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Jewish World Review August 23, 1999 /11 Elul, 5759

Suzanne Fields

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Movies don't kill people -- MOVIES (LIKE GUNS) don't kill people. Crazies do. Nuts do. Distorted and evil people do.

But -- and it's a big but -- do movies contribute to violence? That's a question that can't be answered abstractly. A mother took her four-year-old son to see "Star Wars,'' and now the child goes around shaping his right hand like a gun, imaginatively shooting every tot in his nursery class. Is the make-believe a healthy sublimation or an aggressive act against other children?

That's a question without an answer, too. It's impossible to measure the impact of violent images on young psyches. A new movie made to appeal to teenagers is called "Teaching Mrs. Tingle.'' Its original title was "Killing Mrs. Tingle,'' but the distributors changed it after the Columbine killings. No doubt they realized they were not being socially responsible for a movie rated PG-13, which would be released soon after the Colorado school massacre. They didn't change the content which celebrates the violent revenge of three students against an evil teacher. It's not a movie about killing the teacher, which makes the original title somewhat gratuitous in the first place.

Kevin Williamson, the writer and director, tells Newsweek that the character of the teacher is an exaggerated one based on a mean teacher he had in high school. "Yours is a voice that shouldn't be heard,'' she said, interrupting him when he was reading one of his short stories. He took her advice and didn't try writing again for many years.

So the movie's a creative sublimation for Mr. Williamson, and probably for a lot of the rest of us who had lousy teachers we can still recall vividly. Mr. Williamson is a writer of popular horror movies as well as spoofs of horror movies. He scoffs at any cause-and-effect relationship between movies and violence, noting that he saw lots of horror movies as a child and he's an upstanding citizen with nothing more on his police record than two parking tickets.

Scary movies have been popular for dating teenagers since monster movies first encouraged the girl to cuddle up to the guy. Movie theaters once advertised that nurses, doctors and ambulances would be available for patrons frightened by Dracula and Frankenstein. Audiences like to be scared.

Mrs. Tingle and her "disciples"
In the 1930s several state censors cut a famous scene from a Frankenstein movie in which the monster discovers his humanity by befriending a guileless little girl who's not afraid of him. He kills her anyway. No statistics suggest that states that allowed the scene had a higher murder rate of little children than those who didn't. It's relatively easy to argue that sympathy for the child gave a moral dimension to the film. Context counts.

But the times, they have changed. It's certainly possible that the media saturation of violence desensitizes vulnerable boys and men who are looking for outlets for their anger. That's suggested by certain copycat killings. But if you're crazy enough or evil enough, Shakespeare's Othello could inspire wife-killing and Hamlet could provide the rationalization for killing a stepfather.

Today the news on television is as lurid as that on certain sitcoms. Kevin Williamson also writes scripts for the popular television sitcom "Dawson's Creek,'' a narrative about four 15- year-olds who talk a lot about a sex. In one of the most controversial episodes a thirtyish teacher has an affair with one of her students. Network executives defended the theme by noting that it was in the news. Mary Kay LeTourneau, the Seattle teacher who twice became pregnant by her student, made the cover of People magazine. The fictional teenager was portrayed as exceedingly troubled, hardly a role model.

As long as teenagers are in the money -- and they are -- sex and violence are likely to sell better than more moral-message dramas, although "7th Heaven,'' a television series about a minister raising a family, is popular with the kids too.

Certain advertisers who think there's teenage money in more family-oriented fare are putting their money where their product is. Procter & Gamble, General Motors, IBM, Sears, Pfizer and Wendy's among others, will pay writers to develop "family-friendly'' programs. They will finance at least eight scripts.

Will talented writers show up with good stories? Writers, like everybody else, follow the money. With a little imagination the marketplace that corrupts can also inspire. The little boy who shoots with his index finger may grow up to shoot with a camera.


08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate