Why Opposing Restrictions on Movie Violence is Anti-Science

This new report on gun violence in film has been getting a lot of play the last few days. Analyzing the incidents of gun violence in the top-grossing American films, the authors concluded that the incidents of gun violence in movies rated PG-13 have nearly tripled since 1985. Last year – for the first time – gun violence was more prevalent in PG-13 movies than in those rated R. From an article summarizing the report:

Of the 420 movies studied since 1985, 396 films (94 percent) had one or more five-minute segment containing violent sequences. Those sequences were coded for the use of guns, focusing on using weapons to harm or kill a living being, excluding violence that was not intended to harm and acts like hunting.

None of this should be surprising. The PG-13 rating was created specifically to codify an increased use of violence in films. It was first created by the Motion Picture Association of America after a controversy surrounding Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984); many parents took their children to it and were shocked by its graphic sequences. As a result, the PG-13 rating was created ostensibly to help parents determine what films were appropriate for their children, but the real motivation, of course, was monetary. Hollywood wanted to market more of its product to teenagers, and they figured that sensationalized violence was the best way to do that. The PG-13 rating was first used in Red Dawn, the most violent film ever made at the time (The National Coalition on Television Violence found that it contained 134 acts of violence per hour).

Initially, though, Red Dawn was an outlier; none of the other top-grossing PG-13 rated movies of 1984 featured nearly as much violence. Still, this new report shows what few understood at the time: that the end result of the PG-13 rating was more violent content in movies as a whole, and especially more for teenagers and children. As time has progressed, sexual content became relegated to R-rated films (1984’s The Woman in Red, rated PG-13, featured full frontal nudity), while gun violence has become de rigueur.

Still, many people out there just don’t care. If you argue that violence in entertainment should be reduced or regulated, you will be met with cries of censorship, especially from the film community itself. They will argue that it is the parent’s responsibility to both monitor their child’s entertainment content and instill proper values. But as the research regarding the impact of violent entertainment begins to pile up, we need to label such views accurately: they are anti-science. Here is an excerpt from the peer-reviewed study that will be published next week in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. In addition to its statistics on the incidents of gun violence in PG-13 movies, the authors also lay out an airtight, common-sense case for how films impact young people.

Youth learn how to solve problems by observing how other solve similar problems. By observing others, youth accumulate a set of programs, called scripts, for solving social problems. In theater, scripts tell actors what to do and say. In memory, scripts define situations and guide behavior; the person first selects a script for the situation, assumes a role in that script, and then behaves according to it. A script may be learned through direct experience or by observing others, such as violent characters in the mass media. The media provides scripts for gun use.

Later in the article, they provide even more evidence. The authors cite a 1967 peer-reviewed study showing that the mere presence of a weapon could increase aggression, even if it is never used; more than 50 other studies have confirmed the existence of this “weapon effect” on human behavior. Lastly, they cite a joint statement signed by 6 public health organizations including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association, that reads:

The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values, and behavior, particularly in children.

Those italics are mine, and I use them for two reasons. First, it’s important to recognize that the notion that violent entertainment is particularly damaging to children is now a consensus. It is hard to imagine how anyone could ignore this; everyone cares about the well-being of children, or at least they claim to. But the statement above also shows that the medical and scientific community believe violent movies can lead to real-life violence not only in children. They have an impact on adults, too, even if the impact is less drastic. In other words, there is no longer a debate: violence in entertainment causes real-life aggression. Period.

With the scientific and medical community in agreement that violent movies lead to real-life aggression, only a strict libertarian or someone who is “anti-science” could argue that no further regulation is necessary. Of course, the federal government has no authority to regulate the content of films – movies became protected as “free speech” due to a 1952 Supreme Court decision – but Hollywood itself can and should respond to these developments in a simple fashion: eliminate the PG-13 rating. As noted above, the rating has evolved into a tool to market violent content to children. An elimination of the rating would revert back to a simple, bifurcated system – PG movies would be acceptable for children, while R-rated movies would be for adults – and remove the gray area that has been used by the studios to line their pockets at the expense of a more peaceful society.

Will this ever happen? Probably not. The PG-13 rating continues to reap rewards, and an R rating has become a liability. Perusing the list of top-grossing films of all-time, you have to go all the way down to #68 to find an R, and that film – The Passion of the Christ – had a built-in audience with an enthusiasm level that cannot be measured using current technology. The 7 highest grossing films of all-time are all rated PG-13.

This means that the content of films would likely change dramatically if the PG-13 were eliminated. If you believe the consensus of the scientific and medical community, however, so would our society, and for the better.


5 thoughts on “Why Opposing Restrictions on Movie Violence is Anti-Science

  1. With all due respect to your views (and those of researchers, etc.) regarding the influence of violent media images on behavior, I have to disagree with your conclusions. In Japan, the country which I have made my home for almost 15 years, graphic, violent sexual/fighting violence imagery abounds in pop culture. One of the most popular manga out now details a dystopian world where people have been forced into mass cannibalism, and, well…anyway, ero (erotic) images are also easily accessed right alongside such comics.

    Yet, life goes on. Women can still walk home alone after 12, men can leave their wallets practically hanging out of their back pockets without fear of being robbed. There are extreme instances of violence, as in any culture, but there is nowhere near the level we see on a daily basis in the US. Hollywood’s gun-toting heroes are just as popular here, yet nobody emulates them.

    Is it because the Japanese are “better” than North Americans, with a more refined culture? Not by a long shot! But after a young, angry Japanese sees the next “Die Hard” ripoff, he doesn’t have the option of buying guns because that option simply doesn’t exist. Movies/media may indeed instill violent feelings and attitudes, but can they really cause direct violence?

