Violence in Entertainment: How My Little Pony Can Save the World
I scroll idly through hundreds of TV channels available for my perusal. I take part in America’s favorite sport, channel surfing, and wade my way through flashing lights and obnoxious noises. Nothing seems to stick out; or, perhaps more accurately, everything seems to stick out. After all, no one would find explosions and gore and graphic sex to be boring or ordinary in the real world. I pause momentarily on one channel; a reporter is explaining the known details of the latest school shooting. Shuddering, I continue on, searching not for information but merely for an escape from my ennui. A few channels later, I pause once again; the screen now flickers between scenes at a breakneck pace, tearing me from one bloodbath to another. I have no context, given that it was the middle of the show, but I wonder if context really would have helped my understanding of why such a thing would legitimately appeal to anyone. I remain on this channel only briefly before flipping back to the news. The newscaster continues rambling on about that same violent shooting, it seems, but this time the tragedy hardly affects me, and instead I wonder what could turn a man into such a murderer, stripping him of any semblance of empathy or morality.
Unfortunately, modern entertainment has become mindlessly violent overall. A tool that can be and has been used for information, moral lessons, and improving society has crumbled to a gruesome and shallow state. Common solutions like ratings systems, censorship, and accountability management have failed and will continue to fail to solve the issue. Modern and popular entertainment display violence in a way that desensitizes people to bloodshed and harms society, and the only workable solution is to support moralistic media that remains engaging and entertaining, like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
First of all, violence in entertainment essentially trains people to be violent. Research consistently shows that “[v]iolent media increase aggression by teaching observers how to aggress” (Anderson et al.). Just as Pavlov’s dog was taught to associate a certain noise with food, humans can be taught to associate violence with pleasure; people watch gruesome acts of killing in their entertainment before being bombarded by advertisements for products targeted toward them (Lavers). Brad Bushman, a psychology professor and expert on the causes of human aggression, stated in an interview that in violent video games “you get points for killing people; that’s how you advance to the next level of the game… so you’re directly rewarded for doing that.” The very way violent video games are structured rewards pointless violence and, as Bushman explains simply, “people are more likely to repeat behaviors that are rewarded.” Our media needs to adequately represent the (often more-effective) peaceful solutions to problems, or the majority of society will learn to be aggressive and to accept violent solutions as more and more acceptable.
Disturbingly, violence in media desensitizes civilians to violence just as military training does to soldiers. Instinctively, the majority of people are unwilling to kill other people; even in war, many soldiers refused to actually fire upon visible enemy soldiers. At the time of the second World War, researchers “discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the individual riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy soldier,” compared with a rate of “over 90 percent” during the Vietnam War (Cagney). The military achieved this staggering result through desensitization, a process mimicked by violent media. As people are exposed to violence on a daily basis, they begin to accept it as normal. The same process that used to train soldiers is inadvertently being applied to children and society at large (Cagney).
Perhaps almost as threatening as media training people to act violently, however, are the actual physical changes caused by consuming violent entertainment. The effects of “priming aggressive cognitions” and “increasing arousal,” as Anderson et al. mention, threaten society nearly as much as “teaching observers how to aggress.” Scientists have measured these physiological effects in particular; a team of researchers discovered that test subjects produced stress hormones linked to aggression in significantly higher amounts even long after the subjects ceased playing violent video games (Hossini et al.). Critics may complain that violent media do not directly cause violence, despite the extensive proof to the contrary. Even so, watching violence has also been shown to decrease the likelihood of an individual helping a victim in a violent situation (“Major medical groups finger H'wood violence”). Desensitization to violence does not just increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior; it robs people of their empathy for fellow human beings, an integral part of humanity and morality.
So far, the primary system to combat entertainment media’s harmful effect on society has been through unsuccessful ratings systems. Although good in theory, entertainment ratings systems have failed. Their primary purpose, to let parents make smarter decisions about what media to expose their children to, has been shown to be inadequate. A group of researchers asked parents whether or not they thought particular movies, television shows, and video games were appropriate for certain age groups and compared this feedback to the industry standards; the results were less than stellar. Parents were asked to rate various pieces of entertainment; a “green light” signified that the rater thought that a given game, movie, or show was appropriate for a given age range, a “yellow light” signaled uncertainty (i.e. parental guidance suggested), and a “red light” showed that the given entertainment would not at all be appropriate for a given age range. “[P]arent raters disagree with industry usage of many of the ratings designating material suitable for children of different ages” concludes the study, showing that our current ratings system does not line up with what parents expect. TV-shows rated for teenagers in particular were given the “red light” of definite disapproval by over half of parents surveyed (Walsh). At best, these ratings systems provide a tiny tool for responsible parents to monitor their children’s entertainment intake. Although this may give slightly more power to parents, such a system is completely useless when parents do not make use of it. In addition, such a ratings system may have the opposite of the intended effect; the Vice President of West Coast Entertainment himself admitted that “the violence warning that appears on the Sega Genesis ‘Mortal Kombat’ actually sparked sales,” stating that “[k]ids were clamoring to get that game because of the publicity” (qtd. in Goldstein). Ultimately, our current solutions to the problem of violence in entertainment harming society are not good enough.
