We are marinating in violence. Real or fictional, we are up to our eyeballs in aggression, anger and angst. From the evening news to the latest blockbusters, we are surrounded by stories using violence as the means to resolve conflict.
It seems that every week a mass shooting occurs or an ultra-violent film opens. Occasionally, events in the two worlds collide, and the fictional script is quickly nixed to avoid any possible controversy. Following the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Universal pulled the theatrical release of “The Hunt,” a film described in Variety as one “in which rural white conservatives are targeted for death by a group of liberal elites.” Writing for Fortune, Scott Mendelson noted the hypocritical nature of the decision to pull this release while allowing countless other, larger films also loaded with violence to head to the local multiplex. He suggested pulling the plug on “The Hunt” was an expedient business decision made to minimize any possible risk to future pictures. It was a shrewd financial calculation rather than an attempt at social responsibility.
These events were closely followed by the release of the new “Joker” movie, which has been characterized as offering a sympathetic origin story for its unhinged protagonist. In the days leading up to the opening of the film, the families and friends of victims of the Aurora, Colo., shooting wrote a letter expressing their concern to Warner Bros. In turn, the studio issued a statement saying, in part, “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”
But whether the players involved intended to present the character as a hero is irrelevant. The meaning or interpretation of a message always resides with the receiver. Intent is neither an explanation nor an excuse for the content that providers unleash on the world.
Finding films and television programs that offer nonviolent resolutions to conflict can be a challenge. The 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” provides such an alternative. The film reminds us how masterful and effective Fred Rogers was at talking to children about difficult topics, including how to handle their feelings of frustration and anger. The song “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?” encourages children to own their feelings and to take control of them: “It’s great to be able to stop, when you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong, and be able to do something else instead. … I can stop when I want to, can stop when I wish. I can stop, stop, stop any time.” Mister Rogers’ lyrics offer a positive plan of action when children — and even adults — feel frustrated by a world that doesn’t give us exactly what we want, when we want it.
The upcoming Marielle Heller film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, is likely to echo these themes.
This is not an argument in favor of censorship — a red herring if ever there was one — but rather a plea for greater creativity and variety in our storytelling. Violence has been a part of fictional stories since the invention of the written word. The fact that it can be an effective element of storytelling is not new, but its ubiquity is. Violence has become a creative cop-out, crutch and cliché. A tired formula intended to appeal to the global marketplace.
Moreover, the context surrounding these messages has changed. We have never lived in a country in which guns are so readily available and ideology is spread on the internet. We have never lived in a country in which our news reports are filled with weekly stories of the latest mass shooting, and proceed to turn those with grievances and a penchant for fame into celebrities. As Fred Rogers knew, executives and members of the creative community can change this trajectory by finding more varied ways to resolve conflict on screen. We can stop, stop, stop when we want.
Dr. Martha M. Lauzen is the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University.