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

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.


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