Amongst the batshit theatrics of the NRA’s first post-Newtown press conference, Wayne LaPierre said something so direct and truthful that I’m not even sure if he understands exactly what he said. After doling out the usual suspects of the 1990s entertainment industry (movies like Natural Born Killers, videogames, even music videos), LaPierre made the now-famous declaration, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” which is a pretty concise summary of the dominant internal logic informing Hollywood’s representation of gun violence if there ever were one.
After condemning entertainment media amongst the only probable scapegoats for horrific acts of violence, LaPierre then revealed that he understands real-life violence in terms of the “individual justice will always prevail” ethos of Hollywood movies. This pervasive logic that moral superiority + gun ownership = inevitable justice has aroused like-minded assertions that everything from slavery to the Holocaust would have happened differently if more good guys had guns (I guess they’ve been watching recent Tarantino while condemning his old work). Why, I wonder, have all these studies of the influence of movie violence only been conducted on children?
Despite what the press conference and resulting press tour may indicate, the NRA is deeply invested in certain types of mainstream movie violence. The organization’s celebration of film violence is on full display at their “Hollywood Guns” exhibit, which hosts the hand cannons of such “good guys with guns” belonging to John Wayne in Stagecoach, Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, Bruce Willis in Die Hard, and Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. This is why context is gravely important in any study of depictions of gun violence in entertainment media: the issue is not the gun itself and what is done with it (the vague category “film violence”), but, amongst other considerations, how we perceive the people on each end of the trigger and why we perceive them that way.
Movies haven’t always been used as a standard for social behavior or barometer for moral mores. While derided as lowbrow mass entertainment, there are few indications that American cinema was perceived to be harmful or helpful to society during its earliest decades. Strangely enough, with the Fatty Arbuckle rape/manslaughter scandal in 1921, it was the private lives of movie stars, not the content of the films themselves, that spurred a national dialogue of the expectations Americans should have of their mass media institutions. This moment in Hollywood film history is telling, as the establishment of movie stardom (and the first major movie star scandal) made clear that filmgoers deeply identify with and invest in certain people onscreen across a variety of films. Audience allegiance, for much of mainstream America film history, has ostensibly been with the personalities first and then the individual’s actions with respect to that established personality.
Thus, with the foundation of the Hays Code, the content of movies became regulated, guided by the assumption that Hollywood should be a role model for American morality. As a result, movies had little resemblance to social reality. Under the Hays Code, the good guy always had to righteously victorious, husbands and wives slept in separate beds, challenges to normative thinking like recreational drug use or homosexuality didn’t exist, and ambiguity and moral grey areas were exceedingly rare. Sometimes these distinctions were transparently arbitrary. James Cagney, for instance, almost always played a tough guy with a gun from the 1930s to the 1950s. But when he played a gangster, he died; when he played a cop, he lived. As American film censorship began under the assumption that movies are and should be representations of ideal morality in the starkest of ways, a straw man was constructed: to say that a movie is “too violent” is not only to de-contextualize, but to accuse that movie of being fundamentally amoral.
While the Hays Code is long gone, the system of expectations it created – the predictable black-and-white moral compass – still resonates, as indicated by the recent releases of Gangster Squad and The Last Stand. These passable January actioners are cartoonishly violent, perhaps inconsequential pieces of frivolous, forgettable mainstream fodder. Their well-worn narrative trajectories also carry zero tension; a negligible supporting character written to die might be sacrificed in the name of the greater good, but this greater good is an inevitable path towards the protagonist’s certain victory with a bow on it.
This simplistic moral logic certainly doesn’t apply to the type of violence depicted in every film, nor even every Hollywood film. But “good guys with guns” is a notably pervasive idea in a certain type of action film. And there’s arguably nothing wrong with that as long as it’s taken for the crude fantasy it is. That, however, is the exact problem with looking to movies (particularly commercial movies) as a moral barometer for anything. Whenever we ask movies to be stand-up examples for social mores, we’re in fact asking them to construct an ideal, a fantasy. When an entire system operates by this logic, it becomes difficult to imagine anything different. And in discussions of movie violence, we refuse to admit that a movie that aligns itself with the accepted binary moral compass can be just as violent, if not more so, as the media satire Natural Born Killers or the class satire American Psycho (both subjects of LaPierre’s knee-jerk derision).
Movies can reflect and comment on reality in profound ways, or, like Gangster Squad, they can construct a fantasy and avoid any potential introspection on life outside the movie (this is probably why the film went through reshoots). Neither form is a direct representation of reality, but thinking of films as a reflection or fantasy rather than as an aspirational ideal would make for more accurate and healthy considerations about the role in our lives movies do and should have. This is not to say movies have no relationship to morality, or should never be examined in those terms (also, movies are never apolitical); but too often movies have been evaluated in relation to morality in only the most superficial ways, taking representation as endorsement and assuming one type of viewer (the middle-class parent) as possessing the unquestionable standard gaze by which movies should be evaluated for content.
The NRA and parent-centric movie cultures (whose social standards inform the practices of organizations like the MPAA) like to see movies as scapegoats, immediately culpable for inspiring passive masses to engage in destructive behaviors. In response, some film fans as well as filmmakers, people who develop an intimate relationship with movies and devote their lives to seeing them, defensively argue that there’s no connection at all between movie violence and how we perceive the world, as if movies existed in a neutral vacuum completely outside of human investment and social relevance. Both of these positions willfully blind themselves considerably more open and nuanced considerations of the complicated relationship between films and culture.
Perhaps it’s time to start having a real discussion.
Culture Warrior is a weekly dive into the academic side of film studies with expert and higher education addict Landon Palmer. Click here to read previous entries.