Academic journal article CineAction

Articulating the Violence Debate: True Lies, Natural Born Killers, and the Terms of "Cultural Contamination"

Academic journal article CineAction

Articulating the Violence Debate: True Lies, Natural Born Killers, and the Terms of "Cultural Contamination"

Article excerpt

On May 31, 1995, Senator Bob Dole, the frontrunner for the Republican Presidential nomination, condemned the entertainment industry at a routine campaign stop in Los Angeles for what he termed "cultural contamination." In particular, Dole critiqued the Hollywood studios' violence and sex-filled films, as well as gangster rap as a whole, calling them "nightmares of depravity." (1) He cited media conglomerate Time Warner as the worst offender for producing Oliver Stone's film Natural Born Killers (1994) and Ice-T's album Body Count (1992) which featured the controversial "Cop Killer" track. (2) Claiming "A line has been crossed--not just of taste, but of human dignity and decency," Dole pleaded with Hollywood media makers to put the nation's future ahead of corporate greed. (3) Echoing Christian Right sentiment, Dole claimed: "The mainstreaming of deviancy must come to an end." (4)

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Attacking violence and sex in Hollywood films is, of course, not new. Several debates have emerged throughout the medium's history, including discussions which centered on 1930s Warner Bros. gangster films and musicals. (5) Nor is it a particularly Republican political platform. In January 1995, months before Dole's lambasting of "contamination" in American culture, Democratic President Bill Clinton addressed Hollywood specifically in his State of the Union speech: "[A]ssess the impact of your work and understand the damage that comes from incessant, repetitive, mindless violence and irresponsible conduct that permeates our media all the time." (6) Violence and sex in American media is a bi-partisan issue that focuses on our moral climate and the sensitive minds of our children. As a recurring political issue, Dole's attack on Hollywood hardly came as a surprise, particularly during a campaign for national office.

Although the terms of the violence debate were not new, much criticism met Dole's rant against Hollywood. He admitted to never having seen the films he had put on either his "family friendly" or his "nightmares of depravity" lists. He did claim, however, to have read several of their reviews. He was attacked for citing the media as perpetuating violence while supporting National Rifle Association proposals in Congress. Mainly he was attacked for his omissions. Notably, he did not mention the work of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, or Sylvester Stallone (all Republican supporters) in violent action films or the Fox television network, part of conservative Rupert Murdoch's media empire and broadcaster of sex-filled television shows such as Married ... With Children (1987-1997), (7) as negative cultural influences.

While there was certainly political opportunism to Dole's stance, and in his omissions, the violence in the films he listed as "family friendly"--True Lies (James Cameron, 1994), The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994), and Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994)--differs significantly from the violence in those he condemned--True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993) and Natural Born Killers. It is the significance of these differences that I would like to analyze through both a textual analysis and an analysis of the discourse surrounding two of these films in particular: True Lies and Natural Born Killers. True Lies follows the exploits of an intelligence agent, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose family does not know his true occupation, but who are put in danger by a terrorist plot involving a nuclear warhead. Natural Born Killers follows a husband and wife team, played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, of serial killers and the media frenzy they inspire. As the violence in a film such as True Lies is so normative that it does not disjoint the viewer from the narrative, it does not make the audience think about the function of its violence. The gruesome depiction of violence in Natural Born Killers, on the other hand, does jolt the viewer, and, in so doing, causes the viewer to think about the action onscreen. …

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