Tuned In

What We Should Be Thinking About Pop-Culture Violence, and What We Will Probably Do Instead

It should be possible to criticize excessive, numbing, bludgeoning violence in pop culture without reaching for a dubious argument that it leads to massacres.

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Gilles Coulon / Tendance Floue

Children playing a Nintendo DS.

Maybe it was when I had to pause a screener for an upcoming new TV show to answer the doorbell recently, and noticed that the screen was paused on the image of a man with a broken bottle jammed in his mouth. (I won’t name the series, not that the scene is a spoiler. It’s just the kind of thing that apparently happens on this show.) Maybe it was when I watched the pilot for another new series in which a serial killer mentioned his elaborate ritual for detaching a certain bodily organ.

Maybe it was in a late episode of Sons of Anarchy, in which a character (played by creator Kurt Sutter) intentionally bit off his own tongue and spat it out. Maybe it was during The Walking Dead this season, when Michonne jammed a shard of glass into the eye of The Governor–a brief change-up of human injury amid the scenes of the living slamming implements into zombie heads with wet thunks, as if they were jelly-filled pumpkins.

Probably it was a more cumulative thing. But at some point I found myself thinking, Man, hasn’t the violence on these shows–good, or at least ambitious, TV dramas–gotten, er, intense? And baroque? And, maybe, verging on self-parody?

All of which is to say: as someone who consumes a lot of pop culture for a living, I think there are plenty of good reasons to be critical of the violence in it: its ubiquity, its extremity and its use as a dramatic crutch. Many of the greatest dramas I’ve loved and admired most in the last decade have been violent, to intelligent, even artistic purpose. But a lot of not-so-greatest dramas lean on blood and gore too. There’s a monotone to a certain section of our culture right now, and that tone is: AUUUUUUUGGGH!

That’s worth looking at; it’s worth questioning. After the Newtown shootings, however, it looks like we are again going to look at violence in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons–simplistically, reactively and temporarily.

On MSNBC’s Morning Joe Monday, former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough renounced his longtime opposition to gun control, but also suggested, as if in a tradeoff, that it was time to set limits on entertainment content. Decrying “the harvest sown from violent, mind-numbing video games and gruesome Hollywood movies that dangerously desensitize those who struggle with mental-health challenges,” he asserted that Hollywood’s First Amendment rights do not allow it to peddle violent movies with impunity.

Columnist Peggy Noonan added to that: “everyone who has warned for a quarter-century now that our national culture has become a culture of death—movies, TV shows, videogames drenched in blood and violence—has been correct.”

Possibly sensing a stirring, and not wanting to get on the wrong side of it, TV networks and movie studios have been pulling and postponing entertainments having anything to do with bullets, blood, child endangerment or simply death. Which is turns out is quite a bit of stuff. Movie premieres were cancelled for Django Unchained and Jack Reacher. Episodes of shows like Family Guy and American Dad were pushed back. Discovery Channel is cancelling one reality show about gun sellers and enthusiasts (though the decision may have been made before the shootings) and has pointedly not decided about another. TLC pulled a special (and possible new series), Best Funeral Ever, scheduled for Dec. 27. It will instead air Jan. 6, by which time I guess it will be totally appropriate again.

OK, so these are gestures. Gestures are fine—it’s only decent to be a little more considerate at a time of suffering and try not to stir up bad feelings. But if something is really inappropriate one week, is it any better a year later—and vice versa? Is any of this addressing a real problem or threat, or just p.r.?

There are some reports that shooter Adam Lanza liked to play violent video games. There has been less evidence that he was in any way influenced by violent movies. And there is little substantiation for the idea that any pop culture of any sort enabled his spree, or anyone else’s, to an equivalent degree that having access to an arsenal of guns did.

Yet this is what we do after a tragedy like this, because things feel wrong. Things feel sick. There must be something in the air. And popular media is our air. When actual violence horrifies us, people notice the fictional violence that horrifies them and decide there must be a causal connection, QED.

It’s a gut argument. Noonan really says as much: “Deep down we all know it, as deep down we know our culture has a bad impact on the young and unstable who aren’t sturdy enough to withstand and resist sick messages and imagery.” Typically of Noonan, it’s culture warfare as Goldwater slogan: In your heart, you know I’m right.

