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Natural Born Killers Essay Research Paper Violence

Natural Born Killers Essay, Research Paper

Violence is a constant on our screens whether it be an anvil falling on

a cartoon character, a war zone on the news, a fight in an action movie

or a pub brawl in a soap opera. But does this screen violence produce

behavioural effects in the viewers? This is one of the most frequent

and heatedly debated arguments in mass media. Is it the case that

audiences are effected by what they see and that the producers of media

texts are instigating or increasing violent behaviour, or do audiences

have the ability to understand what they have seen without being overly

influenced? It has to be ascertained as to whether audiences are

passive or active. This subject has caused controversy within several

of different schools of thought and ideologies over the years. They

have either wide or only slight variations of opinion so it is

difficult to come to one definite conclusion as each one also has valid

and understandable explanations. It is difficult to deny that ‘the

whole point of communicating is to influence one another by conveying

information’ (Vine, 1997), but to what extent does this influence take

control? To investigate this matter and come to a conclusion as to

whether or not screen violence does instigate violent behaviour in the

reader, we will be critically looking at two of the major ideological

models as well as using some specific media texts to validate and/or

criticise these theories.

First there is the Hypodermic Needle or Hypodermic Syringe effect. This

theory has it’s root in 1950’s America when dominant businesses and the

then government wanted to discover how far the public were influenced

by what they saw on television. The Hypodermic Theory came from this

Media Effects model, which had a heavy emphasis in psychology.

Businesses and the government alike wanted to know how much ‘media is

supposedly ‘injected’ into the consciousness of an audience’ via

television (Price, 1993). They wanted to know if through this

relatively new medium the public could be persuaded unquestioningly to,

for example, vote for a certain political party or buy a specific brand

of washing powder.

The Hypodermic model proposes that the media has a very direct and

extremely immediate effect on the general public, who accept the

injected message without question due to their passiveness. It is the

idea that producers of media texts can persuade us to do what ever they

want and we will unquestionably comply. When we bring the subject of

violence into this field, a follower of this ideology would say that

the violent behaviour witnessed on screen would be influentially

accepted by the audience without question. For example, if a reader was

shown the notorious and much discussed film ‘Natural Born Killers’

(Oliver Stone 1994), the Hypodermic model would say that due to it’s

alleged glamorization of motiveless violence, where the main

protagonists are seen as romantic folk heroes who get away with their

crimes in the end, the reader would simply take in the message, accept

it and then violent behaviour would stem from that. ‘Natural Born

Killers’ is notable for the fact that the story spins the idea of

heroes and villains onto its head. Traditionally those who commit the

violence are the villains who are punished for their crimes, while the

police are seen as heroes who save the day. In this instance the police

are overly violent, indeed one of them is a murderer himself, and these

authority figures end up being punished. The main characters of Mickey

and Mallory Knox (Woody Harelson and Juliette Lewis) are the ‘natural

born killers’ who violently slaughter without apparent reason, yet due

to Mallory’s abusive upbringing and witty one-liners they gain sympathy

and, in a sense, likability.

One of the Hypodermic model’s faults is that it assumes the audience

will take in what they’ve seen and will be influenced by it in a

negative way. There are positive aspects which can influence but these

are largely over-shadowed and conveniently forgotten. This model would

say that the confused messages of right and wrong within ‘Natural Born

Killers’ would inject the reader to accept the violence of the film and

then imitate the behaviour. If the killers had been seen ultimately

punished in the end, it would be a positive reading, as the reader

would know not to mimic as punishment is where that behaviour leads.

Ultimately it is children who are seen to be the most at risk from

these effects. David Buckingham suggests that children are regarded as

not being mentally equipped to understand that what they see is not

what they should do:

‘Thus imitative violence, which has remained the central focus of

anxiety in such debates, is largely seen as arising from the inability

to distinguish between fiction and reality. Children copy what they see

on television because they lack the experience and the intellectual

capacities that might enable them to see through the illusion of

reality which the medium provides.’ (Buckingham, ed. Barker and Petley,

1997, p33)

But it is not just children who need protecting, according to the

Hypodermic model.

Another problem arises for the Hypodermic Needle when one considers a

text which has a message, but the majority of readers see another

message to the one intended. An example of this are John Ford’s

westerns, such as ‘The Searchers’. Viewers have read messages of

violence, racism and sexism within his films, yet Ford denies he put

them there in the first place. The Hypodermic model says that what the

producer of the text intends the message to be is exactly what they say

it is and nothing else, as the audience is passive and they will all

receive the same message. But even if Ford did intend those messages to

be the ones read this does not mean that his viewers are influenced to

become violent, racist sexists.

This theory’s major failure is that it does not take who the audience

is into consideration. It sees the population as one mass, all

intellectually and culturally the same. It makes great assumptions that

everyone of us who watches violence on the screen will receive the same

messages and violent behaviour will ensue. It does not take into

consideration the fact that not everybody thinks or reacts the same.

