For better or worse, violence is commonplace in mass media, art and entertainment and the effects of media content upon those who consume it are an important aspect of audience and reception theories. In this lesson, we take a critical look at media violence and the polarised debates concerning mediated content and public health with specific reference to select cases of notoriety. To conclude, we consider some of the ethical and psychological questions surrounding the aestheticisation of violence in the media: Why do we find horror entertaining? Can depictions of violence ever be beautiful?
For better or worse, violence is commonplace in mass media, art and entertainment. We are exposed to it on a daily basis and in multiple contexts: graphic images punctuate reports of war and conflict in news media; gun culture, gang violence and drug use are glorified (and critiqued) in song lyrics; violent crime, sexual assault and serial killings are the bedrock of crime dramas; psychological trauma and character assassination and emotional abuse makes for compelling reality TV; interactive media allow us to simulate armed combat and experience a simulacra killing; and slapstick comedy makes physical violence amusing in multiple contexts from adult comedy to children’s cartoons.
The perceived effects of media content upon those who consume it are an important aspect of audience and reception theories. You may remember learning about media effects in CIU 210. The media effects model is the dominant approach to understanding the media’s influence over its audience. As we discovered, there are various and often conflicting arguments regarding how, and to what extent, we are affected by the media we consume. But don’t panic if you can’t quite remember the details, because we will revisit this in general terms throughout this lesson.
The content below is divided into two parts: in Part One, we take a critical look at media violence and the polarised debates concerning mediated content and public health with specific reference to select cases of notoriety. In Part Two, we will briefly examine the aestheticisation of violence in the media: Why do we find horror entertaining? Is violence ever beautiful? Let’s find out!
PART ONE | MEDIA EFFECTS & MORAL PANIC
Historically, media innovations have tended to elicit suspicion in the minds of the masses. For example, the uncanny — almost ‘magical’ — ability for photography to capture a realistic image of its subject in perfectly proportioned miniature caused many to fear the medium. New genres and the popularisation of certain styles of media content has similarly resulted in speculation and accusations of the corruption, seduction and degeneration of those who consume it. And, for the most part, the audience presumed to be most ‘at risk’ of the seductive powers of the media have been society’s youth. [See Stanley Cohen’s famous study Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) for a more in depth account of youth, media and moral panic].
In the 18th and 19th century, the paperback novel was described as a toxic form of literature: “The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth; and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge (Hitchcock, 1790). In the 20th century, the ‘moving picture’ would be accused of “leading girls astray” and into “dissolute lives” (The Annual Report of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 1909 cited here). And to the corrupting power of comic books: “Many adults think that the crimes described in comic books are so far removed from the child’s life that for children they are merely something imaginative or fantastic. But we have found this to be a great error. Comic books and life are connected. A bank robbery is easily translated into the rifling of a candy store. Delinquencies formerly restricted to adults are increasingly committed by young people and children … All child drug addicts, and all children drawn into the narcotics traffic as messengers, with whom we have had contact, were inveterate comic-book readers. This kind of thing is not good mental nourishment for children!” (Wertham, 1954).
While it might be easy to dismiss the accounts above as outdated conservative nonsense, the following contemporary examples demonstrate that popular opinion remains wedded to the idea that there is a causal relationship between violent behaviour in young people and perceived violence in entertainment media.
Music, Murder and Suicide
“The effect of rock and roll on young people, is to turn them into devil worshippers; to stimulate self-expression through sex; to provoke lawlessness; impair nervous stability and destroy the sanctity of marriage. It is an evil influence on the youth of our country.” — Minister Albert Carter, 1956
“Is adult entertainment killing our children? Or is killing our children entertaining our adults?” — Marilyn Manson, 2002
On April 20, 1999, two teenage boys went on a shooting spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing 12 fellow students, one teacher and wounding more than 20 other people. This apparently motiveless massacre sent the American press into a frenzy of recrimination. Such obvious public discourse regarding the easy availability of guns was overlooked as the media searched for their archetypal “bad guy”. Moral panic gripped the public and the media’s responsibility was to find someone to take the blame. The prize scapegoat in this unfortunate circumstance was shock rocker Marilyn Manson. In a 2013 interview with Larry King, Marilyn Manson claimed that he has been blamed for 36 school shootings to date.
In the media coverage that immediately followed the shooting, reporters claimed, among other things, that the teenage suspects were wearing goth make-up and Marilyn Manson t-shirts at the time of the shooting, which was later proven untrue and completely unfounded (O’Hagan, The Guardian, Nov 4, 2000). True or not, such claims were more than enough to set a moral panic in motion as newspapers printed stories featuring scathing critiques of Manson’s lyrics, musical style, stage antics and physical appearance, concluding that he was, among other things, a Satanist and a sodomite, who “promotes violence and death in almost every song he sings” (Jeffreys, 1999). While mainstream newspapers printed coverage of the mass shooting featuring headlines like “Killers Worshiped Rock Freak Manson” and “Devil-Worshiping Maniac Told Kids To Kill” (Jones, 2002, Pop Music and the Press, pp. 126–127).
