Movie critic Ann Hornaday’s Washington Post column, linking the California gunman to Hollywood, has proven controversial. And not for the usual reasons. Her primary error was seeming to implicate the works of Judd Apatow — a move that drew the scorn of conservative writer Ed Morrissey, among others.
Hornaday invites this criticism, but it would be a shame if it overshadowed her larger point: That Hollywood creates a toxic worldview that influences vulnerable and impressionable people.
To be sure, Hornaday’s notion that the entertainment world’s values are an inexorable result of films being created mostly by “white men” — not the logical conclusion of films being created largely by peddlers of a consumerist and nihilistic culture — is where we part ways. White men are not, I would argue, genetically predestined to produce misogynistic or sexist (or otherwise horrific) films.
But Hornaday does make a valid (and some would say courageous) point about the way movies can and do influence us. (In this case, the fact that the shooter’s father was a director and cinematographer of some consequence makes the connection a bit easier.)
This may be her most important graf:
Movies may not reflect reality, but they powerfully condition what we desire, expect and feel we deserve from it. The myths that movies have been selling us become even more palpable at a time when spectators become their own auteurs and stars on YouTube, Instagram and Vine. If our cinematic grammar is one of violence, sexual conquest and macho swagger — thanks to male studio executives who green-light projects according to their own pathetic predilections — no one should be surprised when those impulses take luridly literal form in the culture at large.
There are, of course, a myriad of factors involved in something like this, including the availability of weapons, mental health, parental guidance, etc. Nobody serious would suggest that a perfectly well-adjusted person would see a TV show and then suddenly snap. But the notion that media cannot — does not — over the course of decades, sell a certain weltanschauung seems an absurd argument — undermined by the billions in advertising dollars spent by large companies to get us to purchase their products (and don’t get me started on product placement). If they can sell products, they can sell ideas. (In fact, they usually use the latter to sell the former; people don’t buy widgets, they buy freedom or sex or…whatever.)
(The irony, of course, is that Hollywood is, as previously noted, largely run by liberals — the very people who, in many cases, make a lot of money glamorizing the very values they will later condemn if one were to act them out in real life. For more on that, see my post on Game of Thrones.)
None of this, of course, is a new idea. In fact, conservative columnist Mike Adams echoes much Hornaday’s take. Both mention American Psycho, but Adams also brings in other examples, including Dexter. Citing [murderer Elliot] Rodger’s manifesto, Adams concludes that “Rodger sees himself playing the morally justified role of killing women who deserve to be killed, in his own mind.” “Although he is clearly twisted and demented at some level,” Adams continues, “TV shows like Dexter drive home the message that ‘it’s okay to kill people if they deserve it.’” The real question then becomes who decides who deserves it.
It’s probably dangerous to hypothetically implicate specific movies or shows or directors. But it is, I would argue, fair to raise questions about the culture and the media industrial complex.
There may very well be positive and negative externalities that come from the “products” Hollywood sells. To be sure, the vast majority of us are able to watch Breaking Bad and enjoy the complex well-produced story, without deciding to go into the meth business. We might even be inspired to grapple with some complex questions that need grappling with.
I’m not suggesting we ought to run only Leave it to Beaver episodes, on the off chance that a mentally disturbed person might tune in to Hill Street Blues and go on a rampage. We shouldn’t let a deranged lunatic force us to surrender our First Amendment protections any more than we would allow him to force us to surrender the Second Amendment freedoms.
But what I am suggesting that freedom comes with responsibilities, and that culture has consequences. And a culture that spends decades selling consumerism and violence shouldn’t be surprised to have to deal with the results. Ideas, as they say, have consequences.