A recurring theme of the Hollywood award season– that annual televised parade of self-congratulatory, back-slapping rituals celebrating the contributions of the motion picture industry – is how nearly every montage, tribute, and windy acceptance speech is a paean to films’ ability to move, influence, and inspire us.
Well-meaning, “white people solve racism” movies like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and The Help (2011) have been cited for assuaging American guilt long enough to incite base levels of human compassion; homoerotic fly-boy movie, Top Gun (1986) significantly boosted Navy enrollment for months after its release; Stanley Kramer’s anti-war film, On the Beach (1959) inspired a scientific authority no less distinguished than two-time Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling to declare,
“It may be that some years from now we can look back and say that On the Beach is the movie that saved the world.”
Designer Edith Head and style-conscious movies like Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and Flashdance (1983) inspired women’s fashions nationwide; there’s the perhaps apocryphal legend that Clark Gable’s bare chest in It Happened One Night (1934) caused a 40% drop in undershirt sales that year; and Star Wars jargon and the word “Deep Throat” found their way into the he rhetoric of the Reagan and Nixon administrations, respectively.
When it fits their need to publicize their films as instruments of peace, and a tool capable of inflaming high-minded ideals and benevolent philosophies, Hollywood has no trouble giving credit to motion pictures for being one of the most culturally influential, socially persuasive inventions of the 20th Century.
Yet, whenever it’s suggested that this self-same power might have a simultaneous downside, Hollywood tends to act as if the social influence door swings just one way.
Whenever anyone alludes (as they always do following the by-now tragically familiar occurrence of school shootings) that the numbing violence and romanticized gunplay in today’s films might be a remote stimulus, the response is always, “Movies are just escapist entertainment, they can’t make anybody do anything!”
When a Washington Post film critic made the mistake of singling out Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen (who had a movie to promote, fer chrissake!) in an attempt to draw a provocative and not-unfounded parallel between the misogynistically entitled comments expressed by a mentally-ill shooter and Hollywood’s near-endemic depiction of women as sex trophies and male support systems; some very solid points about the perpetuation of sexist myths found themselves submerged beneath outraged tweets decrying the brass-bottomed gall of someone to dare suggest men (sane or otherwise) might get ideas about how to regard women from movies.
I find it a curious phenomenon to say the least. To propose that totally sane people can glean wonderful things from films, but should anyone pick up anything unsavory…well, that has to be an illness within the individual and movies can’t be held accountable.
It’s certainly curious that in 2002 a U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention study found,
“Exposure to smoking in movies increases the risk for smoking initiation."
This finding, along with a strong anti-tobacco lobby, were fairly successful (in a fashion) in getting Hollywood to brand films which featured smoking with an automatic PG or PG-13 rating.
Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, as on some level Hollywood and the public appear to agree that impressionable children can pick up habits from movies.
But replace that cigarette with a gun…well, now you’re in dangerous territory for our firearms-loving Americans.
Bring up the topic of gun violence in movies and you’ll hear a chorus of parents and studio heads alike, chiming in that guns in movies don’t make people pick up guns, gun violence in the movies doesn't promote gun violence, and kids can tell the difference between fact and fantasy. Obviously, children are a walking paradox of simplicity and sophistication.
Take for example the numerous "How old is too young to see a horror film?" discussions you can find online. Taking your pick, the parental consensus seems to be the same: you can take a child as young as 12 to an R-rated horror film (nine or ten if it’s a boy…thank you double-standard), but virtually all draw the line at exposing youngsters to sex and nudity. One gets a better understanding of America’s love affair with its guns when one reads how many parents find wholesale violence, cruelty, and bloodshed to be perfectly suitable “entertainment” for their precious cargo, but will fight tooth-and-nail to make sure their little angels never see unclothed love, affection, or simulated sex.
I think perhaps I understand. The violence and dehumanizing sexism in movies have absolutely no developmental effect on any of us, nor can it adversely impact our culture. On the other hand, explicit nudity and smoking has the power to topple our entire civilization.
The buzzwords here seem to be "cause" and "influence."
I don't believe a film causes anyone to do anything, but in a world where ad agencies pay $4 million for 30 seconds of Superbowl airtime, when little girls wear Disney princess dresses 24/7, when little boys who can't tell you the name of the their grandfather can rattle off the names of all the the X-Men members...you'll never convince me that film is not a powerfully influential medium.
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