Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values
A sad measure of the 1992 presidential campaign is that the one line, the one contribution to political rhetoric likely to live on was, “It’s the economy, stupid” by the Clinton team. While not exactly Reaganesque in its simple sagacity, or Kennedyesque in its music, it was noteworthy at least for its adaptability, as any number of people have substituted any number of things for “economy.”
Some have been fiscally sounder, as in: “It’s the spending, stupid.” Or Rushed, as in: “It’s socialism, stupid.”
I’m partial to, “It’s the culture, stupid,” as shorthand for: We can double productivity, triple Gross Domestic Product, and quadruple take-home pay, all by Christmas, but unless we do something about the violent and numskull media messages we constantly send, see and hear, all the economic progress in the world won’t suffice.
Which brings me quickly to this very important paper by against-the-grain film critic Michael Medved, “Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values.” Read it and grow in confidence that your instincts and impressions are right:
- That we are, in fact, submerged in movies, music and television shows which distort the deepest values of the American people.
- That popular entertainment is routinely fouler and filthier than any fair portrayal of our country warrants.
- That the perpetual barrage of such ideas and images is damaging to real people, especially children.
- And that one need not betray the First Amendment, or be stuck in old mud, to fear the inescapable prices being paid.
Which isn’t to say that Mr. Medved is exclusively dour in bringing bad news.
“There are people,” he writes, “who love to see heads blown up and limbs chopped off. That exists in America. That audience is composed primarily of drooling, sub-literate, hormone-addled, violence-prone, adolescent boys. And you know who you are.”
This oral essay is based on Mr. Medved’s unusually entertaining, impassioned and empirically grounded remarks to an American Experiment Breakfast Forum on May 4 of this year, in which he focused on “three basic lies.” What he calls the “big frauds that Hollywood perpetuates in order to justify its own stupidities and excesses and irresponsibilities.”
First: is, “Hey, lighten up. It’s just entertainment; it has no impact on the real world.”
Second, “Don’t blame us; blame society. If what we have up there on the screen is ugly and disgusting and nauseating and horrific, it’s because that’s the kind of horrible country we live in.”
And third, “Well, if you don’t like this stuff, who’s forcing you to watch it? Just turn it off and, meanwhile, please shut up.”
Mr. Medved is perhaps best known as cohost, since 1985, of “Sneak Previews,” on PBS. A former screenwriter, he has written seven non-fiction books, of which this paper’s namesake is the most recent. He is a graduate of Yale University and lives in Santa Monica, California with his wife Diane and their two children. It was a pleasure meeting and hosting him this past spring, and I thank him for this big-picture contribution.
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As always, I welcome your comments.
Mitchell B. Pearlstein
Sitting down at breakfast this morning, I was asked one of the questions that I’m fairly regularly asked when people recognize me from television, which is, “Have you become persona non grata in Hollywood? Have you been frozen out of the industry in some way?” The answer is, I still manage to do my job, but I have been surprised by the intensity of the reaction that my book has provoked.1
After all, I’m not unique in saying that popular culture today is in a miserable state. How many people do you know who think that television is wonderful at the moment? That it enriches our lives? That movies are better than ever?
Do you know how many people in America think that movies today are better than ever? One. His name is Jack Valenti. He gets paid to draw that conclusion. He’s head of the Motion Picture Association of America, and as Variety reveals, he gets paid $850,000 a year to think publicly that movies are better than ever.
Given the general acceptance of the notion that things aren’t great with our popular culture, what was it about my book that provoked such, shall we say, an enthusiastic response? I’ll give you a little bit of an idea of some of the flavor of that response. Michael Winner, who is the creator of such worthwhile contributions to Western civilization as the movies Death Wish, Death Wish 2, Death Wish 3 and, yes, Death Wish 4, said in his review of my book that, “The decade is still young, but I think it’s safe to say that Michael Medved’s Hollywood vs. America will emerge as the worst book of the decade.”
I was also thrilled that Paul Verhoeven — who has given the world such films as Robo Cop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct, which I had previously reviewed under the title Basically It Stinks — called me a Nazi on television. I took particular umbrage to that, since my mother and her parents fled Nazi Germany in 1935.
And then my favorite of all the responses to my book was the front-page editorial in Variety by its editor, Peter Bart, denouncing me under the headline, “The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Medved.” And there was a little caricature of me — not a flattering one, I should tell you. Peter Bart in his review said Hollywood vs. America is “not so much a book as it is a nervous breakdown set in type.” At the very end of his review he said, “As much as I detest blacklists, a good case can now be made that Medved should be banned from all future screenings.” This is in print. It exists.
