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How Onscreen Violence Begets … Peace?
Plus: A 'Lost' Assignment!
On this week’s episode of The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood, which drops tomorrow, I interviewed Walt Hickey about his new book You Are What You Watch: How Movies and TV Affect Everything. We had a great chat and it’s a really interesting book. I’d like to tease one part of our conversation, which involved highlighting the mistaken ways in which we talk about certain cultural objects.
Specifically, the effect of violence in movies. Here’s a statement that I think is, if not commonly accepted, at least commonly understood to be something that might be true: “Violence in the media leads to real-world violence because it teaches impressionable people to be violent.” Again: you don’t have to agree with this statement, but it is, at the very least, a starting point for many arguments.
After all, there’s no doubt that what we see in the movies can have real-world effects. A well-known one is covered in Hickey’s book: the enlistment boom that followed the debut and massive success of Top Gun, a movie that Pentagon officials helped massage into a form that both portrayed the military in a positive light and was designed in a way to keep from alienating global allies and enemies alike.
The question of violence and the media is trickier. I don’t think anyone would deny that an already-deranged individual can be tipped over into violence after being exposed to a compelling work of art; the documentary A Glitch in the Matrix covers this topic well. And we can measure the ways in which audiences get agitated as they are exposed to violence, the actual physiological response from the body to onscreen excitement. Certainly, this has some sort of effect on the general population, right?
Maybe, maybe not. Most people have the ability to differentiate between reality and fiction and part of being a functioning member of society is recognizing that the two are separate. And with the exception of planned propaganda campaigns—like efforts by Goebbels to villainize the Jews in the leadup to the Holocaust or TikTok putting its thumb on the scale to flood younger video watchers with anti-Israel imagery and whitewash Hamas atrocities—it’s hard to say what the actual impact of something as non-concrete as “violence in the media” is.
But maybe we’re just asking the wrong question.
One of the studies Hickey considers came from economists Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna, who wanted to find out if the release of violent movies led to upticks in violence, the theory being that violent imagery primed people to commit acts of violence. Indeed, this is what they expected to find.
Instead, the opposite was true.
“Dahl and DellaVigna paired crime data with the releases of violent films and found a clear relationship between audience turnout for violent and strongly violent movies and marked decreases in crime,” Hickey writes. “They determined that violent movies deterred about a thousand assaults on an average weekend, with no observed medium-term effects.”
So did violent media serve as a release valve of sorts? Give people a vent for their antisocial energy? Well, no. That’s also the wrong way to look at it. It turns out there was another mechanism entirely at play.
“When you’re in a movie theater, it’s actually a quite safe environment—there are other people sitting there. One of the things about assaults is they happen in environments that aren’t as controlled,” Dahl explained to Hickey. “So we thought, ‘Oh, this is sort of like incapacitation,’ if you put someone in a movie theater, they commit less assault because they can’t really assault someone while they’re in a movie theater.”
Simply put, being in a movie theater meant less time drinking alcohol and it meant less time around other people with whom you may come into conflict, both of which combine to radically reduce the odds of a male under the age of 24 getting into trouble. And since most crime is committed by men in a certain age cohort, well: There you have it. Violent movies may actually save lives. It’s a good reminder that we spend so much of our time arguing about the same things that sometimes we need to stop, reconsider, and ask a different set of questions.
Also: if some enterprising congressman isn’t attaching Midnight John Woo Movie Marathon funding into the next crime bill, well, it feels like a missed opportunity.
Speaking of violence in movies: this Friday Peter, Alyssa, and I discussed the rise of hitmen in movies. What does it mean that the professional killer has become a go-to occupation on the big screen?
I reviewed Five Nights at Freddy’s and The Killer this week, two movies that have very little in common except for their release strategy (sorta).
This story about the disarray at Marvel Studios is fascinating, at least in part because they seem unable to figure out how to make a good Blade movie. This is wild since there have already been two good Blade movies and all that it takes to make a good Blade movie is to have a badass vampire killer killing vampires and dispensing the occasional quip. That’s it, that’s all you need.
Apparently, I’m supposed to be outraged that an HBO executive had his underlings create a fake Twitter account to yell at critics. Critical solidarity and all that. But it’s legitimately the funniest story I’ve ever read. The idea that literally any journalist who has spent more than two minutes on Twitter would be fazed by FirstName BunchANumbers calling them “elitist” is laughable.
I genuinely cannot remember the last time I saw this many people go on the record to defend someone accused of sexual harassment.
Assigned Viewing: Lost in Translation (Netflix)
We’re talking about Sofia Coppola’s latest, Priscilla, on Across the Movie Aisle this week, so I thought now’s as good a time as any to revisit her masterpiece.