Depiction of Violence: Defining Media Violence

We as a society talk a lot about “media violence,” but are we all talking about the same thing?

Take a moment to think about how you define “media violence” and, perhaps more complicated, how you apply your definition. Then view the following clips. They are grouped by types of violence, but following the scientific method, each clip in the group will change a variable to see whether it impacts our perception of the violence depicted. While watching, consider the following questions:

  • What type of violence is depicted?
  • How is it depicted? Is it realistic? Is it graphic? What do we actually see?
  • Who is the assumed audience? Does this matter? For instance, should age be a factor when considering who should see what violence?
  • What do fans take from the depiction? It is very easy to condemn violent media we do not ourselves enjoy, for non-fans to disdain the violence in horror films or video games. From there it is just a small step to judging the fans and assuming they must be negatively affected.
  • Do these depictions affect viewers? If so, how?

Let’s start simple, with a cartoon. How many times have you seen bad things happen to Wile E. Coyote?

Yet no matter how many times he falls off a cliff, runs into a mountain, gets flattened by a huge boulder, etc., Coyote always bounces right back. Does this send a message that there are no real, long term consequences to violence? Could this lead kids to believe they too could survive such violence? Or do kids recognize cartoons as separate from reality?

(Ian Frazier wrote a very funny column based on a legal brief of Wile E. Coyote’s product liability lawsuit against the Acme Company for all of the equipment he bought from them that backfired.)

Do these questions become more complicated when there is a gun involved?

Is it still funny if a scene like this is acted out by humans?

Did you laugh, you sick pup? I did. Does the clip employ comedic timing (as well as mugging by John Travolta) that turns the violence into slapstick comedy?

It’s hard to imagine that self-dismemberment could be presented as slapstick comedy, but isn’t that what happens in Evil Dead 2 when Ash fights his possessed hand to the death?

Don’t we respond very differently, though, to a similar act in Saw?

Does this show us how important context is in our response to onscreen violence?

Does the body part also matter in our response? Yakuza (Japanese organized crime) members who fail their bosses atone by cutting off joints of their fingers. In Ichi the Killer, Kakihara goes even further in his penance.

Does this somehow seem worse, affect us more, than seeing an appendage cut off?

Jackie Chan is known for the humor of his slapstick kung fu fights:

Is Bruce Lee’s kung fu viewed differently? It’s no longer comedy, but is it violence?

Do Lee’s athleticism and elegance of movement allow us to appreciate his fight scenes as action more than violence? I once had a student describe it as beautiful choreography, not violence at all.

(If you have the time, replay that clip with the sound muted. Does it have the same impact without the cracks, thwacks, etc., on the soundtrack? Does its absence reveal the role sound plays in our response to onscreen violence? Can the same be said of a film’s score? Can music signal whether we are supposed to interpret a violent act as sinister or heroic?)

I have seen Fight Club a number of times and I’m still not sure whether the film condones, endorses or critiques the violent fights it contains.

And then there is Eastern Promises:

Is the violence heightened by the character’s nakedness? Does this add an element of vulnerability and unfairness, increase our sympathy, even if we know nothing about the character? (And for the record, even in the context of the film, it is not entirely clear whether he is a good guy or a bad guy at this point.)

This scene in American History X is notorious for its violence.

However, it is absolutely essential to understand the evolution of Edward Norton’s character. This act and the prison sentence it earns him become turning points in Derek Vinyard’s views of race and violence. Can an extreme depiction of violence actually send an anti-violent message? Do we need to see just how bad this act is in order to grasp its impact and the lesson he, along with the audience, learns from it regarding the destructive cycle of violence and vengeance?

Shootouts have been featured in movies since the beginning, but they can be depicted in many different ways.

Shootouts can be played for laughs:

They can be presented as action:

Are action and violence the same thing or are there subtle distinctions? Does action present violence in a highly stylized and sanitized style, whereas realistic violence focuses more on the impact, the pain, the consequences of violence? Is the difference defined by whether the movie focuses on the violent actions or their bloody aftermath?

