Five more on Kick-Ass, Part 5

[UPDATE: For the first twelve hours this post was online, somehow an earlier draft went live, instead of the final version. I’ve just restored the autosaved final draft. So this post looks different than it did ten minutes (or ten hours) ago.]

ORIGINAL POST: This is the final post in a series that began with Part 1. I recommend beginning there, and following the links at the end of each section to work through the following posts in the series (of which there will be five).


Here we are, at the end of an evisceration. Feels like the end of the movie Kick-Ass, actually: covered in gore, surveying my handiwork, I find one more sacred cow to slaughter.

Let’s get to it then.

The core claim here is embedded in this passage:

The standard defense of such material is that we are watching “cartoon violence,” but, when filmmakers nudge a child into viewing savagery as slapstick, are we not allowing them to do what we condemn in the pornographer—that is, to coarsen and inflame?

I’ll rephrase that stuff about coarsening and enflaming as the following:

Pornography and violence in film both have a demonstrably negative influence on the viewer, especially when the viewer is a child.

Sacred cows make the best hamburgers.

Despite what [some] radical feminists argue, studies show that the viewing of pornography doesn’t in fact seem [necessarily] to coarsen one. Whatever individuals may personally feel about pornography and violence in media, the scientific evidence points — in most of the creditable discussions I’ve read about — towards two things:

  1. People are much more likely to assume others are more profoundly affected by media than themselves, and
  2. There’s a mixed bag of evidence for whether violence or sexuality in media can reasonably be said to trigger any such behaviour among people in the real world.

(Both points are discussed here, and the evidence against a link between porn and sex crimes is discussed here. No, these aren’t the most creditable discussions I’ve seen, those were in person with people who knew their stuff. The links are what the internet offers as evidence for my position.)

For point number 1, I can simply point to the example of the Christian evangelicals who keep insisting that, for example, homosexuality is a choice, a decision. Uh, really? Because, like, if homosexuality is a choice, that suggests someone could simply opt to have homosexual relations, or heterosexual ones, the way we opt to wear this or that shirt on a given day.

That’s not my experience of my sexuality. I am attracted to women. I am… well, I don’t need to put all the lurid details up. Suffice it to say, I am attracted to women, and can envision being in a sexual relationship with a woman; on the other hand, I simply cannot envision being in one with a man. Nothing against men, I just don’t find myself attracted to them.

I know some people aren’t like this. I’ve heard many times (and suspect msyelf) that sexuality may well exist on a spectrum, not polar opposites. But my experience isn’t like this, and I also don’t experience myself as a zombie hypnotized by my culture. I know instinct when I feel it, as distinct from those pressures I feel within about things I’ve been socialized to do. Thus I don’t make the inference that homosexuality, somehow completely unlike my own heterosexuality, is a “choice” — at least, not in the sense we usually use the word “choice.”

That being said, one has to wonder how Christian evangelicals experience their own sexuality. Perhaps the old stereotype is true that the most virulently anti-gay people are really just deeply closeted, deeply self-hating, deeply-repressed homosexuals themselves. Or maybe, for some of them, it’s just a case of being deeply and profoundly out of touch with their own selves, their own experience of their sexuality.

Or, most likely of all, whether or not the two above points are true, the fact that large numbers of people assert this suggests that they think of others’ consciousness and experience as being fundamentally different from their own consciousness and experience. They worry that while their own gazing upon D&D books or listening to rock songs hasn’t driven them crazy, others might be at great risk from even the slightest exposure to such things. They worry that exposure to pornography drives men to rape and murder and do horrid things, even though they themselves can, in the right situations, say, form critical circles of activists and view pornography for the purposes of critique, but not risk being driven crazy by it.

(I’m not making up the last example: it’s mentioned somewhere during the BBC Documentary Angry Wimmin — part of a 3-part series called Lefties which examined the radical left in the 70s and 80s. Yes, not from an unbiased angle, but watching the whole thing, I can’t help but see how neurosis, personal trauma, and inability to adapt to social life can be folded up into ideology that makes much less sense to the average, relatively healthy person.)

For the second point, it’s very simply: the jury is still out on whether violence or sex in films actually causes more violence or sex in the world. There is a lot of evidence, as I linked above, that suggests more consumption of pornography correlates with — and may cause — less sex crime. As for violence, it’s the same deal: I urge viewing that Stephen Pinker video I posted a few days back, here. People have lots of examples of people who saw something violent and snapped. But they very tacitly ignore the fact that the overwhelmingly huge majority of people who see violent films full of murder and mayhem don’t go out and commit violent acts of murder and mayhem.