But does it work as an answer to the real-world fact that Americans sell a lot of guns, keep a lot of guns and–more so than citizens of other countries–use those guns more quickly out of anger, aggression or insanity? To accept that, you have to overlook that those bloody multiplex movies are among America’s most reliable exports, eagerly consumed in industrialized nations with far lower rates of gun violence. You have to overlook that violent video games, and other gory entertainments, are popular in Japan, where guns and gun murders are scarce. If this doesn’t exonerate, or excuse, dumb violence, it at least indicates that armed assaults don’t leap fully formed from American TVs. (Media scholar Jason Mittell has a much more in-depth look at the evidence, or lack thereof, that pop-culture violence causes real violence.)

One argument I’m suddenly hearing a lot of is: Of course violent TV has a violent influence. Isn’t the whole TV advertising model based on the idea that content can influence action? Does that influence stop once the commercials are over?

For starters: yes, actually, it kind of does. In the sense, at least, that advertising is a different kind of rhetoric from fiction. It’s generally a direct argument: buy this product, for this reason, you will get this benefit, you will look and feel a certain way.

Fiction–even really bad fiction–doesn’t work that way. It tells a story, and people make meaning from it. It can have profound effects on people, but not necessarily the same ones on everyone, and it’s message isn’t linear. Breaking Bad, for instance, is a violent story of bad people, but you would have to have much more contempt for its viewers than I do to assume that it’s “message” is: life is cheap, power is awesome, so go cook some meth, dominate your wife and hurt whomever you have to, even kids, to get your way.

Now, most pop culture is not Breaking Bad. There are many lousy movies and TV shows that do, in fact, portray violence as awesome and exciting and not much else. There are others—I’d say The Walking Dead for instance—that both offer splatter-pandering and ask tough moral questions. None of us have yet seen Best Funeral Ever, so I can’t say that it’s reprehensible simply because it’s an entertainment about funerals. But Six Feet Under was an entertainment about funerals, often using dark humor, and yet that show was a deeply thoughtful examination of life and death. It’s not as easy as saying certain content and subject matter = offensive.

But the kind of discussion we get after atrocities like Newtown usually isn’t interested in qualitative judgments, only quantitative. It becomes about weighing content on a scale. If it’s bloody, it advocates violence. If it has sex, it advocates sex. List the curse words, count the bodies, measure the fluid ounces of blood and you got your answer.

One reason, I think, that discussions of pop culture at times like this are so polarized and useless is that we mix up influence and causality. That is, yes, art and entertainment affects people—moves them, gets in their heads and stays there. That’s why it exists. (I wouldn’t write about it for a living if I didn’t think it had ideas that were worth engaging with.) But it doesn’t follow from that that it programs people, that it affects the same people the same way, that it causes certain predictable aggregate actions (be it violence or teen sex) or that it can move a society in a certain planned direction en masse.

Peggy Noonan says blithely that “when Hollywood wants to discourage cigarette smoking it knows exactly how to do it, because it knows exactly how much power it has to deliver cultural messages. When Hollywood wants to encourage environmentalism it knows how to do it.” Really? Did I miss the passage of the cap-and-trade law? Noonan’s claim doesn’t explain why Hollywood remains much to the left of its audience–on environmentalism, on foreign policy, or, hell, on gun control. The American audience has shown plenty of capacity for gladly paying to see “message” movies, then living life by a different message. When it comes to movies and society, it’s not nearly so clear who is the leader and who the follower.

But you don’t need causality to be critical of excessive, numbing, bludgeoning violence in pop culture. It should be possible to criticize it without reaching for a dubious argument that it leads to massacres. It’s enough to say that it punishes our sensibilities. That it often substitutes for imagination. That it’s just freaking exhausting sometimes to live in a pop-culture whose aggression level is pumped up to 11, to sit through movie trailers that are 15 eardrum-shattering variations on FIREBALL TORTURE BREAKING GLASS, to see assaultive video game and movie ads everytime you watch a game on TV. (Linda Holmes and Alyssa Rosenberg are two critics who have been writing perceptively about this even before Newtown.)

And a heartbreaking crime like the Sandy Hook shooting could remind us that we want something other than mayhem in our culture, without our having to claim that it leads to real-life mayhem. It could just be an occasion to ask: hey, isn’t there something besides this? Aren’t there interesting subjects for ambitious cable dramas besides charismatic brooding men killing people? And maybe your “escapist” torture-porn movie is never going to make anyone torture someone else–but doesn’t it make the world more grim and unpleasant?

We could do that. We could expect creators and entertainment companies to do better, not because bad movies are anywhere near the moral or practical equivalent of loaded guns, but simply because it would be better.

Or we could go through another round of hyperbolic claims about the media, and temporary p.r.-driven postponements. That it looks like we’re going the latter route—again—is just one more thing to be depressed about.


