The news is almost unbelievable: a horrific mass-shooting in a crowded movie theater. Once again we are forced to take stock of what we believe, what’s really important. Such occurrences should make us take a close look at ourselves and who we are. And we will. But inevitably we will eventually look away. That’s easier.
The gun-control argument has already begun, with the usual hyperbole from both sides. One has to wonder why it is so important that people have access to assault weapons. Yet at the same time, most gun-owners are entirely responsible and as horrified as anyone when something like this happens. But unrestricted access to guns – or the lack thereof – is neither the cause nor solution to incidents of this sort. Rather, we should be looking at what it is about us as a society that makes incidents such as this not only likely, but indeed inevitable.
Many have especially mourned the fact that some of the victims were children. This should raise a couple of questions, but it doesn’t. This was a midnight premier event, a now-common opening for high-profile action movies. What were young children doing there? What were they doing out anywhere at midnight? There was once a time when children had what was quaintly called a “bedtime.” That’s a thing of the past, apparently. But more to the point, what were children doing at any showing of The Dark Knight Rises, a dark, violent thriller? How is this appropriate entertainment for children?
It is, of course, because children’s entertainment is filled with violence, as is adult entertainment. It is what we crave. The more brutal and nihilistic the better. I could go off again on The Hunger Games and its presentation of the specter of children killing each other for sport. But that’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Another media event of late, nearly as anticipated as the Batman premier, is the return of the series Breaking Bad, a dark, violent drama about a man’s downward spiral into anarchy and amorality. It’s just one show of many such. There’s the immensely popular Dexter, where the main character is a remorseless serial killer. The Sopranos gave us mobster protagonists killing each other. The list goes on.
Such shows are called “edgy,” and we apparently like them because they present a world of moral ambiguity. But it’s far beyond that. The morality of these characters is not ambiguous, it’s clear: they aren’t good guys. Not by any sense of the term. Even a series like Big Love, which could have gotten all the edginess it could want from the premise of an illegal polygamous family, nevertheless saw a need to include a murderous conflict between family members. It seems we aren’t really entertained unless people die. And then we wonder how someone could possibly armor himself, carry weapons into a theater with impunity, and open fire. How was he not simply living out the sort of things we celebrate in entertainments such as the one that was about to unfold on the screen?
Noted horror writer Steven King has suggested we find pleasure in dark, gruesome scenes because deep down we are all crazy, and violent media is a way to safely feed these urges. But just because we crave something, that doesn’t mean we should feed those cravings. Children (and many adults) crave sweets, but we don’t feed our children a diet of candy. Rather we limit such things, often trying to eliminate them entirely from our diets. Because we are healthier for it.
Now, I’m not calling for the abolishment of violence in entertainment. Far from it. In context, violence can serve great purpose in storytelling. In my own writing, after some deep soul-searching, I have come to be able to present violent content, but on my terms. It’s ugly, not enjoyable. One of my characters can become horrifically violent, and this tragic reality serves a major drive of the story. I am currently looking as well into revising one of my more violent action sequences, out of which the protagonists currently emerge unscathed, changing it so that a key character receives a grievous injury. Because that’s reality. The bad guys don’t always miss, not like in the movies.
But then that’s perhaps the real problem. It’s not the violence so much as how enthusiastically it’s meted out by hero and villain alike. Just a few years ago Kick-Ass gave us an eleven-year-old girl who goes though the film stabbing, shooting, decapitating, and burning more people than can be counted, with perhaps the most egregious case being a scene where she gleefully crushes a helpless man in a car compactor, an act for which she is then praised by her father. And she’s the most beloved character in the film.
I have a young girl, age 11-12, in my novel. When I started out I vowed that, no matter what, she will never kill. I also set as my standard that, no matter what happens, no matter how dark or scary the story gets, my four main characters are all basically good people, who love each other very much. I realized then that it is this love, this bond, that is really what the story is about. They aren’t going to slide into the abyss of amorality that seems to drive the character arcs in so much of our popular entertainment today. Any darkness within them will find redemption.
I’m not talking about some sort of vacuous black and white morality. I’m very much a fan of tough moral questions. But it should be the search for answers to those questions that drives the characters, and they should naver take “no” for an answer. There is more than enough violence, darkness, amorality and nihilism in the world; we don’t need it to be central to our entertainment. This is especially true of children’s entertainment. They don’t need to see a brutal world that reflects their own, or whatever other arguments the defenders of these works come up with. Rather, they should be shown something better, something brighter to which they can aspire. They need heroes.
We all need heroes. But when heroes become indistinguishable from villains, then we are truly in a dark place. And we shouldn’t be placing ourselves there.