    I think people with guns, and the fear of those around them, are two more potent ingredients. Get rid of guns, and gun violence (the bee in the bonnet of all these researchers) will largely cease. The mental health of those carrying the guns is an important issue, but it is a separate one. Mentally unstable people without guns can’t do the violence that mentally unstable people with guns can. Or for that matter, that anybody with guns can. To borrow your own words: Guns are the problem, period. We need to get over our 2nd Amendment obsessions and face facts.

    Lastly, while I agree that the rating system is unclear and likely designed to fill studio pockets to some degree, I’m not sure that changing it will make much difference. People will always find a way to view the content they want to, regardless of how it is rated. And as long as they do, advocates will (and should) continue to come to bat for our children.

    Even if this doesn’t work perfectly, I cannot advocate censorship. Critics, teachers, pundits and researchers may be able to stand at arms-length from popular culture and see it as inherently damaging or corrupting, but creators (I am a fiction writer, my wife an artist) need the freedom to work–these works are sometimes violent or sexual, but that’s part of human nature. As long as people want to read/see/hear cool stuff, they need to take “the good” with “the bad” and learn to regulate themselves. That includes teaching children what is real and what isn’t, rather than patronizing them.

    ‘Nuff said. I will keep reading…;-)

    • A lot of great points in your response, but let me offer my own response to a couple of them:

      1) The Japan argument is one I have heard a lot, and it’s completely valid. I’m not trying to argue that violent movies are the sole reason for violence in American society. But there is no debate as to whether onscreen violence creates aggression in viewers. The science is clear on that. What’s less clear is what other societal factors encourage or discourage those aggressive tendencies. Obviously, Japan’s culture discourages them, and America’s – in some way – encourages them.

      2) I don’t think anyone is advocating censorship. My only suggestion is that we change the rating system to reflect our current cultural values, as we have done many times in the past. I think that much of the violence in PG-13 movies is disturbing to children and creates “scripts” for them that are destructive to both the children themselves and to society. The ratings system we currently use is supposed to safeguard against this, but it’s not working. Would you prefer no ratings at all?

      • Thanks for the followup to my long-winded comment! I think that in 1), you kind of provide the “answer”–while increased feelings of agression may be linked to violent imagery, you’re right in saying that we don’t know exactly what other societal factors encourage or discourage them. My point, perhaps belabored, was that we can (and, to my mind, should) take away the weapons of agression and see what happens! That’s one big factor right there.

        On 2), I’ve heard the “script” idea before and certainly think it makes a certain amount of sense, but is perhaps used too broadly in those studies. If our lives are indeed made up of such scripts, then it follows that they are the products of not only our media, but our interactions with family, friends, co-workers, etc., not to mention our exposure to greater knowledge through books, art, etc. If kids are learning everything they need to know in life through action flicks, then it says more about our society’s impoverished cultural offerings and less about the action flick genre itself, I guess. There’s nothing wrong with The Rock blowing stuff up, as long as kids are taught to pick up Huck Finn as well, right?

        Finally, I think we both agree that a rating system is a good idea…it’s the standards of such a system, and where they would come from, that bothers me. Especially in America, where the collective cultural values of all our diverse souls (and not just those of certain religions) should be reflected. Ideally, of course.

        Great food for thought, thank you!

      • You’re welcome, and thanks for commenting. I’ll continue thinking about your thoughts.

        I keep coming back to one thing: I don’t think kids should see The Rock blowing stuff up, period. Even if it was balanced with Huck Finn or even some purely pro-peace work of art. Violence on film is more titillating than any work that demonstrates diplomacy or non-violence solutions could ever be. Would it be great if filmmakers didn’t sensationalize violence in films marketed at teenagers and children? Yes, of course – but that’s impossible.

        I think that getting rid of PG-13 is the best start. It would force the MPAA into deciding: is this film suitable for everyone, or is there enough questionable material that children should have to go with their parents? Any other rating seems counter-productive to me.

      • Hello again, Mr. Gittell. You may be getting this message at a very weird time, but that’s just because I live in Japan and have a break so I decided to follow up, yet again.

        As you say, firming up the rating system and making it theoretically easier for parents to make decisions about what they and their children should watch is a good idea. As you say, the current system makes it too easy to market violence to children. On these points, we are in agreement. I think we can also agree that such marketing will never cease. Maybe eliminating PG-13 would help, who knows?

        Also, your view that, for example, children shouldn’t watch The Rock blowing stuff up, period, is understandable. But consider this: I don’t know how old you are, but I assume that, like me, you may have been a teenager in the Arnold/Sly/Van Damme era–we were witness to a lot of bone-crunching, sweaty violence in film–and yes, it was titillating. Yet we both became responsible adults. My stories sometimes contain scenes of violence, but I don’t wish such violence upon the real people in my life. This in spite of having been exposed to myriad violent media “scripts” throughout young life. How do we explain this?

        Back to the rating system (and to what was your original point, I apologize! ;-)): We should definitely work on the system, but blaming the system itself and the media violence that it perpetuates on real-life violence seems rather like blaming McDonald’s for childhood obesity. It would be nice if Mickey D’s were healthier, yes, but it ain’t gonna happen. So instead, we should teach our children good eating habits and the virtues of exercise. They’re going to continue eating fast food, and watching violent dreck. But rather than constantly shielding them, protecting them from everything (which only results in adults who can’t think for themselves, in my opinion) we need greater Balance in the Force.

        That’s it, I’m through with mixed movie metaphors! Thank you for the spirited discussion, let’s talk again sometime!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s