What’s astonishing about this is that these people are such stalwart defenders of the First Amendment, who believe in absolute freedom of speech — just so long as you don’t use that freedom of speech to criticize them.
The question remains: What is it that’s so different in my work from general, everyday complaints about Hollywood that arouses people to this degree? Thinking about it, I’ve realized that the most sensitive thing about this book is the fact that it strips away the three basic lies — the big frauds that Hollywood perpetrates in order to justify its own stupidities and excesses and irresponsibilities. What I want to do with you this morning is actually look at those three lies, and to prepare you for rebutting them whenever these subjects come up.
They are three lies you hear all the time. Lie Number One: “It’s just entertainment. It never really hurt anybody.” Lie Number Two: “We’re just great capitalists. We give the public what it wants. Don’t blame us; blame yourselves.” And lie Number Three: “If you don’t like this material, it’s always easy to just turn it off.”
Lie Number One
The first point — the common line that, “Hey, lighten up, it’s just entertainment; it has no impact on the real world” — is a fundamental contradiction that is at the very core of Hollywood’s view of reality. That contradiction emerged recently from a major studio head, who made the rather remarkable claim that the film Lethal Weapon 3 deserved credit and praise because it had saved thousands of lives. Now, I wasn’t immediately able to discern the life-giving messages in Lethal Weapon 3. But eventually it was explained that there’s a crucial scene in which Danny Glover and Mel Gibson are preparing to zoom off on a high-speed chase, but before they do, they fasten their seat belts.
Now think about the logic here. There’s an assumption that when people see two popular stars up there on the screen fastening seatbelts, everybody’s going to imitate what they see. But when they see the other 99.9 percent of the movie — which is eye gouging, eviscerations, falling from high buildings, shootings and dismemberment of all kinds — nobody will imitate that.
This is very typical of Hollywood’s approach. They want you to believe that they are capable of all kinds of positive influence. But when it comes to any influence that might be questionable — oh, that never happens, of course.
This is an industry that breaks its elbow patting itself on the back whenever it sends out messages about designated drivers, or recycling or condom consciousness. (Condoms, of course, are the talisman of the moment. It’s absolutely magical. All you have to do is use the word condom in a film and you’re going to get some kind of an award, some kind of praise for the responsibility of your message.) The idea is that people can be influenced by this rather subtle material, but the rest of the movie or TV show is not going to influence them. No, not at all.
Do you know where you see this? The practice of product placement. That’s where in a motion picture a large corporation has paid very good money in order to display its corporate logo, whether it be Pepsi or Budweiser or Nike. That logo is sort of flashed on the screen, as in those moments when somebody hoists a beer can and holds it up to the screen. Businesses pay for that. The average film today is taking in just under a million dollars per film in product placement costs.
Now, why do the corporations do it? Are they eleemosynary institutions? Are they trying to offer some charitable support for Hollywood? Nonsense. There are studies — abundant studies — that show that even a few seconds of a corporate logo associated with a glamorous star can have a measurable impact on sales and the way the public responds to that product and to that brand name. Yet, the industry wants you to believe that everybody’s focused on that corporate logo, that nobody is looking at what’s going on in the rest of the screen. It’s insanity.
Imagine that there’s a little bottle of Scope on the bed stand in a bedroom scene. And there’s a bed with two beautiful, nude, writhing bodies in ecstasy. And the only thing the public is watching is the bottle of Scope? This is nonsense, ladies and gentlemen. This is complete and utter nonsense.
And you see the same sort of illogic regarding television. I’m always struck by the fact that otherwise well-educated people say, “Well you know this idea that televised imagery impacts real life, it’s scientifically unproven. There are studies that say different things.” This is garbage. The only major studies that deny a link between prolonged exposure to televised violence and more hostile and aggressive attitudes in real life are those studies which were paid for by the networks. And there are many of them, which should be accorded the same kind of moral dignity as all those studies by the tobacco industry which show that smoking is good for you.
