My view: Americans crave heroes, but our models are increasingly violent

By George Drinka

Published: Sunday, Sept. 15 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

This image released by AMC shows Andrew Lincoln as Sheriff Rick Grimes in a scene from the season three premiere episode of "The Walking Dead."

AMC, Gene Page, Associated Press

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Violence is as American as apple pie. Likewise, semiautomatic rifles and blood-curdling movies serve as a daily fare in our culture of violence. A central reason for Congress not passing legislation this spring to regulate either the gun or the media industry stems from the amazing power of American corporations to influence the writing of laws, what with money impacting votes. But another way of viewing this gross inaction is the centrality that violence plays in the American identity. We often see violence as a solution to problems. In fact, many of our greatest heroes wield guns with epic precision.

We swim in a world bristling with violent imagery. That the average American child witnesses via the media about 7,000 murders and 100,000 other violent acts during the elementary school years alone seems a sobering reality. Our everyday experiences, including those related to media gazing, actually settle into the memory banks of our central nervous systems. They become encoded there. Over time, they conjure the unconscious narrative frames through which we see the world. In a very real sense, we become the murders and violent acts we witness in the media.

Recently the cable channels barraged us with coverage of the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. Though I do not assume to know the intimate workings of Mr. Zimmerman's heart and mind leading up to the killing, I suggest he suffers from a hero complex, one shared with many other Americans; at least in their fantasy worlds.

Those suffering from the complex see the outer world as dangerous and government agents as untrustworthy. In order for the hero to protect his kith and kin from danger, he must take the law into his own hands. Add a real gun to this fantasy mix, and there's bound to be real trouble.

A similar complex may infect the making of violent media. When Hollywood gurus are asked about their heavy reliance on violence in many of their blockbusters, they typically reply that it's because it sells. Yet in any given season many of these often high-budget films flop at the box office. This fact belies the idea that we get violence in buckets because we're craving it.

Rather, I suggest that we humans crave heroes, ones who will save us from our plight. Many of Hollywood's most successful creations rely heavily on core elements of the hero myth: the humble birth, prodigious struggles and epic triumph.

But in Hollywood, this hero myth often mixes too easily with violence. If violence pushes aside good storytelling, character depiction and the display of genuine emotions, then the film can easily be a flop.

What seems likely is that violence sells well enough and has become easier to create, relative to subtle and profound drama. Especially with the advent of high tech procedures, the filmmaker can create a small amount of violent footage at minimal expense and then magnify the violence into visually gorgeous scenes. Violent hero flicks specifically aimed at teens, like "The Hunger Games," reflect this phenomenon.

In the 1990s, media researcher George Gerbner coined the term "mean world syndrome" to explain how media was shaping the American psyche in troubling ways. He posited that because of Americans growing up watching so many acts of media violence — both fictional and real — we would witness a new generation who viewed the real world through the prism of violence.

I suggest that because many young Hollywood writers were nurtured on violent fare, we now are witnessing — in the movies and videogames they make — a manifestation of the violent memories from their own childhoods, long bubbling in their memory banks and now springing forth to haunt us and our children. Films like "Django Unchained" and the TV series "The Walking Dead" come to mind. Though the heroes of these media creations may at times manifest some degree of depth, they live knee-deep in gratuitous pools of blood and revel in killing sprees.

The phenomenon of violent imagery being absorbed in vast amounts since childhood creates a kind of echo chamber, a hall of mirrors in our inner and outer worlds. Violent sounds and sights are reflected and rehashed. By definition, the hero is armed to the teeth with semiautomatics, plastic bombs and grenades. Without flinching, he plies these weapons to save us. The question arises: How can we as a nation find our way out of this chamber of horrors?

George Drinka is on the clinical faculty of the Oregon Health Sciences University and the author of, "When Media is the Parent." He has published reviews in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association and contributes regularly to Psychology Today.

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