On Screen: A Bum Rap for Hollywood

“What are we doing to ourselves?” asks a Newsweek cover story entitled, “Violence in Our Culture.” It is a timely topic, given the recent profusion of popular violent films, from Lethal Weapon 3 to Basic Instinct. Violence in culture, however, is an ancient tradition. Complaints constitute the new phenomenon.

In their attacks, Newsweek and other critics miss some essential points about violence in our culture: it is innocuous, quintessentially American, cathartic, and often highly moralistic, imparting a virtuous message to a society frequently in need of one. In addition, critics had better get used to more violence in our culture, as it is increasingly entering the mainstream.

Newsweek claims that, “people are upset by the assault of brutal imagery on radio, TV, in the theaters, in best-selling books.” Their supposed proof of this assertion comes from a poll finding that 40 percent of those questioned think that movie violence is a “very great” cause of real violence, a result that neither demonstrates their point nor indicates very strong views on the matter. It is not “people” who are upset by violence on screens; it’s an elitist segment of journalists and academics, the violence hysterics. “People” are lining up to see the films.

In addition to Newsweek, the ranks of the violence hysterics include feminists, newspapers such as the Christian Science Monitor, and the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV). Their arguments run along two lines: that violent films directly cause violent acts (imitative violence), and that those films desensitize viewers to actual violence. In reality, these arguments overstate films’ effects on non-deranged people. (Deranged people, of course, could lose it at any time, whether they had just seen Silence of the Lambs or Bambi.)

Feminists in particular seem to hate violent films, believing that they legitimize violence against women. For example, some reviewers considered Arnold Schwarzenegger’s execution of his knife-wielding martial artist “wife” (Sharon Stone) in Total Recall misogynistic. After shooting her between the eyes Arnold deadpans, “Consider zat a divorce.” This death, however, is not misogynistic; it is an equal opportunity death. Miss Stone is just as much of a scoundrel as any of the 60 or so bad guys that Arnold dispatches throughout the film; perhaps even more so, since she not only deceives Arnold, she also bloodies him twice. As any fan of violent films knows, men constitute the vast majority of victims, making the genre far more misandrous than misogynous. It is also ironic that the same people who complain about the dearth of good parts for women object to this substantive female role.

Violence hysterics’ primary objection, that on-screen violence causes actual violence — “imitative violence” to the cognoscenti — is spurious at best. Unproven assertions that kill-movies cause violence are just that. While both parents and theater owners should deny children access to gory films — there are reasons for Motion Picture Association of America ratings, and those ratings should be enforced — these films cause no harm to adults. American society is, to be sure, a relatively violent one, but a correlation between culture and practice does not demonstrate causation.

Violence hysterics claimed that Mario Van Peeble’s New Jack City encouraged riots among audience members. This charge pops up frequently in conjunction with films targeted at urban youth, such as The Warriors, Colors, and, most recently, Boyz N the Hood. The reason for the riots, however, lies with the film’s audience, not its content. The New Jack City riot, for example, occurred after more than 1,000 ticket-holders were denied entry after a ticket-selling glitch. One wonders how the film itself could have been responsible for a riot that began both before the film and outside the theater. In other instances, violent films might attract gangs, but those audiences are prone to violence already; they need no prodding from filmmakers. Rap and heavy metal concerts experience the same difficulties.

New Jack City received other abuse as well. The Christian Science Monitor questioned New Jack City‘s supposed anti-drug message. “If moviemakers really want to counter the drug culture,” the editorialist wrote, “they might try themes of caring and redemption instead of hatred and violence.” Sure, and then how many people will go to the movies?

Children’s cartoons constitute one of the hysterics prime targets, presumably as the cause of violence, inattentiveness, and low math scores. American children almost certainly watch too much TV; yet with respect to violence, cartoons are not the culprit. Hyperbolic, unreal cartoons like Bugs Bunny or Road Runner are obviously so; toy stores will not experience a run on Wile E. Coyote’s Acme dynamite. Even the more violent, less surreal cartoons, like G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, feature slam-bang action but no death. Today’s children, precisely because they are growing up in a video-friendly world, will be better able to distinguish between fiction and reality than previous generations who are unable to program their VCRs.

NCTV, an Illinois-based advocacy group that complains about the rating of films, claims that so-called “imitative violence” is not their primary concern. Instead, they fear a desensitization to violence and an increase in verbal aggression. In addition, they do not want people to think that problems can be solved through violence. Apparently, in the NCTV’s ideal society we would all be squeamish isolationists, meekly holding up Munich Agreements and seeing films about “caring and redemption.”

NCTV also counts the number of violent acts in films — Robin Hood has 271, including “Turk soldiers grab a Christian’s arm, holding it very tightly.” — and awards the annual Gandhi prizes for “the most pro-social American film” and actors. (Awakenings, featuring Robin Williams and Jane Fonda, won in 1990.)

Violence has a long history both in Western culture and especially in America, making violence both trendy and classic, not unlike Levi’s. Outside the New World, violence dates back millennia. Shakespeare, the Bible, and Greek tragedy are certainly not for the squeamish: Coriolanus, Judges, and the Iliad each dwarf the body count of Lethal Weapon 3. Schwarzenegger should by no means be equated with Shakespeare, but violence hysterics should recognize the classical origins of our popular culture.