In 1982, the Surgeon General of the United States released a report about the role of TV violence in creating a more violent society around us. It was a report accompanied by five full volumes of documentation and hundreds of studies. ABC-TV turned around and issued a statement that said, and I quote, “There is no conclusive proof that televised imagery impacts real-world behavior in any way.” To which my response is: Oh yeah? If ABC-TV really believes that, then it should start refunding several billion dollars in advertising revenues, because if televised imagery doesn’t impact real world behavior, what is it doing charging for ad time? The idea is that people are going to be sold on everything from canned goods to candidates with 30 seconds of a commercial, but that the surrounding 30 minutes have no impact. Isn’t that absurd?
And the advertising model is very important to keep in mind, because it not only demonstrates that there is impact from the mass media on real world behavior, but it shows the way that impact works. For instance, people always say, “Well, if you believe that Hollywood has an impact on America and that televised or motion picture violence helps make people and society more violent in real life — encourages irresponsible behavior — then why is it that film critics, people like yourself who see five and six movies a week, aren’t especially well represented among ax murderers?”
Now, I can’t speak for all of my colleagues, but I will say that the answer to that is very simple. Let me just try a little show of hands. How many people here have ever seen an ad for the Lexus automobile on television? Virtually all of us, right? How many people here have gone out and bought a Lexus? OK, a few of us. Now, we’ve just proved that Lexus ads have no impact, right, because lots of people see them and they don’t go out and buy the car? That’s the same logic that people use to deny television’s influence.
Of course it’s absurd. Lexus is not a dumb company. It’s part of Toyota — they know what they’re doing. Their ads don’t have to change behavior on the part of everyone who sees them in order to have an impact. They need to only change behavior on the part of a relatively small number of people to have a profound effect on the corporation and its sales.
By the same token, violent material on TV doesn’t need to impact everyone who sees it. If it impacts only a small proportion of vulnerable viewers, then that in itself will have a profound effect on society. And the impact on the rest of us is also significant, just as it is with the Lexus ad. Because for all those people who see the Lexus ad, even those who don’t run out and buy the car and don’t have the money to buy it, the ad redefines our attitude toward this particular product. If it weren’t for advertising campaigns — if we saw just a Lexus driving by on the street — most people probably wouldn’t associate it as a status symbol of any kind. We’d be unaware of it. But what television advertising does is make us aware of something as a desirable goal. “Maybe I can’t buy the car, but maybe someday it would be nice. Maybe this car is hip, it’s chic, it’s glamorous, it’s desirable.”
That’s exactly the long-term impact of television portrayals of sexual behavior and violence. Those portrayals redefine normal behavior. They redefine what is chic, glamorous and desirable. And even for those people who don’t immediately run out and imitate that behavior — who don’t go out and buy the car — it changes our evaluation of not only what is accepted in our society but what is expected.
So, the argument that “It’s just TV, it’s just movies, it has no impact on anybody, it’s just entertainment” is nonsense. It shows Hollywood’s fundamental contradiction in its approach to the world: “We can influence people when we want to, when we want to take credit for it, for the purpose of selling advertising or anything else. But other than that, we deny all influence.
Lie Number Two
That brings me to the second line of denial — the second big lie — that people in the entertainment industry love to promulgate: “Don’t blame us; blame society. If what we have up there on screen is ugly and disgusting and nauseating and horrific, it’s because that’s the kind of horrible country we live in. That’s what people want. After all, we’re good capitalists. We just give the public what it wants. We’re just like a big capitalist candy machine. You put in the money and then you get the brand that you choose.”
One of the fundamentals of the idea that they’re just giving the public what it wants is the fact that over 60 percent of all movies released in the United States are rated R — are drenched in violence, graphic sexuality and rather unpleasant language — and that that’s the only kind of movie that does business. Hollywood has been saying for years that you have to put this material into even innocuous movies, otherwise you’re dead in the water at the box office.
This was conventional wisdom in Hollywood for a long time. It was such strongly held conventional wisdom that it was almost in passing that I decided to do something which I don’t think anyone had ever done before, which was check it out, to see if was true. What I was hoping to find was that the bias in favor of R-rated films in terms of box office performance wouldn’t be that great — that PG films might do almost as well as R films, showing that Hollywood wasn’t simply following the market. I did my initial computer study, based on every movie released in 1991 — and 600 of them were released that year — and their domestic box office gross.
When the statistics came back, my jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I had found. According to my numbers, in 1991, when 61 percent of all movies were rated R, PG movies, which are aimed at family audiences, did three times better at the box office then R-rated films.
