Whether you know his name or not, you probably know the work of photographer Joe Rosenthal. Rosenthal was the AP reporter who captured one of the 20th century’s most iconic images: five Marines raising an American flag on Mount Suribachi. “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” won Rosenthal a Pulitzer and remains, as the Prize committee described the image in 1945, a “frozen flash of history.”
Today, Rosenthal’s photograph is part of the entertainment industry’s response to the sickening tragedy at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a tragedy that has made history as both the nation’s most deadly mass shooting and targeting of the LGBT community. The producers of "Hamilton" removed muskets from their televised performance on the Tony Awards. TNT’s “The Last Ship” (“Find a cure. Stop the virus. Save the world”) postponed the planned premiere of its third season, which begins with a nightclub shooting. And, prompting reactions from more than 130,000 people, on his Facebook page, actor/writer/director James Franco posted a revision of Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 photo. Captioned with #prayfororlando, Franco recasts Rosenthal’s shot with four muscled men (three bare-chested, one tank-topped) hoisting a rainbow flag atop an ambiguous mountain.
While some of those 130,000 reactors laud Franco’s support of the LGBT community, others are incensed (and perhaps uninformed, conflating Rosenthal’s photo with the whole of the American military):
“I hate this,” one commenter wrote. “This isn't right. This picture is supposed to be supporting veterans and those who have fallen. Not the gay pride flag. It was a tragedy i [sic] agree. But, this is a little much.”
That comment, by the way, had 327 likes as I scrolled through the thread. In the wake of horrific tragedy, it seems, Americans are eager to talk about what the shooting in Orlando does or doesn’t signify (terrorism, an attack on the LGBT community, an attack on our American freedoms), and, not surprisingly, less inclined to interrogate our culture—and, especially our entertainment industry’s—obsession with guns.
Recently, I watched my first Netflix original film, “The Do-Over.” A buddies-who’ve-gotten-old comedy starring Adam Sandler and David Spade, the movie is typical Happy Gilmore-style humor—except with hit men and automatic weapons.
That movies are becoming more violent is not news. Reports on the effects of violent programming on viewers nearly always situate the concern in a historical context dating back to the inception of television. But with the amount of film and television content consumed by viewers reaching new heights (as Netflix recently reported in their taxonomical investigation of binge-watching, “subscribers who finish the first season of a show generally do so in a week … They watch about two hours a day”) has viewer sensitivity fallen by the wayside?
Has the war on violent content been lost so thoroughly that the entertainment industry is no longer even trying?
That’s what I thought, I’ll admit, when those first shots were fired in “The Do-Over.” Frankly, I was turned off. This was last week, when the tragedy in Orlando was nothing more than a possibility—albeit a frighteningly real possibility, especially for those of us who fear mass shootings. My feelings about the violence in “The Do-Over” stemmed mostly from a recent article I’d read about the rash of gun violence in Chicago (Memorial Day weekend, 64 people were shot).
A mass attack against the LGBT community is not the same as a string of shots fired over the course of three days, but we shouldn’t belittle the magnitude of anyone’s pain. I’m conflating things, I know, but in the aftermath of so much carnage, it’s hard not to do some conflating, some head-shaking at the well-worn statistics maxim: correlation does not imply causation. Fine. Here is what is common: Guns are nearly always the weapons of choice by men committing heinous crimes.
Something needs to change.
I’m hesitant to go so far as to encourage censorship. Like many people who grew up in the aftermath of the Tipper Gore-spearheaded Parents’ Music Resource Center, I harbor serious ambivalence about trigger warnings. You might remember the Parental Advisory stickers from your own CD collection, and you have Tipper to thank. Gore, incised by the lewd lyrics she heard in her daughter’s copy of Prince’s “Purple Rain”, rallied the real housewives of Washington D.C. and called for the labeling of music (like “porn rock”) that may contain sexual, violent, or derogatory lyrics.
Yet as wrong as I believe it is to limit artistic freedom, I believe it’s just as wrong to create without considering context—or without considering the lives and half-lives of our creations.
