Like Money in the Bank: Understanding Media's Investment in Violence


This article originally appeared in Issue# 63

There was something suspicious about the spring 1993 Newsweek cover story glaringly headed "Violence Goes Mainstream" and subtitled, "Movies, Music, Books — Are There any Limits Left?" Here's a clue: After stating with predictable alarm that media violence, previously to be found (according to Newsweek) "on the fringes of mass culture," has now reached "the station-wagon set, bumper to bumper at the local Cinema 1-2-3-4-5," the writers go on to assign blame. Who done it? "The amalgamated, conglomerated media corporations" which irresponsibly and greedily "churn out increasingly vicious movies, books and records," of course. Who did you think?

The problem is that Newsweek itself is a central part of that conglomerated media world. My point is not the obvious one that public outrage over media violence is circular and hypocritical, although it is. To end the discussion there is to contribute to the confusion, to raise circularity to yet another level.

The real issue is motive. Why do the media constantly engage in this kind of mea culpa exercise? Are they sincerely interested in killing their own fatted calf by doing away with their most lucrative commodity-sensationalism? Not likely.

Attention Diverted

So what's really going on here? By projecting outrage and dismay, the media divert attention from the real issues-on the one hand, the relationship of media violence to actual social violence and, on the other, the media's own involvement and investment in violence. Two assumptions pervade- and mystify-the public discourse on the "problem" of violence in the media. First is the question of quantity-the notion that the sheer number and intensity of violent representations is the key to how serious the problem is: The more violence, the worse for society. This brings us to the question of effects-the implication that media violence causes social violence and that, by extension, more media violence causes more societal violence.

These assumptions are not totally false. Common sense tells us there is some kind of relationship between what we see and what we believe and do. If that were not the case, art would have no power at all. But the fuzziness of the thinking about "causes" and "effects" leaves out intentions. It assumes, implicitly, a McLuhanesque kind of self-directing technology that somehow has an innate affinity for violence. "The camera loves violence," [director] Brian de Palma has said, but it is de Palma himself who loves violence, just as it is always human beings, with personal agency and intent, who create and enable media violence.

Public discourse on media violence rarely conveys a sense of social, political, or economic context. It is as if people-like subjects of the very laboratory experiments used to "prove" the media's responsibility for violence-were locked up in isolated little rooms with nothing but media experience to respond to. This is nonsense.

In fact, it is only the obscurantism of the "objective" social science methodology used by communications scholars that induces us to forget the role of the real world in people's violent behavior and, more interestingly, in the content of the media. Does television think up this stuff with its little electronic brain and imagination? Was there no violence before media? We can't simply ignore the way media violence reflects and reinforces what is already out there.

Glorifying Violence

The people who create media content aren't off in some ivory tower of creative spontaneity, operating without guidelines. They work for cultural organizations which, as Raymond Williams reminded us long ago, are "both in themselves and in their frequent interlock or integration with other institutions...part of the whole social and economic organization at its most pervasive."

In other words, there are powerful corporations and governments which fund and regulate media and make the rules about what gets aired and what doesn't.

We, as a society, love violence, sanction violence, thrive on violence as the very basis of our social stability, our ideological belief system.

If media cause violence, who causes media? By ignoring themselves-as Newsweek does, for instance-the media self-analysis perpetuates an illogical but widely held theory: that we, as a society, abhor violence but somehow got ourselves mass media that love it and feed it to us to the point where we become "addicted." This, too, is nonsense.

We, as a society, love violence, sanction violence, thrive on violence as the very basis of our social stability, our ideological belief system. As Rap Brown used to say in the 1960s, "Violence is as American as cherry pie."

It should hardly be surprising, then, that our mass media and entertainment systems glorify violence. It is our national pastime. It is the favorite tool of our leaders. It is, most recently, the source of our nation's "finest hour," the great Nintendo war against the heathen Arab hordes. Did anyone worry that the media ecstasy over the destruction of Baghdad might induce television viewers to commit acts of violence? As a nation, we engage in massive, atrocious acts of violence, and the media spurs us on. Why is this less troubling or less interesting than the case of a single murderer known to have liked to watch horror films?

Violent Technology

If there is more media violence today, that is because there is more real and potential violence. We have the technological means of annihilating ourselves and others in spectacular and gruesome ways, and this technology is increasingly available to broader segments of the population. This is understandably scary, and people are right to be fascinated by it. It is a crucial issue in our public life. It is a matter that needs to be understood, to be symbolically acted out in terms of public narratives which seem to explain and contain the terrifying subject.

The mass media provide this service, just as art always has. For the most part, the media present myths and symbolic narratives which distort and obscure the realities of social violence, taking agency and responsibility away from the social structure that actually benefits from it and projecting it onto other kinds of symbolic beings- monsters, demons, cabals of futuristic conspirators. But sometimes, in the hands of innovative artists, the dominant genres and narratives are subverted and larger social truths emerge about the real nature of violence in America — who really causes it and who benefits from it.

