Thursday, 2 April 2009

TV violence

I'm still reeling from last night's episode of Underbelly. This is a well-made series and I've been enjoying it - until one particularly sadistic scene that I haven't been able to get out of my head, and which has disturbed me ever since.

As a feminist, I never quite know how to feel about representations of violence - I just know that they often make me feel really icky. I never seemed to develop a tolerance to it, and things I see or read about often upset me. I don't mind too much if my kids see sexual content on TV (so long as it's not too graphic!), but I do my best to shield them from violence - partly on principle, because I don't think violence should be entertainment, and partly because I know that my thoughtful little daughter will be upset by it.

Strangely, though, different 'kinds' of violence affect me differently. Gratuitous, stupid movies with people punching and shooting each other in choreographed ways don't bother me at all (although I don't really understand why people find this entertaining). Violence with a sadistic intent, like last night's episode of Underbelly, disturbs me a lot. (I was incredibly bemused a few year's ago by Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' - from what I could see of this movie, it attracted people who liked being able to conceal their bloodlust under the respectable guise of Christianity.)

Reporting of violent events on the news also troubles me. When I was a kid, my parents encouraged me to watch a documentary about the Holocaust. What they were trying to do was laudable: they wanted me to think about the world around me, and the importance of caring for others and standing up to what you know is wrong. The doco had a powerful effect on me, but was also very upsetting. Is it better for a kid to understand violence and learn a moral lesson from it - or is ignorance bliss?

I suppose the point of this rambling post is to wonder aloud if and how watching violence affects us (children, particularly). Is the effect the same if its unreal, choreographed violence, a portrayal of sadistic violence, or real violence - like footage of warfare?

TV and video game violence get the blame for all sorts of tragedies. Whenever a kid in the US goes crazy and shoots his classmates, someone is always eager to point to the online games he played, rather than the fact that he had access to a gun. It's too simplistic to pretend that TV violence causes actual violence in any straightforward way - but what are the effects on an average person of being surrounded by constant violent imagery, particularly when violence as entertainment is such a common part of our TV diets?


Brett Dale said...

Every report I have heard of says the same thing, there has never been a direct link from TV/Video game violence and a actual crime.

Julie said...

A link to some research or an article of something that supports your assertion might be good Brett :-)

Anonymous said...

I went to a friend's kick-boxing match once; I wouldn't go again, because I don't like watching people get hurt. It generally doesn't bother me on TV/games (context dependent too - say, Chuck doesn't disturb me, but Criminal Minds does). And even though my friend obviously chose to kickbox, and enjoys it, I don't like to see it.

It was kind of a relief, actually, that media violence hasn't inured me!

I find I am more concerned about violence in the media since the birth of my niece. In things like Ice Age 2, some of the cartoon violence really bothers me. Although as a kid it never did, and I like to think I turned out okay... just now it makes me uncomfortable.

A Nonny Moose said...

Long time pro-wrestling fan here, and this is something I've struggled with, all the while loving it. (I am, by the way, non-bogan, non-brain dead, mid-30s, corporate - against type of what you'd think a wrestling fan is).

I've always been about the freedom of choice to watch what you want, BUT tempered with critical thinking and discussion. In other words, check in with what your kids are watching and talk to them about it.

You see the failures of this everywhere - back in the early 90s it was some flipped out mum who got wrestling banned on NZ screens for 8 years because little jimmy had broken his arm in the playground play fighting. Typical over-reaction - kids aren't stupid. Just sit them down and TALK to them about it. Taking it away completely without discussion is what will make them rebel ANYWAY.

You also get the "TV as a baby-sitter" problem. Don't come crying to society if your kids have gone off the rails, blaming the TV - take a long hard look at your parenting skills first.

Yeah, there are lines and objections - but that's what rating and censorship laws are about, and when all else fails, what the Off switch is about.

BTW, don't watch wrestling anymore - the death toll is too high in the industry to conscientiously support (damn you Chris Benoit).

A Nonny Moose said...

PS: Don't get me STARTED on the misogyny of pro-wrestling. The women are all treated like chattel, victims, psychos and sluts.

Anna said...

Moose, I kind of have the same quandary about boxing - on one hand, I think it's enormously skillful, but I feeled obliged to boycott it because it's institutionalised violence (and hideously corrupt).

Fiona B said...

my masters research was about hos adolescents regarded themselves affected by media violence - i had high school students writing open essays on two questions - what is the most violent thing they have watched on tv/movies? And who do they think is most affected by violence?

The overwhelming response? Once Were Warriors was about equal to Middlemore (a hospital reality programme on at the time, which had an emphasis on the gorier part of hospital life - I went to a girls' high school the week of a graphic depiction of a caesarian, and this featured in many of their "most violent things I've seen" essays.

