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Jawboning as the Best Solution

When the people will lead, the leaders will follow.

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Not only is jawboning (criticizing, blaming, demanding change) the best solution, it's perhaps the only solution. I don't think we can force people to do good things such as curtailing violence. But by talking to and educating people, I think we can change the cultural climate. We can make anything we want (violence, stereotyping, talking on cell phones at a restaurant) socially unacceptable.

We've (almost) done this with everything from racism and sexism to smoking and driving while drunk. We've started doing it with prejudice against gays, love of guns, and receiving welfare without work. Similarly, gratuitous violence will end if enough people raise their voices against it.

Lest you think this is all starry-eyed theorizing, consider the recent hullabaloo about media violence. Despite the demands for action, Congress didn't do a thing, which is probably good. But some change occurred nevertheless.

Changes since Columbine
From an article in the LA Times, 11/20/99:

[H]ow far any future legislation will ultimately go is questionable, given the political gyrations in the seven months since Columbine. Lawmakers spent much of the time warring over which to blame—guns or Hollywood—for the shootings that claimed 15 lives. In the end, they didn't do much about either.

Gun control legislation was recently declared dead for the year, and a handful of minor entertainment-related provisions passed by the Senate are stuck in a conference committee.

Still, there has been some change since Columbine.

This week, the Motion Picture Assn. of America announced a new policy calling for all movie print advertising to include an explanation of why a film received a particular rating. The move—a response to criticism that its current rating system does not give parents sufficient information—will mean that billboards, newspaper ads and posters will not just have a letter rating (G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17) but will list the elements that earned it (language, nudity, drug use, etc.).

The nation's largest theater owners, meanwhile, say they are more tightly enforcing the rating system, requiring since June that young viewers show photo identification for admission to R-rated films.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board in New York this month launched a national campaign to make parents aware of the computer and video game rating system, including a public service announcement featuring golfer Tiger Woods. (In a classic case of mixed signals, however, a new video game called Blow Away Your Boss, in which players can insert a photo of someone and then hunt them with a handgun through a simulated office, was released almost simultaneously.)

Some television projects have been shelved as needlessly gruesome. The guilds for producers, writers and directors are encouraging their members to be mindful of the violent content of their projects, and an industrywide summit on Hollywood violence is planned for early next year, entertainment sources say.

Informal Awareness in Hollywood Circles

In general, Hollywood leaders speak of an informal, prevailing awareness that creators must consider whether violence is necessary to tell the story, rather than merely appeal to the lurid interests of even the most willing audiences, particularly young audiences.

"On a Monday night at Morton's or Friday night at Le Dome, this issue is a very live one. People are talking about it and trying to sort it out," Mount says.

The renewed awareness has come despite an inconsistent viewing public: "The Fight Club," a film notable for its violence, flopped at the box office, while "The Bone Collector," almost equally grisly, has soared. "The Iron Giant," which won rave reviews from critics as ideal children's entertainment, fizzled in theaters.

Still, many industry leaders have concluded that repetitive, senseless violence is dangerously numbing, even while they challenge the notion that actions depicted in films influence real life.

"It is not that violent pictures create more violence, but the constant litany of gratuitous violence is destructive to the fabric of the culture because it lowers our threshold for sensitivity to the issue," Mount said.

While actors have hardly mounted the bully pulpit, some have quietly expressed their concern that entertainment violence has gone far enough.

Bruce Willis, explaining his switch from action films to love stories, said in a recent USA Today interview that the 1996 movie "Last Man Standing" marked "the beginning of the end" of his tough guy roles. "Very violent," he said. "I had just gotten tired of it . . . and I think audiences have had enough of that."

Even if change cannot be measured in federal legislation, Washington may have succeeded in reframing the debate from a battle over content to a battle over the marketing of violent products.

The FTC inquiry is all about advertising—not whether Hollywood should be making the violent stuff but whether it should be selling it to children. And lawmakers, frustrated by 1st Amendment protections against regulating creative content, are looking at other ways to make life difficult for Hollywood's business side.

Congress will likely be more vigorous in scrutinizing the public interest obligations of broadcasters next year as they transition to the Digital Age. Part of that discussion could focus on programming standards dealing with violence and sex, according to a Senate aide.

