The Wrong Way to Talk About Violence in Movies

Harvey Weinstein wants less carnage in films. But "less" and "more" aren't helpful terms when answering questions of how on-screen mayhem influences real-world mayhem.
The Weinstein Company

Harvey Weinstein has produced some exceedingly violent films, including Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. But now, as he begins work on an anti-NRA film starring Meryl Streep, Weinstein has had a change of heart. "I have to choose movies that aren’t violent or as violent as they used to be," he said. "I know for me personally, you know, I can’t continue to do that … I can’t make one movie and say this is what I want for my kids and then just go out and be a hypocrite.”

Weinstein's stance has garnered some praise, most notably from Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. But while O'Hehir congratulates Weinstein for his stance, he also points out that "no one really understands the whole question of media violence and its relationship (if any) to actual violence." There's no reason to think that America will become less violent, he says, simply because Weinstein stops producing Tarantino films.

O'Hehir is certainly correct that direct links between media violence and real-life violence are hard to prove. Still, it is possible to find some evidence about the relationship between the two. That evidence is, however, conflicted. It doesn't blanket condemn movie violence, nor does it show that such violence is irrelevant. Rather, it suggests that if you want to see the effect of violence in film, you need to look not just at the film, but at its context.

One study that did find a link between movies and violence, for example, was Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna's paper "Does Movie Violence Increase Violent Crime?" The authors looked at patterns of violent crimes during evenings that violent movies were shown. In their words:

We find that violent crime decreases on days with larger theater audiences for violent movies. The effect is partly due to voluntary incapacitation: between 6PM and 12AM, a one million increase in the audience for violent movies reduces violent crime by 1.1 to 1.3 percent. After exposure to the movie, between 12AM and 6AM, violent crime is reduced by an even larger percent. This finding is explained by the self-selection of violent individuals into violent movie attendance, leading to a substitution away from more volatile activities. In particular, movie attendance appears to reduce alcohol consumption.

The main viewers of violent films are young men. Young men are also disproportionately responsible for violence. If large numbers of young men are sitting and watching a violent film, they aren't going to be committing robberies or vandalism or hooliganism or murder. They also aren't going to be drinking alcohol, which can lead to violence. So, Dahl and DellaVigna show, the immediate result of violent films is to reduce violent crime. If Weinstein wants to reduce violence, shelving Tarantino films is exactly the wrong way to do it.

So, violent films lead to less violence? Well, not exactly. In his memoir A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah, who was forced to become a child soldier in the terrible Sierra Leone civil war of the 1990s, writes about how violent media was part of his training regimen. Rambo: First Blood, Rambo II, and Commando were screened in constant rotation, a supplement to the drugs the children were given to encourage them in battle. "We all wanted to be like Rambo; we couldn't wait to implement his techniques," Beah writes. In one incident, Beah's friend Alhaji says he wants to practice his Rambo moves, then sneaks into an enemy camp and starts slitting the throats of the guards. Violent films here inspired real-life violence. They were part of a deliberate system that turned children into killers.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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