The hate-filled manifesto of 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who murdered six people and injured 13 others in a killing spree that rocked the college town of Isla Vista, Calif., before committing suicide, has sparked a national conversation about the influence of sex and misogyny in American culture.
Over the weekend, thousands of people took to Twitter with the hashtag #YesAllWomen to draw attention to the real struggle against sexism and misogyny that American women face daily, from overt threats of violence to passive, casual sexism. "What happened in Santa Barbara is nothing less than a hate crime, and yet mainstream news outlets are distilling the issue to 'mental illness' and 'premeditated mass murder,'" wrote PolicyMic's Elizabeth Plank. "Although we should be shocked by Elliot Rodger's actions, we should not be surprised. In fact, most school shootings share chillingly similar characteristics. It's time we stop treating these incidents as anomalies and start recognizing the deep societal issues at play."
The debate about the link between popular culture and the social norms that permeates society isn't new. Observors of the Columbine High School massacre were quick to link the shooting to video games, the music of Marilyn Manson and the narratives at play in Rodger's sick fantasy world including retributive violence and the meme of the gentleman-nerd-who-loves-the-hot-girl-who-actually-dates-an-asshole-joke. Rogen is right to be put off by this charge, but he's missing Hornday's point. ThinkProgress' Jessica Goldstein sums it up nicely:
People in movies can't have it both ways: either pop culture is totally irrelevant, and therefore the work they do is totally irrelevant, or pop culture does matter, which means they will sometimes have to reckon with the fact that their work can be a force for evil as well as good. If you want people to see Dallas Buyer's Club and leave with greater empathy for the challenges the LGBT community faces, you have to be prepared that people will see darker movies and leave with darker thoughts, and that even—especially—seemingly innocuous movies can and do have a powerful influence over the way we think, feel, communicate and behave.
Apatow's response, however, focused less on Hornaday and more on the state of the media:
This, like Rogen's response, is something of a deflection. But there's some truth in Apatow's statement.
The American media has always been biased towards the sensational, violent and salacious. There's a reason "if it bleeds, it leads" is a common mantra, if tongue-in-cheek, in broadcast newsrooms throughout the country. Psychology Today's Deborah Serani examined the logic of fear-based media in 2011 with a particular eye to broadcast media: "Fear-based news programming has two aims. The first is to grab the viewer's attention. The second aim is to persuade the viewer that the solution for reducing the identified fear will be in the news story," writes Serani. "If a teaser asks, 'What's in your tap water that YOU need to know about?' a viewer will likely tune in to get the up-to-date information to ensure safety."
The psychology of modern media as outlined by Serani has more to do with presentation and packaging than the actual content of a story. You can see this logic afoot in headlines designed to provoke an emotional response or confirm a sense of reader identity. This trend is nothing new; it has been integral to the business of mass media for decades. The idea of "clickbait" headlines (like 'Before We Use Certain Words, We Should All Look At These Pictures. They Might Make Us Think Twice') are only the latest manifestation of selling ideas to draw people into the content.
But it's actually between the rise of cable news (say, with CNN in the early 1990s) and the era of "social news" (with the Huffington Post in the mid-2000s) that we see the structural changes at the heart of Apatow's rebuttal. The Internet is the most revolutionary form of mass communication and has turned the media ecosystem on its head. Analysis and interpretation are plentiful and free, while the capacity for gathering facts has declined tremendously. "Sensibility is cheap," my former Bloomberg colleague Edmund Lee is fond of saying, "But reporting is expensive."
Any writer should move thoughtfully and with purpose, lest movements like #YesAllWomen simply become easy hooks for traffic and not the site of careful and considered reflection.
This clip from English satirist Charlie Brooker sums things up a bit more succinctly: