What, if any, are the connections between media violence and violence in schools? Does media violence cause violence in schools? Does exposure to media violence desensitize media consumers? To use Freedman’s (2002) analogy, is media a villain or a scapegoat? These questions underlie research on the effects of media violence in society, and public discussion about precipitating factors that are thought to cause youth violence.
Public concern about violence in movies (as well as video games and television) has been a continual theme in analyses of media violence, even while many people insist that movies are “just entertainment.”For media analysts such as Leistyna and Alper (2007), such a perspective is naive. Specifically referring to television, they argue that “[i]t is precisely because we believe television is merely entertainment that we need to take its power and influence seriously” (p. 55). Similarly, Tisdell (2008) argues that “media have the power both to educate, when people critically reflect on the messages they are getting through the media, and to ‘mis-educate,’ when viewers are passive consumers who don’t think much about the images and messages that they are receiving” (p. 49). Giroux (1999) makes a more emphatic claim, that media culture “has become a substantial, if not the primary, educational force in regulating the meanings, values, and tastes … “and that it “defines childhood” (pp. 2-3).
Media, then, including movies, constitute a “process of influence” (Potter, 2003, p. 53) in society. In his extensive review of the scientific research on the effects of media violence on youth, Freedman (2002) concludes that there is “fairly good evidence” (p. 194) that media violence is correlated with aggressiveness of youth. Highly aggressive boys tend to be drawn to violent media more strongly than are less aggressive boys. For many people, the link between violence in movies and television and violent youth crimes seems obvious. However, as Freedman points out, correlation is not the same as causation. Among other problems, correlation does not account for the influence of intervening variables. Additionally, Freedman notes that correlation coefficients among various studies are not consistent, and that the strength of the relationship has been found to be weak across numerous studies. Violent movies, then, do not cause violence in schools, even if they are an influence in society and upon youth.
Nevertheless, journalists, politicians, judges, and religious leaders (among others) often point an accusing finger at various forms of media to perpetuate the idea that violence depicted in films and other media causes violence in society, including schools. In the documentary film Bowling for Columbine, for instance, the aggressive music of so-called shock rocker Marilyn Manson was repeatedly cited by conservative politicians and religious leaders as one of the causes of the Columbine High School massacre that took place in 1999. This artist’s music, they concluded, should be banned and his concerts canceled. More generally, the perception that rates of youth violence have increased because of youth’s embrace of violent media is widespread. In reality, such rates have declined since the early 1990s, even though homicides resulting from violence in schools have increased.
As an influential but not causal factor in society, violence in movies–and particularly in action films–has been implicated in male-perpetrated violence against women, as well as against other men. As Kaufman (1990) observes, Arnold Schwarzenegger declaring, “Consider this a divorce,” as he blows his wife away in Total Recall is presented as justifiable homicide, suggesting that the woman deserved what she got. In one screening of The Shining men in the audience cheered as Jack Nicholson attacked his wife Wendy, who had been depicted as whiny and irritating, with an ax. Media critic Katz makes a similar observation in Jhally (2002), noting that mainstream media culture typically portrays girls and women as deserving to be dominated and abused by men. In combination with television, video games, and music video media, such violence against women becomes a social narrative that normalizes misogyny and degradation of women, and perpetuates the notion that women should be sexually available, but entirely disposable, to men.
Movie violence has also been considered as a reflection of broader social and political contexts. Reynolds (2007), for example, notes that
Much of the muscle men action movies of the 1980s served to bolster masculine spirits after the debacle of Vietnam … and the consequent Vietnam syndrome. In fact, these muscular heroes helped to rewrite our memories of the politics of Vietnam and reconstruct a more “honorable” masculinity. (p. 343)
According to Giroux (1999), the Rambo franchise (beginning with First Blood;) and other Hollywood action movies epitomized larger-than-life violent masculinity that collectively restored American macho heroism and demonized the Vietnamese people. In the Hollywood rewrite of the Vietnam war during the Reagan era, “chemical warfare, forced settlements, and the burning of villages on the part of the U.S. military were written out of history [and replaced by]a vision of masculinity that resonated with the conservative image of national identity and patriotism that informed the Reagan years” (pp. 151-152).
Depictions of explicit physical violence in movies are just one form of violence presented in these media; relational violence is also shown. Movies and other media provide the public with narratives that glorify and reward behaviors such as revenge, cruelty, ruthlessness, and dominance. For instance, films like Mean Girls may normalize relationships among girls and young women that are characterized by nonphysical forms of violence, such as spreading vicious rumors, developing exclusive cliques, and uttering verbal slurs. Similarly, the American Pie franchise provides a template for boys and young men where losing one’s virginity at almost any cost is legitimate, acceptable, and even celebrated, even if it means that women are sexually objectified and boys are sexually predatory.
Alternatively, perhaps such films merely reflect attitudes and narratives that already exist in society. Either way, films that routinely depict nonphysical forms of relational violence might also be a contributing factor to, even if not a cause of, violence in schools. In their research on bullying in schools, Craig, Pepler, and Atlas (2000), for instance, focus on the ways in which bullying is mostly relational rather than physical. Chesney-Lind and Irwin’s (2008) perspective suggests that violence of girls and young women is not on the rise, even if media suggest otherwise:
it appears that while public fear of the “super-predator” male youth has waned, the public is still very concerned about its female version–the new bad girl, largely because of an unrelenting media hype showcasing images of mean, bad, and violent girls. (p. 31)
Media-driven hype about “bad girls,” they add, has not resulted in increased rates of actual violent crime of girls, but “increased surveillance and policing of girlhood” (p. 31).
Overall, North Americans (among other people) consume vast amounts of violence-oriented media. Katz in Jhally (2002) argues that slasher films such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, and I Know What You Did Last Summer depict not just violence against women, but sexualized violence. Such depictions may be a factor in normalizing sexual assaults of girls and women and teen dating violence perpetrated by young men. Rates of rape in the United States have not declined in the past few years, unlike overall crime rates.
Recently, entertainment in the form of brutality, sadism, and cruelty has proliferated through so-called torture porn films such as the Saw and Hostel franchises, among others. Are such films merely harmless entertainment, or do they contribute to a generation whose members some believe to be increasingly sociopathic? As Steinberg argues, the power of the media is that appears to be benign. But she also adds that media “have become the oxygen of our existence … [and that] media affect us all” (p. xiv).
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