In an 1999 article he published in Rolling Stone, Marilyn Manson responds to the increasing accusations that his music incited such murderous behaviour. Read the excerpt below and watch the clip from the 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine.
“It is sad to think that the first few people on earth needed no books, movies, games or music to inspire cold-blooded murder… A lot of people forget or never realize that I started my band as a criticism of these very issues of despair and hypocrisy. The name Marilyn Manson has never celebrated the sad fact that America puts killers on the cover of Time magazine, giving them as much notoriety as our favorite movie stars [see image above]. From Jesse James to Charles Manson, the media, since their inception, have turned criminals into folk heroes … We applaud the creation of a bomb whose sole purpose is to destroy all of mankind, and we grow up watching our president’s brains splattered all over Texas. Times have not become more violent. They have just become more televised. Does anyone think the Civil War was the least bit civil? If television had existed, you could be sure they would have been there to cover it, or maybe even participate in it, like their violent car chase of Princess Di. Disgusting vultures looking for corpses, exploiting, fucking, filming and serving it up for our hungry appetites in a gluttonous display of endless human stupidity.” [Manson, M. (June 24, 1999). Columbine: Whose Fault Is It? Rolling Stone. Available Online]
Marilyn Manson’s music, lyrics and image are undeniably violent and salacious. Even his moniker could be misunderstood as a ‘celebration’ of suicide and mass murder in its combined reference to Hollywood starlet Marilyn Monroe and mass murder Charles Manson. The premise of his work is to shock and defile as a means of artistic criticism, intentionally drawing attention to grotesque hypocrisy within modern American society. As such, he is a self-proclaimed “poster boy for fear”, an “anti-christ superstar” and a “born villain“. But is he to blame for inciting murder?
📝 CRITICAL RESPONSE TASK
In the above video, one of Manson’s opponents featured speaking at a protest rally states: “Will everyone who listens to Manson go out and commit violent acts? No! But does everybody who watches a Lexus ad go out and buy a Lexus? No! But a few do!” Does this protestor have a point? After all, we know that advertising is highly persuasive and most certainly influences the choices and actions of consumers.
Of course, Marilyn Manson is just one of a number of music icons accused by the media of having blood on his hands. The articles linked below feature many more examples of music being blamed for inciting murder and suicide. Take a quick look at these links and then prepare a response to the following questions:
● Is violent music a likely cause of the violent behaviour exhibited by fans? Why/why not?
● Can you identify the stylistic/textual and audible characteristics that constitute ‘violence’ in music according to the articles below?
Please prepare your response and be ready to share this with your classmates in this week’s tutorial.
“The disturbing material in Grand Theft Auto and other games like it is stealing the innocence of our children … The ability of our children to access pornographic and outrageously violent material on video games rated for adults is spiraling out of control.” — Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2005
Much of the current debate about media violence today focuses on the medium of video games, which isn’t surprising given the historical suspicion of new media as discussed above. Due to their interactive design, many believe that the effects of games are likely to be more pronounced since it is the most interactive form of media consumption. Among the most notorious video games are the Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty series.
GTA’s graphic portrayal of the criminal underworld and violent gameplay — including the ability to murder and carjack civilians and police at will — has made it a worldwide target of controversy and seen it linked to countless violent crimes as illustrated in the news reports below.
Like GTA, Call of Duty is a first-person shooter, which allows players to take on the role of a blood-thirsty soldier in a number of violent scenarios arming themselves with an arsenal of weapons including rifles, pistols and grenades. The game has been mired in numerous controversies linking it to real-life violence. Among these is the 2011 case of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, who claimed he had trained himself to kill his 77 victims through playing the game.
In this final example of ‘blame games’, we can observe classic moral panic behaviour. After a mass shooting that left 26 people dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the video game Mass Effect was blamed for inspiring the rampage after the media mistakenly claimed that the shooter was a fan of the game. Within moments of this news story, Mass Effect‘s Facebook page was bombarded with angry, threatening messages, repeatedly accusing its creators of aiding and abetting a child murderer (Stark, 2012). Fuelled by sensationalist journalism, many of the comments are reactionary, irrational and/or hostile.
I have included this example because it demonstrated the power and influence of the mainstream media in seeding public opinion and provoking willing members of the public to act – in this instance to troll a Facebook page. This example illustrates that media can most definitely affect the opinions and behaviours of its audience. Of course it’s one thing to post to Facebook in anger and another to commit a violent crime.
Media Effects: Can We Know for Sure?
From the anecdotal evidence presented above, it seems that a connection between media and real-world violence is clear. The problem is that when we take a look at the research, opinions are heavily divided and often contradictory making this a highly contested and politicised topic of debate. Studies published in reputable journals that support the correlation sit beside equally reputable counterexamples. For example, Anderson et al. (2003) argues that research “reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts.” While Ferguson (2014) not only disproves any correlation between consuming media violence and an increase in violent behaviour, it suggests that playing video games is actually associated with a decline in violent social behaviour among young people.
