Violence baked into US popular culture

2012-12-21 22:20
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New York - The Showtime network aired a disclaimer warning audiences of violent content in the season finales of its dramas Homeland and Dexter last weekend, just two days after a gunman killed 26 people in a US school.

The political thriller Homeland featured the burial of a bullet-ridden body at sea. Dexter, about a serial killer, had a couple of murders.

Viewer sensitivity, it seems, was not an issue. Homeland became the highest-rated episode in the two years the series has been on the air. Dexter was the top-rated episode of any series in Showtime history.

That's just one illustration of how violence and gunplay are baked into the popular culture of television, movies and video games. While gun control and problems with the mental health system have grabbed the most attention as ways to prevent further incidents, the level of violence in entertainment has been mentioned, too.

In the world of movies, danger is a constant refrain. James Bond has a personalised gun that responds to his palm print in the currently popular Skyfall.

The Avengers features the destruction of New York City.

The Dark Night Rises has considerable gun violence, including the takeover of the New York Stock Exchange.

The Hunger Games has an entire premise based on violence - a survivor's game involving youngsters.


The top-selling video game in November was Call of Duty: Black Ops II, according to the NPD Group, which tracks game sales.

For players, "enemies swarm and you pop their heads and push forward," PC Gamer described.

In third place Assassin's Creed 3, players get points based on how quickly and creatively they kill pursuers.

Top video games can earn anywhere between $1bn and $6bn in revenue, said David Riley, executive director of the NPD Group.

TV series

The body count piles up on television, too. Seven of the 10 most popular prime-time scripted series this season as rated by the Nielsen company are often about violent crimes.

The series are CBS' NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, Person of Interest, Criminal Minds, Elementary and Vegas, along with ABC's Castle.

Hollywood often scours its product output to appear sensitive when a tragic event dominates the news. To date, there's been no evidence of a network pulling the plug entirely on a series because of violent content in the wake of Newtown.

Fox is moving forward with The Following, a series which depicts several murders by stabbing and mutilation.

Marketing violence

US Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, questioned on Fox News Channel last weekend, said he believes violent content causes people who use it to be more violent.

President Obama's adviser, David Axelrod, tweeted that he's in favour of gun control, "but shouldn't we also question marketing murder as a game?"

While promoting his new movie Django Unchained, actor Jamie Foxx said he believes violence in films does have an impact on society.

His director, Quentin Tarantino, batted down such concerns. "It's a western," he said. "Give me a break."

AP movie critic David Germain described Django Unchained as containing "barrels of squishing, squirting blood”.

Violence in video games seems more and more realistic all the time, notes Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University.

Video game-makers have even consulted doctors to ask what it would look like if a person was shot in the arm - how the blood would spurt out - in order to make the action seem real, he said.

Bushman conducted a study that he said showed that a person who played violent video games three days in a row showed more aggressive and hostile behaviour than people who weren't playing. It's not certain what the impact would be on people who played these games for years because testing that "isn't practical or ethical," he said.

Cease fire

An organisation called GamerFitNation has called for a one-day "cease fire" on Friday, asking video game players to refrain from playing violent video games on the one-week anniversary of the Newtown shootings.

Bushman understands the thirst for answers.

"Violent behaviour is a very complex thing," he said, "and when it happens, you want to say what the cause is. And it's not so simple."

For whatever concern that politicians and moral leaders show about violent media content, it's those millions of users and viewers who will ultimately decide whether gore stays on the menu, said Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Centre at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication.

If fans lose interest, so will Hollywood, he said.

"Hollywood is exquisitely reactive to the marketplace," he said.

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