In America, violence hysterics have been bewailing the deleterious effects of action comics, radio shows, TV programs, and movies for most of this century. Culture reflects society, however, and ours has always been a violent society. The Civil War, the Wild West, and gangster wars all predated Hollywood’s steady diet of on-screen carnage. The effect seems to have existed well before the alleged cause.

Violence fits in well in American film and popular culture, both historically and sociologically. Film is a new technology, centered in America. Americans have the most expertise in film and make action films, which are especially difficult to produce, better than any other country. In addition, film and television both began as “low” art, directed more towards the lowest common denominator than the upper class. In fact, the early film moguls were immigrants themselves, entertaining waves of new Americans. This classless approach appeals to Americans much more than European “high” culture, which is directed at the few rather than the many. A democratic culture is needed to appeal to a democratic people.

In their defense, violent films reflect many American traits. America is a relatively violent society, and this is noted in culture. America was founded partially on a belief in self-sufficiency; the West was not settled by bureaucrats and policemen — as in Canada — but by individualistic pioneers. As noted above, Americans also have a strong sense of retributive justice. For example, the U.S. is the only Western democracy with the death penalty.

Violent films are cathartic precisely because of justice’s rapid triumph. Some people, however, dispute the cathartic nature of violent films. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Dr. Roderic Gorney claimed that, “If you take a bunch of starving people and show the scenes of banquets in movies it doesn’t cause their hunger to go away, and no rational person would expect it to.” Very true, but neither would a rational person equate the physical need for sustenance with the psychic release of catharsis — soul food, if you will.

In addition to being a long-term staple for 16- to 25-year-old males, violence has increasingly been crossing over into the realm of “date” movies: Basic Instinct, Cape Fear, Ricochet, and Pacific Heights leap to mind. Disney’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, for example, grossed more than $80 million, a surprising development considering that it has no stars, special effects, or numbers at the end of the title. Disney, however, always an astute watcher of demographic and social trends, realized that the film would resonate.

This trend reflects more mature moviegoers—the balding of the audience. Adults who have grown up with Freddy, Jason, or, for that matter, Jaws, are no longer so easily frightened. They are inured to the wisecracking and seemingly-omnipotent Freddy (Nightmare on Elm Street) Krueger and the invulnerable, hulk-like Jason (Friday the Thirteenth) stalking the countryside with an entire tool shed. It is much more frightening to imagine a determined foe threatening one’s family, reputation, and credit rating.

Current moviegoers are also aging rapidly. In 1980, there were 12 million more Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 than between 30 and 39. According to the 1990 census, 30- to 39-year-olds outnumber 15- to 24year-olds by five million. Given these figures, it is no accident that in the 1980s Freddy and Jason preyed on teens, while their ’90s counterparts stalk parents. Like the family in Cape Fear, today’s filmgoers are a lot more likely to be burdened with a mortgage and vulnerable children than to go camping in a deserted woods near Jason’s hideaway.

In contrast to cop films, these films share a lack of faith in the law. The police seem unable to protect citizens until the villain physically strikes; then it is too late. In Fatal Attraction, for example, the law proves wholly infective. In subsequent films, such as Pacific Heights, Ricochet, Cape Fear, and Basic Instinct, the law is actually harmful; because of effective manipulation by the villain, the police harass the victims. In this regard, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is perhaps the most frightening of all. The victims do not realize they are being assaulted until the end, when the police can be of no help. The film ends with the sound of approaching sirens, highlighting police impotence and tardiness.

These new villains, driven by the very human emotions of revenge and rage, are not supernatural enemies or randomly-striking psychos. Their strategies, individually carved out to destroy their victims, add a frightening personal component. Aping their victims, these clever, strategic planners use white-collar techniques to fluster their white-collar, middle-management targets. Michael Keaton’s villainous character in Pacific Heights is in many ways the quintessential yuppie. He uses modern technology, legal loopholes, and smooth talking to con his victims. In Ricochet, John Lithgow knows precisely how to destroy Denzel Washington’s career. By creating a scandal guaranteed to attract the easily manipulated media, Lithgow hurts Washington in his two most vulnerable areas, his family and his career; no mere physical attack could be as threatening and, for the yuppie, no film as disturbing.

Although these adult films differ from the traditional cop film of the past 20 years, they share one key component: the good guys win in the end. Despite the changes in genres and audience tastes, the moral message remains.

Notwithstanding critic’s complaints, violence on screen will continue to proliferate. To answer Newsweek‘s rhetorical question, what we are doing is having fun with a moral at the end, the same thing dramatists have been doing for more than 2,000 years and Americans for 200. The key difference is that now, thanks to improved technology, we are doing it better.

  • Tevi Troy

    Tevi Troy is the former Deputy Secretary of United States Department of Health and Human Services in the administration of George W. Bush. At the time he wrote this article, he was a university fellow in American culture at the University of Texas, Austin.

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