Within weeks of A-list celebrities coming together in a painfully earnest video to “demand a plan” from President Obama to end gun violence, leaders of the industry that employs these stars told the White House and the world that they opposed any organized effort to curb glamorization of brutality in popular culture.
The timing of the contradictory messages exposed the hideous heights of Hollywood hypocrisy in especially embarrassing terms.
Jamie Foxx and his fellow gun control activists solemnly declared to the camera, “No more lists! … We can do better than this! It’s time for our leaders to act,” just as that very performer’s sadistically violent Django Unchained was about to hit No. 2 at the box office.
Jennifer Aniston, Will Ferrell, Cameron Diaz, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock and other stars pleaded in the video “for the children of Sandy Hook, we demand a plan.” But last week, before meeting with Vice President Biden about gun violence, former senator Chris Dodd, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, told The Hollywood Reporter, “What we don’t want to get involved with is content regulation. We’re vehemently opposed to that.”
The same day as the vice president’s well-publicized meeting with Hollywood bigwigs to discuss firearms and needless killing, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its Oscar nominations, with a majority of best picture choices (Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, Argo, Les Miserables and even the noble Lincoln) featuring scenes of expertly rendered gun violence. Last weekend’s big studio release Gangster Squad stars double-Oscar winner Sean Penn and deploys scores of assault weapons in a seemingly endless series of artfully choreographed blood baths.
As to the potential social impact of such excesses, the Entertainment Merchants Association, “dedicated to advancing the interest of the $35 billion home entertainment industry,” sent an open letter to Biden warning him against even investigating the linkage between movies, video games and real life violence.
No reasonable observer could claim that this connection counted as inevitable and direct — any more than a balanced view argues for a simplistic association between gun ownership and rates of real world brutality. With more firearms in private hands and with entertainment media relying as heavily as ever on violent imagery, the national murder rate has been cut by more than half in the past 30 years.
On the other hand, the notion that gory amusements in film, television and video games wield no influence at all also counts as scientifically unsupportable. The fact that violent entertainment doesn’t influence everybody doesn’t mean that it fails to influence anybody. The habits of prolific mass murderers — including the insane shooters at Columbine,Aurora and, apparently, Newtown — reveal a taste for brutal diversion.
What stars can do
To understand the nature of media influence, consider the example of television advertising. Luxury car companies such as Lexus and Audi spend tens of millions of dollars on commercials despite the fact that 99% of those who see these ads could never even consider the purchase of such expensive cars. Nonetheless, enough people across the country will feel swayed by the imagery on TV messages that they end up buying spiffy new rides. It’s that influence at the margins that can change a company’s bottom line, justifying very smart corporate honchos in their massive investment in media advertising.
After all, the Hollywood glitterati who assembled the “Demand a Plan” video supposed that their aesthetically accomplished advocacy could prod viewers into real world action: getting them to contact the White House to push for gun regulation. But how could they reasonably expect that a few minutes of imagery on the Internet could induce positive behavior but that thousands of hours of blood-soaked entertainment will never encourage destructive behavior?
Instead of begging for faraway bureaucracies to impose new regulations on other people’s handling of firearms, the influential Hollywood activists could impose new regulations on themselves — by refusing to handle guns of any kind in their own screen roles. Taking such a stand wouldn’t put an immediate end to incidents of mass killing, but it could draw public praise for courage and consistency while sending the welcome message that killing isn’t a healthy form of entertainment.
Yes, we can do better than this.