Take a walk out in the streets and look for yourself… well, depending on where you live. (But I doubt that, if any reader happens to live in Detroit, that what you see out there is a result of Hollywood, since the same films watched in the ruins of Motor City are showing in Milwaukee and in Seattle and in Denver, Colorado.) As one commenter on the post with the Pinker video, also named Stephen (but no relation), pointed out on the comments section of that post I linked in the paragraph above , there are social technologies that delegitimize unsanctioned forms of violence. But it may well be that the enactment of violence in fantasy is indeed another one of those technologies, just as violent rituals in rites of passage (like public circumcisions) are thought to serve as training in how to handle not just pain but also stress, rage, and the sensation of being emotionally overwhelmed.

Now, I am not going to say that children ought to be given hardcore porn to watch, or that kids ought to be watching deeply violent films. I really think it’s probably not good for little kids, and it’s not the sort of thing parents should be springing onto their little ones. I can attest, as someone of unusual sensitivity, that seeing the movie The Exorcist scarred me as a child. And I don’t mean in the way most people mean when they say “scarred.” I mean, I couldn’t sleep for a week, and had terrors for weeks. I was terrified of going into the basement alone for months, was afraid of the dark for probably as long, and to be honest even today, twenty years later, the very thought of the film has me shivering, has my hair standing on end. Some people are more susceptible than others to shock. Some people are less so.

(I can watch pretty horrifying and violent films now with nary a twinge — though the Saw series have proved too much for me — but I’m pretty sure that’s a learned or acquired tolerance, and one much more easily learned when one is a bit older than I was at the time I saw The Exorcist.)

And I’ll admit that it makes sense, intuitively, that humans might emulate what they see in media. After all, humans are memetic creatures: we learn, very often, by imitation, and Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine (which was on my mind recently) has, in its much-less-speculative earlier sections, a pretty convincing discussion of how important mimetic ability has been in natural selection among humans.

But it does not follow that humans automatically cannot differentiate reality from fantasy. It does not necessarily follow that humans would mimetically apply fantasy responses to real-life situations willy-nilly. (They might, or fantasy situations might awaken them to possible actions they might not otherwise encounter, but they don’t become automatons that simply enact what they have seen. At least, that’s not my experience of media; nor, I suspect, is it the experience of most human beings.) When we talk about media and mimesis, the assumption is that smart people (ourselves) are fully able to differentiate the fantasy from the reality, and dumb people (ie. everyone besides oneself) cannot tell the difference.

What I’d argue is that in fact, the mimesis that anyone mentally balanced engages in after seeing any form of media is primarily fantastical. Ever notice that films are almost recognizable in many cases? Almost a remix of another film you saw, a few years ago? Yes, it’s formula; yes, it’s corporations screwing up creativity. But it’s also a function of human mimesis. We’ve evolved to copy one another almost perfectly… but not quite. Which is how little innovations develop, and how things move forward. Everyone will tell you, Shakespeare ripped off an earlier version of the Hamlet story. But they’ll also tell you that the original wasn’t as good as the remix.

(Okay, sure, Hollywood has also made a lot of mediocre films out of great Philip K. Dick stories… not all movement is forward. But listen, you’re reading this on a machine that uses numbers to send words and pictures around the world in moments, okay? We have moved forward in important ways.)

Well, this kind of mimesis isn’t just happening on the level of content creators like artists, authors, and filmmakers. It’s all around us: people will tell locker room stories that are scripted off porn films. They will tell stories of inspiring people that are modeled on the stories of saints, or local heroes, or other “inspirational individuals” — or even modeled on the life stories of religious figures in their culture. The pimply white teenager with his jeans falling down and his cap sideways was acting out on his fantasies, but given a sane legislative handling of firearms (like we had in Canada when I was a teenager) those boys were not busting caps into anyone’s asses, except in their fantasies.

The thing that people who blame actions of media fail to recognize is that humans who actually go out emulate violent media almost certainly have a preexisting propensity for violence. (Like this guy does. Warning: Pretty horrible video.) The enactment of rape or murder on the big screen does not set off a spate of murders and rapes. People do emulate fashions they see in media — at least, a few early adapters do, and others follow them like a herd of sheep follows a bellwether; that makes sense, it’s reinforced by long aeons of wanting to fit into the group, to be attractive to a mate, and so on. But transgressive acts of violence are things that natural selection has conditioned humans to be very careful and cagey about, as it can signal dysfunction and therefore signal the need to be eliminated from the community — whether by imprisonment, exile, or execution.

So what are we left with, at the end of this analysis? The conclusion that, basically, the critic is talking through his hat, trying to show off how bloody clever he is with all kinds of big words and broad linkages between objections to the film, and nevermind that it’s founded on bullshit. He’s made his hundreds of bucks of his half-assed film review, and off to the next thing.

That’s what I think of that criticism.

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