Sunday, May 6, 2001
Who's the biggest ‘Jackass’ in TV violence?
COMMUNITY VOICES | By David Bickham
Sit down with your remote and flip through the channels. The barking drill sergeants ("Boot Camp"), the flesh floating off some guy's burned hands ("Survivor") and the table-throwing wrestling matches (World Wrestling Federation programs) will most likely convince you of one thing: Violence on television has become more intense, more extreme and more real than ever before.
Take the controversy over "Jackass," an MTV show attempting to trump outrageous TV prankster Tom Green in vulgarity and distaste. An episode of the program may involve stunts where the star sets himself on fire, gets doused in the face with pepper spray or puts an earthworm up his nose.
Not exactly activities we would hope to see young people imitating. But that is exactly what appears to be happening. Kids running around with chainsaws, lighting themselves on fire and, most recently, driving a car over a friend -- all attributed their behavior to the show.
But who's to blame? And, more to the point, what should we do about it?
Even though the industry is chastised for its turn toward sensationalist programming, viewers continue to reward it by flocking to these shows. When a certain now-infamous member of the "Survivor" cast hunted and killed a pig, more people tuned in than did to see the less disturbing antics of everyone's favorite "Friends."
Even calling a program "Jackass" does not seem to lessen a child's propensity to imitate its violent and dangerous acts.
With the increase of copycat acts and the apparent rise in violence among children, we are becoming more concerned about the consequences of our TV viewing habits. But violent programs continue to air, draw an enormous audience and expose children to content that only a few years ago would have given a movie an "R" rating.
The recent "Jackass" imitators are an extreme, but an extreme that should bring to attention the more pervasive and subtle effects of media violence. Now that these and other events are being presented as real or hyper-real (think Fox's "Cops"), we're even more convinced that they reflect our real world. We've all come home late and searched the house for intruders or checked the backseat of the car to make sure Chucky isn't there or stayed up all night with a kid who can't sleep because of what's under his bed.
When television violence leads to direct imitation, it is easy to point fingers. It is obvious that backyard wrestlers are inspired by the moves glorified by the WWF and that the boy in Connecticut did not conceive unaided the idea to sprawl out on a Hibachi (another "Jackass" stunt).
But when we consider the more subtle effects of media violence, the argument weakens, and perhaps rightfully so. Can we blame all social woes on television? Is it really the violence on television that has made us fearful of one another?
While media violence plays an arguably important role, our real life more directly shapes our views of society. But as we witness more negative interactions on TV, we act them out in our lives and then see televised violence as even more accurate and relevant. The television world and the real world are caught in a complex feedback loop.
It's time we take control and break the cycle.
Both audiences and producers must take on the issue, become socially aware of its consequences and take responsibility for the outcomes. We have taken to blaming the violence on television without recognizing that it is not broadcast into a social vacuum. From the time an event on television is witnessed until it is imitated, a child may interact with parents, teachers and peers. All these social exchanges can shape the child's interpretation of the violence. We can intervene.
We can also pre-empt our children's exposure to violence. While it's obvious that the imitators of "Jackass" would have been free from its effect if the program had never been aired, the truth is they would have been equally unaffected if their TVs had been tuned to different programs. Not viewing media violence will make it unprofitable, and that will get the industry's attention.
But producers need to recognize the effects that we take as obvious and do what they can to reduce them. The television landscape should be changed not through censorship but through the industry's recognition of its responsibility and a focused effort to make better programs.
In the end, we all need to do our part. Program developers can use this time of public concern as an opportunity to create new, less sensationalist shows that push the envelope on form, style and narrative rather than content. Parents can come to agreements with their younger children about what's appropriate viewing for their home, deciding together when to change the channel.
If the industry continues to air ultra-violent hyper-real TV and we continue to tune in, it's hard to tell who the real jackasses are.
Bickham is a graduate student with the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children at the University of Texas.
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