Natural Born Killers
Violence is a constant on our screens whether it be an anvil falling on a cartoon character, a war zone on the news, a fight in an action movie or a pub brawl in a soap opera. But does this screen violence produce behavioural effects in the viewers? This is one of the most frequent and heatedly debated arguments in mass media. Is it the case that audiences are effected by what they see and that the producers of media texts are instigating or increasing violent behaviour, or do audiences have the ability to understand what they have seen without being overly influenced? It has to be ascertained as to whether audiences are passive or active. This subject has caused controversy within several of different schools of thought and ideologies over the years. They have either wide or only slight variations of opinion so it is difficult to come to one definite conclusion as each one also has valid and understandable explanations. It is difficult to deny that 'the whole point of communicating is to influence one another by conveying information' (Vine, 1997), but to what extent does this influence take control? To investigate this matter and come to a conclusion as to whether or not screen violence does instigate violent behaviour in the reader, we will be critically looking at two of the major ideological models as well as using some specific media texts to validate and/or criticise these theories. First there is the Hypodermic Needle or Hypodermic Syringe effect. This theory has it's root in 1950's America when dominant businesses and the then government wanted to discover how far the public were influenced by what they saw on television. The Hypodermic Theory came from this Media Effects model, which had a heavy emphasis in psychology. Businesses and the government alike wanted to know how much 'media is supposedly 'injected' into the consciousness of an audience' via television (Price, 1993). They wanted to know if through this relatively new medium the public could be persuaded unquestioningly to, for example, vote for a certain political party or buy a specific brand of washing powder. The Hypodermic model proposes that the media has a very direct and extremely immediate effect on the general public, who accept the injected message without question due to their passiveness. It is the idea that producers of media texts can persuade us to do what ever they want and we will unquestionably comply. When we bring the subject of violence into this field, a follower of this ideology would say that the violent behaviour witnessed on screen would be influentially accepted by the audience without question. For example, if a reader was shown the notorious and much discussed film 'Natural Born Killers' (Oliver Stone 1994), the Hypodermic model would say that due to it's alleged glamorization of motiveless violence, where the main protagonists are seen as romantic folk heroes who get away with their crimes in the end, the reader would simply take in the message, accept it and then violent behaviour would stem from that. 'Natural Born Killers' is notable for the fact that the story spins the idea of heroes and villains onto its head. Traditionally those who commit the violence are the villains who are punished for their crimes, while the police are seen as heroes who save the day. In this instance the police are overly violent, indeed one of them is a murderer himself, and these authority figures end up being punished. The main characters of Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harelson and Juliette Lewis) are the 'natural born killers' who violently slaughter without apparent reason, yet due to Mallory's abusive upbringing and witty one-liners they gain sympathy and, in a sense, likability. One of the Hypodermic model's faults is that it assumes the audience will take in what they've seen and will be influenced by it in a negative way. There are positive aspects which can influence but these are largely over-shadowed and conveniently forgotten. This model would say that the confused messages of right and wrong within 'Natural Born Killers' would inject the reader to accept the violence of the film and then imitate the behaviour. If the killers had been seen ultimately punished in the end, it would be a positive reading, as the reader would know not to mimic as punishment is where that behaviour leads. Ultimately it is children who are seen to be the most at risk from these effects. David Buckingham suggests that children are regarded as not being mentally equipped to understand that what they see is not what they should do: 'Thus imitative violence, which has remained the central focus of anxiety in such debates, is largely seen as arising from the inability to distinguish between fiction and reality. Children copy what they see on television because they lack the experience and the intellectual capacities that might enable them to see through the illusion of reality which the medium provides.' (Buckingham, ed. Barker and Petley, 1997, p33) But it is not just children who need protecting, according to the Hypodermic model. Another problem arises for the Hypodermic Needle when one considers a text which has a message, but the majority of readers see another message to the one intended. An example of this are John Ford's westerns, such as 'The Searchers'. Viewers have read messages of violence, racism and sexism within his films, yet Ford denies he put them there in the first place. The Hypodermic model says that what the producer of the text intends the message to be is exactly what they say it is and nothing else, as the audience is passive and they will all receive the same message. But even if Ford did intend those messages to be the ones read this does not mean that his viewers are influenced to become violent, racist sexists. This theory's major failure is that it does not take who the audience is into consideration. It sees the population as one mass, all intellectually and culturally the same. It makes great assumptions that everyone of us who watches violence on the screen will receive the same messages and violent behaviour will ensue. It does not take into consideration the fact that not everybody thinks or reacts the same. For example, someone who works in the police force will react differently to someone who does not when watching 'The Bill'. They become active readers as they bring more to the reading than someone who has not experienced what is being portrayed on screen. If we did not bring our own life experiences