"What should broadcasters' public interest obligations be?" the aide asked. "They can expect a more vigorous examination of that question, with violence being a factor."

Gratuitous violence getting canceled
From the LA Times, 3/6/01:

Up until now, [Rob] Zombie, a theatrical heavy-metal rocker, has been something of a poster boy for corporate synergy at Vivendi-Universal. As the leader of White Zombie and later as a solo artist, Zombie has sold millions of records for Universal's Geffen Records label. In 1999, Zombie designed the Halloween Horror Night maze for Universal Studios Hollywood that featured creepy creatures and a 30-foot replica of Zombie's head. And the dreadlocked rocker's most ambitious project, a gory $7-million horror film called "House of 1000 Corpses," was due for release this summer by Universal Pictures.

Well, so much for synergy. After weeks of negotiations and soul-searching, Universal Pictures has told Zombie that it won't release the movie and instead has allowed Zombie, who wrote and directed the picture, to retain the rights and look for a new distributor. The studio plans to officially announce the decision today.

"We have the utmost respect for Rob, who made a really intense and compelling movie, but it turned out far more intense than we could have possibly imagined," [Chairman Stacey] Snider says. "When I looked at the cumulative effect of the entire film, it was clear that the best version of the movie would end up getting an NC-17 rating, and we felt that would make the marketing and distribution of the movie impossible for us."
Snider and Zombie both say the decision was the result of differences in artistic taste, not worries over the film's playability or any chilling effect from the browbeating the entertainment industry received last fall from the Senate Commerce Committee and the Federal Trade Commission over marketing violent movies, music and video games to children.

Still, since this is the first time a studio has publicly disassociated itself from a violent movie since the hearings, Universal's decision is bound to be interpreted as a sign that movie studios are taking a more cautious approach to youth-oriented films with violent subject matter.

There is already evidence to support that view. Zombie's manager, Andy Gould, says he was involved as a music supervisor in several recent teen-oriented horror films, including "Valentine" and "Dracula 2000," whose content was toned down in the wake of the FTC report on the marketing of violent films to children. And Snider acknowledged that "going to Washington did raise my consciousness in certain subtle ways, especially in terms of marketing films to young audiences."

However she argues that dropping "1000 Corpses" was a "content issue, not a witch-hunt response. I would've responded the same way to the movie without ever having listened to [Sen.] John McCain at the hearings. This wasn't about sending the movie out with an R rating and lots of warnings. This was overwhelmingly a matter of personal responsibility."

From an article quoting John Stockwell, director of the movie crazy/beautiful. In the LA Times, 7/3/01:

"For a teen drama, the R rating has become the scarlet letter," Stockwell says. "There's so much pressure on the MPAA and the studios because of the new marketing restrictions that the R rating is a nonstarter."

And more:
Updates to the FTC report on media violence
"Of the 15 top-grossing films in 2000, only two showed people getting shot."

Jawboning works
An article from the LA Times, 4/22/01, sums up the jawboning effect:

The FTC report got our attention and changed behavior, but we're still in the business that we're in," said one studio executive, adding that Hollywood has grown accustomed to occasional political turbulence.

So jawboning didn't produce any federal legislation, but it generated tangible results. Most important, it promoted a growing awareness of our lust for violence and its deep-seated cultural roots. People are talking about it and in some cases acting upon it.

The same will happen if enough of us jawbone George Lucas, creators who do stereotypical cartoons such as B.C., producers who don't hiring minority actors on TV, and so forth. They'll change or they'll continue to endure criticism. Few people want or can tolerate public opprobrium.

I'm reminded of the SANDMAN story about the dream of a thousand cats. Its premise was that if enough cats dreamed the same thing simultaneously, the power would reconfigure the world in their favor. I think the fight against violence, stereotyping, or any other social ill is very much like that.

Talking...educating...raising consciousnesses...that's what it's all about.

More on jawboning
In Praise of Making a Stink:  "[N]one of these things would have happened if it weren't for the torrent of public outrage...."

Related links
Why does Rob keep criticizing?
The clash of ideas and why it's good

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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