For example, someone who works in the police force will react

differently to someone who does not when watching ‘The Bill’. They

become active readers as they bring more to the reading than someone

who has not experienced what is being portrayed on screen. If we did

not bring our own life experiences and individuality to a reading, then

everyone who has watched ‘Natural Born Killers’ would have all come

away with exactly the same impression and this would have instigated

violent behaviour. If people were simply passive and accepted

everything they saw on the screen and let it influence their behaviour

without questioning it, then they would have all become violent to the

extreme after watching that film, something which we know is simply not

the case. And it is women, children and the working class who are seen

as vulnerable as they are assumed to be intellectually inferior, while

those who study the effects, white middle class males, are somehow

above being effected by the media. Surly this only goes towards what

they say is the reality if the subject as it is they who say readers as

a mass will be effected, so by discluding themselves they are

disproving their own theory. Stuart Price (1993) indicates that despite

this ‘moral campaigners’ still hold onto this theory with ‘posthumous

support’, and that to some extent it is a simple way for them to

criticise and explain something they do not like or fully understand.

The second model we will look at differs greatly from the Hypodermic

one, in that it focuses more on the reader. In the 1950’s Katz and

Lazersfield started a school of thought which transformed the question

of ‘how the media effects the reader’, to ‘what the reader does with

the media’. This is what is known as Uses and Gratifications. Price

(1993) explains this as identifying specific groups empirically. Groups

must be looked at to see how many people there are within them, as well

as their ages, gender, occupation, leisure pursuits, social status and

so on. This differs from the Hypodermic model as it sees groups within

society as opposed to society as a mass of isolated, identical

individuals. In this model who and what a person are is the key to how

they use the media text and what gratification they attain from it.

This brings in the idea that an individual, because of who they are and

where in society they have come from, will react differently to a text.

This was touched on earlier when discussing ‘The Bill’. An individual,

depending on who they are, will have a different reading of a text.

Regarding something with the high violence content of ‘Natural Born

Killers’, it helps build personal identity in that the reader sees it

and knows what not to be like. The reader can judge between what is

right and what is wrong. Our society rightfully condemns the behaviour

of the characters and as active members of that society so do we. We do

not try to emulate them, even if when watching it is a diversion and

form of escapism, but that is it and nothing more. It is not reality

and we accept that. And the fact that readers watch the film and do not

automatically become more violent clearly gives this backing.

However, a major problem is that this model does not take the actual

media text into extreme consideration; everything is the reader. It

does not examine the mode of production or what the producers original

messages were, simply the way they are read. Again, in the example of

‘Natural Born Killers’, it would not take into consideration the

messages director Oliver Stone makes about the way the media could

influence society. It is, in many ways, the opposite problem from the

Hypodermic Needle, but in conjunction with that theory one can see that

it is not enough to say that violence on the screen causes violent


In conclusion, if screen violence produces behavioural effects on

viewers, therefore creating a more violent society, it would be more

evident in our everyday lives. Images of violence are all around us in

many forms of the media. If we were all effected in the same way then

everyone would have the same reaction. If everyone reacted to and

mimicked behaviour seen on the screen then our society would be one of

constant violence in every situation imaginable. This is simply not the

case. The James Bulger murder where two young boys caused the death of

a toddler by supposedly mimicking a scene from the violent horror film

‘Child’s Play III’ has been blamed on screen violence. However there

was no evidence, as Martin Barker (1997) explains, that the boys had

actually seen that film even though that is what the press latched

onto. So where the effects of screen violence were blamed there were

more than likely other elements which helped bring the situation into

existence. More than just what such individuals watch has to be taken

into consideration, but also who they are and where they have come

from. If it was simply that violence on the screen instigated violent

behaviour and nothing more, what of other cases such as Mary Bell, a

girl who killed two very young children. She had not seen ‘Child’s

Play’ or ‘Natural Born Killers’, but had experienced real life abuse at

the hands of her mother. It takes more than just watching violence on

the screen to cause it. An individual may watch a violent film and then

perform the acts in real life, but one would then have to look at what

they, as a reader, originally brought to the reading.

Another case Barker (1997) highlights is that of a man who killed his

child thinking he and his wife were the biblical Joseph and Mary after

watching the biblical epic ‘King of Kings’. While having violent

content nowhere near that of ‘Natural Born Killers’, it shows that what

the reader was bringing to the text was not the ‘normal’ reading of the

majority of people and that more of who he was should be looked into

than simply blaming the film, as it seems ridiculous to suggest that

was the original message meant by the film makers.

It is too little to say that screen violence produces behavioural

effects as it is a generalization. Also behaviour does not seem to be

the correct word. When watching violence people react emotionally in

different ways, not behaviourally. A reader may be appalled by the

graphic and bloody violence of ‘Natural Born Killers’, exhilarated

during a hand to hand combat in ‘Rocky’ or even amused by the

over-the-top slapstick violence of ‘The Three Stooges’. The message of

the maker of the text, the text itself and who the audiences are as

individuals are all as equally important as each other, and so all have

to be taken into consideration. One without the other two is not

enough, as we have learnt since the Hypodermic Needle Effect was first

proposed that it takes more than just screen violence and screen

violence alone to produce behavioural effects on viewers.

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