Violence In Movies Essay, Research Paper
Politics under our current campaign finance laws can be a treacherous endeavor, so we should be a little forgiving of the Gore campaign’s recent interactions with the entertainment industry. On the one hand, Hollywood executives are purveyors of what Joe Lieberman has called a “culture of carnage,” brazenly deceiving the general public and corrupting the innocent minds of children for profit. On the other hand, they just gave the Democratic National Committee about $10 million of that filthy lucre. On the one hand, Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein once circumvented the ratings system to market his movie Kids, which features 13-year-olds shooting drugs, getting infected with HIV, and having random, wretched sex. On the other hand, Weinstein helped put together a massive Radio City Music Hall fund-raiser for the vice president a week ago. This is politics, after all. In a sign of their increasing confidence, Al Gore and Lieberman even described their attendance at these events as a profile in courage. Not every politician, we were informed, is prepared to look wealthy Malibu donors in the eye, tell them they’re poisoning children’s minds, and then ask for a check. Not that Gore and Lieberman pushed their luck. In Beverly Hills, the ever-pliant Lieberman, fast becoming the ideological Gumby of American politics, reassured the moguls, “We will nudge you. But we will never become censors.”
Nudge, nudge, wink, wink–say no more. The Hollywood execs know what the rest of the country’s elites know: that the pseudo-populism of the last couple of months is electoral hooey, and not much else. Because Gore has veered so far to the left on economic issues, he needs a dash of conservative populism to protect his right flank. Hence the sudden revival of Tipper Gore’s erstwhile campaign against dirty rock lyrics. It’s another shrewd move by the Gore camp, leaving the usual cultural scolds, like Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney, spluttering aimlessly about Eminem.
But it’s still hooey. The premise behind the argument once made by Cheney and Robert Bork, and now by Lieberman and Gore, is that the marketing of violence and sex to children leads to higher levels of teenage violence, sex, drug use, illegitimacy, social breakdown, and so on. But even a cursory glance at reality shows that the opposite is true. The era that has seen the popular culture ratchet up its drug- addled, bigoted, violent messages to new levels of depravity has also seen one of the sharpest declines in teen violence, sex, and drug use ever. If corporate America is out to poison our children’s minds, it’s failing in spectacular fashion.
Take the alleged curse of graphically violent video games, often marketed to the underage as innocent toys. This was once one of Bennett’s hobbyhorses. In the wake of the Columbine shootings, he went on “Larry King Live” to bemoan “the video games, the movies, other things. I don’t think there’s anybody [outside the entertainment industry] … who doesn’t understand the coarsening effect of a lot of this cultural crud on our kids.” Bennett was referring to games like Mortal Kombat, which debuted in 1992; Doom, which debuted in 1993; and Quake, which came out in 1996. But Bennett has his data the wrong way around. Teen assault rates actually peaked in Mortal Kombat’s first year and have been falling ever since, a coincidence recently pointed out by the author Mike Males. In roughly the same period, teen murder rates have fallen almost 50 percent–one of the steepest declines ever. Juvenile violent-arrest rates have also headed south since Doom began darkening America’s computer screens, and they are still falling. But didn’t Columbine highlight the crisis of violence in our schools? Actually, no. From 1993 to today, the number of children carrying guns to school has been halved, according to a recent survey of almost 140,000 schoolkids. Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association was ridiculed for mentioning some of these statistics in his congressional testimony, but his numbers went unchallenged. One of them is particularly striking: The percentage of the under-18 population arrested in 1997 for violent crimes hit a five-year low of 0.41 percent. This is Lieberman’s “culture of carnage.”
Well, maybe the kids have stopped killing each other and begun acting like bunny rabbits instead. In her Hill testimony last week, Cheney asked the following ominous question: “What is the entertainment industry doing to our children when they create a culture in which children are viewed this way, when they make it seem as though early adolescents are sexual objects, that early adolescents should be expected to take drugs and have sex…?” The answer to her question is readily available to anyone with a Web browser and an open mind. In the wake of gangsta rap, Internet porn, and movies like Kids and American Pie, the teenage birthrate has hit a 60-year low, falling 20 percent since 1991. Teen abortions have dropped one-third since the mid-’80s, falling for each of the last seven years. Drugs? Compared to the 1970s, we live in a strikingly sober time. Some studies show an increase in pot-smoking among teens this decade (could this be a hidden contributor to the simultaneous decline in teen violence?), but most anti-social substances have shown stable or falling rates of teenage use in the last few years.
There are three ways to interpret these numbers. Kulturkampfers like Bennett and Lieberman might argue that crime rates would have dropped even faster if Hollywood had cleaned up its act. If every 13-year-old boy had been encouraged to watch Shakespeare in Love rather than play Doom on his Playstation, they imply, we’d live in a crime-free paradise. Yeah, right. Force teenage boys to sit through Shakespeare in Love and crime rates are liable to go through the roof. Besides, it’s hard to beat a 50 percent decrease in teen crime since the mid-’90s; and no society, except a totalitarian one, is going to eradicate all mischief and violence among 17-year-old boys. That’s what they do. A more plausible interpretation is that popular culture and teen behavior are only loosely connected. Today’s kids may actually be less impressionable than previous generations, because they’re so overexposed so young. They see entertainment as fantasy and don’t relate it to their lives in any simple way.
The third interpretation is the most subversive. It is that the rise of a bawdy, violent popular culture is actually linked to the decline in crime and dysfunction among the young. The key to controlling teenagers, after all, is not repression but distraction. A 14-year-old consumed with murdering mythic gods on his Playstation is not on a street corner making trouble; he’s taking out his aggression on a monitor. Likewise, the comedic parody of violence in professional wrestling may be not an incitement to assault outside the ring but a giant sublimation of the violent urges most young males have a hard time controlling. I can’t prove this hunch, but it certainly merits further study. And it makes more sense than the hysteria peddled by the Democratic running mate and the Republican running mate’s wife. The question that needs to be answered right now is not what our popular culture has been doing wrong for the last decade or so–but what, in this strange and blessed time, it has actually been doing right.