Peggy Noonan makes my teeth itch.  Had to get that off my mind.  I am one of those who do think that TV, books and movies influence our behavior.  Maybe influence is the wrong word.  Confirm our behavior, perhaps.  I think that a lot of popular TV is popular because we identify with it, not because we're like that but because we wish we were.  I have a feeling that too many people believe arming themselves will keep them safe, because they imagine they will behave like their heroes on TV.  What was that sarcastic tweet about people with guns having the reflexes of - oh, hell, I forget who, but somebody with killer reflexes, so to speak? 

I'm a fan of both the Walking Dead and Homeland, because I do think they both get us thinking about our suppositions.  Some of us, anyway.  I did a blog piece some time ago which might have some relevance here.  Can't share URL, but if you Google Barbara's Bookhouse The Danger of Dystopia you should get there.  If interested.  The point being that I don't necessarily need TV to protect me.  I would like it to explore alternative avenues of conflict resolution, alternative possibilities for human interaction.  Besides get a gun and trust no one.



I love how the media speaks about themselves in third person, as if they are not apart of the problem, it's always "other forms of media" that are the problem. I was taught "change starts within/at home", yet all i see is violence in the headlines. ....


We should also ban violent books like 'The Hunger Games' that teach teenagers how to kill each other. 


There have been 213 assault weapons ban bills introduced in Congress since 1989. Only two of those, or less than one-percent, have been under the current administration's watch:




" And there is little substantiation for the idea that any pop culture of any sort enabled his spree, or anyone else’s, to an equivalent degreethat having access to an arsenal of guns did."  

So having access to guns is what makes people turn violent? You may want to think that one through again. I'm not saying that violent media is the problem either. The prevalence of violence in the media is only a symptom of our cultural pathology, not the cause. Our materialistic, unloving, uncaring culture is the most to blame. Children learn from a young age to resent authority and feel entitled to their every whim. Love, responsibility, self-control, these are things we use to learn in church and in the family. Both relics of the past.


@JonathanMartin I don't believe that having guns makes all people turn violent.  But I do believe that having guns makes turning lethally violent possible.  I was thinking about this recently when I finished reading Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, and I wrote this: 

I had to come to the conclusion that it was done because it could be done, by people who were given powerful weapons unavailable to the peoples they were sent to rule, people whose faces had been, for the past centuries, known only to many of their new rulers as the faces of slaves. It was done because maiming, forced labor, torture, rape and murder are activities of which people are capable, and when there is no one to stop them, when they are, indeed, rewarded for it, when they are far beyond the bounds of familiar society, they will too easily give in to their worst impulses. At home, these might be people who laid a vicious whip to a horse or discharged a servant for stealing an apple. Out in Africa, they knew no bounds.


@Lucelucy @JonathanMartin  " I had to come to the conclusion that it was done because it could be done, by people who were given powerful weapons unavailable to the peoples they were sent to rule"

That's an argument for gun ownership. If people have access to weapons that they can use to defend themselves, then the balance of power is kept and no group will have unbridled power. A few armed guards in the school would have been sufficient to stop the carnage in Newtown. (Or if you can't stand the thought of guns in school, what if ever teacher had a decent size rock (or high powered sling shot) in their desk and all at once they attacked  the shooter? A basic self-defense plan involving guns or not is what schools need to have) The utopians want us to think that we can abolish all weapons and bring about world peace. This would require a huge change in basic human nature. Realists are much more mod say, 'lets just make sure that people can defend themselves, so that no one can have unbridled power over another' - that's what the whole democratic ideal and the separation of powers is all about - private gun ownership is simply an integral part of that logic.

Bemused like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Lucelucy @JonathanMartin The belief in the idea that armed teachers could fend off mass killers, I think, can actually be linked to media representations of similar fictional scenarios. In the real world, arming a teacher could have many negative repercussions.

Bemused like.author.displayName 1 Like

@JonathanMartin @Lucelucy It's amazing how some people can make any argument into an argument FOR gun ownership. Why is it so hard to accept that having lethal weapons easily available makes it easier for people to act on violent impulses? And please note that I said "easily available"--I'm not arguing for a total gun ban, just reasonable controls.


@JonathanMartin @Lucelucy Oh, dear.  Well, I guess I can see where it could be taken that way.  But my point was that it is the access to these weapons that makes that kind of slaughter by one person possible in the first place.  It is, in a way, the gun on the mantelpiece argument, wherein Anton Chekhov said that if a gun is placed on the mantelpiece in a stage set, the audience will expect it to be used before the end of the play.  Or words to that effect.  I think it extends to real life as well.  If guns are available, they will be used.