I was so stunned by this that I needed to check myself. I actually submitted this entire project to the research director for the Screen Actors Guild, who is a very skilled Hollywood researcher. I said, “Will you check this, because it doesn’t sound right?” He came back and said “It’s exactly right. I’m fascinated with this right now. Do you mind if I work with you and we go ahead and check it out in previous years to see what has happened?” So we went back 10 years and analyzed movies released in the United States.
Do you know what’s incredible? What’s incredible is that there isn’t a single year — not one — since 1983 in which PG movies haven’t done substantially better on average than R-rated films. In fact, they averaged more than 2-to-1 larger domestic box office grosses. And during that time period the percentage of R-rated films, which were doing worse at the box office during the whole 10-year period, went up from 46 percent of all films released to 61 percent in 1991 and, by some estimates, to 65 percent last year, 1992.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is nuts. It suggests not that Hollywood is evil, but that it’s radically dysfunctional. And I must tell you that since my book came out, all of a sudden, there have been a bunch of different studies that have confirmed exactly what I found. And the conventional wisdom seems to have shifted.
Mark Canton, the president of Sony Columbia Studios, gave a speech at ShoWest to all motion picture exhibitors in which he said, “We must now do what any smart business person knows we must do, make more PG movies.” Now, this is March 9, 1993 that he made that speech. What took him so long? It’s been so obvious for a long time. If anyone doubts that Hollywood is motivated by it’s own dark obsessions, rather than some kind of intelligent response to the public, all you need to do is look at these statistics and then you need to break the statistics down.
Why are most movies rated R? Is it because of violence? No, it’s because of language. I will acknowledge that there is an audience, and always will be an audience, for hyper-violent films. There are people who love to see heads blown up and limbs chopped off. That exists in America. That audience is composed primarily of drooling, sub-literate, hormone-addled, violence-prone, adolescent boys. And you know who you are.
So there may be an audience for violence. But what’s the audience for language? Who says, “Let’s go spend $15 at the local Bijou or Multiplex in order to hear our favorite stars talking dirty”? Have you ever heard of anyone who left a theater complaining — feeling cheated — because the language in the movie he just saw was too clean? Who thinks like that, except people in Hollywood?
Recently, one of the more unpleasant films I saw was a film called “Hoffa,” which is about everybody’s favorite dead labor leader. In this particular film, they used the F-word 268 times. I don’t count these words. I’m too busy trying to watch the film. I subscribe to a service that I think is manned by little gnomes who go out with little counters to the theater and count them.
They counted 268 F-words in Hoffa. It’s so extraordinary. Do you know how easy that makes it for the screen writer? You just have to hit the same key on the word processor again and again and again. I recently was on a flight, and I was astonished that they were offering an airline version of Hoffa. It must be about 10 minutes long.
The fact is it’s not just movies like Hoffa. If you’re going to see a movie about Jimmy Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy, you’ve got to expect to hear certain amount of harsh language, especially between the two of them. But the fact is, it has crept into children’s movies. Unbelievably, 46 percent of PG movies — PG movies — now contain the F- or the S-word at least once. Seventy-three percent of PG-13 movies contain those words. Who would miss them if they were taken out?
This is not a response to the market place. There is not a single market study that suggests that the American people respond better to foul language in movies. In fact there was a major opinion survey, with 1,604 respondents, that was about motion pictures. That study found that 82 percent felt that there was too much foul language in movies. Do you know how many of the 1,604 respondents felt there was too little foul language in movies? Not one. They couldn’t find one out of 1,604 people.
This obsession with foul language is not a market-driven phenomenon. This is not an industry responding to America.
Look at the portrayal of religious believers. This is a profoundly religious country — something Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand. One of the points I love to make is that on Super Bowl Sundays, when we seem to celebrate our big national religion and everybody watches the
Super Bowl, what do more people do on those Sundays together than watch the Super Bowl? Do you know? They go to the church. About 100 million people watch the Super Bowl, and around 110 million go to church. Forty to 45 percent of Americans go to church or synagogue every single week.
It’s a reality you don’t see on screen and, moreover, when you do see anyone religious, he’s invariably portrayed as a crook or a crazy or very often both. Is that a response to market forces? Every single one of these movies about crooked clergy has failed at the box office. You can’t find one in the last 20 years that’s made a dime, and yet they keep getting made. Is that a question of giving America what it wants?