🎥 VIEWING TASK
Watch the 3 videos below. The first video argues that correlation is evident in existing research. The second problematises the existing research and highlights the methodological flaws it sees as disqualifying most of the evidence cited as proving causality The third offers a radically different and highly controversial response to the debate from the gaming community themselves.
PART TWO | THE AESTHETICISATION OF VIOLENCE
The Psychology of Violence
“Violence is one of the most fun things to watch.”— Quentin Tarantino
“One of television’s greatest contributions is that it brought murder back into the home where it belongs. Seeing a murder on television can be good therapy. It can help work off one’s antagonism.” – Alfred Hitchcock
Why do some of us like to watch scary movies?
Some critics say violence serves a “cathartic or dissipating effect … providing acceptable outlets for anti-social impulses” (Bruder, 2003). They argue that “screen violence is not real violence, and should never be confused with it. Movie violence is fun, spectacle, make-believe; it’s dramatic metaphor, or a necessary catharsis akin to that provided by Jacobean theatre; it is generic, pure sensation, pure fantasy. It has its own changing history, its codes, its precise aesthetic uses” (Martin, 2000). This ideology is very similar to that of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He supported a useful role for drama and tragedy: a way for people to purge their negative emotions. Aristotle mentions “catharsis” at the end of his Politics, which is the Greek word for purgation, cleansing, and purification (Boutwell, 2015).
“Moskalenko and Heine (2003) have argued that people seek dramatic entertainment mainly for its ability to distract their attention from themselves (their internal world) by attracting their attention to the external world … The more dramatic the experience, the more it grips people and the more they forget about their private concerns.” (Portell & Mullet, 2014, p. 38)
Bloom (2010) argues that we make up imaginary horrors to prepare us for real ones much like a flight simulator prepares a pilot for flight. “It’s not that we enjoy zombie films because we need to prepare for the zombie uprising … the theme of zombies is a clever way to frame stories about being attacked by strangers and betrayed by those we love.” (Bloom, 2010, pp. 193-194)
Ethics and Violent Media Content
Despite widespread interest and concern over the effects violent media content may or may not have on its audience, we cannot deny that the use of violence is pervasive in the mass media, making critical media consumption vital.
Throughout this unit, we have come to understand that as creative media-makers, our aesthetic choices may have ethical implications (see week 3 lesson). In the final part of this lecture, we will attempt to critique violent imagery in art and media using ethical dialectical thinking. In order for us to make an ethical judgment of a work, we must reflect on a work’s intended meaning, its audience, reception, use, context and message. The series of short statements and images that follow depict violence in a variety of contexts, some quite different to those discussed above. Violent media content isn’t always about shock value, sometimes violent images, text or music can be a powerful way to engage in debate and critique over controversial issues such as war, abuse and torture.
📝 CRITICAL REFLECTION TASK
Look at the images below and read the accompanying descriptions. In each instance, try to judge the value of the work according to the type of violence depicted, the intended audience and the degree to which the violence is justifiable. Write down your judgement and your reasoning for each example presented. This task will form the basis of your class tutorial discussion so please attempt at least two of the four examples provided to ensure robust group discussion.
① Stop The Violence
Stop the Violence (2010) is a series of art works by photographer and artist Francois Robert. In this series of works, Robert uses real human bones as a statement about the tragic consequences of war. He explains: “Each image is a symbol of war or violence, such as a gun or a tank, and I wanted to show that sadly the human skeleton is often all that remains from such acts of violence. This is what you are left with after war – a body count”.
② Victims of ?
A Bulgarian fashion magazine’s recent spread featuring models who appear bloodied, bruised and slashed sparked international controversy and was accused of glamorizing domestic violence. Editors of 12 Magazine have refused to apologise or remove the images from circulation, and responded by saying the images were intended to show off the juxtaposition of beauty and movie makeup ideal for a horror flick.
③ ‘If it bleeds, it leads’
Conflicts are an integral part of media coverage, if a story involves war, natural disaster, bank robbery, police shooting, school violence, brutal death or injury of some kind, it is likely to get higher ratings. The more lurid the story, the better its chances of being the ratings leader. Hence the saying, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’.
④ Troubling torture
Torture is considered one of the most immoral and unethical acts of violence. Is this problematised in the following scenes, and if so how?
📚 READING TASK
Vine, I. (2005). The dangerous psycho-logic of media ‘effects’. In M. Barker & J. Petley (Eds.), Ill Effects: The Media Violence Debate (pp. 106-122). New York: Routledge.
📌 VERY PINTERESTING
If you’ve delivering your dialectic inquiry on this topic and need a little inspiration, be sure to make use of the resources on the SAE Media and Cultural Studies Pinterest board. Here you will find links to texts, images, audio, video and other media that help you make more sense of the subject.