Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Massacres, Media, and Morality

Do you know what I love? Violent movies. Before I graduated high school, I had seen Pulp Fiction enough to quote it. I own and love Goodfellas, Casino, and Deathproof. I watch and enjoy plenty of films where people are blown up, shot down, and stomped.

You know what else I love? Margaritas. Mojitos. White wine. Amaretto. I don't drink as often as I once did (that's what having a kid and a full-time, adult job does to you), but I certainly still enjoy the buzz I get when I get the chance to imbibe.

I mention these two loves to you today to demonstrate a little background before I go into this next part. See, I've been reading (as I'm sure many of you have) commentary and analysis after the tragic shooting in Santa Barbara. Since much of my online media diet consists of feminist sites, a lot of what I've read has been in that vein. This has been particularly engaged commentary since the shooter left a detailed manifesto explaining his misogynistic motivation as rooted in sexual rejection by women. Many have linked his ideology to that of MRA and Pickup Artist groups. Feministing has an excellent round-up of much of this commentary and the #YesAllWomen hashtag spread quickly and powerfully through social media, extending these conversations further. 

Sadly, this kind of incident is frequent enough in America that there's something of a script to follow in the days after. There are the calls for tighter gun restrictions, often from grieved parents of the victims. There's the discussion of our health care system and the culture surrounding treatment for mental illness. Then there's the thing I want to focus on today: the scrutiny of media and pop culture as an influence for such atrocious acts. 

Ann Hornaday has a piece up at The Washington Post discussing the shooting through a pop culture lens. She mentions several movies by name and alludes to many more by calling into question a cinematic portrayal of masculinity defined by the successful conquest of a woman or girl and connects them to this tragedy:
Movies may not reflect reality, but they powerfully condition what we desire, expect and feel we deserve from it. The myths that movies have been selling us become even more palpable at a time when spectators become their own auteurs and stars on YouTube, Instagram and Vine. If our cinematic grammar is one of violence, sexual conquest and macho swagger — thanks to male studio executives who green-light projects according to their own pathetic predilections — no one should be surprised when those impulses take luridly literal form in the culture at large.
In doing so, she called out the new Seth Rogen film Neighbors as promoting a frat-boy lifestyle full of "casual misogyny." Seth Rogen was not pleased and took to Twitter to let the world know.

Jessica Goldstein has a Think Progress piece that responds to the Hornaday-Rogen fight, and it makes some excellent points:
People in movies can’t have it both ways: either pop culture is totally irrelevant, and therefore the work they do is totally irrelevant, or pop culture does matter, which means they will sometimes have to reckon with the fact that their work can be a force for evil as well as good. If you want people to see Dallas Buyer’s Club and leave with greater empathy for the challenges the LGBT community faces, you have to be prepared that people will see darker movies and leave with darker thoughts, and that even—especially—seemingly innocuous movies can and do have a powerful influence over the way we think, feel, communicate and behave.

Criticism of Hornaday's and Goldstein's points (and the myriad of voices like them) has been swift and (again) easily predicted. This, too, is part of the script. People are complaining that media shouldn't be a scapegoat and that plenty of people watch violent movies without killing anyone. We've been having this same debate for quite some time, and we all know our roles pretty well. 

What frustrates, me, though (and perhaps this is just me playing my role in the pantomime of making a change to our violent culture, just one more figure punching at shadows) is that the defense against pop culture critique immediately goes to bans. 

People immediately point out how ridiculous it would be to ban media: 
"So I guess the answer for the psychopathic rampage problem is a worldwide ban on movies, video games, etc.? No, sir. It isn't." -Emily Anderson (from comments on Goldstein article)
"When Hitler, Stalin and Mao murdered millions of women, and most men viewed those women as property there was no TV, slick magazines and certainly no Seth Rogen. I agree about women playing more central roles in films, but before anyone goes on a tirade against Hollywood, how about documenting and proving cause and effect. Let's ban all art, all entertainment that might trigger sadness, murder, inequality, euphoria, laughs - then you'll have a Fahrenheit 411 dystopia - a cure worse than the unproven disease. You're doing a disservice to the underlying argument. Women did not start being treated as cultural inferiors with the invention of the movie camera. Millions of men did not go on a killing rampage last week." -tangledwing (Goldstein comments)
They also point out that we need to focus the attention on the individuals committing the crime and not excuse their behavior: 
"99.99...% of people who watch those movies do not commit mass murder. Why not blame it on a lack of proper mental healthcare or something else specific to this individual? Every time a crime happens people try to blame movies/video games, and they are always wrong." -Ty Hamil (Goldstein comments)
Here's the thing, being critical of pop culture does not mean calling for a ban, and trying to understand the way that our cultural norms and ideologies (which are both mirrored in and created by mass media) does not excuse individual responsibility.

