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.