Finally and most dramatically, look at the portrayal of this country — of our past, of our future, of our institutions. They did three major bio films this year. They were about Hoffa, Malcolm X and Charlie Chaplin. Each of these films was hugely expensive, and each of them lost very big money. Very big money. Malcolm X lost less money than the other two, but still lost. Chaplin was such a big money loser, it put Carolco into Chapter 11. Chaplin was such a flop with the public they had to subpoena people to go to see it.
But what do all these three figures have in common? What they have in common is that they all lived the American nightmare. They all had fundamentally unhappy, embittered experiences with American life and American society. That is not the experience of most people who live here, who still believe in the American Dream, who are profoundly grateful for this country, who are instinctively patriotic. Yet, Hollywood doesn’t get it, and doesn’t respond.
Right now they are simultaneously developing five different films about the Black Panther Party. When those five films are in production at the same time, they will probably employ more people than were ever members of the Black Panther Party. But I would submit to you that there’s no market study that says, “Let’s do Black Panther films right now,” especially after the performance at the box office of Malcolm X, which was certainly well-made.
The point is, nobody thinks, “We’re going to make a movie about Black Panthers and it’s going to be a sweet little money machine.” That’s not the thinking. These people are consumed with the desire to make some serious statement, to be taken seriously as artists. They’ve bought into the absurd idea that the only kind of artistic statement worth making is one that shakes people up, that assaults convention, that shows the creator is some kind of alienated artist.
They don’t want to be known as a member of the establishment, even though they may ride in a chauffeur-driven limousine and get $5 million per picture. They think of themselves as some kind of sensitive spirit, just like they were in the old days in Greenwich Village, when they were struggling actors, wearing black turtlenecks and drinking espresso and talking about existentialism. That’s all these people want to keep faith with.
Just a few weeks ago, we were celebrating the anniversary of Lexington and Concord, the beginning of the American Revolution. Hollywood took a swipe at the American Revolution six years ago. It was a movie called Revolution, which cost $37 million for Warner Brothers to make. It starred Al Pacino as a member of the Continental Army. He apparently was the only member of the Continental Army with a Bronx accent.
Aside from its ludicrous aesthetic quality, what was really notable about it was that they made a decision to do a revisionist view of the American Revolution. They took this inspiring struggle for American independence and made the colonists into the bad guys. It’s unbelievable. You know what? Not only did this $37 million movie fall on its face here — it earned less than $3 million at the box office — it was even a flop in England.
So I would submit to you, when people say that Hollywood is just following the famous bottom line — “It’s the fault of the capitalist system; it’s the fault of the profit motive” — they’re not telling the truth. That’s the second of Hollywoods big lies. These are terrible businessmen, who are not responding intelligently to the public.
Lie Number Three
That brings me to the third and final lie, which is, “Well, if you don’t like this stuff, who’s forcing you to watch it? Just turn it off and, meanwhile, please shut up.” Let me give you a personal account of why that is such an utterly misleading and irresponsible lie.
My wife is a clinical psychologist. One afternoon while I was home, she had patients and I was supposed to watch my older daughter, Sarah, who is now 6 years old. Sarah was home with one of her little friends from first grade, and they were playing. They were basically self-sufficient, so it was not a very big job to watch them. So, I was at the word processor, and all of a sudden I hear from downstairs these rather blood curdling screams. It’s my daughter. I think, “Oh my God, this little boy she brought home from school has chopped her head off or done something horrible.”
I ran downstairs and my daughter had tears running down her chubby little cheeks. She was very upset. I asked, “Sarah, baby, what’s wrong? What’s upsetting you so much.” She just pointed and said, “It’s that, Daddy, it’s that.” And then I looked over to see what “that” was. And “that” was something that this little boy had taken out of his book bag and brought home with him from school. You know what it was? It was a Terminator doll.
Have any of you seen a Terminator doll? It’s a big seller for Mattel Toys. It obviously is in the image of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It has various arms that you can take off. You can actually take out its heart and remove its head. It has bombs and grenades and buzz saws and submachine guns. Most strikingly, it has a little ring behind the neck that you pull so that the thing talks. And it says things like, “I vill blow you avay” and “I vill kill you now,” and “Husta la vista, baby.” Actually I think it speaks more clearly than the real life Mr. Schwarzenegger.
