Movies powerfully condition what we desire and feel we deserve

Ann Hornaday responded to the Rogen-Apatow outrage, again at the Washington Post blog.

I was surprised Monday morning to discover that an essay I’d written over the weekend – about the YouTube video posted by Elliot Rodger, who took six lives and his own in Isla Vista, Calif., on Friday – had earned the wrath of filmmaker Judd Apatow and his frequent collaborator, actor Seth Rogen. (Rogen turned down a request from The Post to film a video segment in response to the original column.)

As un-fun as it is to be slammed by famous people, I could understand Apatow and Rogen’s dismay. Why would a movie reviewer even weigh in on the Isla Vista tragedy in the first place? It happened that Rodger taped a somewhat rambling, 6-minute rant, during which he explained that a combination of social and sexual rejection, loneliness and chronic feelings of unfairness contributed to the murders he was about to commit.

The video was startlingly well-produced – featuring rich lighting, careful staging and a classic California backdrop of palm trees. That, combined with the fact that Rodger himself grew up surrounded by the film industry, led me to write about how Hollywood movies – specifically wish-fulfillment fantasies and revenge-driven vigilante thrillers – might have informed an unstable young man’s ideas about what his college years and life in general were supposed to look like. Movies aren’t accurate reflections of real life, as I wrote in the essay. But there’s no doubt they powerfully condition what we desire and feel we deserve from it.

Because why wouldn’t they? How would we go about being immune to their influence? How would that work? How can Rogen and Apatow possibly be certain that their movies have zero influence on any human beings? Advertising works, doesn’t it? It influences people. If it didn’t, at some point capitalists would have figured that out and stopped spending all this money on it. Does advertising work solely because it comes with a label “advertising” so that we know we’re supposed to be influenced, and we comply?

I say no. How are movies fundamentally different from advertising?

They’re not, except for being much longer and thus more so. Yes, Seth & Judd, movies have power over us. Yes, yours too. Yes, even the stupidest ones.

I was not using the grievous episode in Isla Vista to make myself more famous; nor was I casting blame on the movies for Rodger’s actions. Rather, in my capacity as a movie critic, I was looking at the video as a lens through which to examine questions about sexism, insecurity and entitlement, how they’ve threaded their way through an entertainment culture historically dominated by men and how they’ve shaped our own expectations as individuals and a culture. At a time when women account for less than 20 percent of filmmakers behind the camera and protagonists in front of it, I suggested that it’s long past time to expand and diversify the stories we tell ourselves.

And we get to do that, without entitled sexist thoughtless frat-boy moviemakers pitching rage-fits.

My observations struck a chord of recognition with University of Maryland graduate student Isabella Cooper:

I have taught Women’s Lit courses in the English Department several times, and did so this past semester. Sadly, I am never short on fodder to show the students how rampant misogyny and sexism still are in our culture, and this article gets right to the heart of the way Hollywood so often bolsters men’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, their belief that their sexual drive amounts to a right (as Adrienne Rich put it all the way back in the seventies!).

There’s plenty of fodder. I would happily do without the fodder for the sake of better stories, with women as central characters who have a place on the mattering map.


  1. says

    Does advertising work solely because it comes with a label “advertising” so that we know we’re supposed to be influenced, and we comply?

    That would also be a problem with product placement in movies. If the idea is we see Will Smith wearking Nike sneakers in “I, Robot” and we’ll run out and buy them, then clearly movies influence our desires as expressed in spending habits.

  2. says

    I can’t remember quite where else it was I wrote recently it might sort out some confusions in our world if we’d treat fiction/storytelling/so on with more respect. Probably PZ’s, maybe here, definitely in some discussion of religion or ‘nother, but anyway…

    I’m glancing sideways at stuff like this, thinking something similar, I think.

    One of the points: beyond trying to keep it separate in our heads whether a story is true or not (frequently a problem in religions, urban legends, so on… I think part of the point there was a religion is probably a collection of urban legends that just never got properly Snopsed and _really_ took off), I figure it’s also important to remember: even stories we know aren’t literally true–or at all likely ever to represent anything that is ever going to happen in real life–almost certainly _do_ influence us, all the same. We learn from stories, and coherent narratives (I am conscientiously avoiding snarking here on just _how_ coherent the abovementioned pair’s oeuvre generally is) are especially sticky in our brains. This is much of what makes them useful, but it’s also what makes them so powerful, both for good and for ill.

