Michael Showalter: How Hollywood Contributes to a Culture of Violence (Guest Column)

Orlando Shooting
AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

After the worst shooting in U.S. history that left 49 people dead in an Orlando nightclub, writer-director Michael Showalter has been questioning what role Hollywood plays in the culture of violence and if the industry should be more careful about the images that appear in movies, TV shows and video games. Variety asked Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer”) to expand on those thoughts in a guest column.

I wrote a tweet on Sunday. It said, “Feeling angry at everyone including Hollywood movies that glorify violence. Liberal actors shooting guns left and right.
 Hypocritical.” Many responders accused me of laying blame on the wrong culprit. Of course the real culprit is the person who pulls the trigger, but I am angry. I am angry and looking everywhere for answers. Above all, I believe that gun control is an absolute imperative if we are to have any chance of survival as a civil society. But I do also believe that Hollywood films, television and video games contribute to an overall culture of violence that affects our society in negative ways.

As filmmakers, where do we draw our own lines? What kind of messages do we want to send? Shooting guns at people means something different today than it did 20 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago, last week.

I do not in any way subscribe to the notion that being continually subjected to images of graphic violence has no affect on our collective psyche. Just as our society is inundated with images that objectify women, we are inundated with images that glorify and fetishize gun violence. Can there be any doubt that these images have a cumulative effect on us?

People also responded that my tweet was an attack on the First Amendment. The First Amendment does not require us to say whatever we want without regard for the effects that it will have. To me, having freedom carries with it the obligation to use the freedom responsibly. Just because we CAN do something does not mean that we SHOULD. We can censor ourselves if we believe that doing so has value. We can hold ourselves accountable.

If we say we are against the exploitation of women are we not being hypocritical if we exploit women in our films? If we say we are against the marginalization of minorities are we not being hypocritical if we marginalize them in our films? If we say we are opposed to gun violence are we not being hypocritical when we glorify gun violence in our movies? Are we sending the message that guns are cool? Just like the old days of Bogey, James Dean and Cary Grant smoking cigarettes.

I am not in any way suggesting that we stop making action films, or stop depicting violence, or pretend that guns do not exist, or that Quentin Tarantino should start making rom-coms. I am only saying that we acknowledge that things have changed. The country needs to do something. Can we be part of the solution?

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  1. kwise says:

    HI Michael – I’m a professor who does research in this area. You should check out research by Craig Anderson at Iowa State, or Brad Bushman at Ohio State. Both do research on media violence and how it affects audiences – and it can! There are hundreds of studies supporting the arguments you make in this paper. They both have websites and articles that are very accessible to non-academics. Just thought i would point it out in case you follow up with future articles. Best of luck.

  2. Jeff Trenkle says:

    I firmly believe that what happened in Orlando happened because both Islam and Christianity, which both also teach not to kill, do indeed teach hatred of homosexuality… The problem with that is that both religions have people born into families that follow those religions and are homosexuals… Essentially, they teach some of their children to hate themselves…

    If Hollywood is a factor, it would be that climactic resolutions of story arcs often show the protagonist killing the antagonist, and it is a good and heroic outcome with a positive outcome for the protagonist, i.e. the solution to conflict is murder/killing.

    Movies can be written and shot about the toll that a soul often pays after taking a life… Some have been made already.

    Motion pictures help unify the human family, they create platforms for discussion. They are not intrinsically good or bad, yet motion pictures can be very powerful.

    I definitely see Mr. Showalter’s point.

  3. Ben Kabak says:

    it’s Hollywoods fault that Islam wants to wipe out the West? Seriously?

  4. bhktops says:

    Maybe people will be upset with me too. What’s the big deal now? Why didn’t Hollywood, Washington, Chicago, LA and New York have a moment of silence for BANG a child killed, lured into an alley as payback to his father BANG teenage girl is killed after getting back from President Obama’s 2nd inauguration BANG BANG man eating breakfast gets killed in the kitchen table after a bullets come into the window BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANGBANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANGBANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANGBANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANGBANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANGBANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG

    This comes from multiple sources and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence
    89 People die from gun violence every day: 31 are murdered, 55 kill themselves, 2 are killed unintentionally, 1 is killed by police intervention, 1 intent unknown.

    SPIKE LEE last year on Meet the Press talking about his movie Chiraq , “It’s not a black thing, poor thing, gay thing, city thing, rural thing, it’s a gun thing. I do not know the answer, Fr. Pfleger here in Chicago doesn’t know the answer.”