Call a movie or a television show an ad: nine times out ten, I won’t argue. If we look to the example of the London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, banning ads that promote unhealthy or unrealistic body expectations, ads that “[pressurize people] while they travel on the Tube or bus, into unrealistic expectations surrounding their bodies,” we might see one manner by which potentially damaging imagery can be mitigated. (Okay, but what about people who want to be body-shamed, the contrarian in me wonders.) Of course, Khan’s decision isn’t perfect—just a start.
Yes, there’s a difference between an ad with which one is unwittingly confronted on the subway and a movie or a television program that one chooses to watch, but the effects of these media are not dissimilar. As a writer, with friends who are writers and artists, I accept that when one makes art one is often educating inadvertently: people read into their favorite novels, viewers emulate the affects of their favorite characters, groups of people adopt the values they collectively witness.
This isn’t inherently dangerous: think of how “The Puppy” episode changed viewers of Ellen DeGeneres’ eponymous sitcom in April 1997. What we’re talking about is simply what the Surgeon General’s 2001 report Youth Violence calls “observational learning.” While succinctly noting, “Risk factors [for youth violence] usually exist in clusters, not in isolation,” the Surgeon General also emphasizes that, coupled with “social interactions … observational learning is a powerful mechanism for acquiring social scripts throughout childhood.”
Have we become acculturated to mass violence that we’re willing to ignore the obvious? In a 2007 hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Dr. Dale Kunkel, one of the authors of 1998’s exhaustive National Television Violence Study, stated:
[T]he cumulative nature of children’s exposure to thousands and thousands of violent images over time … constitutes the risk of harmful effects. Just as medical researchers cannot quantify the effect of smoking one cigarette, media violence researchers cannot specify the effect of watching just a single violent program. But as exposure accrues over time, year in and year out, a child who is a heavy viewer of media violence is significantly more likely to behave aggressively. This relationship is the same as that faced by the smoker who lights up hour after hour, day after day, over a number of years, increasing their risk of cancer with every puff.
Is the need to be entertained so great we’re willing to stuff ourselves with violent imagery? Are we willing to risk growing callous and hurtful? After all, an ever-growing body of research now indicates that, like violence in television and films, “violent video games can cause people to have more aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.” We know sheer exposure can contribute to an entire spectrum of hostile, real-life manifestations (manifestations, by the way, which I will not attempt to rank or judge as lesser or more benign)—and yet we entertain ourselves with smarmy depictions of violence flaunting more “fetishistic close-ups on bullet-riddled foreheads” than ever. Might this be called playing with fire? We’re teaching ourselves—actually, we’re buying tickets and paying for subscriptions that teach us—how to cultivate savagery, barbarism, brutality, and rage.
That’s the thought behind Drs. Douglas A. and J. Ronald Gentile’s conceptual analysis “Violent Video Games as Excellent Teachers,” published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. In the study, Gentile and Gentile look at how violent video games “use many of the best-practice principles of learning and instruction” to acculturate and educate players to both game rules and violence. They observe that violent video games are designed to utilize “seven of the pedagogical techniques…educational psychologists know make for excellent learning. It should therefore be no surprise that video games are excellent teachers, both of educational content (e.g., Murphy et al. 2001) and of violent content (e.g., Anderson et al. 2007).”
The viewing and gaming habits of perpetrators of violent crime sometimes come to public attention (think Adam Lanza’s 83,000 online kills in his favorite video game, “Combat Arms”), but sometimes they don’t. We don’t yet know what relationship Omar Mateen had with entertainment; we don’t even yet know the extent of his affiliation with the Islamic State, to which he pledged allegiance before and during his horrific attack. We do know, though, that he kept a gun at his home; that he threatened his ex-wife with a gun; and that he stole the lives of dozens of innocent victims with guns.
What we also know is that our screens are conduits for violent imagery—imagery at total odds with James Franco’s revision of Joe Rosenthal’s photo. Couldn’t Adam Sandler and David Spade’s “The Do-Over” been equally entertaining without the guns? We can identify and analyze the hell out of the excessive sexual violence of “Game of Thrones”—but we’re still watching. And we’re still lusting for dystopian futures where the human race has been nearly eliminated. That’s the premise of TNT’s “The Last Ship,” by the way. In a dystopian future, a nightclub might be terrorized—and, since dystopias often take a part of our current landscape and exaggerate it into the whole, maybe we ought to stop celebrating the most violent parts of our culture in such a ubiquitous, big-budget way.
