When HBO’s Game of Thrones introduced direwolves to its fervent fan base, the show’s popularity had an unintended consequence. People began buying and adopting Siberian huskies at an enormous rate because of the dogs’ wolflike appearance. But many of those dogs ended up abused or abandoned in shelters because people had failed to consider the commitment involved in caring for an animal for the subsequent decade and a half. The problem got so bad that Peter Dinklage teamed up with PETA to draft a statement urging potential adopters to prepare for dog ownership before rushing into an impulse purchase.
This isn’t the first time that a TV show, movie or video game has inspired troubling behavior. From James Holmes’ theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado (after which he told police that he “was the Joker”), to the murder of a special-needs child by a couple who’d just watched Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and a double homicide spawned from the idolization of a Grand Theft Auto V character, certain types of consumers latch on to certain bad ideas they've been exposed to via entertainment and carry out atrocious acts. Want to feel extra terrible? Type “murder inspired by” into your Google browser and watch the autocomplete fill with all your favorite shows.
Still, it’s ridiculous to ascribe blame to these properties — the most dangerous thing Lonergan’s heartfelt family drama inspires the majority of viewers to do is let out a cathartic sob. These are people who likely would have tended toward sick, dangerous behaviors whether or not they'd watched a particular movie or played a particular video game. Placing blame on creators is a slippery slope that leads to censorship and eventually a terrifying legal climate in which creators can literally be charged as accomplices to crimes.
Yet there’s no denying that what we watch can affect our politics and our prejudices, and alter the way we react to the world around us. When Trump banned transgender service members from the military, I got a call from conservative family members in the Rust Belt who'd voted for him. They were disgusted. Why? Because they’d watched Amazon’s Transparent. And back when a family member was coming out in the early 2000s, my family's reference points for empathy were All in the Family, Golden Girls, Cheers and Will & Grace. It really can be that easy to sway someone’s opinion through storytelling.
So there’s a great responsibility attached to telling these stories. Creators are quick to acknowledge that fact when the effects are positive but maple-syrup slow when the effects are negative. Take, for instance, the conversations we are not having about the glorification of guns in entertainment and the increase in dramatic, attention-hungry mass shooters in real life, even as gun violence as a whole has fallen with the help of gun-control measures.
Some conversations have been waiting to be had for 78 years.
In 1939, the screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel Gone With the Wind reignited a dormant Southern Pride movement focused on a whitewashed idea of “heritage,” rather than, you know, the enslavement of human beings that led the South into the Civil War. Essentially, the film and book — the most popular book of all time, behind the Bible — have provided talking points for the KKK and Confederate sympathizers, all of which we still see on display today. “It’s about heritage,” they say. And if you’ve seen Gone With the Wind, you may find that history charming, even romantic; it is the story of people, not an ideology. But how does one extricate that ideology from the story, knowing what we know?
Imagine this: A German film written by Nazi sympathizers, romanticizing Nazi-era Germany, where the only Jews shown are those who were mostly silent servants, premieres in 1995. We absolutely know the Germans murdered millions, so glossing over the tragedy for a soap-operatic Nazi melodrama would be ludicrous. (The closest we have to this is R.W. Fassbinder's 1979 WWII-set film The Marriage of Maria Braun, but that is no sweeping epic with characters we can remotely identify with.) We also know 12.5 million slaves were kidnapped and shipped to the Americas, and almost 150 years of rape and forced childbearing added millions more tortured and enslaved people to the population. Some may say it’s unfair to equate the Confederates and the Nazis. But where in the world did these sympathizers get their antebellum information? Remember those 12.5 million slaves? Ask modern-day Confederate sympathizers in the South to describe the “heritage” they want to preserve, and you’re likely to be painted a picture that’s right out of Gone With the Wind rather than Roots.
But in the modern era, the most egregious act of unchecked media portrayals may be awarded to reality TV. When The Apprentice premiered in 2004 on NBC, host Donald Trump was bankrupt. If you were a person who paid any attention to the news back then, you would have been as incredulous as I was that this huckster was being billed as a “successful” businessman, whose knowledge and advice was worth its weight in experimental hair-plug surgeries. Emily Nussbaum’s excellent mapping of Trump’s financial timeline in relation to the TV show in The New Yorker is essential reading. What the show (and producer Mark Burnett) did was recast the bankrupted casino mogul as the epitome of American cut-throat ingenuity, week after week; this is right out of the Joseph Goebbels playbook: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” (See also: 19-year-old Ivanka Trump’s appearance in the 2003 documentary Born Rich, wherein she repeats the lie that her family pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.) Media critics like Nussbaum will continue to play an essential role in further illuminating our understanding of the effects of entertainment, good and bad.
So where does all this information leave media makers? There are a few easy lessons, for instance, don’t give a lunatic a platform and then tell people he's a role model. But the rest is a bit trickier. Direwolves are cool! Why would you ever not write a direwolf if you could? And good storytelling often comes from placing the audience in the shoes of someone they otherwise might not like and building a sympathy bridge. There is great power in that. The media makers of today would do well to have open discussions about the good and bad of it and how they are trying to do better. In 2017, there is no shortage of articles proclaiming how many girls have recently been inspired to go into mathematics because of Hidden Figures. But remember, there are just as many girls who can be inspired to settle for the status quo because of the dull and sexualized characters they're exposed to 10 times more often. It's time to make movies as if they really matter. And it's time for critics and writers to lead the conversations that aren't being had, before it's too late.
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