Since its inception in the early 1900's, film has become a uniquely powerful ubiquity within human culture. It is an instrumental vehicle in shaping our social culture by transforming the viewers’ opinions or swaying them one way or another. We only have to look at the recent controversy surrounding American Sniper and its jingoistic propaganda themes, or even more recent the explosion of controversy that the salacious 50 Shades of Grey movie caused around the world.
In early 1972 the Surgeon General’s Office of the United States National Institutes of Health announced that for the first time scientific evidence had been assembled that proved there was a causal link between the exposure of children to televised violence and their subsequent aggressive behavior. This has given rise to what social psychologists call bystander apathy, the idea that people seem willing to stand by and watch while others are injured or killed, and the observers will do nothing to help the victim. Victor B. Cline attributes this to the desensitization of violence witnessed primarily in the media.
Yet, with all this focus on the detrimental effects that film has on violence and sex, one criticism we don't hear quite as often is movies under fire for glamorizing drug and alcohol use and gambling.
So What About the Other Vices?
There are other vices apart from violence and sex that film explores and in many cases exploits, yet the media doesn't focus on these. I was approached by ProjectKnow, an organisation that specializes in understanding drug addiction and helping those who suffer from it, to look at the research that they have conducted. How many time have we heard references to alcohol, or seen the recreational use of drugs and not give a thought to what we're viewing or digesting.
To get a sense of which movies mention these vices the most, ProjectKnow have analyzed over 1,260 movie scripts since 1984 searching for mentions of various phrases relating to them. The findings may surprise you.
The overall prevalence of marijuana, alcohol, gambling and other drug mentions in movies since 1984.
Above, you can see the full scope of drugs and alcohol mentions on the silver screen from 1984 to 2013. Alcohol unsurprisingly holds a strong lead throughout the years, followed by tobacco. Although it appears to be on a steady decline, it is interesting to note that Alcohol hit its peak in 2007, a year that seen the release of Superbad and Pirates of the Caribbean among others. The graph also shows a slight increase in the mention of cocaine during the late 1990's, post Scarface, coinciding with a rising popularity in Marijuana, peaking the year Pineapple Express was released.
Top 10 debaucherous movies by mentions of drugs and alcohol
Superbad solidifies itself at the top. The film tops a list consisting of a drug addicted, drunk pilot and a pair of middle-aged men journeying through Las Vegas in a drug-induced haze.
With a staggering 172 mentions, this film is marketed towards teens, receiving only a 15 rating in the UK. The BBFC attribute this primarily to its frequent strong sex references and language, but oddly not to the 172 mentions of drugs and alcohol.
Top 10 drinking movies by mentions of alcohol
When refocusing the data to look at alcohol exclusively, Superbad’s 171 mentions of alcohol alone would still give it more mentions of substances than all other pictures with drugs included. This isn't entirely surprising, since one of the films main themes is the elaborate plan to purchase alcohol by underage youths. The list itself remains mostly unchanged, with the top 6 films not moving. What we can conclude from this is alcohol is the predominantly portrayed substance in cinema.
Top 10 stoner movies by mentions of marijuana
Although Superbad doesn't make the cut here, Seth Rogen still features here with another obvious winner in the form of Pineapple Express, the stoner-comedy film that centers around a pot dealer and his friend. The film courted controversy in the UK, with a scene involving the selling and smoking of marijuana to children cut, but kept in the US version. Again this film was given a 15 rating by the BBFC, marketed to teenagers, and although it is now legal in certain states in America to use marijuana, it is still an illegally classified drug in the UK. The movie with the second highest number of mentions was another stoner comedy, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle with Blow rounding the top three off, though the film’s title is a reference to cocaine.
Top 10 gambling movies by mention of gambling
The late 90's, early 2000's was a popular era for gambling at the cinema. Although not a substance, gambling can lead to addiction, and a devastating one at that. The glorification of gambling is largely seen on screen, usually via the jubilant faces of victorious punters. Croupier and Ocean’s Eleven round out the list, with both films having casinos as the setting for their narrative.
Methodology behind the research
The research team collected 1,273 movie scripts for movies released between 1984 and 2014 and, in those scripts, found the number of uses of various phrases related to substances of abuse and gambling for each year and for each movie. The mention of alcohol could be the occurrence of the word 'alcohol' or any of 44 other alcohol-related phrases, and similarly for each other category. The full accounting of the terms for each substance can be found HERE.
Post a comment below and let's start a healthy debate into what this means for cinema and our culture.