Some critics, of media violence, such as Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (Ret.) who co-wrote Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence, maintain that action is the worst kind of media violence. They claim that films like John Wick are the grown up equivalent of Road Runner cartoons, glorifying violence and giving fans a sense of invulnerability. Since we know the heroes (well, antihero in this case) we identify with are never truly at risk, and we do not much care what happens to the interchangeable and seemingly inexhaustible minions who try to kill the heroes, we view the violence as cool and, at least according to the anti-violence critics, are more likely to believe we too can become cool through violent acts. At least realistic violence shows the possible negative consequences of violent acts, which can serve as warnings against acting them out for real.

So what should we make of the climax of Scarface?

Is Scarface a cautionary tale, warning that crime does not pay? Tony Montana does pay for his crimes with a violent death. But which comes through louder, the “moral” message in the last few minutes of the film or the preceding two hours of sex, drugs, murder and mayhem? Does the “death or glory,” “going out in a hail of bullets” ending actually enhance the bad guy’s image? Does the ability to sneer at certain death, to take as many people as possible along with him exhibit a mythic “hardness”? Does this render him a doomed romantic hero? “Say hello to my little friend,” indeed.

The D-Day landing near the beginning of Saving Private Ryan is one of the most violent, graphic and brutal, scenes in movie history.

Does the historical reality of the event the movie (at least its opening) is based on affect how we relate to it? Do we think of the real soldiers, then and now, who have died in service to our country and its values? Does this movie honor their duty and sacrifice? More complicated, does showing the horrors of war send an anti-war or pro-war message? Does it depend upon our preexisting view? Is this violence or history?

How did you classify these clips? Are they all examples of media violence? Or did you catalog some of these clips as comedy or action, maybe history lessons, and not “real” violence?

If we can’t even agree on classifying media violence, how can we possibly agree on its impact?

Depiction of Violence: Perception of Violence

I would offer with all seriousness that the following is one of the most traumatic scenes of violence in movies:

How old were you when you first saw it? Did you cry? (Do you still cry when you see it?) Did it give you nightmares? Disney animated films are filled with dead parents, as were the fairy tales many of these films were based on.

Renowned child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote the fascinating The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, believed that the original, far more violent versions of fairy tales (which he thought Disney sanitized and diluted) actually have more positive effects on kids. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but think about Bambi, Lion KingCinderella, etc.; all involve lost parents. One of, if not the biggest fear of children is losing a parent. While fairy tales do show kids their worst fears, they go on to show the children surviving the tragedy, even triumphing, getting their happy endings. And kids watch or listen to the same stories over and over again. So every time after the first time, they are aware that no matter how scary the story gets, a happy ending is just around the corner.

Could that be what horror movies do for grownups, help them face their own fears, simply shifting from the death of a parent to death of self?

Are media like roller coasters, offering us safe, secure ways to confront danger? Do media depictions, from horror films to TV crime shows, act as inoculations, exposing us to small doses of our worst fears so we can gain control of them through the characters on screen?

The Passion of the Christ is filled with harrowing violence:

And yet many of the same parents who normally decried violence in the media took their children to see the R-rated movie. They believed this movie violence served a positive purpose, showing the sacrifices made by their lord and savior. (The Passion of the Christ actually inspired one man to confess to a murder he had gotten away with – it had been ruled a suicide.) But to anyone who does not embrace Christian beliefs, the film could easily be seen as an example of “torture porn” comparable to Hostel.

In 1975, The Street Fighter became the first film to be rated X for violence alone (many films had previously been rated X for sex). Among the 15+ minutes cut to attain an R-rating, was this scene:

That clip usually gets a pretty big reaction, especially from male viewers, but what did you actually see? You saw Sonny Chiba grab another man’s covered crotch. You then saw Chiba’s shoulder dip, after which he held up a piece of cloth stained red. (When asked about the blood in one of his films, director Jean-Luc Godard replied, “It’s not blood, it’s red.”) Did you fill in the blanks? Did you think you actually saw him rip off the rapist’s genitals?

