Listen Jena, the awful killings in Aurora shocked and saddened us all, but in our grief, many of us have once again started pointing fingers of blame at violent movies and video games. It’s a rhetorical crutch we’ve leaned on too often in the face of national tragedy. We can’t blame television when the problem is older than electricity.
In a 2008 article, critic Jenny McCartney listed every violent incident in The Dark Knight (often in more brutal detail than the film ever revealed) to demonstrate the escalation of violence in films and its effect on children. She concluded with this thought:
Little boys have always played with swords and guns. But they did not always play at beating a prisoner’s genitals with a rope, or stitching a live bomb inside a man’s stomach. For that innovation we must thank Hollywood, the industrious factory of dreams, now frequently devoted to churning out nightmares.
McCartney’s word-choice is strong here (though I hope she meant little boys have always played with fake swords and guns), but when you pull at the rhetoric a little, you see the problems with this parental complaint.
McCartney implies that when little boys kill countless imaginary people with swords and guns, everything is ordinary. Everything is going according to plan. She’s even nostalgic for those old-time war games. Then she gives two examples of violence in recent movies to demonstrate that now things are really horrible.
Funnily enough, the Joker directly addresses this kind of muddled thinking in The Dark Knight. “You know what I noticed?” he asks a burned and restrained Harvey Dent. “Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan,’ even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all part of the plan.”
So what if McCartney’s paragraph had been worded this way:
Little boys have always pretended to shoot, stab, and dismember their enemies with swords and guns. But they did not always play at ‘enhanced interrogation’ or terrorism.
In her word choice, McCartney shows the arbitrary nature of her complaint, choosing certain acts of violence to disdain while others are glorified and normalized.
“Maybe I’m too sensitive,” blogger the Twin Coach (“friend. mom. mentor.”) wrote just last week, “but I don’t think I need to see more darkness. I want to experience things that inspire me, lift me up, enlighten me and enhance my life. And I want the same for my children.”
That’s a fair choice to make, as long as it doesn’t lead to ignorance of the world’s real troubles. Still, without darkness in a story, I wonder what there is to enlighten. Poor Harvey Dent didn’t live to see it, but he was right that the night was darkest just before the dawn.
So we’re not talking about violent content so much as we’re discussing feelings. Plenty of people are killed in Avengers, but no death (even the one caused by impaling), feels very frightening or intense. People remember The Dark Knight as shockingly violent (though there’s basically no blood) because those deaths feel horrible. The blows are hard and you find yourself wishing they wouldn’t land.
It’s almost as if people are complaining, not about movie violence, but about movie violence that feels real, that makes us uncomfortable, that reminds us for a moment of the fragility of our security.
Then there’s the problem with the implication that movies have pushed violence into popular storytelling like never before. Parents who are worried about violent content might also want to avoid museums, lest their kids stumble upon 17th century paintings showing scenes from the Bible.
To suggest that without violent movies and games children wouldn’t have nightmares or pretend to kill enemies in their backyard is to insult and belittle the endlessly potent minds of children. If it’s not Freddy Kruger, it’ll be the vacuum cleaner monster or something better.
Obviously I’m not critiquing parents who monitor what media their children take in. But according to The Twin Coach, Aurora authorities “are just beginning to piece together connections between that horrendous event and the specific movie the victims were seeing (Batman: The Dark Knight Rises).” What connections are supposedly being pieced together?
My generation grew up with shoot-‘em-up games and mayhem-filled movies, but I don’t struggle with impulses to kill, anymore than men always have when it’s hot outside and traffic is slow. The question is not “how many murders did this kid see on TV,” so much as “can this kid differentiate fiction from reality.”
If he can, then violent movies and games won’t make him a killer. If he can’t, we have more to worry about than what’s on his television.
Blaming violent movies and games is the rhetorical crutch we’ve used again and again when young Americans commit murder on the national stage. We talk about ratings and desensitization as if we can tie direct strings of causality and avoid the deeper problems. We’d like to believe that if we got movies and games cleaned up, these rare, mad young men would stop hurting people. It’s an easy story to tell, and it keeps confusion from mixing in with our grief and our fear.
The Joker mocked this grasping for causality, too. He tells conflicting origin stories for himself, teasing us with hints that there might be a reason for his madness, that there might be something simple and easy separating us from him. We want it so badly, to categorize him far away from us, but we can’t. He doesn’t let us.
In these times of national heartbreak, we prefer pointing fingers at new media, because otherwise we might have to discuss the fact that random violence is older than electricity, first-person shooters, or comic book movies. Rather than talking about movie ratings, the national conversation should focus for a while on gun control, school counseling, security measures, and the possibility that we’re all just one bad day or poor decision away from violence. Fear, violence, selfishness; all these come naturally to us. It’s the resistance of unkind urges that must be learned.
The sad irony here is not so much that those poor people were killed while watching what one blogger wrongly called a “super violent, super gory” movie, but that they were killed while watching a movie in which the hero demands: “No guns. No killing.”