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Dr. Katharine E. Heintz Headshot

How the U.S. Entertainment Industry Helped Create Elliot Rodger

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A "madman" shot up a small college town in California. As a UCSB alumnus, a parent of a UCSB student, a lecturer at Santa Clara University, and a media studies scholar, I have all sorts of stakes in this. My daughter and her friends are all physically unhurt but emotionally scarred. My students and I know that this easily could have happened on our campus. And as someone who has repeatedly taught about the ways media entertainment associates aggression and violence with boys and men, I am sadly unsurprised. Watching Elliot Rodger's final YouTube video was a surreal experience; it was as if he were reading a script for "How to Justify Your Mass Killing." He included all the "right" elements: He was left out; he was frustrated; he didn't achieve his goals. So what do men do under these circumstances? They take retribution. They get even. They amass an arsenal and provide payback. These massacres have so many consistencies that they are almost clichés.

According to my local newspaper, it was "the most prominent American school-related massacre since the Newtown, Connecticut, slayings in 2012." Clearly there have been other "less prominent" slayings at schools -- and in streets, and in parks, and in homes, and in countless other places. In fact, last week's shooting at Seattle Pacific University, which claimed one young life, was reported on page 4 of my paper -- clearly less prominent.

We live in a world where violence is a routine reaction to conflict and frustration -- not just for some of the mentally ill, and not just for some of the bullied loners.

This massacre has sparked widespread debate across social-media channels about misogyny, mental illness, access to guns, and men's rights. In the Bay Area (where three of the victims were from), our local media have been honoring the slain and pursuing the story of the lone shooter and his problems. I believe the discussion surrounding the tragic massacre in Isla Vista needs to identify another culprit, one that is once again unnamed in this latest exploration of the root causes of this type of violence: the U.S. entertainment industry.

The media are the primary storytellers in modern cultures. We gather around our TVs and computers and in movie theaters to experience shared stories -- then we tweet about, talk about, and remix them. We glorify celebrities and create fan communities around fictional heroes. The fodder of our conversations -- and the stuff that fills our memory banks -- is in large part derived from the vicarious experiences we have via entertainment media. This is true for all of us, not just "obsessed fans" or "video-game addicts": Much of what we know and believe about the world and the people who inhabit it comes from information and stories we do not experience firsthand. This information forms the foundation of our belief systems and our sense of personal and social identity and shapes our behavioral choices in the real world.

I am not suggesting that all the information that shapes us comes from media. Of course, we are told stories by our families and our religious teachers. Of course, we are provided information by our teachers, coaches, and friends. And, of course, our personality and other individual characteristics influence what information we choose to pay attention to and how we process, retain, and use that information.

But let's look at the relative amounts of time we spend with each of our storytellers. There is no shortage of discussion about youth being immersed in screens and their "distractions." It is linked to rising levels of childhood obesity and declining test scores. Research consistently shows that children -- and adults -- spend more time interacting with screens than with people on a daily basis. This is not new, nor is it discouraged in our wired culture. We celebrate our screens, designing special rooms in our houses to allow us to gather more comfortably, and are encouraged to seamlessly integrate them into all aspects of our lives. So when screens and their messages are so pervasive in our culture, how can we justify ignoring them?

We live in a culture that is immersed in glorified images of violence, nearly all of it committed by men, and much of it committed against women. Popular television programs like Law and Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, CSI, NCIS, and Hannibal feature male killers stalking innocent, often female, victims. Blockbuster movies (e.g., Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Edge of Tomorrow) and rap and hip-hop music videos glorify violence and dominance. Some of the most popular video-game franchises (e.g., Call of Duty, Modern Warfare, Grand Theft Auto) reward players for their violent actions and provide opportunities to practice ("train"?) mayhem. Yes, the perpetrators in crime dramas and movies often get caught and punished, but let's recognize that their actions (and the violent means used to apprehend them) and these stories are a major part of the entertainment ecosystem in which we live. Our cultural environment is so saturated with messages related to violence that our exposure to these stories is inevitable.

There is no doubt that consistent, repeated exposure to messages that show violence as a normal response to frustration and conflict leads us to believe that it is normal, even expected, in the world outside the screen. Women are taught to "prepare themselves" and to "be aware" when they are out at night. Women are encouraged to take self-defense classes and never walk alone. Why? Because the men they encounter can be expected to be dangerous. Even the nerdy, quiet ones like Elliot Rodger. Add these "loose cannons" to the list of people to be afraid of and women can now be encouraged to fear all men. Young women keep their cellphones out when they walk around at night, ready to call 911 at the touch of a button. They expect to be targeted.

And it's not just women who suffer from widespread acceptance of these cultural stories. Men are encouraged to use force to get what they want, to show their power through aggression. Those who don't are ridiculed. This is the American cultural landscape. We cannot continue to ignore that we are daily -- even hourly -- exposed to stories about violence and aggression. And Elliot Rodger grew up in this culture. As far as we know, he was not "obsessed with" or "addicted to" a particular media product. He didn't need to be; just being a "normal" kid exposed him to repeated stories about violence, aggression, and dominance. It is not surprising that his reaction to personal frustrations was to act aggressively; he'd seen it done so many times.

Guns need to be less accessible -- period -- not just kept from those with mental illness. But the gun manufacturers and their powerful lobbyists are not the only ones with a hand in this deadly business. We need to recognize that our entertainment industries continually promote violence as entertainment and play. Violent imagery in the culture is big business and must be recognized as such. Violence is not the only way to tell a good story, nor is it the most interesting way. It's not the only way to make a video game fun and exciting. Guns and other weapons are not the only interesting props available to Hollywood movie makers.

I am not suggesting that we sanitize the stories we tell in the culture or that we turn a blind eye to the violence that does occur. Let's recognize that our lives contain conflict, aggression, and, yes, violence. But let's challenge our media providers to be more creative and to stop telling the same stories about violence and power. Let's demand stories and interactive games that provide alternatives to the never-ending stories about violence. This is not a call for censorship; it is a call for variety. It is a call for creativity. And I truly believe our lives depend on it.