  5. WaSal says:

    While Seeking some humor in our already melancholy state of the union, I rented a movie last night.. ZOOLANDER 2. I’M NOT NAIVE.. BUT I KNOW THERE IS ALWAYS ANOTHER WAY TO TELL A STORY…..For example, I COULD’VE SAID “SHOOT A SCENE DIFFERENTLY”…… I like Ben Stiller & Co. I’M DISAPPOINTED & DISMAYED IN HIM AND HIS CHOICES …I was quickly introduced again to the HOLLYWOOD FASCINATION WITH GUN VIOLENCE with the beginning scene of the execution of Justin Beiber. It was just plain wrong. I dont like him either, and can think of other ways for his demise, THERE IS NO REASON FOR THE SLO-MOTION REPETITIVE SHOOTING AND EXPLODING BLOOD SPILLING SCENE…..I was REMINDED OF THE SENSELESS MURDER OF THE SINGER IN ORLANDO 2 days before….I BELIEVE & FEEL AS I DID WHEN I SAW THIS SCENE, HOLLYWOOD NEEDS TO MONITOR & REIN IN THE UNNECESSARY AND ALL TOO GRATUITOUS VIOLENCE AND THE NEED TO HOLD A GUN JUST TO HOLD MOVIEGOERS’ ATTENTION! NOT AT ALL EMPATHIC WITH WHAT IS GOING ON IN THE MOVIE GOING POPULATION & THE WORLD ….. Then I woke up to The PULSE SHOOTING….I AM NOT NAIVE. THERE WILL ALWAYS BE GUNS IN MOVIES and PARENTS will demonstrate their poor judgment (Deadpool)…BUTJUST MAYBE A LITTLE LESS GRAPHIC SHOOTINGS.
    Never bothered to finish the movie and no wonder it failed. Notice i didnt say bombed…Then I woke up to THE PULSE SHOOTING . So……one lone wolf & one fanatic celebrity stalker…Impressionable & different but TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN OR……. GUN.

  6. There is one GLARING problem with this notion: Violent Hollywood movies and TV shows are shown ALL OVER THE WORLD. Violent video games are played ALL OVER THE WORLD. As someone pointed out, Japan, France and other countries in Europe all have violent horror and action films that make a lot of the more mainstream Hollywood fare look tame in comparison. Yet mass shootings are VERY RARE anywhere else in the world. It seems to be an American phenomenon. Why is that? Oh, that’s right: Lax gun laws.

  7. Robert says:

    I appreciate where the writer is coming from. However, I’d say the answer to “Can we be part of the solution?” is a simple “no.” As with most things in our lives, everything begins at home. America, from the time before it was a nation right up to this current date, has always been a violent country. Movies do not create the violence we see in our society. It is our society that is inherently violent.

    The solution to the madness we are witnessing around us is not something Hollywood filmmakers can be expected to resolve for us. It is our responsibility, individually and collectively, to create a peaceful society if that is what we truly want. It takes all of us, but it starts at the beginning, it starts at home. Unfortunately, we teach ourselves and our kids that peace is for wussies and love equals profound weakness. Might is right. It’s a “I’m gonna get mine however I can, and to Hades with everyone else” kind of thing we push down the throats of our children. Thus is birthed the slide toward violence. Does this nation not demonstrate that point globally every single day? Add to this a dose of any one or more of the Abrahamic religions to ensure the masses remain utterly riled, frightened of reality, and completely screwed up, and there you have it. Hate eventually ensues, and the rest eventually manifests to become headlines. Maybe we need to start there.

    Movies are movies; they are not the solution to anything except providing some entertainment for folks after a long week of wage-slaving for the machine. But movies can also be very cathartic for an audience, and that is a very helpful thing in itself. So if you want to be “part of the solution” in the abstract, as a filmmaker, just keep making entertaining movies for us (that is, good movies, please!). Who can really ask for more than that from the filmmaking community?

  8. Caleb says:

    Most people don’t give Christopher Nolan credit. After the aurora shootings he made a giant blockbuster in which not a single gun is shot. Interstellar may have its detractors, but few people praise it for taking a bold chance in offering a different option for thrills and bombast and deserves another look for being one of the few Hollywood movies that attempts social responsibility.

    • Steve R says:

      What a saint. Thank God he’s not following it up with a movie set during the second world war, featuring more guns than people. Oh wait…

      In other news “Most people don’t give Christopher Nolan credit” might be the most ludicrous sentence on the internet.

  9. vince says:

    This exact type of article came out after columbine, after aurora, after all of them. it’s a bogus, dumb suggestion and more of the normal fare blame article. no, we’re not going to stop making movies. these are surface solutions like this aren’t the problem. you’re asking the wrong questions. it all comes down to the broken individual and the the beginning of the path that led them to decide to do what they did.

    • giantELF says:

      This is the exact same “bougus” and “dumb” comment that comes after someone – anyone – makes a suggestion that we do something or take ownership and look at ourselves and the society we have created.

      These are the kind of comments that maintain the status quo because it’s easer to say “yes. I agree. Let’s do nothing in the name of (fill in the blank) freedom.” Instead of asking hard questions and making tough choices.

      Read the article again Vince. Mr. Showalter is not saying that movies are “the problem.” He explicitly says they are not. He acknowledges that they are contributing to it – in defense of a twee. And to deny that they are not contributing to a culture of violence is silly.

      Those kinds of attitudes lead to the simplistic yet popular candidacies of fascists like Trump and idealists like Sanders.

      It;s time for action.

  10. Lex says:

    The industry is pretty tired. It’s just how ‘explicit can we make it’ rather than ‘how good can we make it’. There’s so many shows like this. It’s just sad. I see people getting their heads cut off on television and it’s really distracting. I remember seeing Robocop and how violent it was. It was good and every movie wasn’t like it. Now it seem most tv shows and r-rated movies are violent like that. Do most of the shows have to be like that?

  11. Vin says:

    Every other 1st world country receives the same American films/TV released in the US and some have locals films that are even MORE violent, like Japan and France – SHOW ME THEIR WEEKLY MASS SHOOTINGS.

  12. Dave J says:

    “Can we be part of the solution?” It’s called stop allowing ppl with radical and extremist views to have any dangerous weapons!

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