Depiction of Violence: News Coverage

It should come as no surprise that news media have certain formulas, employ certain templates when covering recurring stories. If a heavy snow is predicted, you can be sure there will be reports about people stocking up on milk, bread and toilet paper in local grocery stores.

Similarly, after an active shooter situation, you can be sure there will be reports about the movies the shooter watched, the music he (almost always a he) listened to and/or the video games he played.

After the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, the media quickly compiled a list of the media Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold consumed. And in their rush, they got parts wrong. The two were not fans of Marilyn Manson. They were actually into German industrial bands KMFDM and Rammstein, both of whom denounced the school shooters.

Many assumed The Matrix was the inspiration for the black trenchcoats worn by the alleged “Trenchcoat Mafia.”

However, the movie came out on March 31, 1999. The massacre was less than three weeks later, on April 20, 1999, delayed from April 19 (chosen as the anniversary of Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma bombing, which they hoped to outdo; they set up bombs throughout the school, only entered the building after the bombs failed to go off) because they wanted to buy more ammunition. They had already been wearing the trenchcoats for some time at that point, wore them in many of the films they made of themselves over the previous year while planning their assault, long before The Matrix was released.

A far better, but still circumstantial, case could be made that an inspiration might have been the school shooting in a dream sequence in the movie The Basketball Diaries, which came out in 1995:

However, the coats were actually introduced to Columbine High School by the actual “Trenchcoat Mafia,” a Goth clique in the school of which, contrary to reporting at the time, Harris and Klebold were not members (though Klebold was friends with one of them). It started with one guy’s Halloween costume. It looked cool so his friends adopted the style. Eventually Harris and Klebold also bought similar coats. It was also practical for the shooters, as it made it easy for them to hide their weapons until they were in position.

The Basketball Diaries was also blamed for (even sued for) the earlier Paducah, Kentucky, school shooting on December 1, 1997. The shooter, Michael Carneal, did claim to have seen the film. But is having seen a film the same as being inspired by it, much less impelled by it?

Seung-Hui Cho, responsible for the massacre at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, was such a loner that no one knew him well enough to know what movies or video games he consumed. However, that did not stop the news media from speculating about what movies he might have consumed that might have played a role in the tragedy.

It does seem to be a pretty solid conclusion that Cho was familiar with the South Korean film Oldboy.

Why else pose himself with a hammer, emulating the film’s poster, in the photos he sent to NBC?

And the vengeance theme of the movie certainly matched his stated motive. Still, there is no direct proof he had seen the film.

Although widely reported at the time (it still shows up high in online searches), James Holmes, the man who killed 12 people at a July 20, 2012, screening of the Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, never referred to himself as “the Joker.” But corrections never get as much attention as the initial stories.

In 2010, a 17 year old Indiana boy killed his 10 year old brother in a particularly gruesome manner. He claimed he identified with Dexter Morgan, the serial killer in the Showtime TV series named after him.

The teenager said, “I just feel like him.” However, at least one newspaper took the next step to say he “modeled” himself after the fictional serial killer. Is identifying with a character really the same as following him as a role model? But the paper took it even further in the headline: “‘Dexter made me do it’: Teenager who murdered brother, 10, claims he was inspired by hit TV show.” The quote does not appear anywhere in the story. In this one newspaper story we can see the process by which the story of a messed up kid who recognizes himself in a psychopathic fictional character is transformed into the claim that the TV character caused him to kill.

As always, the media rushed to find an explanation, which it presented in the most sensational way possible. And the public embraced any explanation in an attempt to make sense of a senseless act. Is that why so many of us are so quick to accept stories like this that at least imply and often explicitly argue that a movie or a TV show made someone commit a crime? Do we find it oddly comforting that there is some reason, no matter how suspect, behind an act that is so hard to understand? And if there is a reason, if there is a simple answer to the question of why something so terrible happened, do we think there might also be a simple solution so it never happens again? But is it ever really that simple?

