Your Money or Your Life

Television violence

A recent article in The Washington Post by Ann Hornaday entitled “Guns, blood and film:  Sea change at the box office?” discusses the possibility that Hollywood might dial back the violence in the wake of our latest national school shooting.  Ms. Hornaday notes that, after Newtown, “Studios immediately canceled splashy premieres and tweaked marketing campaigns” for recently released violent films.  Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), also verbally supported the idea that the MPAA is “…ready to be part of the national conversation” about gun violence.  After noting the industry’s reactions, the article discusses recent violent films and moviegoers’ continued support of them; Ms. Hornaday emphasizes that real change lies in the hands of spectators.  In other words, we must rely on the market—in this case, the media-consuming market—to help us make the right choices when it comes to the connection between fantasy violence and actual violence.

Turning to the market to solve social problems connected to—and exacerbated by—the media has been the tactic of choice since deregulation of the media in the 1980s.  I gotta say, I don’t think it’s working. People—average, working, tired people (or average, young, expectant people)—want to escape everyday life by imagining themselves as stronger, faster, and more beautiful than they experience themselves to be in day-to-day existence. That’s why movies make money.  That’s one reason that magazines that hurt female self-esteem make money.  When it comes to consumers and choice, we do indeed spend money on that which hurts us, because it allows us some brief escape from other things that hurt us.  So it is.  So it ever shall be.   (That doesn’t mean that another approach wouldn’t also make money— you can lift people up without appealing to their fears, doubts, and violent impulses, and people like being lifted up.)

Producers, directors, actors and actresses, and models know this.  They play a part in it.  They make big bucks from it.  They rake in the swag.

Last fall, Victoria’s Secret model Erin Heatherton defended industry airbrushing by saying, “We’re not selling reality; we’re selling a story. It’s all about creating this fantasy.”  She believes it is up to families and schools to help children distinguish between fantasy and reality—in this case, a healthy body image (reality) and an unhealthy one (fantasy, as represented in magazines).  This approach absolves the magazine industry of all responsibility in shaping our society.  For statistics on how magazines affect female self-esteem, see this nice summary on Livestrong; and note the Victoria’s Secret ad at the bottom of the page.

Not all celebrities are so blithe about the role they play in creating unhealthy minds and bodies.  A recent Public Service Announcement (PSA) video produced by Mayors Against Illegal Guns features many celebrities urging people to “Demand a Plan.”  My first thought when I saw this video was that the actors needed to demand a plan of the MPAA and of themselves.  They need self-reflection; they need to consider the value of what they do, not in marketing terms but in moral terms.  I am not the only one who had this thought—there is now a video mocking the “Demand a Plan” video, which splices together scenes from the PSA with scenes from violent movies featuring the same celebrities.  I will note here that many of the celebrities in the PSAs are my favorites—actors and actresses I have esteem for as people, not just as fancy-pants famous people.  Their intentions were good, and I hope they have done some good in creating the PSA.  But they need to do more.

We do need a sea-change, and not just at the box office.  We need to understand that we control the market, not the other way around.  There will always be money to be made in appealing to the lower chakras while ignoring the higher ones.  (The first chakra is family and survival; the second is sex, money, and power.)  There is also money to be made in dialing back the lower chakras to give the others—self-esteem, forgiveness, self-expression, wisdom, connection to the divine—room to breathe, and find balance.  But the market will never tell us so.

The market will go on in its blind allegiance to destructive fantasy for as long as we allow it.  We do not need to be trapped by our own fantasies, forever searching for the line between real and Memorex while our children, who are still forming their identities, suffer the consequences. (For great discussions and facts about media, laws, and children, along with tips for parents navigating our culture, see Common Sense Media.)

It is indeed time to demand a plan:  of our lawmakers, and of Hollywood.

5 thoughts on “Your Money or Your Life

  1. Stephanie Carmichael says:

    The backlash is happening with video games, too. People in Connecticut broke and burned video games in response to the shooting. That’s huge, and it’s frightening not just out of concern for the industry but because video games have nothing to do with it. Taking such drastic, ill-informed action is a symptom of media panic. I just finished reading an article, actually, about how pointing fingers at the wrong thing can be dangerous because you ignore the real issues that are causing the problem. It’s not finding a solution that will help. Video games don’t cause this violence, but they’re often blamed for it.


