Violence is as American as apple pie. Likewise, semiautomatic rifles and blood-curdling movies serve as emblematic artifacts in our culture of violence. Certainly a central reason for Congress not passing legislation this spring to regulate either the gun or the media industry stems from the amazing power of American corporations to influence the writing of laws, what with money buying influence. But another way of viewing the problem of daily gun deaths in America seeming so acceptable is the centrality that violence plays in the American identity. We tend to see violence as a solution to problems. In fact many of our greatest heroes wield guns with epic precision.
Placing the matter in a more intimate setting, I find that even in the safety of my private practice as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, when I simply encourage my young patients, especially males, to reveal what’s on their minds, they often revert to a description of violent media. Many find action films and first person shooter video games riveting, entertaining, even energizing. Other boys discuss the guns in their father or stepfather’s possession and of male bonding experience when out hunting. Also, I see many anxious kids who fear a break-in, the worries often affixing to media imagery they’ve absorbed. They describe feeling safer knowing there are guns in the house. Having guns seems a solution to their fear.
We all, including our kids, swim in a world bristling with gun imagery and violent references. That the average American child witnesses via the media about 7,000 murders, and 100,000 other violent acts during the elementary school years alone is not just a dry statistic. Rather it’s an important truth in need of our diving more deeply into it. Our everyday experiences, including those related to media gazing, often settle into our memory banks, or more specifically the lower brain areas called the hippocampus and amydala. They become encoded there. They conjure the unconscious narrative frames through which we see the world.
To return to the apple pie idea, our children become what they eat not just in terms of food but also in terms of ideas and images. As we grow toward maturity, we become this vivid imagery. In a very real sense, we become these murders and violent acts.
Very recently the cable channels barraged us with coverage about the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. Though I do not assume to comprehend the intimate workings of Mr. Zimmerman’s thoughts and emotions leading up to the killing, let me suggest that he suffers from what I will call a hero complex, one shared with many other Americans at least in their fantasy worlds. The complex relies on the notion that the world out there is dangerous and the law and its agents of enforcement—the police and the justice system—are not to be trusted. They are either corrupt or incompetent, like Congress. In order for the hero to protect his kith and kin from danger, he must take the law into his own hands. Put a real gun into this fantasy mix, and there’s bound to be actual trouble.
A similar complex may be afoot in the making of violent media. When Hollywood gurus are asked about their heavy reliance on violence in so many of their blockbusters, they typically reply that it’s because it sells. Yet in any given season many of these often high-budget films flop at the box office, and so this fact belies the idea that we get violence in buckets because we’re craving it.
Rather, I suggest that we human crave heroes, ones who will save us from our plight. If we examine many of Hollywood’s most successful products, we can easily detect most elements of the hero myth, including his or her humble birth, prodigious struggles, and epic triumph. The well-told hero’s journey is what leads to a film’s great success in terms of both it entering into the fantasy lives of many humans and its financial success. We humans have a deep need, a burning desire for the hero to arise, save us, and offer solutions.
But in Hollywood, this hero myth often mixes with violence. If violence becomes the central ingredient rather than good storytelling, character depiction, and the display of genuine emotions, then the film can easily be a flop. Recent films like Oblivion, Fast and Furious 6, and Iron Man 3 seems goods examples of this phenomenon. Though some are quite successful, like Hunger Games, we know already that this success will breed sequels. Unthinkingly we will revisit the gratuitous slaughter of children.
What seems likely is that violence sells well enough and it has become easier to create, relative to subtle and profound drama. Especially with the advent of high tech procedures, the filmmaker can create a small amount of violent footage at minimal expense and then multiply and magnify its visual and emotional impact to create impressions of vast, often gorgeous carnage in slow motion.
The real issue is that violence is easy and has become easier and that many of the writers in Hollywood may lack personal depth of their own. They may be incapable of writing good drama, profound tragedy and truly gripping romance. They revert to violence as a form of spectacle, a fall back position to hide their own paucity of emotional capacity. Further, since the lure of big money is intoxicating and some huge successes still occur, they have no reason to rethink the matter and try instead to offer us truly meaningful media.
In the late 1990s the now deceased media researcher George Gerbner coined the term mean world syndrome to explain how media was even then shaping the American psyche in a troubling manner. He posited that precisely due to American children growing up watching so very many acts of violence emanating from the media—both fictional and real—we would see a new generation growing up who saw the real world through the prism of violence. They would see the world as a very unsafe place where they must brace themselves to be accosted by menacing forces and evil individuals without, like the imaginary burglars who might enter their homes and kill them in their sleep. Hence we need weapons to fight back. Or as Wayne LaPierre of the Rifle association put it, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
I suggest that in the case of young Hollywood writers nurtured on much violent fare, we now are experiencing in the movies and videogames they make a manifestation of the many violent memories from their own childhoods, long conjuring in their own memory banks and now coming forth to haunt us and our children in our sleep and day dreams and now coloring how we all see the world. Films like Django Unchained and the TV series The Walking Dead come to mind. Though the heroes of these media creations may at times manifest some degree of depth, they live knee-deep in gratuitous pools of blood and revel in murderous rage.
In the case of George Zimmerman, should it surprise us that we see a would-be hero who takes matters into his own hands, wielding a gun?
The phenomenon of violent imagery being absorbed in vast amounts since childhood creates a kind of echo chamber or hall of mirrors in our worlds, both inner and outer. These violent sounds and sights are reflected and re-reflected. We become suffused with violence 24/7. So the hero by definition becomes someone armed to the teeth with semiautomatics, plastic bombs and grenades. Without flinching, he plies these weapons to save us. It will prove very hard for us as a nation to find our way out of this chamber of horrors.
Dr. George Drinka is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of The Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady and the Victorians (Simon & Schuster). His new book, When the Media Is the Parent, is a culmination of his work with children, his scholarly study of works on the media and American cultural history, and his dedication to writing stories that reveal the humanity in us all.