It’s Time to Reconsider the Relationship Between Movies and Morality

By  · Published on January 22nd, 2013

Gangster Squad

Hollywood is used to being a scapegoat for acts of violence. Automatically implicating movies in the wake of unimaginable acts of atrocity has proven to be an easy way of pursuing closure without actually having to investigate anything; if we blame the fictions put on our movie screens made by people we don’t know somewhere else, we don’t have to feel the responsibility to do anything more, or accept the notion that incomprehensible events can’t be pegged to a singular determining factor.

In contrast to collective reactions to prior tragedies, assertions that movies are directly “responsible” for gun violence seem to carry significantly less weight in the current national conversation about gun control. However, entertainment media has been and will continue to be part of this conversation. As Scott Beggs pointed out last month in the wake of Newtown, if we’re going to have a comprehensive conversation about guns and gun violence, then movies should by all means be a part of it – that is, part of an ongoing, dynamic critical dialogue rather than an assumed singular scapegoat.

But to avoid falling into the same two traps of either reflexively blaming movies for gun violence or declaring that there’s no conceivable link between movies and our perception to everyday life, perhaps it’s time to rethink the relationship we have to movies as supposed barometers for moral behavior and social standards.

Among the 23 sweeping (but limited) executive actions signed by President Obama last Wednesday, one declaration reads, “Issue a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.” Part of this peer-reviewed research entails conducting a broad investigation of the “causes and prevention of gun violence, including links between video games, media images, and violence.”

This directive is rather significant, both for the CDC and the entertainment industry. Ten million dollars will be invested in studying the relationship between “video games, media images and violence,” while $20m will be invested in understanding social and behavioral patterns of “how and when firearms are used in violent death.” According to NBC, the CDC hasn’t conducted any research on gun violence since 1996 after the National Rifle Association and their friends in Congress effectively suppressed such research. That means, three years before Marilyn Manson and The Matrix were blamed for Columbine, no non-partisan government agency could investigate whether or not assertions of this type were apt at all, not to mention conduct research on potential causes of gun violence outside of media influence.

Of course, this does not mean that zero research has been conducted on the relationship between violent behavior and violent entertainment. Academics of various fields including pediatrics, sociology, psychology, and communication studies have conducted and published peer-reviewed research on the relationship between images of film violence and violent behavior for children both in America and abroad. Many such studies have come to roughly the same conclusion: there exists some evidence that exposure to violent images onscreen leads to some short-term violent behavior, but this is usually in combination with other factors (such as quality of life at home). Conclusions to many of these papers usually come with the caveat that one should avoid taking this data as “absolute proof,” and qualify their results as “inconclusive and a subject of continued debate.” While connections are indefinite, a lack of evidence hardly constitutes conclusive proof of, well, anything.

Notably, academic film studies (my home base) hasn’t spent much time and effort conducting this type of research. Besides the fact that film studies doesn’t typically utilize the types of socio-scientific research common to psychology, sociology, etc., film scholarship is just as concerned with aesthetic, historical, ideological, and contextual considerations of the violent film image as its resulting affect on viewers.

Few of the studies I’ve listed above go into detail on the particular programming their sample was subjected to. Are we really going to assume the “film violence” is a given, easily identifiable notion that’s the same across media platforms, contexts, and individual films? According to film scholar James Kendrick in his book “Film Violence: History, Ideology, Genre,” “film violence” is a “perception, an elastic, sliding, flexible term,” one that’s constructed socially, historically, aesthetically, geographically, and according to the dominant values of the given moment (13). In other words, film violence is a term that carries a lot of weight, but its referent is hardly consistent.

How could one reasonably assert that the eye-slitting in Un Chien andalou, the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, the “Mexican standoff” in Reservoir Dogs, and the torture scenes of The Passion of the Christ all belong to the same category known as “film violence”?

The resulting meaning of any instance of film violence is profoundly contextual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that every instance of film violence is unique.

Amongst the batshit theatrics of the NRA’s first post-Newtown press conference, Wayne LaPierre said something so direct and truthful that I’m not even sure if he understands exactly what he said. After doling out the usual suspects of the 1990s entertainment industry (movies like Natural Born Killers, videogames, even music videos), LaPierre made the now-famous declaration, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” which is a pretty concise summary of the dominant internal logic informing Hollywood’s representation of gun violence if there ever were one.

After condemning entertainment media amongst the only probable scapegoats for horrific acts of violence, LaPierre then revealed that he understands real-life violence in terms of the “individual justice will always prevail” ethos of Hollywood movies. This pervasive logic that moral superiority + gun ownership = inevitable justice has aroused like-minded assertions that everything from slavery to the Holocaust would have happened differently if more good guys had guns (I guess they’ve been watching recent Tarantino while condemning his old work). Why, I wonder, have all these studies of the influence of movie violence only been conducted on children?

