who debated that impact.
In the fall of 1983, a TV movie ruined Alexander Zaitchik’s ninth birthday party. He wasn’t supposed to see The Day After, a two-hour film set in Lawrence, Kansas that follows a cast of everyday American characters into and through a nuclear strike, but he lingered at the top of the stairs as his family watched, catching snatches of the images and sounds.
Recalling the event years later, Zaitchik remembered his eight-year-old self anxiously playing through the circumstances of a nuclear attack. “If it happens in the afternoon, do we run toward home, or away from the city and the blast? If it happens at night, do we let our parents huddle over us in the basement, or do we stand on the rooftop, chests forward, praying the first shock wave dematerializes our family without pain?”
Preoccupied, Zaitchik wrote, he barely noticed his birthday celebration. “It was the first birthday party I felt no excitement over. The ice cream cake was tasteless. The Return of the Jedi action figures I unwrapped were pieces of plastic, destined to burn up with everything else.”
Disagreement over effects the movie might have had on children polarized on right-left lines, similar to controversy today about the affective consequences of climate-change messaging. Then, as now, a narrative juxtaposition of blind complacency with stark questions about human survival generated discomfort and politicized discord over the uses of anxiety. These conflicts were rooted in different evaluations both of children themselves, and of the role of emotion in public discourse:
Discussions of the movie’s impact revealed sharp lines between conservative voices who preferred to steer clear of what they termed emotional reactions (or, as William F. Buckley, Jr. would put it, “junk thought”) in policy discussions, and activists who found a bloodless conversation about the issues to be dangerous and inhuman.
Rebecca Onion notes that both conservatives and liberals, in quite different ways, used and still use children as things to think with, judge with, and feel with. Children furnished voices that were not their own. They were transformed into condensed imagery: on one hand, the Romanticist innocent and truth-teller; on the other, the irrational dependent:
For both sides, children’s fears stand in as a proxy for all of our emotional responses around issues of apocalyptic risk: our “hysterias,” nightmares, and forebodings. The idea that conservative ideology is free from such responses is part of a self-presentation deeply rooted in ideals of rational masculinity. Kids are afraid; moms are afraid; therapists make soothing noises; men know the truth of the risks, see the real possible futures, and act accordingly.