and individuality to a reading, then everyone who has watched 'Natural Born Killers' would have all come away with exactly the same impression and this would have instigated violent behaviour. If people were simply passive and accepted everything they saw on the screen and let it influence their behaviour without questioning it, then they would have all become violent to the extreme after watching that film, something which we know is simply not the case. And it is women, children and the working class who are seen as vulnerable as they are assumed to be intellectually inferior, while those who study the effects, white middle class males, are somehow above being effected by the media. Surly this only goes towards what they say is the reality if the subject as it is they who say readers as a mass will be effected, so by discluding themselves they are disproving their own theory. Stuart Price (1993) indicates that despite this 'moral campaigners' still hold onto this theory with 'posthumous support', and that to some extent it is a simple way for them to criticise and explain something they do not like or fully understand. The second model we will look at differs greatly from the Hypodermic one, in that it focuses more on the reader. In the 1950's Katz and Lazersfield started a school of thought which transformed the question of 'how the media effects the reader', to 'what the reader does with the media'. This is what is known as Uses and Gratifications. Price (1993) explains this as identifying specific groups empirically. Groups must be looked at to see how many people there are within them, as well as their ages, gender, occupation, leisure pursuits, social status and so on. This differs from the Hypodermic model as it sees groups within society as opposed to society as a mass of isolated, identical individuals. In this model who and what a person are is the key to how they use the media text and what gratification they attain from it. This brings in the idea that an individual, because of who they are and where in society they have come from, will react differently to a text. This was touched on earlier when discussing 'The Bill'. An individual, depending on who they are, will have a different reading of a text. Regarding something with the high violence content of 'Natural Born Killers', it helps build personal identity in that the reader sees it and knows what not to be like. The reader can judge between what is right and what is wrong. Our society rightfully condemns the behaviour of the characters and as active members of that society so do we. We do not try to emulate them, even if when watching it is a diversion and form of escapism, but that is it and nothing more. It is not reality and we accept that. And the fact that readers watch the film and do not automatically become more violent clearly gives this backing. However, a major problem is that this model does not take the actual media text into extreme consideration; everything is the reader. It does not examine the mode of production or what the producers original messages were, simply the way they are read. Again, in the example of 'Natural Born Killers', it would not take into consideration the messages director Oliver Stone makes about the way the media could influence society. It is, in many ways, the opposite problem from the Hypodermic Needle, but in conjunction with that theory one can see that it is not enough to say that violence on the screen causes violent behaviour. In conclusion, if screen violence produces behavioural effects on viewers, therefore creating a more violent society, it would be more evident in our everyday lives. Images of violence are all around us in many forms of the media. If we were all effected in the same way then everyone would have the same reaction. If everyone reacted to and mimicked behaviour seen on the screen then our society would be one of constant violence in every situation imaginable. This is simply not the case. The James Bulger murder where two young boys caused the death of a toddler by supposedly mimicking a scene from the violent horror film 'Child's Play III' has been blamed on screen violence. However there was no evidence, as Martin Barker (1997) explains, that the boys had actually seen that film even though that is what the press latched onto. So where the effects of screen violence were blamed there were more than likely other elements which helped bring the situation into existence. More than just what such individuals watch has to be taken into consideration, but also who they are and where they have come from. If it was simply that violence on the screen instigated violent behaviour and nothing more, what of other cases such as Mary Bell, a girl who killed two very young children. She had not seen 'Child's Play' or 'Natural Born Killers', but had experienced real life abuse at the hands of her mother. It takes more than just watching violence on the screen to cause it. An individual may watch a violent film and then perform the acts in real life, but one would then have to look at what they, as a reader, originally brought to the reading. Another case Barker (1997) highlights is that of a man who killed his child thinking he and his wife were the biblical Joseph and Mary after watching the biblical epic 'King of Kings'. While having violent content nowhere near that of 'Natural Born Killers', it shows that what the reader was bringing to the text was not the 'normal' reading of the majority of people and that more of who he was should be looked into than simply blaming the film, as it seems ridiculous to suggest that was the original message meant by the film makers. It is too little to say that screen violence produces behavioural effects as it is a generalization. Also behaviour does not seem to be the correct word. When watching violence people react emotionally in different ways, not behaviourally. A reader may be appalled by the graphic and bloody violence of 'Natural Born Killers', exhilarated during a hand to hand combat in 'Rocky' or even amused by the over-the-top slapstick violence of 'The Three Stooges'. The message of the maker of the text, the text itself and who the audiences are as individuals are all as equally important as each other, and so all have to be taken into consideration. One without the other two is not enough, as we have learnt since the Hypodermic Needle Effect was first proposed that it takes more than just screen violence and screen violence alone to produce behavioural effects on viewers.