VIOLENT ENTERTAINMENT, When a group conversation turns to questions of media violence, homespun explanations quickly surface. A few are on target; most are not. The social scientist who is present volunteers to enlighten everyone. She or he takes pains to summarize a wealth of research on the consequences of people’s exposure to violent portrayals whether on television, in video arcades, or at sports venues. Most seem satisfied, but one or two individuals press on. “But why do people watch this stuff?” “Why are we so fascinated with blood and gore?” At this point, cracks begin to appear in the scientist’s authoritative demeanor.
Of course, the reason is that evidence on this most basic of questions is sketchy, and such theory as it exists is largely speculative and untested. Jeffrey Goldstein has made a heroic attempt to draw together what is known about the attraction to violence.
To this end, he has assembled a diverse set of eminent scholars, with each expert addressing the question from the perspective of his or her respective disciplines. That diversity is reflected throughout the 10 chapters of Why We Watch. The fundamental question of why we are drawn to violence is explored in a variety of settings that range from children’s toys and literature to religion, media, and sports.
The chapters are uniformly well written, informative, and thought provoking. A few examples will convey the tenor of the book.
Sports historian Allen Guttmann traces the appeal for spectators of violence in classical Greece and Rome through the Middle Ages to the present day. The public’s seeming appetite for blood sports, e.g., gladiatorial combat, knightly tournaments, and modern-day boxing, emerges as a dominant theme in his historical review.
Guttmann offers some tentative explanations, one of which draws attention to the sadomasochistic elements in gladiatorial combat and contemporary bullfighting. He concludes by pointing researchers in the direction of a largely neglected topic in observing that “the triadic association of sports, eros, and violent death has seldom been investigated by serious scholars”.
Goldstein (chapter 3) initially draws an important distinction between aggression and playfighting. In the case of playfighting, there is an absence of any intent to injure.
In contrast to the vigorous activity of mock fighting on playgrounds by boys, girls are often seen to stand around chatting. However, if their conversations turn to gossip and attempts to ostracize other girls, then their actions can be equated with aggression. Goldstein observes, “What at first sight appears to be aggressive boys and nonaggressive girls may, in deed and in consequence, be the other way round”.
The differing perceptions of aggressive play by men and women is also examined, as is the historical prevalence of playfighting during wartime. The balance of this chapter considers the merits of the biological/physiological, psychological, and social/cultural reasons advanced to account for youngsters’ interest in war toys.
Joanne Cantor makes a solid contribution to this volume (chapter 5) in investigating the attraction of children to violent television programming. She draws on the results of two large-scale surveys conducted in Wisconsin involving parents as subjects in one and children as subjects in the other. Cantor skillfully integrates the findings with the media literature to answer questions such as the popularity of violent vs.
nonviolent programming. Overall, youngsters show a clear preference for family-centered situation comedies. In concluding, Cantor emphasizes the need for researchers to direct their efforts at understanding the attractiveness of nonviolent genres. She notes that even extremely violent programming often portrays affiliative relations among its principals, an element that may also contribute to its popularity.
Clark McCauley (chapter 7) examines the reactions of people exposed to media presentations that ostensibly exceed the bounds of what generally might be regarded as entertaining. Bloody footage leaves viewers disgusted, disturbed, and distressed but nonetheless entertained! It is this paradox that McCauley endeavors to resolve in offering a “tentative” resolution.
In possibly the strongest chapter in the book (chapter 9), Dolf Zillmann provides an in-depth review and systematic evaluation of the merits of a wide range of speculative views of the reasons why violence proves to be so attractive to so many. Some of the explanations have merit; others, although intuitively plausible, miss the mark on closer inspection.
Yet another set of explanations are untestable and/or simply farfetched. A sampling of explanations includes a number of catharsis hypotheses, Jungian and Freudian doctrines, evolutionary notions, protective vigilance, and fear mastery, among others.
The contributors to this volume would in all likelihood find themselves in agreement
with Zillmann’s concluding remarks regarding violent portrayals: “There is no single
quality of violence, nor a single circumstance in the exposure to its depiction, that could adequately explain the apparent attraction of the portrayals in question.” In conceding our rudimentary understanding of people’s attraction to violence he further notes that “there seem to exist a multitude of conditions that are poorly interrelated and, hence, difficult to integrate into a universal theory”.
In a concluding chapter, Goldstein presents a summary of the contributors’ explanations for the drawing power of violent fare. He also provides a summary table listing the characteristics of those individuals most attracted to violent imagery, along with characteristics of violent imagery that increase its appeal to viewers.
In the writer’s view, Why We Watch is a pivotal work that charts a new course for future investigations of violence in the media. Goldstein has addressed head-on a question that previously had been sidestepped or largely ignored.
As a result, this work represents a sharp departure from all other books on the subject of media violence. It is the starting point for those who ask why and those researchers who would seek to answer the question. This volume has earned a place front and center on the bookshelves of the layperson and social scientist alike.