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Does Violence in Movies Matter?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about James Bond’s womanizing. One reader asked why I hadn’t raised the issue of violence, too. I said that while it wasn’t my topic of the moment, I’d take it up soon in a future post. Which brings us to this post.

So how about it? Is violence in movies — and TV, for that matter — a problem, too? My short answer is: Yes, definitely. But although people often link the two (“sex and violence” is a common phrase), it’s a different kind of problem and a more complicated topic.

Onscreen depictions of sex inherently are morally problematic. Virtually all of them produce lust in the audience. Most also involve unmarried characters and/or present an otherwise debased view of sex from what God intends, inviting the audience to share in it. But even if they didn’t, the central problem — lust — remains. There is, really, no right way to watch such scenes. There’s no way to watch intimacies (whether actual or simulated) that God intends for husband and wife without putting yourself in wrong relationship to His design.

Violence, too, can be presented in alluring ways. (We’ll get to those later.) But while practically everyone is susceptible to sexual temptation, the same can’t be said of violence. Indeed, many depictions of violence aren’t even meant to appeal to viewers, but to appall them — to establish a villain’s villainy, or to establish the ugliness of violence in general. You don’t watch the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan and come away thinking of war as glorious, much less wishing you could experience it in real life.

It should also be said that there are positive ways to portray violence which have a certain virtue. I’m thinking of what might be called justified force — used by characters in a good cause (typically to stop those using force in a bad one), out of necessity and in proportion to that necessity. That can be not only excusable but ennobling, especially for boys and men: It can call us to our God-given role as protectors and defenders, braving danger to do what’s right — and, yes, sometimes dealing out a measure of justice in the process. These portrayals can be action or fantasy (like The Avengers) or they can be grittier and more realistic. Either way, there’s something to be said for them.

But to describe these portrayals is to be reminded of how often we see violence depicted in other ways. We see some purported heroes (Bond, among many others) who cross over into brutality, while viewers are invited to take pleasure in pain and death. We see them callously dealing out mass mayhem and running up body counts while viewers are urged to cheer. They can be vicious or even sadistic. And the worst part is that we’re supposed to feel righteous about it: After all, the bad guys had it coming. Often the purpose of showing the bad guys’ violence is to make us feel good about unleashing our hatred toward them. Where old movies and TV shows (especially Westerns) spent a lot of time distinguishing between justice and revenge, modern ones seem to think that distinction is for sissies.

However violence is portrayed, there’s such a thing as seeing too much of it. If nothing else, desensitization sets in, and even scenes that are supposed to appall you lose their impact. Where’s the line? That varies from person to person. But here’s a test: Ask yourself if there are scenes of graphic violence to people (as opposed to CGI aliens or orcs) which would’ve gotten a strong reaction from you once, but get a weak one now. If so, you’re overexposed. I know I am.

As usual, there’s lots more I could say. But it’s your turn!

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About the Author

Matt Kaufman

Matt Kaufman has been a columnist for Boundless since the site’s founding in 1998, and did a stint as editor in 2002-2003. He’s also a former staffer and current contributing editor for Focus on the Family Citizen magazine. Matt is a freelance writer/editor who spent some years in Colorado, but gave up the mountains for the cornfields: He now lives in his hometown of Urbana, home of the University of Illinois. His house is a five minute drive from the one where he grew up, and he enjoys daily walks around the park where he used to play baseball.

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