At moments like these, Hollywood prefers to play to type—dumb.
Who us? We just hold up a mirror to society. If you don’t like the cartoonish sex and stylized hyper-violence you see on the screen, don’t blame us. Blame yourselves.
Which is a fine enough line—offered by creative types for centuries whenever life has appeared to imitate art—except that one can’t help but notice that the image in the mirror has been getting uglier and uglier. If all you knew was what you saw in the movies and on TV, you could be forgiven for assuming that wild shootouts are a regular feature of American life. You could be excused for thinking that our police departments are filled with depraved rogues and that serial killers grow like grass.
The argument that Hollywood is merely an observer of our moods and habits is naïve at best. The entertainment industry is a powerful driver of our collective desires. Any fool can see it plays a critical role in our society, defining standards of beauty, humor, and cool. More than this, however, Hollywood long ago cast itself in the role of the nation’s conscience. From Atticus Finch to Gordon Gekko and from Mississippi Burning to Lions for Lambs, the film business and the largely liberal workforce it employs has always searched for ways to advance a progressive political agenda.
Could it be they have a stake in making America look bad?
When Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 13 and injured 24 of their fellow high school students in Columbine, Colorado in 1999, the nation naturally asked: What is going on with our young people and in our schools? How could such seemingly regular American kids have done something so monstrous?
When Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson, Arizona in 2011, it was understandable that the news media’s first instinct was to hunt out a political motivation. She was a politician after all. She was shot at a political gathering. Was she targeted for her politics? Had we at long last arrived at the point where our heated political rhetoric had metastasized into violence?
Many rushed to foolish judgments, but these were fair questions.
The terrible and tragic Aurora, Colorado shootings didn’t occur in a public school or at a political rally. Rather, they occurred in a movie theater screening a hyper-violent and dystopic film, a connection which has been willfully overlooked by many in the media. It seems this is not a conversation that our elite tastemakers are eager to have.
We have been through the obligatory search for a political motive. We have been through the calls for tighter controls on the sale and purchase of firearms.
But something obvious is missing. Where is the outrage in Hollywood? Where is the painful self-reflection that you would expect of an industry at the center of a tragedy? Where are the hostile congressional hearings endured by executives from BP, Enron, JP Morgan, and the rest? They even went after Roger Clemens.
Why haven’t the heads of the major studios been dragged before a baying subcommittee and forced to explain why Hollywood’s America is so much more violent than the real one?
It seems clear that Hollywood wants to have it both ways; it wants to retain its privileged position as a shaper of American tastes, personal and political, while remaining insulated against the charge that its product is potentially destructive. And it seems equally clear that it will do anything to keep the conversation focused on the Second Amendment and tea party politics rather than on the corrosive effects of movie violence on the culture.
The mirror is broken, and we just stand there, staring back at it. Dumb.