Despite what the press conference and resulting press tour may indicate, the NRA is deeply invested in certain types of mainstream movie violence. The organization’s celebration of film violence is on full display at their “Hollywood Guns” exhibit, which hosts the hand cannons of such “good guys with guns” belonging to John Wayne in Stagecoach, Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, Bruce Willis in Die Hard, and Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. This is why context is gravely important in any study of depictions of gun violence in entertainment media: the issue is not the gun itself and what is done with it (the vague category “film violence”), but, amongst other considerations, how we perceive the people on each end of the trigger and why we perceive them that way.

Movies haven’t always been used as a standard for social behavior or barometer for moral mores. While derided as lowbrow mass entertainment, there are few indications that American cinema was perceived to be harmful or helpful to society during its earliest decades. Strangely enough, with the Fatty Arbuckle rape/manslaughter scandal in 1921, it was the private lives of movie stars, not the content of the films themselves, that spurred a national dialogue of the expectations Americans should have of their mass media institutions. This moment in Hollywood film history is telling, as the establishment of movie stardom (and the first major movie star scandal) made clear that filmgoers deeply identify with and invest in certain people onscreen across a variety of films. Audience allegiance, for much of mainstream America film history, has ostensibly been with the personalities first and then the individual’s actions with respect to that established personality.

Thus, with the foundation of the Hays Code, the content of movies became regulated, guided by the assumption that Hollywood should be a role model for American morality. As a result, movies had little resemblance to social reality. Under the Hays Code, the good guy always had to righteously victorious, husbands and wives slept in separate beds, challenges to normative thinking like recreational drug use or homosexuality didn’t exist, and ambiguity and moral grey areas were exceedingly rare. Sometimes these distinctions were transparently arbitrary. James Cagney, for instance, almost always played a tough guy with a gun from the 1930s to the 1950s. But when he played a gangster, he died; when he played a cop, he lived. As American film censorship began under the assumption that movies are and should be representations of ideal morality in the starkest of ways, a straw man was constructed: to say that a movie is “too violent” is not only to de-contextualize, but to accuse that movie of being fundamentally amoral.

While the Hays Code is long gone, the system of expectations it created – the predictable black-and-white moral compass – still resonates, as indicated by the recent releases of Gangster Squad and The Last Stand. These passable January actioners are cartoonishly violent, perhaps inconsequential pieces of frivolous, forgettable mainstream fodder. Their well-worn narrative trajectories also carry zero tension; a negligible supporting character written to die might be sacrificed in the name of the greater good, but this greater good is an inevitable path towards the protagonist’s certain victory with a bow on it.

This simplistic moral logic certainly doesn’t apply to the type of violence depicted in every film, nor even every Hollywood film. But “good guys with guns” is a notably pervasive idea in a certain type of action film. And there’s arguably nothing wrong with that as long as it’s taken for the crude fantasy it is. That, however, is the exact problem with looking to movies (particularly commercial movies) as a moral barometer for anything. Whenever we ask movies to be stand-up examples for social mores, we’re in fact asking them to construct an ideal, a fantasy. When an entire system operates by this logic, it becomes difficult to imagine anything different. And in discussions of movie violence, we refuse to admit that a movie that aligns itself with the accepted binary moral compass can be just as violent, if not more so, as the media satire Natural Born Killers or the class satire American Psycho (both subjects of LaPierre’s knee-jerk derision).

Movies can reflect and comment on reality in profound ways, or, like Gangster Squad, they can construct a fantasy and avoid any potential introspection on life outside the movie (this is probably why the film went through reshoots). Neither form is a direct representation of reality, but thinking of films as a reflection or fantasy rather than as an aspirational ideal would make for more accurate and healthy considerations about the role in our lives movies do and should have. This is not to say movies have no relationship to morality, or should never be examined in those terms (also, movies are never apolitical); but too often movies have been evaluated in relation to morality in only the most superficial ways, taking representation as endorsement and assuming one type of viewer (the middle-class parent) as possessing the unquestionable standard gaze by which movies should be evaluated for content.

The NRA and parent-centric movie cultures (whose social standards inform the practices of organizations like the MPAA) like to see movies as scapegoats, immediately culpable for inspiring passive masses to engage in destructive behaviors. In response, some film fans as well as filmmakers, people who develop an intimate relationship with movies and devote their lives to seeing them, defensively argue that there’s no connection at all between movie violence and how we perceive the world, as if movies existed in a neutral vacuum completely outside of human investment and social relevance. Both of these positions willfully blind themselves considerably more open and nuanced considerations of the complicated relationship between films and culture.

Perhaps it’s time to start having a real discussion.

Culture Warrior is a weekly dive into the academic side of film studies with expert and higher education addict Landon Palmer. Click here to read previous entries.