Almost a decade later, in 1984, came this scene:

This film received a PG-rating. (Yes, it sparked enough parental complaints to lead to the creation of PG-13,  but it retains its original PG-rating.)

Which is worse, which is “more violent,” the clip that actually shows a heart being ripped out of a chest or the one that merely implies a manual castration? Most agree the latter is worse. But why? Is the clip from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom easier to take because it is so exaggerated and clearly set in a fantastical setting? Is it easier for us to separate from that supernatural violence than it is from a hand-to-hand fight set in the more realistic world of a crime film? Is it because every guy knows it hurts to be hit in the genitals, much less to have them ripped off?

This famous scene helped Quentin Tarantino first make a name for himself.

Did you see the ear being cut off? Did you think you did? I must admit that it was not until the second or third time I saw the film that I realized I had not actually seen it.

It is a basic principle of horror fiction, going back at least to Edgar Allan Poe, that it is better to hint at what terrifies than to explicitly describe or show it. Leave it to readers or viewers to complete the scene and “experience” the horror for themselves.

Tarantino provides us with an opportunity to test this theory, as he did film the ear actually being cut off:

I don’t know about you, but I found the original scene much harder to take. The shots of the ear being cut off were easier for me, as I could easily distract myself by critiquing the special effects and the realness of the prosthetic ear.

Is this all “movie violence”? As such, is it easy to disconnect it from our real lives, view it as just entertainment? How many of us have been involved in an actual shootout?

We may ho-hum at the bullets flying by, but does the glass in the arm make us recoil? Can we relate more directly to being cut by glass? Do we know for sure that hurts? Would it have bothered us as much if he had taken a bullet to the arm instead?

As Quentin Tarantino explained in a Playboy interview:

Playboy: Certain scenes in your films are not for the squeamish. When you’re watching a movie, what makes you cringe?

Tarantino: Actually, a lot of things. I mean, somebody’s head could be blown off with a shotgun and that would not affect me. A decapitation can be enjoyed as just a cool special effect or for how it works in the piece. What affects me are real-life human things. If someone gets a paper cut on a movie set, I’m like shivers , because I can relate to that. Being shot with an Uzi – that’s harder to relate to.

Does who is committing the violence matter?

Good guys can be just as violent, if not more so, as the bad guys.  It has become quite common for the villain in an action film to suffer the same consequences he (and it is almost always he) inflicted on an innocent earlier in the movie. For instance, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (SPOILER ALERT) contains a horrific rape scene:

The victim later gets her revenge in a similar manner. Both scenes are very intense, though the latter may actually be a bit more graphic.

And yet we cringe at the first and cheer the second. Is this because we excuse, even embrace the vengeance as retribution for the bad guy’s earlier act? Do we accept, even endorse, violence committed by good guys that would appall us if done by bad guys? Do we apply the same double standards in real life? Do we welcome in movies violent behavior that would repel us in real life or do the movies carry over, reflecting or leading, our real life attitudes?

Are all of the above examples of media violence equal? Do we even classify them all as media violence? Do we consider some action instead? Are we sure we are all referring to the same thing when we discuss media violence?

Depiction of Violence: Introduction

Has violent crime been rising or falling in the United States?

Many people find it very surprising to learn that violent crime, especially violent crime committed by youth, has fallen steadily and dramatically since 1994, reaching a four decade low (keep in mind that these are national averages; some regions have experienced tragic upswings during this time).

Statistic: Reported violent crime rate in the United States from 1990 to 2018 | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

During this exact same time period, media violence, both in number of violent acts and how graphically the acts are depicted, has steadily increased. So the relationship between media violence and real life violence is clearly not as simple as a rise in one inevitably leading to a rise in the other. However, this does not mean there is no connection between the two categories, just that the relationship is a complex one.

