What Do You Mean by "Violence"?

Culture and technology.
May 15 1999 3:30 AM

What Do You Mean by "Violence"?

Counting the bodies is a dumb way to rate movies.

At his White House summit on youth violence this week, President Clinton summed up the prevailing wisdom about entertainment and its connection to the Littleton, Colo., murders. "We cannot pretend that there is no impact on our culture and our children that is adverse if there is too much violence coming out of what they see and experience," he said. In other words, the issue is the quantity of violence that kids absorb from television, video games, and movies. Countless academic studies frame the problem this way. They seek--and usually find--a correlation between how much violent entertainment children consume and how aggressively they behave.

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This view isn't wrong, it's just way too crude. Asking whether violence on screen foments violence in life is like asking whether drinking liquids leads to car accidents. In a dumb way, the answer is yes. But you're not going to get anywhere until you distinguish between alcoholic beverages and nonalcoholic ones.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

Hollywood types prefer to address this issue at this level of generality because it lets them off the hook. "If you're looking for violence, what about the evening news?" David Geffen asked in the New York Times just before the White House conference. "America is bombing Yugoslavia; it's on every day. It's not a movie, it's real." If the problem is merely the quantity of violence kids see, Geffen is right. Teen-agers can get plenty of gore without ever renting a slasher film. But we all know from personal experience that different sorts of screen violence have drastically varying emotional effects. Some depictions whet our appetites for brutality, while others do just the opposite. These all-important distinctions are not ones that epidemiologists or sociologists or psychologists can measure very effectively, because they involve a strong subjective element. But until we begin to distinguish among the different ways violence is portrayed, we can't begin to understand what those portrayals may do. Here are some categories that may be helpful in thinking about the issue:

Hamlet T ragic Violence: Needless to say, tragedy is often very violent. Take Kenneth Branagh's four-hour film version of Hamlet. Having punctured Laertes and launched him over a balcony, Hamlet, in the climactic scene, impales Claudius with a flying sword, brains him with a swinging chandelier, and force-feeds him poison. (View the scene above.) A 12-year-old watching this sequence in isolation might say that the violence is "cool," in a low-tech sort of way. But how does this violence make the adult viewer feel? In the context of the play, the most prominent emotions it arouses are the ones Aristotle identified as the essence of tragedy: pity and fear. We pity a tragic hero such as Hamlet because his misfortune is undeserved, and we tremble at the realization that he is like us. Tragedy doesn't stir violent urges but rather inhibits them. That is why war films like All Quiet on the Western Front are often described as "pacifistic." The tragic context of the violence sensitizes us to its horror and makes us revile it.

Enforcer Righteous Violence: The Aristotelian opposite of the pity and fear is righteous indignation. This is the feeling we get when we see bad people flourish. It is stoked when we see them get their just deserts. That's what Clint Eastwood movies are all about. Typical of this type of drama is the 1976 film The Enforcer, a sequel to Dirty Harry. Eastwood pursues a gang of hippie terrorists who murder assorted innocents and kill his female partner in a shootout. (See Clint remedy the situation with a handheld mortar above.) The way you feel watching this act of violence is very different from the way you feel at the end of Hamlet. You experience satisfaction and glee, not pity and fear. You want to exclaim "Yes!" instead of "No!" In this category are most war movies as well as the oeuvres of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Bronson, and Steven Seagal. In such films, the bad guys become increasingly subhuman and thus deserving of more and more grotesque forms of torture and dismemberment. In this sense, the old Hays Office production code, which required that films teach a moral lesson by having evildoers punished, had it backward. If you want to discourage violence, you should show the innocent suffering, not the guilty.

GraphicViolence: Is a more realistic depiction of gore, in which someone's head is chopped off, affording a glimpse of severed tendons and gushing arteries, worse in terms of inuring viewers to violence than generic mayhem, in which the bad guys fall over dead? The body-counters tend to assume that graphic violence is worse. But more realistic depictions may prevent violence from becoming an abstract idea. Once again, the context is what matters. In a tragic story, graphic violence makes horror more horrible. A retributive context makes extreme gore less horrible. If I were a parent of adolescents, I'd try to keep them away from Marked for Death but not from Saving Private Ryan, even though the latter is far more vividly gruesome.

Scream Pornographic Violence: In horror films such as the Friday the 13th, the issue of whether anyone deserves torture and dismemberment is immaterial. The deliciousness of the violence is the whole point. (Watch a clip from Scream, in which Drew Barrymore gets stabbed in the breast and dragged about her yard by a masked serial killer above.) If you're squeamish, you may cover your eyes when seeing this in a theater. But the horror is undeniably thrilling, in a sexual way. There's an obvious parallel between the blood-splatter climaxes in horror movies and the "money shots" in sex-porno. Indeed, the only difference between this kind of slasher film and snuff films is that no animals are harmed in the making of the former.

Pulp I ronic Violence: There are people who will tell you that Scream and the meta-horror subgenre that developed from it are not crudely sexualized violent films. They're self-conscious, postmodern comments on crudely sexualized violent films. Critics of violent entertainment tend to hate this defense. It doesn't matter, they say, whether people are butchered ironically in films such as Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers or Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Here, I think the difference between the response of an adult and that of a child becomes crucial. (Check out the torture-dungeon scene from Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, in which drug dealer Marsellus promises sweet revenge to the man who has just raped him, above.) Adults, or at least most adults, recognize this as a species of black comedy, albeit one that expresses a real sadism on the part of the director. But to immature minds, the message may be simply that brutality is cool and funny. In other words, ironic violence may be desensitizing and stimulating to the young in the same way that pornographic violence is.

RoadRunner Cartoon Violence: What of films such as Lethal Weapon 4, in which the violence is not quite ironic but rather so hyperbolic and unreal that it becomes a cartoon? Or, for that matter, what of cartoons themselves, which are filled with calamities without consequences? (Watch Wile E. Coyote blown up, reconstituted, flattened, and reinflated above.) You might think that such portrayals teach the false lesson that violence doesn't have real effects. Perhaps for those too young to distinguish fantasy from reality, that's the case. But there's not much basis for thinking that this confusion persists. By the time a child is old enough to borrow his dad's guns (say, 10), he understands that cartoons and comics don't describe the real capacities of human beings.

Basketball S chool Violence: Since the Columbine killings, there's been a special focus on depictions of adolescents committing mayhem in school. The two films cited most often are Heathers, in which Christian Slater is foiled in an attempt to detonate his school, and The Basketball Diaries, in which Leonardo DiCaprio fantasizes about gunning down his classmates and a priest Terminator-style while his buddies cheer. (View a clip from the movie, above.) This scene is now the centerpiece of a lawsuit by parents in Paduchah, Ky., who say the 14-year-old shooter who killed three children was motivated by the movie.

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