Is Hollywood's Sugarcoating of Violence a Good or Bad Thing for Moviegoers?
A throat is slit, heads are lopped off, buildings crumble, bodies dissolve, Wolverine’s metal claws plunge into multiple living bodies, and little more than a spritz of blood is shed during the two-and-a-half-hour running time of Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse. The latest entry in 20th Century Fox’s 16-year-old franchise is its worst, as it manages to be both overstuffed with characters yet empty in its depiction of them. It’s a low-to-no-stakes narrative in an ever-unfolding franchise, and Apocalypse seems mostly to exist because, well, it’s time for a new X-Men movie.
X-Men: Apocalypse seems particularly useless when compared to recent, more intellectually engaged spandex fests. Both Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice openly grappled with the sort of accountability their franchises have long skirted (albeit the former did so with way more coherence than the latter). In the name of heroism, their protagonists have inflicted destruction upon their environments. They always get the bad guys, but the cost of this in terms of number of unseen deaths has gone mostly uncounted until this year.
Still, Captain America: Civil War is full of PG-13 violence, the kind that finds a man repeatedly bludgeoned in the face without producing much blood, and one in which a superhero’s arm is ripped off without any visible gore or guts (granted, it’s a robotic arm).
What these and a growing number of PG-13-rated movies suggest is that acts of violence are permissible in a way that their consequences—from drawn blood to human suffering to loss—are not. PG-13 movies target a broader age group than R-rated movies do. They also make more money. The Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) division of the Motion Picture Association of America is responsible for giving films their ratings and states in its Classification Rules and Ratings document: “There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence.”
This can play out absurdly—the PG-13 version of Live Free or Die Hard features a bloodless shooting that magically produces a red geyser in the film’s unrated version. Liam Neeson’s character in the PG-13-rated Taken 2 gets away with an estimated 23 deaths—more than Jason Voorhees enacts in almost every Friday the 13th flick. Death here is not the issue—its severity is. Sugarcoating means sales.
And the bodies keep piling up. A 2013 study published in the journal Pediatrics, “Gun Violence Trends in Movies” found more violence in PG-13 movies than in R-rated movies.
“It’s clear that PG-13 movies sanitize the violence, so they take out the blood, and that allows them to show a lot more killing than you see typically even in R-rated movies,” explained one of that study’s authors, Dan Romer, by phone. Romer is research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and director of its Adolescent Communication Institute at UPENN.
“R-rated movies that have violence will have more blood, and show more suffering, but there’s actually less violence in those movies, ironically,” he continued. “So PG-13 allows Hollywood to have lots and lots of what some people think of as gratuitous violence, and get away with it because they’re not showing the pain and the suffering and what actually happens if you get hit with a bullet.”
In other words, MPAA classifications don’t theoretically protect kids from violence itself, but from its more disturbing consequences. The drive to satisfy the MPAA to achieve a PG-13 classification essentially incentivizes making brutal acts consumable. We seem to agree as a culture, then, that the harder something is to watch, the worse it is for you.
Romer said he plans to look into the effects of PG-13's bloodless violence versus the more graphic kind that you’d find in an R-rated movie, though no data comparing the two exists, to his knowledge. “It could turn out that the ratings are the inverse of harmfulness—that PG-13 is worse than R,” he said. “But we really don’t know. The research hasn’t been done to answer that question.”
Just what is at stake here? What does “harmfulness” mean in the conversation about cinematic violence, which has the feel of being beamed in from the ‘90s? Romer says the primary fear is that “seeing films with lots of gun violence will develop a more favorable attitude [in viewers] toward the use of guns and increase their likelihood of being seen as an effective way of dealing with conflict.” He points to Bandura’s famous bobo doll experiment to show how kids model the behavior of adults they see in media, and mentions the ready availability of guns in America to suggest the practical implications of this “more favorable attitude” toward gun violence. “Gun Violence Trends in Movies” also points to several studies that measured elevated aggression levels after watching violent media, including “Short-term and Long-term Effects of Violent Media on Aggression in Children and Adults,” which was co-authored by a co-author of “...Trends in Movies,” Ohio State professor Brad Bushman.
