Jen Baker’s recent blog post provides an excellent overview of the “stranger danger” films that were widely produced and disseminated in the postwar United States and England. Her analysis rightly concludes that such films encouraged “society to normalise the family as a haven from danger” and to ignore how “often the threat begins in the home” or comes from “friends or family.”
Baker’s analysis misses the mark, however, when she uses Sid Davis’ 1949 piece, “The Dangerous Stranger,” to claim that stranger danger films made in the United States between 1960 and 1980 coded sexuality so that it was legible to adults but inscrutable to child audiences because the threat “is never explicitly explained to the intended child viewers.” In fact, after 1957, these films explicitly named sexual danger. By using a 1949 film to characterize the productions of the three succeeding decades, moreover, Baker misunderstands key transformations to the genre.
The sexual content of stranger danger films grew more sexually explicit over time. In 1957, when the Supreme Court decided Roth v. United States, it liberalized obscenity laws and enabled a wider array of sexual representations in print, television and film. After Roth, didactic filmmakers such as Sid Davis became increasingly explicit even as they disavowed the sexual transformations that they portrayed. This growing overtness, as historian Beth Bailey notes, was a crucial facet of the sexual revolution.
While none of Davis’ films are as visually graphic as The Child Molester (1964), which shows actual police footage of murdered girls, there is nonetheless a move away from the innuendo of pre-Roth films and an increasing directness about sexual matters. For example, Davis’ stranger danger films, Boys Beware (1961) and Girls Beware (1961) and their remakes, Boys Aware (1973) and Girls Aware (1973), clearly convey the sexual threat of aggressive strangers, child molesters or homosexuals.
Because the intended audience of social guidance films was middle school and high school students (and their teachers), these films had to walk a fine line between educational and lurid. As a result, the films remained visually inexplicit. The narration, on the other hand, became the source of the most graphic sexual information. The narrator of Boys Beware, for example, explains that the consequences of interacting with homosexuals were dire; one could become a homosexual or be murdered by a homosexual. He further describes homosexuality as a “sickness that was not visible like smallpox but no less dangerous and contagious, a sickness of the mind.” Girls Beware portrays molestation in a similar way and also warns of gang rape and unwed pregnancy.
The films all emphasize that behind the veneer of postwar normalcy lay the possibility of contagion, corruption and violence from white males who lurked in playgrounds, public restrooms and schools or drove through quiet racially segregated suburban neighborhoods seeking to abduct and molest children. Strangers, like domestic communists or homosexuals, were an internal threat that could not be readily detected. (Significantly, when Davis remade Boys Beware in the 1970s, he shifted from an all-white cast to a mixed-race cast. This change suggests the changing racial politics of representation. However, sexual violence is carefully portrayed as intra- rather than inter-racial.)
The increased sexual directness is also apparent when comparing two of Sid Davis’ anti-drug films that bookend the 1957 Roth decision: The Terrible Truth (1951), and his updated version of the same film, Seduction of the Innocent (1961). Admittedly, these are not stranger danger films. However, they offer context for how Davis, one of the most prolific makers of social guidance and stranger danger films, shifted with and reacted to the sexual revolution.
Davis made his social guidance films in collaboration with police departments, psychologists and educators. In the 1960s and 1970s, his films conveyed many of these institutions’ anxiety over an inability to shape youths’ behavior and values. Tellingly, young people are seen but nowhere heard in most of Davis’ films. The archive is silent on how young people responded to this didactic fare. However, in the very act of making these videos, Davis and his collaborators conceded that youth were autonomous if not rebellious and therefore capable of choosing to obey or disobey adult rules.
Sexualized child protection rhetoric, which characterized stranger danger films, was an important conservative impulse in the 1950s and 1960s. It is therefore important to read these films against the backdrop of the generation gap and the sexual revolution. Doing so positions Davis and his colleagues, not as having the last word on sexual values, but as attempting to preserve a set of ideals that were already crumbling under the strains of the generational conflicts of the postwar era.
Gillian Frank is a Visiting Fellow at Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. Gillian’s research focuses on the intersections of sexuality, race, childhood and religion in the twentieth-century United States. He is currently revising a book manuscript titled Save Our Children: Sexual Politics and Cultural Conservatism in the United States, 1965-1990.
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