It’s time President Obama took a bite out of Hollywood. While he spoke movingly last week about the shootings at Umpqua Community College and chastised Congress for failing to enact stricter gun legislation, the president ignored his pals in the entertainment world, whose ongoing production of bloody movies and video games unquestionably contribute to our violent culture.
Obama said we had become “numb” to mass shootings; tragically, he is right. But it’s also true that we’re numb to murder and gore, thanks to increasingly realistic creations like Mortal Kombat and The Raid 2. Unfortunately, unlike the gun industry, Hollywood has generously backed President Obama and other pols who are consequently reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them.
Americans have always owned guns. It is only in modern times that wanton killing has emerged as routine. Consider: the purposeless murder of a young man named Bobby Franks in 1924 by two wealthy collegians – Leopold and Loeb – was so unprecedented it was called the “crime of the century.” Killing for the joy of it was a novelty.
Compare that to a spate of murders in the past couple of years in which thugs in various cities – one as young as 13 -- have ordered pizzas and then killed the deliverymen just for fun. You don’t even know their names.
Young men today are raised on a steady diet of virtual murder and mayhem, playing evermore true to life and horrific video games, and are exposed to increasingly bloody TV shows and movies. And, yes, it is young men who commit virtually all mass murders, not young women. For some, the difference between reality and virtual reality becomes fuzzy.
Mortal Kombat, described by Rolling Stone as the “bloody granddaddy” of gory video games in which characters are terminated through graphically displayed evisceration or decapitation, is a good example. The story line essentially pits one character against another in bloody combat until the announcer booms “Finish Him!” and a gory “fatality” ensues. Spines are snapped, heads roll, testicles pop – all with sickening realism.
As The Daily Beast notes in a review of the latest version, Mortal Kombat X, “There are two ways that this could have gone: Either they could have played up the humor (see: Babality), or they could have gone all-in and made a game for people who relish the violence. Guess which way they went?”
It’s not just video games. Movies and TV shows are increasingly blood-drenched as well. In the season premiere of Code Black, a new CBS show about emergency rooms, a frantic crew tries to save the life of a shooting victim whose blood is literally flooding over floor and feet. It is gruesome, and unnecessary. As more than one critic has charged, it reveals a lack of creativity and talent.
Numerous studies show the steady progression towards more violence in games and entertainment; a 2013 report in Pediatric noted that “gunplay in PG-13 releases had tripled in fewer than 30 years and that PG-13 titles were now more violent than R-rated movies.” Another study found that “violence was ubiquitous in Hollywood blockbusters, with 89.7 percent of those 390 movies having at least one scene of violence,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
The impact of this rising tide of violence is unquestioned. Dr. Eugene Beresin, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Training at Massachusetts General Hospital writes, “While the causes of youth violence are multifactorial… the research literature is quite compelling that children's exposure to media violence plays an important role in the etiology of violent behavior… there appears to be a strong correlation between media violence and aggressive behavior within vulnerable "at risk" segments of youth.
There are literally hundreds of studies showing that repeated exposure to murder and gore dulls our senses--and that kids are vulnerable. Naturally, Hollywood hits back. After the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook, Quentin Tarantino, director of the bloody Django Unchained told NPR that linking the rampage to the kind of violence shown in his movies was “disrespectful to their memory…to talk about movies…obviously the issue is gun control and mental health.”
One Hollywood-sympathetic study reports that the showing of violent movies actually drives down criminal acts. Why? Because such films are mainly viewed by young men, and if they are sitting in a theater they are less likely to be actively murdering someone. Literally, that was the conclusion.
Noah Bertlatsky, writing in The Atlantic, describes a more real-world scenario, in which violent films like Rambo were used to train child soldiers like Ishmael Beah, who was made to fight in the Sierra Leone civil war of the 1990s. "We all wanted to be like Rambo,” says Beah, “We couldn’t wait to implement his techniques.”
Common sense tells us that hardening our senses to violence is not good. Common sense also suggests that Hollywood is not about to abandon proven ways to puff up ticket sales. After the Newtown slaughter, President Obama, who received millions in campaign donations from the entertainment industry, gently asked his pals at Dreamworks to not “glorify” gun violence. Then he went back to pitching more gun controls. Various measures were taken up by Congress to tighten ratings systems, while Variety published an eloquent plea for the entertainment industry to accept some responsibility for our violent culture. Nothing happened. After all, sales of Grand Theft Auto 5, one of the worst video games on the market, totaled $1 billion in only 3 days. That’s tough competition.
Mass killings today are not entirely caused by violent media exposure, of course. But, this kind of entertainment is a problem – one which consumers can address if the government won’t. The success of Mothers Against Drunk Driving shows what concerned families and communities can do. It is up to parents to monitor what kids buy and watch and to provide alternatives to the coarsening fare so available to young people today.
That’s a tall order, given the disintegration of the family unit and the number of kids virtually left on their own. Schools and medical professionals could help, providing guidance and counseling on the topic. For our society, steering young children away from harmful entertainment will provide big dividends down the road. Don’t expect President Obama to lead the effort.