This is the context within which we should evaluate media products. Two... publicized works of violent fiction, Jonathan Demme's [1992 film, The Silence of the Lambs, and Bret Easton Ellis's novel, American Psycho, have been singled out for their portrayals of some of the most vicious acts yet presented to media audiences. American Psycho, about a yuppie banker who goes around torturing and murdering various oppressed people for the fun of it, has been roundly attacked and even boycotted by feminists for its depictions of rape and the torture of women.

The Silence of the Lambs, on the other hand, which shows a young woman FBI agent single handedly capturing a mass murderer and torturer of women, has been treated as a serious and intelligent work of art. Yet it seems to me that of the two works, The Silence of the Lambs is by far the more offensive and symbolically threatening to women...

Both of these works are horrifying in their mystification of the real sources of class and gender violence... Such fantasies use symbolic acts of violence to purge us of the horror of class injustice without ever displaying it in its true form. Poverty is a form of physical torture, but its form is complex and its perpetrators are vast and invisible.

We have the technological means of annihilating ourselves and others in spectacular and gruesome ways, and this technology is increasingly available to broader segments of the population.

American Psycho's simplistic scapegoat is metaphorically and emotionally useful but politically and intellectually mystifying...The problem is that Ellis's hero is a madman and a monster and what he does is projected as a physical, rather than political or economic, act of genocide.

The real monster in Silence of the Lambs is not the pathetic if terrifying transvestite killer, but another mass murderer, the brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic killer Hannibal Lecter played with suave and sexy charm by Anthony Hopkins. He is the expert Starling [the FBI agent] consults for help...

Analyze Social Realities

The point of these observations is not to call for censorship. After all, whose criteria, whose "readings" of these texts would we use? Jesse Helms'? We need to analyze them for what they reveal about social realities hidden beneath cultural myths. We need to educate ourselves in critical thinking. Popular art gives clues to social truths we ought to understand.

Even if we were to favor some form of censorship, the current thinking wouldn't help us much. Its equation of numbers and "badness" is obviously wrong. Meaning isn't interpreted by counting but by analyzing according to qualitative criteria. It isn't number of bodies (relatively few) that makes The Silence of the Lambs more disturbing than American Psycho. It is the elegant and attractive portrayal of misogyny as a terrifying, sexy game. The novel is ugly and its hero is vile. The film is entertaining and its hero/villain is a classic cinematic hunk.

But, most importantly, we need to resist the censorship argument because it is so likely to backfire. No matter how much we deplore the sleaze and gore, we must keep a clear head about how they are used. Sleaze and gore are, after all, sometimes the most effective agents of consciousness-raising. It all depends on the nature of the work being considered. Films like Good Fellas or River's Edge, which depict wholly amoral, sociopathic acts of murder, are, in fact, attacks on the social realities supporting and encouraging violence.

A TV movie like The Burning Bed, which tells the story of Francine Hughes, the battered wife who set her husband's body on fire and was acquitted, was actually exemplary in its feminist depiction of the many social, cultural and economic reasons for the epidemic of woman-battering. It revealed, in horrifying detail, the ideological and institutional factors that allowed Hughes — and so many other women — to suffer through years of torture without legal, social or familial support.

The day after the movie aired, to an audience of 75 million, many women left their abusive husbands for shelters they did not previously know existed. On the other hand, four women burned their husbands to death and one man set his wife on fire. How does one evaluate the "effects" of this very violent film? Did it cause five acts of violence or was its effect far more subtle and significant? Would we want it to be toned down or even censored?

Hardly. In fact, a comparison of The Burning Bed and The Silence of the Lambs reveals how art works, in its technique, to suggest meanings that are in no way related to the raw content of what the films present. Both films show vicious men torturing women. But camera angles, point of view, social detail and context all serve to make the two films different in emotional effect. One creates a creepy fantasy of superhuman evil and lets sexism triumph dramatically; the other pulls the masks away from institutional complicity in domestic violence.

So where does this leave us? With luck, a few steps ahead of the Newsweek syndrome, the hypocritical and endless media ploy of screaming "Ain't it awful!" and "Let's ban it!" The problem, after all, is not media violence but real violence. We need to focus on the causes and the nature of that phenomenon.

The media will be as violent as the world that creates them. Sometimes that's disturbing, but sometimes it is salutary. The media, like other public arenas, are a battleground-contested terrain in which ideological meanings are played out. As consumers, critics, and artists, we have to be in the game. But first we must know the rules.

Author Bio: 

Elayne Rapping teaches communications at Adelphi University in New York City. She is the author of The Movie of the Week: Private Stories, Public Events. A collection of her articles, Mediations: Forays Into the Gender and Culture Wars, is soon to be published. The original version of this article first appeared in The Progressive. It is reprinted by permission