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.

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