Demand a plan.
That is the rally cry of a recent, celebrity-packed advertisement calling for an end to gun violence in the United States. The black-and-white spot features an impressive array of actors and other A-list celebrities entreating the public to “act now” to make the country safer. The superstars invoke the memory of mass shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, and, most recently, Newtown.
But a YouTube spoof reveals a glaring contradiction in the celebrity appeal. The parody takes each actor from the “Demand A Plan” ad and intersperses movie clips of those same actors unleashing on-screen chaos and bloodshed with handguns, automatic rifles and other military-grade weapons.
The inconsistency between the “Demand A Plan” plea and the prevalent on-screen violence now a staple in Hollywood highlights the disconnect media critics blame for encouraging real-life acts of violence. While celebrities demand new laws to keep people safe, critics say viewers should hold movie and television producers accountable for glorifying gun violence on screen.
A recent nationwide survey of parents commissioned by Common Sense Media and the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, found that 75 percent of parents say shielding children from violence is tough. Three-quarters of those parents blame this on easy access to guns, but 77 percent said violent content in TV, film, and video games, contributes to “America's culture of violence.”
Of the 1,050 parents surveyed, the majority also said addressing real-life violence will require action on violence in the media. They told pollsters they believed “the media has the power to help change America’s culture of violence.”
But many of Hollywood’s biggest names don’t agree. Quentin Tarantino, who helmed the recent, extraordinarily violent film Django Unchained, has downplayed the impact of violent films and TV shows. Robert Greenblatt, the man behind the violent series Dexter and a new series on the notorious killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter, doesn’t see much of a connection either.
"I'm not a psychologist, so I'm not sure you can make the leap that a show about serial killers has caused the sort of problems with violence in our country," he told the Associated Press. "There are many, many other factors, from mental illness to guns."
But Ted Baehr, chairman and CEO for the Christian Film and Television Commission, says 99 percent of studies done on the subject claim the media does contribute to real-life violence. Baehr used TV advertising as an example: If people think they can sell cars with television ads (and they do) then clearly what people see on screen has an impact on them. Baehr believes a small, but potentially significant, percentage of the population is susceptible enough to media violence that they might want to copy it.
Although he thinks something needs to be done about the amount of violence in TV and film, Baehr doesn’t advocate for more regulation.
“Something does need to happen, but it is not the government’s responsibility—that’s messing with free speech, and anytime free speech gets taken away it backfires,” he said. “So what do you do? We have to teach people to choose the good and reject the bad. We have to get pastors in churches to speak up, we have to restore people’s faith in values.”
If viewers start asking for them, the media will produce more family-friendly films because that is where the audience, and their money, is headed, Baehr said.
Despite current calls for a reduction of violence in the media, Lisa Swain, a film professor at Biola University, doesn’t think viewers will stop watching action flicks.
“I don’t see the media changing all that much,” she said. “What will happen is there will be a short-term awareness of gun violence but it won’t change much, there is too much of a market for it.”
Although not convinced audiences will demand more gentle content, Swain, like Baehr, believes viewers hold the key to lasting change. But the focus should be on creating compelling stories with a message of integrity, she said: “We keep coming back to story because we find it such a useful tool to help us learn how to navigate our world— we get so much more out of it than we lose, and some violence is a part of it. There is exploitation of it by the corporate world, but it is only part of what happens.”