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.