Violence and Sex in the Media

The 21st century seems to be an era of splatter films (films that deliberately focus on graphic portrayals of gore) and torture porn (the combination of graphic violence and sexually suggestive imagery). The first appearance of gore—the realistic mutilation of the human body—in cinema can be traced back to D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). The movie included two onscreen decapitations and a scene in which a spear is slowly driven through a soldier’s bare abdomen as gouts of blood poured out of the wound.

In the 2000s, there had been a resurgence of films influenced by the splatter genre –films like Scream 3 and most notably Final Destination, a splatter film consisting of survivors dying in “Rube Goldberg machine-like ways”. The film was a hit, spawning four sequels after its release. Hostel (2005), was the first film to be classified under the subgenre of “torture porn” by critic David Edelstein in January 2006. Saw (2004) and its sequels also fall under this categorization. These films contained graphic depictions of extreme violence, nudity, torture, mutilation and sadism. Additionally, the Saw films became progressively more disturbing and violent with each sequel.

Even more troubling than the displayed carnage in these films is the fact that the torture porn subgenre has proven to be very profitable: Saw, made for $1.2 million, grossed over $100 million worldwide, while Hostel, which cost less than $5 million to produce, grossed over $80 million. Why violence is considered entertainment is a baffling question. Horror author Stephen King said, “Sure it makes you uncomfortable, but good art should make you uncomfortable” whilst defending Hostel: Part II against the questioning criticism it received.

In 2007, L. Rowell Huesmann, a Senior Research Professor –Institute for Social Research– at the University of Michigan, said; “The only effect slightly larger than the effect of media violence on aggression is that of cigarette smoking on lung cancer”. Professor Huesmann clearly seems to think that violence in the media is closely linked to real life violence.

Why sex (or sexuality) in the media attracts attention or serves as entertainment is understandable. In the 1930s it was shocking for a woman to lift her skirt above your knee in public (as reflected in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night). In the 21st century however, sex or sexuality is heard of on the radio, shown on television and even depicted, quite effectively, in advertisements. The reason sex is such a success in the media (apart from the fact that we’re genetically programmed to mate, of course) is because older people tend to create a rumpus about it. By making sex an issue, they draw attention to it, hence emphasizing the idea that any publicity is good publicity. Those who do not see the public exhibition of sexuality as such a taboo tend to connect it immediately to a pleasurable feeling. Furthermore, sex is effective in advertising because sexual appeal is an emotional trigger. Just like Andrex toilet rolls use a puppy to trigger an emotion in their buyers, Calvin Klein uses women with rather scarce clothing to trigger a different kind of emotion in their buyers. In the 1850s advertisers used heads of beautiful women in their ads –even though this was not particularly sexual, the idea was the same. Essentially, ethics aside, sex helps give us product awareness. The question to ask is –is the fact that sex sells a good thing, or a bad thing?

It is, however, much harder to understand how and why violence serves as entertainment and how it effects society. Violent video games seem to be a favourite of young boys. Players of these video games are not just observers but are active participants (even if only virtually) in committing violence. Additionally, they receive positive reinforcement for carrying out this violence as it may result in winning the game or gaining a desired goal.

Even more common than video games is cartoons. Though subtle and probably not intentional, certain cartoons instil violence in children at a very young age. High levels of aggression in cartoons such as The Roadrunner, The Adam’s Family or even Tom and Jerry can make children more aggressive.

Essentially, many social scientists have concluded that there is a weak (but existing) positive correlation between watching media violence and real life aggression—enough to convince organisations like the Canadian Paediatric Society and the American Medical Association that media violence is a public health issue. Yet, it is still becoming increasingly more prominent and horrific in cinema and general media. Just like sex, violence sells, and because it does, there will probably never be a decrease in the amount or extent of violence shown in the media. The entertainment industry isn’t doing anything wrong –they’re trying to make their jobs highly profitable just like any other businessman would do.  Researchers R. Hodge and D. Tripp, argue that, “Media violence is qualitatively different from real violence: it is a natural signifier of conflict and difference, and without representations of conflict, art of the past and present would be seriously impoverished”.

The idea of media violence is definitely a puzzle. The answer to “does media violence effect real-life violence?” is really just “Nobody knows”. But on account of individual thought, the crime rates since the 1960s have steadily increased in most parts of the world. Of course it would seem irrational to solely attribute this to cinema violence. However, it should be noted that gore and carnage in cinema does have a negative rather than positive effect on this statistic, even if only slightly.