When reviewing last week’s post, I noticed part of a sentence that read “the dystopian violence depicted in movies and television, either a reflection of what is or a harbinger of what’s to come” and began to think about art and the media. It also made me think about the large number of people I know who believe that violence in movies, television, and video games (they rarely talk about it in regard to books or plays, which I find curious) reflects and adds to the violence in our country.
Yet according to the New York Times, it turns out that the number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year to what appears to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/24/us/24crime.html?_r=1).
And Time Magazine reports that,from 1993 to 2010, the violent crime victimization rate decreased 70 percent. “This means the human dimension of this turnaround is extraordinary: had the rate remained unchanged, an additional 170,000 Americans would have been murdered in the years since 1992. That’s more U.S. lives than were lost in combat in World War I, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq—combined. In a single year, 2008, lower crime rates meant 40,000 fewer rapes, 380,000 fewer robberies, half a million fewer aggravated assaults and 1.6 million fewer burglaries than we would have seen if rates had remained at peak levels.” (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1963761,00.html).
Both articles say that the reasons for this plunge are unclear and suggest a number of possible explanations. But bottom line is bottom line. Violent crime is down not up during a period of time when the reverse should be true according to those who believe current movies, TV, and video games lead to more a more violent culture. It just ain’t so.
I grew up with cartoons that were not at all shy about violence. Tom and Jerry, The Roadrunner, Mighty Mouse and all those episodes where Porky Pig tried to blow away the wabbit. Grew up with comic books that had no qualms about blood and gore either–Superman, Batman and a whole lot more. Try Zap Comics on for size.
Our culture has never been lacking in the media’s artistic expression of violence. Dime store pulp books with hacked female bodies, True Crime magazines with bloody, bodacious blondes on the cover, black and white movies that stirred the same emotional fear and repulsion as do today’s “slice and dice” like Psycho, 13 Women (1932), and Peeping Tom (1960). Some of those “classics” were even able to engender some serious ugly without spilling a drop of blood. Think Cagney mashing a grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face in The Public Enemy. Different presentations than today’s cinema, but the same feelings provoked in those who watched them.
Or consider detective fiction, a wonderfully American genre of writing. (I’m biased. Duh.) Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett is regarded as one of best. That book leaves dead bodies all over the place.
Or think literary fiction. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Not for those with gentle stomachs.
Violence is everywhere we look. Genre fiction, literary fiction, science fiction, graphic novels, and, of course, movies.
I’m not a horror movie fan. Never saw any of the Texas Chainsaw Massacres and never will. But Raging Bull is often listed in “best of the generation” lists. As are a couple of The Godfathers, Taxi Driver, Casino, and, of course, Pulp Fiction. Certainly the spaghetti westerns and all the great westerns were locked and loaded. And while it’s true that there’s a distinction between a single shot to the heart rather than a spray from an automatic rifle, I’m not sure I could pick the more chilling. Or the more “realistic.”
The list of great books and great movies is filled with those that contain bone-chilling violence. And while I can’t say much about video games because I don’t know anything about them, the inescapable fact is that we are living in a country with the lowest violent crime rate in the past forty years. Not exactly a ringing condemnation of those who do play them—at least as far as violence is concerned.
So I’ll say it again: I don’t believe that today’s media and art forms generate more violence within our population despite its increasingly graphic detail.
In fact, it’s my speculation that violence exhibited in all our different media probably helps reduce it in the “real world.” We live in a nation born of violence, a nation whose history has spilled blood by the barrelful. Against Native Americans, Blacks, Irish, Italians (who suffered biggest mass lynching in U.S. history) and I’m just skimming the surface of domestic. We go international and it’s off the charts.
Violence is simply sewn into the fabric and nature of our culture. I wish it weren’t so, but we are who we are. The only question is how and where that violence manifests itself. And if it can live within us without our acting it out. This, I think, is the way that violence in media and art ameliorates rather than promulgates. It is, and has always been, a way for that part of our cultural identity to express itself without inflicting any actual harm. Violence in the media and in art is the pressure cooker’s release valve.
I’m not denigrating those who recoil at what they might read or see, or make decisions about where to draw their personal lines. Those individual decisions are healthy. Hell, I spend a fair amount of time in the movie theater covering my own eyes. But they are individual decisions, and to argue that we are a more violent society because of our books, movies, games, and art is flat out wrong.