That being said, I am not a utopian who wishes to do away with all weapons.  We as a species are way too far from anything like that - if we ever will be, which I also doubt.  But we have been able to regulate ourselves in many, many other ways, and we should be able to regulate ourselves in regard to available weapons as well.  We can never hope to eliminate these horrors.  But, as other countries have shown, we can reduce them.

One more point on the "teachers with guns" solution - where are these guns to be kept where they can be instantly available when the next madman comes through the window?  And how secure will they be from inquisitive little hands - not to mention the larger hands of testosterone maddened teenage boys or the occasionally really pissed off teenaged girl?


The violence and the vulgarity should be questioned. Media hammer the hell of  us with gun control messages, then howl if First Amendment rights are violated. The extent of violence and inapparopriate sexaul content seem to matter less when "rights" become the subject. And everything goes down the tubes when their bottom line (money, money) could be threatened. Twenty networks and cable stations are probably cheesing up docudramas about Sandy Hook as I write.

aldotheeapache like.author.displayName 1 Like

While we should curtail of children's viewing habits of violent imagery, nothing is going to change the fact that it guns that are the cause of the issue. School shootings have been going on since at least the 18th century, long before movies, rap, marylin manson, drugs, video games, the supposed 'lack of prayer' in schools or any other spoonfed NRA/Conservative nonsense. All of this obfuscates the main culprit, GUNS.


And to melodramatic gun nuts, no one wants to take all your guns away. Banning needless assault rifles and requiring stricter gun purchasing laws is not martial law.Will it stop ALL future shootings? Nope. Will it severley curtail them and mass casualties? You're damn straight it will.

KendraJames14 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I cant blame video games or movies personally but I can see why other people do..Here is a list I found of "The Best ways to Die" in a video game http://bit.ly/UxIVcw  kind of interesting what kids like these days.. And here are the most evil movie lines of the last decade  http://bit.ly/VCVGRF Pretty scary stuff but does it really relate to mass killings? I don't think so personally 

troy8888888 like.author.displayName 1 Like

This entire debate is ridiculous.

More Americans died of tobacco and obesity related illness on the day of the shooting than of gun violence.  The shooting was horrific, all the more because of the victims' ages, but we as Americans simply don't care about threats that aren't cinematic or exciting; similiar example would be terrorism, or plane crashes.  Tese incidences of mass shootings are extremely rare, and when it comes down to it, there's really no real way to prevent them.  Let's focus on the real threat to our children, which is ----- yes, obesity.  But that's boring isn't it?

JenCord like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@troy8888888 Your argument is flawed.  Obesity and tobacco are a personal choice.  You choose to engage in those behaviors.  I doubt that anyone involved in Newtown made a choice to die with the exception of Lanza.  


It's not necessarily a personal choice for the millions of American kids who are developing Type-2 Diabetes because their ignorant/indifferent/lazy parents' are allowing them to eat and sit themselves to early death.  All I'm pointing out is that we need to keep an accurate definiton of "epidemic".  Gun violence (w regard to shooting sprees, mass murders) is not an epidemic, but the media is treating it as such. I fully expect negative replies, particularly from emotional, reactionary, ignorant females.

Bemused like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@troy8888888 Um, yeah ... dig that hole of discredit deeper. And then take the time to look at the media, and see how many men are speaking out on the need for greater gun control, starting with Joe Scarborough, Joe Manchin, Mark Warner, the judge who sentenced Jared Loughner, Michael Steele, Bob Costas, various professional athletes, etc. They must all be on their time on the month.


I said "particularly", not "singular to".  I am not the least bit interested in guns, I don't even own one, but the majority of those most vocal about their restriction or banning have been females who simply react emotionally to an atrocity like this without careful consideration of the facts.

ayoak like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like


You've just proved that "emotional, reactionary, and ignorant" aren't just the realm of females.   And discredited yourself in the meantime. 


America has become a "SICK" VIOLENCE driven culture !  UFC, Football, Even rough Basketball !

We attend violence in MASSIVE numbers. Are we a Roman gladiator (or worse ) society ? And we wonder WHY we have unstable people !!


It's not pop culture, it's American parents who refuse to limit their children's pop culture intake. Parents NEED to start saying "NO" to their kids and mean it.

Stop capitulating to your child's every whims like it is a terrorist giving demands.

American parents need to grow backbones.