Perhaps one way to stop celebrating violence is to treat it with the gravity with which it’s met on the individual-level in real-life. One film that successfully does this is 2003’s “Mystic River.” In the Clint Eastwood-directed drama, a Massachusetts community is rocked by the murder of a teenage girl, the daughter of a local ex-con. Violence creates not entertainment but pain, confusion, indecision, indecency, and anger; characters splinter and betray one another, longstanding bonds rupture. There is nothing glossed with the deflective patina of irony or hyperbole; the violence comes with consequences.
Is there a point when the cultural context in which we create art impels us to adjust our attitudes and our appetites for what we consume? We don’t play the Holocaust for ironic laughs or gratuitous, bombastic displays of masculine bravado; to do so would be to deny the magnitude and horror of history. We don’t glorify child abuse, either (though I can think of at least one Adam Sandler movie that, before the protagonist gets his comeuppance, does at least flirt with juvenile negligence).
To inform our thinking about this, one needs only turn to winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award, Maggie Nelson. In her 2011 book, “The Art of Cruelty,” Nelson says of artist Paul McCarthy’s short film, “Family Tyranny”:
On the one hand, this transparent attitude toward fakery makes the work bearable … on the other, the obvious artifice also makes the piece more insidious.
Nelson may be writing about avant-garde video art (that depicts, coincidentally, a grotesque pantomime of child abuse) but her insight speaks to the polar opposite; blockbuster action movies, superhero spectacles, any of the mass-marketed, montages of violence—all those insidious artifices capable of grossing millions in a single, opening weekend.
Well, gross is the word. Gross is how we might describe the violence—gross as in gruesome, disgusting, repugnant. But gross is also an apt descriptor of body count—think of the French grosse douzaine (“large dozen”). Gross was once the currency of movies that repelled audiences (“Pink Flamingos,” “I Spit On Your Grave”—even Cannes-premiered “Irreversible,” with its painstakingly long rape scene, found viewers booing and leaving the theater); now, gross is de rigueur.
The counterargument does not escape me: Shouldn’t artists be entitled to accurately reflect the environment in which they live? Shouldn’t—to be historically accurate—“Hamilton” contain muskets? 6,800 men lost their lives in the Revolutionary War, after all. What makes a depiction of violence sophisticated or justifiable or in the name of art?
Sometimes, wisdom comes from Maggie Nelson; if you prefer to fight fire with fire, that wisdom can also come from “Jurassic Park” (it grossed more than a billion dollars). I couldn’t help thinking about a scene in the 1993 film, before the stampeding begins and the velociraptors do their dirtiest teamwork. In this exchange rockstar mathematician and ardent proponent of chaos theory Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) balks at what grandfather, John Hammond (Richard Attenborourgh), has created in his Jurassic Park, which, per Malcom, evinces the old man’s utter lack of hubris:
The lack of humility before nature that's being displayed here, uh... staggers me … Don't you see the danger, John, inherent in what you're doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet's ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that's found his dad's gun … If I may... Um, I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here, it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox … You're selling it, you wanna sell it.
And so to the source material of lunchboxes and blockbuster movies we turn. Spiderman’s Uncle Ben brings us this familiar adage: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
If we want to change the attitudes, habits, beliefs, lines-of-thinking, rhetoric, power structures, interpersonal and internal and external coping mechanism that spur on gun violence then we, as viewers, need to recognize our great power. We, as viewers, can pushback. We can vote—by not watching, by not showing our children, by not letting violent programming play in the background at the businesses we own or in our kitchens. This has always been in our arsenal. We’ve been cognizant of how depictions of violence in entertainment help us hurt one another for decades. Now we need to change.
Is this change a nod to ethics? Decency? Reverence for human life? Common sense? Maybe it’s something more earth-shattering: excavating, like a mosquito trapped in amber, our moral compass.