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Heroes and Villains: When is Media Violence Justified?

Elizabeth Bandy
Communication Department
Stanford University
May 2001

What makes a particular group of teens lie down on the yellow line in the middle of a busy street after seeing teenage characters do it in a movie? Is it the fault of their parents, the filmmakers, society, the kids themselves? My research examines how different groups of individuals create meaning from the same media portrayal. Because of these different interpretations, the same portrayal can often affect viewers in different ways.

Specifically, my research looks at how the effects of media violence are mitigated both by the nature of the portrayals and by the different interpretations of those portrayals by various groups of individuals. I plan to focus on two aspects of the interpretations and effects of media violence: whether or not the violence is justified (that is, sanctioned by society/understandable given the circumstances) and whether different cultural groups consider the same act of violence justified.

Literally hundreds of studies conducted over the past 50 years indicate that viewing violent media portrayals negatively affects audience members, particularly children. Despite widespread interest and concern, media violence is increasing and there seem to be no workable solutions to the problem. In part, the lack of solutions is a result of the complex nature of media effects. That is, we cannot say that all media violence has the same effect on all viewers.

Researchers have found that a single portrayal of media violence may have different effects, including desensitization and imitation. Viewers may become desensitized to violence; violence (both in the media and in real life) might not seem so bad, and as a result violent portrayals need to be increasingly graphic in order to shock, horrify, or “gross them out.” Viewing violent portrayals may also lead to imitation of violent acts in real life. This imitation not only includes the "copycat" crimes that receive national media attention, but also an increased likelihood of aggressive behavior, such as children playing with toy guns or getting into fights. Additionally, certain aspects of violent portrayals may lead to different effects. For example, children are much less likely to behave aggressively after viewing a violent media portrayal when the negative consequences of violence are shown than when they are not shown. Finally, different individuals may be affected in different ways by the same portrayal because they learn different social norms and have different life experiences. For instance, in our culture girls are taught not to behave aggressively, thus, in experiments girls imitate media violence less often than boys. Media violence research must consider how aspects of both the portrayal and the viewer increase or decrease the likelihood of particular effects.

My research looks at one particular aspect of the portrayal: the justification of violence. Traditionally, researchers have labeled violence as justified when committed by a hero or sanctioned by a character's role. For instance, most of the violent acts committed by police officers or other law enforcement officials on television and in the movies are considered justified. These individuals are doing their jobs, protecting innocent people and capturing “the bad guys.” Similarly, television and film heroes often commit justified acts of violence to seek revenge for the murder or kidnapping of family members and/or to protect others. Previous research in this area indicates that when media violence is justified, viewers are more likely to behave aggressively than when it is not justified (a desensitization effect). This aggressiveness takes many forms and is not necessarily connected to justifiable behaviors.

On the surface, it seems easy to identify justified violence. Most people who have been raised in the United States would agree that certain acts of violence are more justifiable than others because we have been raised with a common set of social norms and expectations. However, research that assumes we all agree about what violent acts are considered justified, ignores the second part of the media violence equation: the interpretation of the viewer. In fact, cultural differences in attitudes toward violence do exist among various geographical regions of the country.

Anthropologists and social psychologists have examined the “culture of honor” that exists among white males in the American South and, to some extent, West. According to this research, cultural norms perpetuated in these areas have led to a culture that says certain types of violence are justified, such as when one defends the honor of one's mother or sister. Most of us can call up the appropriate images of a culture of honor. Think of the gentlemen facing off with pistols at dawn or the gunslingers squinting across a dusty street at high noon, six-guns blazing. For most of us, these images are just mythical representations of a way of life that is long gone. However, vestiges of this culture remain in the South and West, where crimes that fit within a culture of honor are more likely to occur and to be regarded as understandable than in the rest of the country. So far, the research indicates that this culture permeates all socioeconomic levels.

Research in this area has looked at real life differences in crime rates and attitudes toward certain kinds of violence. My research will apply these findings to media violence. Because they have different life experiences and belief systems from other groups, white Southern males, for example, may apply different definitions of justification to the violence they see in the media compared with other individuals. These differences may, in turn, lead to different effects for the same media portrayal.

In my research, I will show groups of Southern and non-Southern white males the same portrayal of media violence and then compare their responses to a set of questions, such as: how much they liked the perpetrator, whether they believed he was justified in his actions (and why), and to what extent his actions would be understandable in real life. More generally, I hope that my research will show that the research of media violence effects needs to consider differences in the nature of portrayals as well as differences in the interpretations of those portrayals by various groups. Through this research, I hope to add to our understanding of who is affected by violence in the media, under what circumstances, and in what ways.