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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Media Violence and Shades of Gray

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

You have no idea how much I hate jumping on a bandwagon - any bandwagon. Maybe it's my New England heritage or maybe it's a bit of rebelliousness left over from the 60's. I simply dislike doing or thinking what everyone else does.

So when I heard about yet another round of Senate hearings last week on the subject of media violence and marketing it to children, I dismissed it as simply an election season ploy to once again bash Hollywood for problems in our society. I pledged not to get on THAT bandwagon.

But then I recalled a scene I saw in a Bruce Willis movie recently. He walks up to a friend of his, and when they see he has blood on his shirt, they express concern.

"It's OK," Willis replies stoically, "It's not mine."

I was sent a Perry Ellis ad from the New York Times Magazine recently. It features a woman in an overcoat sitting on the floor of a tiled bathroom. She's got this vacant, drugged-out stare. From the top of the frame, a male hand is roughly tugging at the belt of her coat. Other ads in fashion or lifestyle magazines leave less to the imagination.

These things trouble me.

There are some folks who believe that the world is black and white, good and bad. There is no in between. "This is good," they announce, "and that is bad." They put everything into one of those two categories. It's a simplistic (but easy) world-view which most of us avoid.

And then there are those who see the opposite - absolutely no black or white, but merely varying shades of gray. To them, there is no good or bad - just stuff in between. One thing could be more or less desirable than another, but there are no absolutes, no limits in their world-view. Such an outlook is also conveniently easy.

What I (and perhaps others as well) have trouble dealing with is the realization that it's both of the above. Yes, there is black and white, but yes, there are also about a million shades of gray in between. There ARE lines between acceptable and not acceptable - sometimes they are hazy or indistinct or even changing, but they're there.

Violence is a fact of life in the world and in our society, and only a Pollyanna would urge that all depictions of violence be purged from our media. Every great writer from Homer to Shakespeare to Arthur Miller has told stories which contain violence.

The depictions of that violence used to be simple - and clean. If a cowboy shot someone, they'd fall off the horse dead. Hit a guy in the head, and he'd drop down unconscious. No blood, no gore.

One of the earliest video games on the market years ago was Space Invaders, where you shot down invading monsters with your laser gun. When you hit a monster, he'd disappear. It's called "sanitized violence."

Compare that to some of the over-the-edge portrayals of violence today. When someone gets shot in a film, blood spurts all over the place. Often the camera remains focused on the stream of blood flowing and puddling from the wound.

In current video games, destroying the villain results in pretty gruesome depictions of blood and gore. In one popular game, the player even gets extra points for a "head shot."

We seem to have moved from sanitized violence to the glorification of violence. We should have stopped somewhere in between.

There's a difference between the realistic (and necessary) portrayal of violence to tell a story or provide entertainment and the gratuitous violence which seems to be the goal rather than a result of the plot.

The story of "Hamlet" or "The Alamo" requires the presence of violence in the story line. You can't tell a story like "Saving Private Ryan" without graphically showing the very real and terrible effects of bullets on the human body. And no one with a brain in their head is suggesting that Hollywood try.

But there really are images which cross the line. Bruce Willis spends half his films covered with blood (only sometimes his own). Implied violence (or sex, or drug use) is used to sell clothes in fashion magazines.

It's difficult (if not downright impossible) to actually articulate and draw the difference between necessary or acceptable violence and the gratuitous glorification of violence. I know that I can't do it.

But that doesn't mean that there's no difference between the two.

There may very well be a million shades of gray in between, but there are still some black and white things in the world, some things which are clearly good or bad. Just because it's hard to define the line doesn't mean that we've erased it.

OK. I know. I'm calling for the realistic portrayal of violence necessary to tell a story. It would be far easier to urge the elimination of violence altogether - or to say that because it's so hard to define, anything goes.

Finding an appropriate and sensible "middle ground" is the problem.

Politicizing it may not help.