I think it was the talking that scared my daughter, who is, admittedly, an incurable and terrible wimp, which I’m glad for, actually. She recovered from having seen the Terminator doll. I’m not saying that this was a wound on her soul. By no means. But it did bring home to me one very important point. I would no more take my daughter to see the “Terminator,” or have her watch the “Terminator” on TV, or on video than I would drag her over broken glass. It’s just not something I want to do. I would have been perfectly happy if my six year old had been able to lead a Terminator-free childhood. But that option is not available today. It’s not available because the popular culture is so ubiquitous. It is everywhere. You cannot escape it.
Let me try a little demonstration here. How many people in this room have been to a Madonna concert? Don’t be ashamed. OK, I think we had one. How many people here, when you go home this evening, are going to find Madonna CDs or tapes in your personal collection? Two or
three. How many people here know who Madonna is? Absolutely everyone!
Ladies and gentlemen, you never made a conscious choice to place Madonna into your imagination. They tell us we lose 10,000 or so brain cells every day that we’re alive after the age of 30. Who would want to use precious brain cells for focusing on Madonna? If I had a choice, I’d just assume that this lady weren’t in my imagination, weren’t in my consciousness. I never chose to put her there. But there she is. She is inescapable. It doesn’t matter whether you choose to buy her product or to watch her on MTV. She’s there. I guarantee you there are Amish kids in Pennsylvania, there are Hasidic kids in Brooklyn who know who Madonna is.
That illustrates the fundamental truth: Saying, “If you don’t like the popular culture, you can just turn it off” is like saying, “If you don’t like the smog, you can always stop breathing.” The fact is, as the late, great Joe Louis said, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” This stuff is everywhere.
Maybe it doesn’t impact you, or through some super-human effort you protect your children. But it’s the other children in school who come home with the Ninja Turtles material or the Terminator material. It’s everybody else’s kids and your neighbors, and it’s everywhere around you. It’s part of the very environment that we all breathe, and this is why this is such a passionate, cutting-edge issue for so many people. The most fundamental thing that we all want is to be able to pass on values to our own children, to be able to transmit our approaches to the world to the next generation.
People today increasingly — and I think appropriately — view Hollywood, view the popular culture, view the entertainment industry as a force that interferes with, undermines, and works against precisely those values that we want most to pass on to our own kids. That’s why people are so upset. That’s why they should be upset. That’s why what we need in this country is what could be described as a cultural environmental movement. It would be a movement in the same sense that we are asking big corporations to take more responsibility for their pollution of our air and water. These gigantic entertainment conglomerates have to be held more accountable for their pollution of the cultural atmosphere that we all breathe.
We have to be able to be more discerning consumers, to recognize that entertainment isn’t necessarily harmless, to cut down our own TV consumption. Everybody in this room can watch less TV. That would send a powerful message. But beyond our own consumption decisions and our own willingness to take charge of this issue in our own lives, we need to work together with some of the established organizations that are trying to address this issue.
For example, we need to write letters, which is easy. It’s like writing a letter to Santa Claus in care of the North Pole. All you have to do is write “The President, Warner Brothers Pictures, Hollywood California.” It gets delivered.
Ultimately — particularly at this time, when the business is in crisis, when their profits are so low, when audiences have been declining, when they recognize they have a problem — there is a possibility of making a difference.
I believe that we’re at a very, very interesting moment in this struggle. There are people in the entertainment industry who are hearing the dissatisfaction in a way they have never heard it in the past. It’s going to be a long-term effort, and I will conclude by saying that it is an effort that could be described in the same way that Winston Churchill described a rather more serious, more heroic situation many years ago, when he said, “This is not the end, nor is it even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”
Arlen Whitrock: Do you have some comments on children’s cartoons, their influence, and how they’ve evolved in the last decade or so?
Medved: The National Coalition on TV Violence is an organization I strongly support. It is not a conservative organization. It’s very liberal. But it’s very responsible on this issue of TV violence.
It’s interesting to me, by the way, that so many people want to make this a conservative-liberal issue. It’s not. The leading opponent of televised violence in the United States Senate is Paul Simon of Illinois, who by no stretch of the imagination is a conservative. He’s a liberal Democrat. Senator Simon has done remarkable work in getting all three networks to at least sign a letter of intent regarding the levels of violence that they will have. We’ll see if it has any impact. The National Coalition on TV Violence, which has close ties to Senator Simon, claims that the most violent block of programming in terms of number of violent episodes and incidents per hour is Saturday morning kids’ cartoons.