    Sure, it’s naive to imagine everyone who plays violent video games goes out and shoots people. But remember we’re a social species, and we learn by observation. And, indeed, we learn our social behaviour from observation, in large part, at least. So how you relate to people is going to be influenced in large measure by how you see other people relating to one another, and yes, I’m quite confident they don’t have to be literally physically present for you to learn. This can probably be good, even when the behaviour you’re observing is actually kind of appalling, if you’re actually aware of this and properly appalled by it. Bad examples do instruct, too. But even then, I think you’ve gotta realize: brains are complicated. You can probably be consciously appalled and still have that example in there. And if the appalling person got what they wanted, and you find yourself in that same situation a decade from now, and wanting the same thing, well, yeah, you may find you actually learned a few things, that day…

    The hell of it is: this power is at least part of why we tell and listen to stories. It’s not just that it’s fun. It’s not just that it passes the time. Something doesn’t have to be labelled ‘instructional fable’ for you to take instruction from it. Something can, in fact, be labelled very clearly ‘absurdly escapist entertainment’, and you’re very likely to scoff out loud at the silliness of the whole situation, and _still_ form impressions from how the characters within behave…

    It’s both problem and opportunity, mind. I think, generally speaking, fantasy is a good thing, properly labelled. And stories, more generally, too. On the more obviously practical side, it’s a lot safer to learn from example, for one thing. You don’t have to walk up to a grizzly yourself and offer to feed it a peanut butter sandwich by hnS to learn this is probably not the wisest move; somewhere, there’s presumably a YouTube video demonstrating this as vividly as you might wish; this can save a lot of people much trouble. It’s the great thing about being language using species, a social species. We just need one of our number to try this, then we tell each other what happened; it’s a much more economical approach.

    And on the less obviously practical (but I still think very important) side, yes, stories take us away, let us imagine things that aren’t, but might be, or just aren’t, and will never be, but still imagine how people would behave if they were, what it would feel like to be there. We can’t actually travel faster than light, probably never will. But we can imagine what this would be like. It may sound a mite cliché, but seriously: that’s a pretty powerful thing, when you think about it. You can do with a story what billions of dollars may never do, no matter how you spend them.

    But we have to respect stories. They’re probably _never_ quite just for fun, even if that was really all we were thinking when we told them, or listened. Our brains are very plastic, very impressionable, and they’re learning stuff all the time, whether we’d like them to or not. And maybe especially now, in our now insanely media-rich culture, we need to appreciate this that much more.

  3. says

    About every single movie, every single book tells us, tells our chilren how the world is supposed to be. Even when it’s not about our world. When the character we relate to is distressed, so are we. That’s why people cry over books and movies, even though they are fully aware that they are fiction.
    If the protagonists are happy, so are we.
    We still expect people to act logically and consistenly within a story. We expect them to be sad when a loved one dies, to be happy when something good happens. In short, we expect them to react to the same stimuli people in the real world do, have the same basic motivations. Even when we’re talking about the X-men. And then there’s this slight change. At pattern. Repeated so often in books and movies that we think it is actually real. Because it is mixed with all these other “real” reactions: The hero (always a hero) saves the day, whatever quest it was that he had to complete and he gets the desireable woman. Even in Harry Potter.
    She is the prize the world hands out to the good guys.

  4. Dunc says

    Culture, how the fuck does it work?

    Stories are probably the most powerful cultural artefacts we create. Culture is, at it’s very roots, about storytelling. Stories fundamentally shape how we understand the world, and our place within it.

    It’s never “just a story”.

  5. michaelraymer says

    I dislike quoting from that ugly manifesto, but there’s an important point about movies and his motivation buried in it. Rodger claims that the movie “Alpha Dog” – which I have not seen – had a powerful impact on his life when he saw it as a teenager. He said it depicts a 15 year old having sex with two girls in a pool. He said that he was so intensely jealous of this boy that he took pleasure in watching him die later in the movie. But, like misogyny, I guess movies had nothing to do with this, even though he mentions one by name and mentions the powerful influence it had on shaping his expectations and measuring his success in life.

  6. noastronomer says

    Leni Riefenstahl or Sergei Eisenstein to the white courtesy phone please

  7. leskimopie says

    @1 Converse actually. And tbh, with all the blatant corporate product placement shoveled into I Robot, after watching it many times (with a rifftrax), the main thing it really sold me on…was that sweet potato pie looked really good, and I specifically learned how to (badly) make it JUST because of that stupid movie. lol

  8. leni says

    The hero (always a hero) saves the day, whatever quest it was that he had to complete and he gets the desireable woman. Even in Harry Potter.

    This is why I love Buffy so much. It probably says a lot more about our culture than the show itself that we don’t do this with our male heroes very much, but she pretty much never saved the day on her own. Lots of the time it wasn’t even her that saved the day. (Xander and the yellow crayon FTW!) And pretty much no one got the girl. Or the guy. Except maybe briefly and it always ended badly.

    That’s disappointing about Seth Rogan, though. I haven’t watched that many of his movies, but I kind of like his bumbling pothead persona.

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