Which brings me back to my love of Pulp Fiction and margaritas.

We recognize that there are dangers to alcohol. We teach kids about them in school, we put warning labels on the side of bottles, we discuss them in medical literature, and we create support groups to help people who are suffering from the most painful effects of them. Just because I want to discuss the dangers doesn't mean I want to ban the substance.

And just like alcohol, some people handle pop culture consumption differently from others. Not everyone who takes a drink is an alcoholic, but some people are. That doesn't mean that we have to ban alcohol because a minority of those exposed to it will have an extreme reaction, but it also doesn't mean that we need to ignore that minority impact. It's clear from both anectdata and massive studies that some people (particularly young people) are more greatly impacted by media than others.

I would never call for a ban of a movie because it has a misogynistic theme. In fact, there is very little that would ever make me call for banning a movie. I staunchly believe in free speech, and I would much rather the market dictate what succeeds and fails than any kind of content restriction.

But the tradeoff, then, to that freedom is the need to be critical consumers. If we can have access to virtually any kind of media we want, then we have the responsibility to be perceptive to what that media does, and it does a lot.

I have done a lot (really a whole, whole, whole lot) of pop culture analysis on this blog. I truly believe that media matters. It is both a reflection of and an influence on our culture and values. We create media which in turn creates us right back in an endless loop. Media is a place where we can make real, sustainable changes to our culture. As the Miss Representation tagline points out, "you can't be what you can't see," and pop culture is the place where most of us do our earliest and most frequent seeing of the world around us.

Loving pop culture (which I do, unabashedly) does not mean giving it a free pass. My love for pop culture is a direct result of understanding the potential power and impact that it can have, and that means that it has to be scrutinized.

I understand why Seth Rogen felt attacked (he was), but I also think he mishandled his response. I'm a fan of his films (I even cited Knocked Up during my comprehensive doctoral exams; how many fans can say that?!), but the criticism that his works tend to promote a patriarchal worldview is a valid one. In fact, it's one I made myself when I compared the reviews for This is the End with reviews for The Heat. In that criticism, I wasn't blaming Seth Rogen for the film he made; I was blaming the culture for how it reacted to it. And that's the case here. Do I think Neighbors made this disturbed young man go on a shooting spree? Absolutely not. Do I blame Seth Rogen as an actor for creating films that are "casually misogynistic"? Not really. He exists in the same world I do, and we're all acting within a complex collision of influences.

I don't blame the Busch family when someone drinks a few too many beers, plows through a median, and kills someone in a head-on collision, either, but I do think that criticism of the culture that treats drunk driving as accepted and expected is worthwhile, and I think that anyone who directly profits from that industry has to be willing to accept that criticism. That's the responsible thing to do.

We cannot rid the world of dangerous influences, and virtually no one that I know is calling for that. I have not heard a single person actually suggest banning movies because of their potential link to isolated violent outbursts. Our freedom of expression and freedom of entertainment (both freedoms I value and use daily) are safe. But the ethical thing to do with that freedom is to maintain the borders through diligent analysis and awareness.

1 comment:

  1. This! I used to hear from both sides of the supposed dichotomy when I worked at a video game store, and it drove me nuts. It's all about common sense. Should we ban violent video games? - No. Should a 15-year-old play a game rated for ages 17 and up? -'s probably fine? Depends on the kid? Should you go ahead and purchase your 4-year-old that copy of Deadspace or GTA V he/she's been begging for? - Despite how "mature for his age" he/she may be, probably not.