“In general what researchers find with violent media is that it does tend to have a temporary increase in aggression, but it’s very questionable how long that lasts,” said Patrick Markey, a professor at Villanova. “I like to think of it like any kind of art. If you go see a really sad movie, you’ll get sad afterward and feel bummed, but it doesn’t change you. You’re not depressed suddenly. Violence probably does the same thing. Right after we see a violent movie, we might be more hyped up about it, but it doesn’t change who we are.”
In 2014, Markey co-authored a paper in Human Communication Research called “Violent Movies and Severe Acts of Violence: Sensationalism Versus Science” that challenged some of the claims in “Gun Violence Trends in Movies” and found that “although watching a violent film does not seem to be related to shifts in homicide or aggravated assault rates, such exposure may affect other types of less severe aggressive behaviors such as bullying, spreading gossip, minor fights at school, pushing and shoving, or hurling insults.” Violence in PG-13 movies may be on the rise since 1985 (a point in Romer’s paper that Markey doesn’t contest) but as the Washington Post pointed out in December, gun violence in the U.S. has been on the wane since 1993. The “sensationalism” in the title of Markey’s paper refers to the way Romer’s findings were pegged on extreme acts of violence like the Aurora shooting, as opposed to overall trends. (The Attenberg Public Policy Center than issued a response to the response.)
If PG- and PG-13-levels of violence is being consumed by more people in more cinematic acts, and yet violent crime is on the wane, could it be that consumable violence is somehow pro-social? Instead of being a disingenuous way of commodifying the idea of death, could PG-13 movies somehow be giving our society the violence it seems to crave without the negative consequences? Have we found our perfect portion? In my estimation, the most brutal decade in cinema was the ‘70s, when crime rates were much higher (and Vietnam still had a tremendous grip on our national psyche). Think about how the extreme violence of many of the movie offerings along 42nd Street during its grindhouse heyday reflected the violence one could encounter just outside the theater (and sometimes within). Think about how this study of violent video games found that in video games that had an option to turn off the blood and gore, “that the presence of blood within the game increased verbally aggressive intentions when it was accompanied by an increase in aggressive cognition.” The study also cites “television research where the presence of blood lessens the likelihood of imitation.”
But though an R-rated movie may spill more blood, it can’t possibly capture the extent to which violence disrupts and affects lives. You don’t get to smell the stink of death. We’re talking about degrees of packaging violence. The director Ben Wheatley explained this vividly in a recent conversation we had:
I think the example for me is Hannibal, the TV show, where it’s so horrible, unbelievably horrible. I was watching it, thinking, “Why is this so fucking horrible, this thing?” I think it’s because if in real life I saw a dead body over there and they’d just had a heart attack and died, I’d be traumatized by it and think about it for weeks. If I see it on a TV show and that’s happened...I don’t care. They must have hit that thing and gone, “Right, well now we do a procedural investigation, but no one cares about murder anymore so it has to be this much murder.” If anything had happened on that show in real life, everyone would be talking about it forever. For every episode forever and ever. There would be a whole industry of publishing books about it, going over it, “Well, how could this happen?” I was thinking that’s a crazy gap, between reality and how a show is perceived.
Perhaps the question at the heart of this piece is one of artistry, not sociology. And anyway, if you go looking for art in a blockbuster, you’re likely to leave the theater disappointed.
Regardless, I reached out to the MPAA for more clarity on its process and its philosophy regarding consumable violence. The response I received via MPAA Corporate Communications VP Chris Ortman is on background and vague as it is, so I am summarizing it instead of quoting directly.
According to the MPAA, the ratings system is not meant to police art or protect children but to provide parents with information. Movies are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and there is no predetermined quota of the amount of violence that would dictate what received a PG-13 rating versus and R rating. The MPAA says it is in a continuing dialogue with parents. Furthermore, a recent Nielsen survey found that 80 percent of parents find the ratings system accurate.
Which is to say that a PG-13 movie is a PG-13 movie because it seems like a PG-13 movie, and most people more or less agree that it is. Whatever the implications, fallout, suggested philosophy, or whatever is of far less concern than maintaining the status quo as we understand it.