The most obvious and most tried solution is censorship: government stepping in directly to outlaw or restrict violence in media with legal penalties for disobedience. Censorship of video games has been tried, before the Supreme Court no less, but the court in its wisdom rejected it. When California tried to pass a law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors, the Supreme Court determined in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assn. that although “a few limited exceptions for historically unprotected speech, such as obscenity, incitement, and fighting words” had been made, “a legislature cannot create new categories of unprotected speech simply by weighing the value of a particular category against its social costs.” Regardless of how harmful violent video games may be, the court determined that censorship in this situation would still be unconstitutional. Essentially, calling for the government to just magically zap away the problem is not an option.
With government essentially out of the picture, one has to wonder who ought to be accountable for the problem of excessive violence in the media. The President of the Ethics Resource Council argues that “[c]orporate leaders, in spite of what the market may be willing to entertain or even want, have a responsibility to the quality of the programming they put out and the effect it has on our children and on our culture” (qtd. in LaBarre). Although this may be true to some extent, and consumers ought to call the producers of violent media out on their blunders, this in and of itself is not sufficient. Corporations generally care more about profit than people, and they will sell almost anything to make money. Ultimately, it is every individual’s duty to monitor what sort of entertainment oneself and one’s children consume. Parents especially need to control to some extent what TV shows and movies their children watch and what video games their children play.
Remember, however, that entertainment media is neither inherently evil nor limited to only negative effects. Much of young children’s television tends to be morally educational in nature, and entertainment has encouraged charity and good behavior. Although many video games can cause antisocial behavior, a good video game could have the opposite effect. One study concluded “exposure to prosocial video games increased the accessibility of prosocial thoughts,” meaning that playing video games (or music, or television) with positive messages can encourage kindness and other good behavior, even in adults (Greitemeyer). Simply limiting the hours children spend exposed to entertainment media and prohibiting particularly violent video games is not enough. All of society needs to encourage and support prosocial entertainment for all ages and to pull away from violence as our primary source of mirth. People need to actually go out of their way to find truly high-quality entertainment.
Although people often associate entertainment teaching moral values with small children’s television, it is quite possible for a show to be high-quality and entertaining for adults. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, for example, is a humorous but incredibly moralistic cartoon which has reportedly “become one of the most popular cartoons among grown-ups” (Weinman). My Little Pony generally ends each episode with a basic secular moral message, making it accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. Despite each episode being essentially an Aesop at heart, however, the cast is complex and well-characterized. “Unlike other cartoons with grown-up fans, My Little Pony makes almost no concessions to them,” remaining innocent and lacking innuendos intended to go over kids’ heads (Weinman). My Little Pony has gained its popularity by its own right; it is just a good show, despite (or perhaps partially because of) its lack of pointless, gruesome violence.
That being said, My Little Pony does not pretend that violence does not exist or that it is something only a super-villain would consider, unlike most stereotypical moralistic “children’s entertainment.” On several occasions, one of the main ponies is confronted with a situation and immediately jumps to violence as a solution, only for this decision to backfire. Nevertheless, there was one instance when violence was shown to be acceptable; in the second season finale, the ponies’ country is invaded by a foreign army, and when it is clear that negotiation is not an option, the ponies do defend themselves against the threat. Overall, My Little Pony provides a balanced and accurate picture of violence: something that is only a last resort and only for defending oneself and one's loved ones, a picture far more peaceful than that of most modern TV shows and video games.
Ultimately, an iron fist and tight legal restrictions will not save America, but a grass-roots cultural revolution can. While censorship may seem to be a viable option to combat gruesome violence in entertainment, such a lazy solution does not truly treat the problem. People must transform the way they think, not simply what they are allowed to do. More entertainment like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic must be encouraged in order to combat the evils of modern media. Together, everyone must stand up against violence and say “no” to the desensitizing violence of modern entertainment.
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