Everyone looks for someone to blame after a tragic event, especially one involving gun violence. Hollywood and the NRA point at each other, and both call for better mental health screening. This may seem a bit strange coming from me since I have elsewhere expressed my skepticism about violent media leading directly to imitation, but is it possible to blame all of these factors in concert? The vast majority of people who are fans of violent movies and video games never kill in real life. The vast majority of people with mental illness are non-violent. The vast majority of people who own guns never kill other people. So could these rare incidences of extreme violence (and as terrible as they are, one being too many, alleged copycat killings are still extremely rare) be the result of a “perfect storm” of all of these factors coming together, a steady diet of violent video games and movies, a lack of parental involvement to place any of these things in context, access to guns, plus mental illness?

Depiction of Violence: Media Criticizing Media

Most American media are perfectly happy feeding the public’s seemingly unquenchable hunger for violent entertainment. However, every once in a while, the media turn around and criticize the public for demanding violent entertainment, and even the media themselves for supplying the demand.

Are these occasional critiques sincere mea culpas or simply Public Service Announcements that give the appearance of being responsible? Do they serve to inoculate the media against public criticism (and possible censorship?) of violent content, allowing the media to go along with business as usual?

Oliver Stone has steadfastly defended his movie Natural Born Killers as a satire of the public obsession with violent media:

Is this hypocrisy coming from the man who wrote the screenplay for Scarface (which was directed by Brian De Palma)?

What about The Hunger Games? Does this movie and the book upon which it is based try to have it both ways? On the surface, the overall message is that the government is terrible for putting on this violent spectacle, for forcing these kids to kill each other.

But don’t we, the audience, spend the first half of the film waiting to witness the very spectacle that is supposed to appall us? Don’t we welcome the release of the exciting action when it finally fills the screen?

It’s interesting to compare this American film with the Japanese film Battle Royale, also based on a poplar YA novel, which also inspired a series of manga (basically, Japanese graphic novels) and even a video game. The basic premise is similar. In the not too distant future a high school class will be chosen at random each year and taken to a remote island. There they are forced to kill each other until only one student survives.

In both cases the government forces kids to kill to send a message to potential rebels (in The Hunger Games) or rebellious young people (in Battle Royale) that they should submit to authority. In both movies the spectacle is nationally broadcast as entertainment.

However, the two films depict violence very differently. The Hunger Games is a very violent film, especially given how young its target audience is (some of the violence was edited out in the U.K in order to receive a lower film rating). However, how many of the 22 deaths are shown onscreen? Aren’t we largely restricted to Katniss’s point of view? Don’t we see only the violence she directly witnesses? And doesn’t Katniss remain mostly clean in terms of the violence she commits herself? (SPOILER ALERT — she personally kills only two, one in a combination of self-defense and in response to a loved character being killed in front of her, the other to put him out of his misery as he is being torn apart by nasty mutant dogs; some would also count the deaths caused by the tracker jacker hive she dropped on the “careers” hunting her, but that would also fall under self-defense.)

Battle Royale jumps to its violence much more quickly and we see every death in extremely graphic detail; there is even an on-screen counter to help us keep track. And unlike the Hunger Games, it does not lecture the audience for enjoying the onscreen violence.

Still, do both movies purport to be morally outraged by the violence even while using it to entertain the audience? Do many violent movies send similar mixed messages, if only by restoring order at the end by locking up the violent bad guys (though often accepting, even applauding, violent good guys)?

And then there are the Hunger Games theme parks:

The Atlanta location was never built. However, both the Georgia and North Carolina Departments of Economic Development tout Hunger Games themed tours of shooting locations for the series.

The Chinese location opened in July, 2019, following a 2017 opening of a Hunger Games section of the Motiongate Dubai Hollywood Theme Park:

Both of these parks are targeted at adults. Did someone think twice about a theme park that would inevitably include an arena where children would “kill” each other to win the Hunger Games? (I know that sounds terrible, but is it really any different from laser tag or paintball?)

Depiction of Violence: Product Liability

I’ll let Chris Rock introduce this “lecture” with a routine recorded just two months after the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School:

Investigators in law enforcement and, more publicly, in the media, pore over the movies that “active shooters” watched and the video games they played.