And who is most affected by media violence? The poor people, of course. Because they are least educated.

I will look out some links to support Brett Dale's assertion. Although some perpetrators of crimes of mass violence HAVE been happy to cite influence by some violent film - Natural Born Killers, for example.

Anna said...

I think it can be politically convenient to blame TV and video games for violence, particularly in the US context - it's easier than asking big cultural questions. It might be that cause and effect are the wrong way, too - someone likely to commit violence might be more interested in violent games or TV, rather than being initially influenced by them.

I remember US TV and films in the 80s generally being a mindless pile of militaristic and misogynistic shite, and I'd be interested if anyone else had the same impression. A lot of it seemed to be about blowing away Russian or South American 'enemies of freedom', and I seem to remember various films in which defence of the male protagonist's family provided a 'respectable' excuse for often really sadistic violence.

I don't know if films like this promote specific acts of violence, but I wonder if they desensitized the audience to the effects of foreign policy during that time?

Fiona B - would love to hear your thoughts on this, hear more about your thesis, read any links, etc.

Ben R said...

Dr Aric Sigman wrote an interesting book 'Remote Controlled' a few years ago documenting how much violence people are now exposed to on tv.

There's quite a clear correlation between the introduction of tv & increases in violent crime in a number of societies.

Fiona B said...

Graham Murdock ('Reservoirs of dogma - An archaeology of popular anxieties' in the recommended "Ill Effects - the media/violence debate") attacks the kind of research that offers a simple, clear and irrefutable link between media violence and social behaviour, using a historically based analysis of morality and the fear of the masses.

In his view, films have replaced Victorian 'penny dreadfuls' and 1940s/ '50s comics as causing violent behaviour.

William D. Rowland Jnr in the same book writes about the American "effects tradition" and revisits critique of traditional effects studies.

Here in NZ, Roy Shuker has made the same kind of study, while at Otago Professor of Psychology Harlene Hayne (the same scientist who said uni students can't make good judgements as their brains are still developing...) has also agreed from her own research that there is no direct causative link between media violence and violence in society.

Some examples of the kinds of research some of the above have questioned:

Singer and Singer (1981) in a much quoted seminal study used two groups of preschoolers – one watched a video depicting acts of violence and one did not; both were given toys to play with. Those who watched the video played more aggressively than those who did not, suggesting an unequivocal causal link between the video and their actions.

William Belson : 'that teenagers exposed to violent programming committed 49 per cent more violent and antisocial behaviour than those in matched low exposure'.
Susan Bailey: ‘in the early eighties I encountered over a five-year period, twenty youngsters who had murdered and a quarter of that group presented me with descriptions of how they had watched violent and pornographic films in the weeks leading up to their offence of murder’
Professor Rowell Huesmann: 'fictional screen violence raises the level of belief in the appropriateness of aggressive and violent behaviour, it raises people's beliefs that this is a mean world, a violent world and it just makes aggression more acceptable'.

But Belson also said he found “no evidence that high exposure to television reduces boys’ respect for authority, or that it desensitises them…”
Bailey, on being challenged, was unable to produce the descriptions of violence with which she had apparently been furnished, or to offer insight into her methodology. This is the problem with a lot of this research - it either involves staged experiments separated from a social context and without exploration of other factors that could lead to violence - particularly economic - or it is just not scientifically rigorous. Rather than prove exposure to media violence doesn't necessarily lead to social violence, I am still waiting for convincing proof that it does.

Music comes in for the same criticism - Judas Priest were blamed (but exonerated in court) for the suicide of a young adolescent; the boys who perpetrated the Columbine Massacre were at first thought to have been influenced by goth music, but upon the revelation they had listened to opera on the morning they set out, the critical voices went quiet.

In terms of a feminist analysis, though, it gets murkier. I wouldn't have admitted it at the time of my research, but there is an acceptance in watching violent films that I have to mentally move to a masculinised space.

In response to Anna - I love the movie Die Hard, not because I agree with the underlying message, but because it was the American male saying "boo hoo, even my wife has better economic prospects than me, nobody needs me any more... but wait... yay! they do!" And I wonder, in terms of media effects, how much this whole raft of American man up against the odds saves the world has given the American male the mistaken idea that they are actually somehow capable of this misguided folly in the real world? When you talk about some individuals already prone to violence having their self-image reinforced by media - George Bush is your man!

Anna said...

Ain't that the truth. I've only seen one chunk of one Die Hard movie, but I have to admit it was kind of entertaining. Movies that take the mickey out of their own genres often are.

World-saving is a bit of a taken-for-granted theme in US politics though - Pax Americana (and all the mindless violence that's brought us) has been a theme of Democratic and Republican govts alike.