While increased media violence has not led to rising real life violence, could all of that onscreen violence have created the perception that violent crime has risen? George Gerbner called this the “Mean World Effect.” He proposed that the more time we spent watching media featuring violence and crime, the more likely we were to believe the world is similar.

Some recent studies have shown that Gerbner’s claims about the perception of increased violence may be exaggerated, but they do confirm increased fear among viewers of shows like Law & Order: SVU.

Regardless of the many scientific studies to the contrary, many people continue to blame violent movies and video games after any large violent event in society, especially a school shooting. For example, after the tragic Parkland school shooting, President Trump stated:

We have to look at the Internet, because a lot of bad things are happening to young kids and young minds, and their minds are being formed. And we have to do something about maybe what they’re seeing and how they’re seeing it… and also video games. I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts. And then you go the further step and that’s the movies. You see these movies, they’re so violent and yet a kid is able to see a movie if sex isn’t involved, but killing is involved.

Trump’s own School Safety Commission found that video games play at most a small role in school shootings.

Still, when we try to wrap our heads around someone committing such horrific acts and try to conceive of ways to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future, it can seem reasonable to think that acting as a killer in a video game might lead a player to do the same in real life. If violent movies and video games were to blame we could simply ban the worst of them and school shootings would end, offering a simple solution to a very complex problem. Most, if not all school shooters are fans of violent video games (but did the games lead to their violent tendencies or did their violent tendencies lead them to the games?), but so are millions and millions of other kids who never go on a shooting spree.

We are all familiar with at least some examples of copycat crimes based on movies. However, even if we accept the self-serving assertions of these killers trying to avoid responsibility for their crimes, that’s still only a relative handful of the millions and millions of people who have seen any one of these movies, played any one of these first or third person shooter games, a fraction of a fraction of a single percent. Far more people die from peanut allergies in the US in a single year than have allegedly been killed due to, say, Natural Born Killers or the video game Doom in the 20+ years since they were released. Should we ban peanuts?

And among those few, rare cases, did those media depictions inspire the copycats to commit violence or did they just influence HOW they committed their violent acts? Were they normal people who were influenced to do something they would never have otherwise considered or were they people who were already ready to commit violence and they just imitated a cool scene in a movie when they did? In other words, can a movie alone make a person commit a crime or must the viewer already be predisposed to do so?

We’ve all seen (or been) kids who start kicking and karate chopping each other after watching Power Rangers . . .

. . .or Ninja Turtles do the same.

Are these kids fighting or play fighting? Do the kids purposely try to hurt each other or do they attempt to pull their punches and kicks?

This distinction has very important consequences in terms of talking about media effects. One of the landmark studies in the area of media violence (even though the initial experiment did not engage media at all) was what has come to be known as the Bobo experiment. Bobo was a blow-up clown that popped back up when it was hit. Kids were separated into three groups. One group was exposed to aggressive behavior while the other was not (the third, control group, was not exposed to any modeling behavior). Those who were exposed to aggressive behavior did indeed hit Bobo more than those who were not. But is there really anything wrong with hitting a toy that was made to be hit? Is that really comparable to inflicting harm upon another child? Does one realistically translate into the other?

Similarly, many studies claim violent media promote aggression. Uh, isn’t aggression considered good in many contexts? It certainly is in sports. Many critics claim the questions being asked about media violence are often too simplistic or they’re the wrong questions. (If anyone is interested, a good book on this subject is Gerard Jones’s Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence.)

Of course, we’ve been dancing around a key question: Why is there so much violence in media?