Maybe this will help put “violent movies made them do it” claims in perspective: Charles Manson cited Beatles songs as inspiration for his “Family’s” murders, especially “Helter Skelter.” Paul McCartney wrote that song about carnivals; the title of the song is British slang for large fairground sliding boards like this one:

Many killers have embraced the novel Catcher in the Rye; Mark David Chapman had a copy on him when he shot John Lennon, claimed it was his statement. This and The Collector by John Fowles are just two of many books said to be favorites of headline-making abductors, killers, serial killers and mass murderers. And no disrespect meant, but what about the Holy Bible or the Koran? Extremists have rationalized plenty of deaths based on carefully chosen and/or misinterpreted readings from holy books.

Natural Born Killers and Basketball Diaries, along with video games, have been implicated in and sued in relation to many school shootings.

Ronald Ray Howard claimed Tupac’s song “Soulja’s Story,” which features a cop killing, . . .

. . . led him to shoot Texas Trooper Bill Davidson in 1992. Davidson stopped Howard for a broken headlight. On probation for an earlier crime, the armed Howard was driving a stolen car while high on cocaine and marijuana, but he claimed a song made him shoot the trooper. Notice that the protagonist does not get away with his crime in the song, but is jailed and killed in an escape attempt. Howard was executed by the state of Texas. Davidson’s widow later sued Tupac and his record label.

Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne were both sued for songs that were alleged to have caused suicides.

All of these cases were eventually thrown out on first amendment grounds. Even violent depictions are protected speech.

But should these and other makers of violent media share responsibility for the crimes they are alleged to have inspired? Or are these just spurious claims by criminals trying to shirk responsibility and/or grieving families trying to find peace?

In his article “Unnatural Killers” (a PDF of which is on the class Blackboard site), John Grisham (1996) argued that violent movies, specifically Natural Born Killers, should be held responsible for any crimes they allegedly caused. And the lawyer-turned-writer came up with a novel legal argument to do so. Instead of treating movies as speech, they should be treated as products. If they are defined as products, their producers can then be held liable for any negative impact they should have foreseen the product might have on consumers.

The purest form of this product liability argument is the case involving a book titled Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors.

In 1993, James Perry was hired to murder Lawrence Horn’s ex-wife and son, the victim of medical malpractice; Horn wanted for himself the money won in the settlement for his son’s care. While already a criminal, Perry had never killed, so he bought Hit Man for instructions. Perry had already agreed to commit the murders before he even ordered the book. He followed it step by step to kill those two and the son’s nurse (well, he messed up a step or two, which led to his being caught). After both Horn and Perry were convicted, the victims’ families sued Paladin Press for publishing the book. They won a financial settlement, but more important to them, the remaining copies of the book were destroyed (though it’s pretty easy to find the entire text online). Other lawyers have unsuccessfully tried to employ the Hit Man ruling as precedent in suits against other media depictions of violence, but so far we have not slid down that slippery legal slope.

Interestingly enough, it was discovered that the book’s author got all of her information about killing from spy novels and movies (she had originally written it as a novel, but Paladin asked her to rewrite it as a “how to” book, since they do not publish fiction). So, should movies be held to the same standard?

Do we learn spycraft when we watch shows like Burn Notice?

Do we learn how to cook meth while watching Breaking Bad?

While the show is very careful to leave out or change certain steps in the process, the show has led many dealers across the country to use blue food coloring to fool buyers into thinking their meth is as pure as Walter White’s.

Can we even learn to fly a helicopter from video games?

This is exactly what Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (Ret.) has argued, as an expert witness in lawsuits against the producers of violent movies and video games, in books and in interviews like this:

He points out that many first person shooter video games, which he often refers to as “murder simulators,” are the same games used to train the military (sometimes with slightly different graphics for the enemy). However, according to Grossman, when played outside of the highly structured discipline of military training, these games are just teaching kids to kill.

He argues the same for movies like Basketball Diaries and Natural Born Killers. For him, Grisham and others, the latter is particularly troublesome because the spree killers escape and get a happy ending.

Would the message be different if Mickey and Mallory paid for their crimes? Stone did shoot an alternative ending:

Does that change the way viewers relate to and interpret this film? Does it no longer seem to endorse their violence as fun? Does it turn the movie into a cautionary tale that shows crime does not pay? Or is it too little too late?

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.