    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      I certainly see your point, Stephanie. Video games are not the sole factor when we are looking at the problem of young men and violence. And destroying the games or attacking the industry as a whole certainly isn’t going to solve anything. But I do think it’s concerning that so many video games allow–in fact, encourage–young men to see themselves as the perpetrators of mass violence, and of violence against women. Many (though of course, not all) video games contribute to the cultural definition of young white masculinity in which physical domination through weapons is glorified and, in fact, becomes a cornerstone of manhood. When these games fall into the wrong hands–which they can do very easily–the minds that belong to those hands don’t distinguish fantasy from reality.


      • Stephanie Carmichael says:

        I agree with you there — the content of games can be extreme, and there are problems with how many of them portray women or celebrate violence. But what you said about how movies allow us to escape by playing out or joining the lives of others — others who might commit violence or perpetrate a certain viewpoint that isn’t conventional — well, that’s kind of how video games operate. It’s escapism. Perfectly normal, well-adjusted people can play very violent or extreme games and never think of conducting such behavior in real life. It’s a hard logic to swallow, and honestly, many gamers don’t quite get it themselves. But movies and games offer a kind of mental freedom and exploration that people can’t and would never want to touch in real life. But that’s because, as you said, we can distinguish fantasy and reality and right from wrong. The people who are troubled can’t do that, but that only means that *anything* could potentially act as a trigger for them, encouraging them to commit violent acts. That could be a game, yes, but it could also be a movie or book — anything that captures their imaginations or presents dangerous ideas. The Internet is just as likely. It’s important to understand that games by themselves do not increase violent behavior — there’s literally no evidence for that.


      • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

        True, games alone don’t increase this kind of behavior—and would never create it at all in most people who play them. But violent games are a significant factor in a culture that glorifies violence and emphasizes it as a tenet of masculinity. (See Michael Kimmel’s and Jackson Katz’s discussions of violence and masculinity in the wake of Newtown.)

        My point about fantasy above (and in other posts) is that our culture—through movies, magazines, and video games—gives great credence to allowing violence and sexual objectification free reign because those things are profitable. While fantasy is a normal, everyday part of being human, how we handle our need to fantasize as a culture is not currently healthy because it gives both women and men very restrictive roles and encourages us—as a society—to believe that reality should conform to fantasy. This doesn’t mean that we all think we should become porn stars or wreak violence at the office—but it does play on our fears that we are not strong enough, beautiful enough, etc.

        I understand where you’re coming from on not blaming video games: in the wake of these shootings, people often want to blame violent games when there are many studies that do not show a direct link between violent games and mass murders. (A recent Time article discusses this trend and the related studies.) And I think the NRA is interested in shifting media attention to violent games and movies so that we don’t focus attention on the role of guns: again, an issue of profit.

        However, as a mother of a boy, I do believe violence in such media matters a great deal in terms of identity formation, even if most young men would never become violent themselves. And there have been studies that show a link between increased aggression and saturation with violent media in teens; the American Academy of Pediatrics says that “playing violent video games leads to adolescent violence like smoking leads to lung cancer.” (See the discussion of violence and media on Common Sense Media for this quotation and other suggestions about kids and media violence.)

        As Katz and Kimmel discuss, young men–I would add, particularly young men who don’t have the benefit of parents who monitor their media usage and discuss what they are seeing and feeling–often feel both entitled and betrayed when their lives do not measure up to the messages they receive from our visual—and increasingly participatory—media. While I don’t blame video games or movies for the actions of a mentally unstable person, I do think they inform the thoughts and actions of that person, just as they inform us all. And I think that visual media has a much stronger impact on our brains and bodies than the written word—it is much more shocking, for example, to see Voldemort on the big screen than to imagine him in your mind. I believe our media—movies, magazines, games—needs to begin taking responsibility for the fantasies it gives us (nearly all of which are the fantasies—and nightmares—of young white men) and the ways that those fantasies are bleeding into reality.


  2. Stephanie Carmichael says:

    Agreed. While sources of fantasy don’t cause violence (most people can safely distinguish reality from fantasy, but for the mentally ill, they’re one of many triggers), that’s one matter. The fantasies they perpetuate is another. Those do a lot to inform gender identity, you’re absolutely right, and I do take great issue with how women are often portrayed, how violence is embraced and encouraged, etc., in any form of visual media. That’s a different conversation — perhaps one that I’m more comfortable having when gun shootings aren’t on the mind. People think, “Video games are violent, and they task and reward players with committing violence acts, so they must have caused this.” But in truth, that saturation of violence can be seen everywhere in our society; it’s the same with sexism. It doesn’t stem from games or movies — destroying those won’t do much if it’s our attitudes and treatment of each other that’s the problem.

    Thanks, Liz. It’s refreshing to see a nongamer realize the different between these issues. 🙂 Sorry it took me so long to respond.


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