People ask me all the time for an example of some movie I find particularly offensive. I’m always reluctant to do that, because it’s not one movie, it’s not one TV show, it’s not one popular song. It’s the sheer accumulation of material. But if I’m pushed I will say this: I am more bothered by the violence in Home Alone 2 or Huck Finn than I’m bothered by the violence in Reservoir Dogs. That’s because in Reservoir Dogs, everyone expects what you’re going to get. But what was the need in these other family movies to put in such levels of violence and brutality and, really, of horror?
I took my daughter to see “Huck Finn.” Do you know that Huck Finn gets shot in this movie? That’s not in the novel, I can assure you. It’s insanity. It’s precisely the inclusion of these totally unwelcome elements everywhere, not just in blood-bath films, but in films that are intended for family audiences, in things like Saturday morning cartoons, which are intended primarily for children. It’s the ubiquity of this material that makes it so worrisome to me.
Greg Morris: In the ’50s, didn’t the federal government have some kind of way to censor what went on, and has that fallen aside? Second, how do G-rated movies play out against R- and PG-rated movies?
Medved: First of all, the G-rated movies are very hard to measure because there are so few of them. Last year, 1.6 percent of all releases were rated G. Those included the top-rated movie in terms of box office dollars of any film released in 1992. “Aladdin,” by over $50 million, made more money than any other movie released in 1992. For the last three years, G-rated movies appear to do best of all. They do even better than PG. Yet, there are so few of them. It’s extraordinary. It virtually doesn’t matter how bad they are, they seem to make money.
There was a terrible movie named Rock-A-Doodle. I saw Rock-A-Doodle with my kids, and my kids were bored. My 4-year-old thought it was an insult to her intelligence. Yet, even though the film wasn’t a smash hit, it played out. So, it’s hard to lose money with a G.
On your other question: What they used to have in motion pictures was what they called the Hays Office. They had the Motion Picture Production Code, which established that there were certain things that could simply not be shown. It’s interesting what couldn’t be shown. Some of it looks ludicrous today. For instance, you couldn’t have two people embracing together on a bed. You also couldn’t have a negative portrayal of the minister or rabbi of any recognized religion, which of course has definitely fallen by the wayside.
The code was suspended in 1967 and replaced by the current rating system. What’s interesting is that at that time it was considered a big victory for artistic free expression. Jack Valenti, who initiated the change, said, “Most of our movies will continue to be family movies. They’ll continue to be rated G. These adult-rated movies that we’re now permitting are always going to be the tiny minority.” He predicted they would never be more than 10 percent of the total. It was 65 percent last year. So, basically the code was held in abeyance. By the time it was put in abeyance, it was considered unworkable.
I want you to know that I am opposed to any efforts to reintroduce a film production code. It couldn’t work today. I’m opposed to censorship of all kinds. In fact, I am not saying that they should make no R-rated films. I’m glad they make R-rated films. It is a response to a market niche. What I am saying, however, is that they make too many of them. I’m not saying they should make all G-rated movies. That would make life very boring for me as a film critic. But I am saying that 1.6 percent is too few.
They need to readjust the movie mix, but not to vary the admirable sense of freedom of expression that we have right now. However, freedom of expression — having the right to say something — doesn’t mean that you don’t have a responsibility to strike a more careful balance or take a more sociably responsible approach to the kind of material you’re making.
Robert White: I have a question about giving the public what the public wants. It strikes me that a lot of great authors of Western culture, aside from Madonna, have dealt with themes of violence and tragedy, such as Shakespeare and Grimm with his fairy tales and so on. There seems to be a public attraction to that sort of portrayal. What is different between those kinds of works and television and movies now? Is it the vividness of the media?
Medved: Again, I am not at all opposed to violence per se. I think it’s appropriate that violence should be treated in motion pictures and on television. It is a part of life. It’s been a part of story telling since Sophocles and the Bible and through Shakespeare. You’d have to be an idiot to suggest that violence should never be portrayed.
What concerns me about the levels of violence today is, one, the context. Violence can either be portrayed in a responsible context or it can be included in a gratuitous and exploitive way. It’s very much like violence in real life. Violence in real life isn’t always immoral. Violence that someone would use to protect one’s family against some intruder could be highly moral. Violence used against Adolf Hitler in 1938 would have been highly moral. The quest ion is context, and too often today, particularly on television, the context is gratuitous. There’s no need for it. It’s not an integral part of the story telling. It’s simply thrown in as titillation.