Violence has been a mainstay of movies since the very beginning. One of the very first great American films, The Great Train Robbery, ended with a notorious scene where a cowboy turns to the camera and shoots his gun straight at the audience:

The most popular entertainment has always contained violence, from Greek tragedy to Shakespeare to Grand Guignol to slapstick to today’s action/adventure and horror films. And the producers have always used the most cutting edge effects to portray it as graphically and convincingly as possible. While today’s movie effects are extremely graphic and seemingly realistic, they are still fake. It was not much more than a century ago that one of the most popular forms of entertainment was the public execution, where families took their children to see a criminal hung or beheaded. Has entertainment really gotten worse? (For more on the history of violent entertainment, see Harold Schechter’s Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment.)

But why has violent entertainment always been so popular? Because audiences enjoy it. Isn’t it just that simple?

(Notice how the critic reverts to stock arguments about 12 year old viewers of this R-rated movie possibly imitating its extreme violence. I am unaware of any gangs of samurai sword wielding middle schoolers following the premiere of Kill Bill.)

Does this mean that it is we, the audience, who are ultimately responsible for the amount of violence in the media? If we all stopped watching violent movies tomorrow, wouldn’t Hollywood start promoting non-violent movies the very next day?

Hollywood’s defense is always that they are simply giving the people what they want. And while it’s easy to point out that they might not be giving the public everything it wants, it’s very hard to argue that the public does not want the most popular films. And if you look at the most popular films of all time, most of them contain a lot of violence, even if we sometimes call it “action” instead.

Depiction of Race, Part 6: Other “Other” Races: Middle Easterners and Asians

What is the first image that comes to mind when you think of Middle Easterners? Did you picture a Muslim terrorist? Is this image often repeated and reinforced in the media?

We now see some Muslim heroes. NCIS: LA now features two Muslim agents, including series lead LL Cool J’s character Sam Hanna. Special Agent Omar Adom “O.A.” Zidan on FBI is also a practicing Muslim. But these few heroes are still far outnumbered by the Muslim terrorists who continue to be hunted on these and many other crime and spy shows and movies.

When you think of Indians or Pakistanis, do you think of convenience store owners?  Do you think of Apu? The 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu called out The Simpsons for this stereotypical depiction:

Many would claim that The Simpsons has always been an “equal opportunity offender,” making fun of each and every group of people in society, so it’s unfair and “PC” to complain about any one stereotype in the show. But does a recurring stereotypical depiction on such a popular show carry more weight because there are so few other media depictions of this racial/ethnic group in American media? (White actor Hank Azaria decided to stop voicing Apu after 30 seasons.)

What comes to mind when you think of Asian men? Kung fu fighters and tech nerds?

Tech nerd and good at math don’t sound so bad. Aren’t those good traits? Are positive stereotypes okay, or are they just as reductive as negative ones, promoting the idea that everyone in the race is exactly the same?

And what about Asian women? Are they often stereotyped as Dragon Ladies and/or sexy and “exotic”?

[Warning, this video is especially obnoxious; the band later claimed the controversial video was meant as parody, but few bought this explanation.]

Of course these stereotypes often come together in the many media depictions of Asian women who are victims of sex trafficking. Do these depictions exploit the scantily clad Asian women on the screen even as they purport to be appalled by the women being exploited within the narratives?

And again, American media blends many distinct Asian cultures, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc., as one, never acknowledging the differences between them, or the diversity within each. Also, what does it say that we refer to western Asia and Egypt as the “middle east” and Asia as the “far east”? East of where? Is this yet another reminder that European culture sees itself as the center of the world?

But what happens when White artists adopt elements of other cultures in their performances?

Is this homage or exploitation? Are they appreciating their sources or appropriating them?

Victoria’s Secret has often been accused of appropriating other cultures.

Does the issue of appropriation take us back to the “two worlds” question from last week? Must mainstream White culture now “ask permission” to interact with and engage in the experiences, fashions, culture of “others”? Must they now at least acknowledge and credit their sources? And in doing so, must they first recognize there is indeed more than one world?