How To Change Pop Culture’s Reliance On Violence

When the Motion Picture Association of America on December 20 came out in support of President Obama’s efforts on gun control in the wake of the Newtown, the organization simultaneously aligned itself with the productive side of a national conversation and set up a strategic trap that the National Rifle Association walked into the very next day. In a shocking and incoherent press conference that attempted to shift the conversation away from regulation of gun and ammunition purchasing and ownership, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre blamed pop culture that was, in some cases, decades old, for America’s mass gun killings.

“There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people. Through vicious, violent video games with names like ‘Bullet Storm,’ ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ ‘Mortal Combat,’ and ‘Splatterhouse,'” he said. “I mean we have blood-soaked films out there, like ‘American Psycho,’ ‘Natural Born Killers.’ They’re aired like propaganda loops on Splatterdays and every single day.”

The absence of any evidence that Adam Lanza, the alleged Sandy Hook shooter, had consumed any of the cultural artifacts LaPierre brought up would have been enough to render LaPierre’s assertions ludicrous and diversionary. And that’s without taking into account in the question of what impact media consumption does and doesn’t have on the general public’s actions and social attitudes, rather than on people who are mentally ill or who might be predisposed to violence, a subject nicely and soberly summed-up by the media scholar Jason Mittell. But there’s a difference between suggesting that it makes more sense to regulate mass culture than to regulate our access to the weapons that make it possible to translate violent plans into mass killings, and talking about what it would take to shift our mass culture away from violence as a major subject and as a primary way of demonstrating competence and heroism. But the people who try to hide behind the former argument are almost uniformly uninterested in the policies and shifts in the market it would take to accomplish the latter without regulation or abridgment of freedom of speech.

1. Increase funding for public broadcasting: If you want to see more non-violent television on the airwaves, it makes more sense to treat it like an emerging product, like solar energy, that needs to be significantly subsidized until it can build the market that allows it to be self-sustaining. I imagine the NRA and other conservatives who spring to blame violent popular culture for American violence would never get behind massively expanding funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but that, rather than trying to regulate Sons of Anarchy and Game of Thrones, is probably the quickest way to make non-violent popular culture more competitive in the overall marketplace. What about funding levels that would allow PBS to start an HBO-like movie channel, buying the rights to buzzy, relevant films like Margin Call and producing features like Too Big To Fail? How about funding that would support the purchase of more British shows like Downton Abbey, letting PBS take on BBC America, or a foreign language network that would broadcast subtitled shows from Israel, like Hatufim, or Scandinavian noir shows that have become part of the competitive advantage for services like Hulu or networks like Link TV? Or simply funding that would let PBS advertise more of its programming more heavily, building the kinds of audiences that networks can with in-company ad slots? This will never, ever happen. But that it won’t shows how unserious conservative media critics are about building credible, mass-market alternatives to successful, and violent, commercial programming.

2. Change the incentives in narrative storytelling: One thing that constantly gets lost in discussions of violent video gaming in particular? The number of video games that it’s possible to win without killing an opponent at all, or while minimizing the need to kill anyone but boss figures. Or the fact that players get genuinely excited about games that offer up complicated moral choices, rather than simply single-tracking them into orgies of bloodshed. Movie directors and television sometimes make similar decisions: the recent Charlie’s Angels films, for example, made the conscience choice to restrict its heroines to their fists (and sometimes chains and boards) rather than equipping them with firearms, and consequently, to restrict them to non-lethal violence. In the most recent James Bond movie, Skyfall, Bond’s first fight prioritizes his fists, and his final kill happens up close, with a knife rather than a gun: the violence is personal. But if the entertainment industry is having an internal conversation with itself, building in more moments when violence is possible, but not chosen, and making that a mark of heroism, or making the escalation to violence steeper and more difficult, or illustrating the cost of violence by personalizing it, would be a smart way to shift incentive structures.

3. Teach audiences to read violence differently: If there’s one thing that marks our current era of popular culture, it’s an obsession with cool of the kind exemplified by Quentin Tarantino’s movies, or with transgressive badassery, of the sort that’s characterized so many anti-hero dramas. And the way most people achieve that cool or badassness? The deployment of violence. This has become a clear problem for shows like Breaking Bad, where some fans, schooled in the lesson that transgression and violence are admirable, are failing to read the clear signs from Vince Gilligan that it’s time Walter White faced his comeuppance, whether in the form of cancer, violent death, or imprisonment and shame. It’s time to retrain viewers in how to interpret violence, so we can tell the difference between its deployment for gleefully sadistic ends, and when it’s a sign that a character has become depraved—and maybe that we need more products that are sure of which argument they’re making.