Second, it’s exploitive. It’s there to make the violence look glamorous, to define violence as the solution to all our problems, and to portray brutality as the essence of manliness. One of the crazy messages we’re sending to our teenage boys is that you can’t be a real man unless you’re some kind of a brute. It surprises me that feminists are not more strident about this particular issue, because much of the violence is directed against women.
The depiction of violence today is very, very different from Shakespeare in another way. You have to keep in mind the fact that at the time of the Globe Theater, it would be a very lucky Elizabethan who would be able to go two or three times a year to see a Shakespearean production. Then look at the way violence was portrayed. What’s the most famous murder scene in all of world literature? It’s probably the murder of Duncan in “Macbeth,” right? What do you see? Nothing. It happens off stage. Macbeth comes in with bloody hands. He does it off stage, and it lives in the imagination.
Today there is a clinical obsession with showing blood and guts and details, with dehumanizing violence — the opposite of what Shakespeare did. Every violent incident in Shakespeare is profoundly human and painful and you feel it.
It’s also the ubiquity of all this material. You didn’t find the Globe Theater broadcast into every home in England 28 hours a week. That’s what the average American watches of TV. The average home has the TV on 47 hours a week! It’s precisely the ceaseless drumming in of this material, the ceaseless repetition of these messages that make it such a concern.
If it was only a question of somebody seeing one violent movie, one violent TV show, I would have no worries at all. No worries at all, because I don’t think that there’s one film that’s a threat to Western civilization as we know it. I don’t believe that. But I do believe that the sheer weight of this material, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, drummed ceaselessly into our minds and our consciousness and our souls, has a profound impact.
Jeff Hagen: When my son, who is 9 years old, watches some kind of violence, including cartoons on Saturday morning, he will go to his GI Joes and play violently with them for sometimes an hour and a half to two hours at a time. Do you have any comments on that?
Medved: That’s exactly true. That’s what all of the studies show. What’s amazing is that there is such a volume of scientific data on this connection between violence in the media and violence in real life.
I would refer all of you to an absolutely essential article that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association in June of 1992. The author is Dr. Brandon Centerwall, the former chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Washington Medical School. He’s a very reputable, respected psychiatrist. He analyzed over a thousand studies that had been conducted since 1962, and came to the conclusion that the connection between violence in TV and violence in real life is inescapable. It’s real. It exists. He estimates, and this has been very controversial, that there are at least 10,000 murders every year in the United States — and this is his phrase — “in which television is a causal connection.” Now that’s amazing.
The American Medical Association has even declared that we have a public health emergency regarding violence on TV. At the press conference announcing it, one of the spokesmen for the association said it’s a public health emergency comparable in severity to smoking. But, of course, this story was not heavily covered in the media, was it? I wonder why?
I think everybody here knows instinctively that TV isn’t good for you. It doesn’t enrich our lives. Most movies aren’t really good for you. They may divert you for a little while, but they don’t improve the quality of our lives.
The basic point I want to leave you with is this: Everybody talks about this stuff but feels they can’t do anything about it. I’m going to tell you something to do, and please do it. Go home today with the resolution that you and every member of your family are going to cut down your TV viewing by one hour a day. And you know what, if you’re typical American, that still leaves three hours a day that you’re watching the stuff. One hour a day. Do you know what a profound message that would send to the networks if enough people actually cut down their TV watching an hour a day?
The amazing thing is that there are all these surveys and information showing that the American people are sick of TV. Only 3 percent describe TV as reflecting positive values. I don’t know where they found the 3 percent! But the fact is that even while the number of people attending motion pictures has gone down, we still watch just as much TV as ever. We switch more. There’s more channel grazing, and we’re more dissatisfied. But we still watch it.
Stop watching it. There are more things in life than flickering images on a cathode ray tube. If you cut down one hour a day, it will give you seven extra hours a week to be with people you love, to have intriguing conversations, to read a book, to read a paper by Center of the American Experiment, to do some work for your community, maybe even to enjoy this glorious world that God has given to us.
The average American, by the time we reach our life expectancy of 76 years, will have spent 13 uninterrupted years of life, 24-hours-a-day, watching TV. Do you want that on your tombstone? Do you want to explain that to God? What are people thinking about? Cut it down. If there’s one thing you can do that will both improve the quality of your life and improve our society it’s to reduce the levels of TV watching, even if it means not watching “Sneak Previews.”
1 Michael Medved, Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).