Gun Lust in Hollywood
The great American social struggle between gun rights advocates vs. gun control proponents has segued seamlessly from the 20th Century into the 21st Century. This ideological conflict has its roots in American political history with the culturally scarring and tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Gun ownership was not a national issue of public concern prior to this event, though local communities did censure the public carrying of firearms. Up until the Civil War, White Americans broadly assumed that the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights granted men of European descent the right to own guns and to form local militias in order to kill Indians, take their land, and enslave Africans. The first Supreme Court review of the Second Amendment did not occur until 1876, well after the Civil War.
The Kennedy assassination stunned America with its irreversible gun brutality easily reported via television, radio, and print media. It was followed that same decade with the gun assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and many Black liberation leaders. It was followed with race riots in Los Angeles and Detroit. It was followed with a terrifyingly brutal war in Viet Nam with massive anti-war protests in cities and college campuses across the country. The combined social upheaval of the 1960’s focused America’s attention on guns, gun violence,and police use of guns in a critical way which had not occurred since the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1789. This was the beginning of subsequent legislation and popular attempts to control gun manufacture and gun distribution in the United States. It marks the beginning of a liberal social movement to make America less violent by reducing guns and gun availability to the general public. It also marks the beginning of the reactionary and highly successful pro-gun push back, and the subsequent saturation of American society with all manner of guns, gun accessories, and gun mayhem over this past half century.
There has been a growing glut of handguns and military weaponry dumped into the American consumer market in recent decades which will have a long-term destabilizing social impact. Our consumer age has been chronically wracked by gun violence which is documented in our daily tabloids. Violence is not a frequent occurrence for most of us but there is a palpable nationwide fear or background radiation of violence which is quite tactile, and violent gun episodes with mass casualties of innocents now occur with regularity. However, it is not accurate to believe that American society is more violent now than it has been at any previous historical era. Our past is punctuated by violence—violence against Black slaves, violence against Native Americans, violence against immigrants, labor unions, women, and neighboring sovereign states like Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua. The current epidemic of massacres of young black men by police which Steve Martinot has documented is a recurring cycle in American social injustice. The history of the United States is quarried from stones of violent repression and organized brutality.
Gun control and gun rights are opposing camps of one social dynamic. Pro-gun proponents with their allies in gun and ammo supply have gained the upper hand in this political dance. Gun control legislation is now regularly beaten back by the NRA, a well-oiled Washington D.C. lobby machine with lots of cash to spread into election campaigns. Following the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, President Obama, Vice-President Biden, Senator Feinstein and other congressional gun control advocates were unable to legislate even the mildest form of gun control requiring universal background checks on gun buyers, although polls showed 90% of the American public supported it.
On the issue of gun violence the political discourse in Washington DC is surreal, while the tragedy in American homes is real. Recently, while on a family vacation a nine-year-old girl “accidentally” shot dead her handgun instructor with an uzi at an Arizona firing range. Only months earlier, a five-year-old boy “tragically” shot dead his two-year-old sister in Tennessee with a “birthday present” rifle. Neighbors are always shocked that such things can happen in their quiet community. But every day the morning tabloid is full of stories of gun violence, gang violence, family violence, terrorist violence, war violence and all other varieties of gun use mayhem. Clearly, there are way too many guns in America, way too much gun use, way too much gun crime, way too much gun tragedy, and way too much gun entertainment. We are fixated with guns; it is a chronic social sickness which should be identified for what it truly is― “gun lust.” America’s long love affair with guns contains all the gluttony, the pandering, the lies, the violence, the addiction, and the sexual fixations we associate with that intense and psychotic emotional state of lust. Gun lust is America's sordid and shameful addiction.
Nowhere is gun lust paraded about more than in movies and television. Guns appear on screen whipped out from the actor’s clothing or worn at the belt. These gun scenarios are repeated night after night, movie after movie in an endless menu of violence. What are the long-term psychological impacts of graphic violence upon viewers, especially children? What are the accompanying social costs? This is not part of the behind-the-scenes movie industry dialogue. Visual language and visual signage penetrate deeply into the human psyche, often more deeply than any 1000 words. The visual ideology of American gun lust has been forged on the cutting floors of Hollywood. The Hollywood movie industry is the great propaganda arm of American gun violence.
American cinema is the preeminent fountainhead of the global Judeo-Christian cultural narrative spewing boundlessly out of North America to be disbursed throughout global human culture. How much of this exported meta-narrative contains visual gun violence and graphically violent language? It seems to be a bottomless well. Pandering gun violence is a multi-billion dollar affair. And we reap the fruit of our dissemination of this violence in the mire of seemingly endless confrontations between Christian neo-capitalism and Islamic fundamentalism which is the current defining global political crisis. Much of our problem stems from the cinematic narrative of moral justice delivered from the barrel of a gun. This is the overseas message of Hollywood gun lust preached to those we economically oppress. This visual narrative is convincing to young jihadist and Islamic fundamentalists (and Christian fundamentalists)
who will embrace gun violence as the means to their salvation. Religious fundamentalism, as Jimmy Carter has argued, is an inherently irrational state. It is fool-hardy to propagandizing violent recourse to those who would use it against us.
More profoundly, we delude ourselves with our moral gun justice. Americans have bought into the ideology of gun lust propagandized by Hollywood which is dysfunctional and makes it psychologically and politically impossible for the U.S. to navigate global conflicts without recourse to violence. America is emotionally and politically handcuffed by the limitations of our own gun-toting self-image.
How cinematic gun violence affects our moral judgment and our body politic is a worth while theme to explore. A small handful of scenarios have been repeated monotonously in thousands of film scripts by Hollywood to graphically depict and morally judge gun violence. These scenarios reveal archetypes of violent behavior by men. Violence is the male purview and it is presented as the “normal” or “believable” behavioral response given the story line. Female violent behavior, even “justifiable revenge,” is presented as extraordinary, but more often as deviant.
Guns, gun play, and battle reenactments have been part of American civic entertainment going back to colonial times. In the early 20th Century Tom Mix, a young rodeo circus performer, made the leap to Hollywood stardom as a cowboy in the silent film era by displaying his great skills in horseback riding, roping and shooting. As film scripts adopted narrative plots from the dime novels, Mix was assigned the “good guy” role with an enormous ten-gallon white hat. Mix’s character defends hapless, child-like Indians against unscrupulous cattle barons. Social justice was a core topic of American literature and the press in that era, and villians were routinely portrayed as greedy rich men. Mix’s gun-toting cowboy hero is the archetype restorer of order and the paternalistic bearer of justice.
In the 1930’s, John Wayne developed a new archetype role of the screen cowboy hero, that of the gunslinger. Villians became evil individuals through moral flaws of their own character, not necessarily from specific class interests. This transformation of archetypal evil becomes increasingly important in the western genre. It is no longer the pissing contest of Mix’s shootouts with lots of bullets being fired and nobody getting killed; this is psychologically much more subversive. Wayne’s gun toting hero brings justice and retribution into an unjust world with his long-barrel, six-shooter pistol which hangs suggestively at his belt. When the conflict escalates, he grabs this surrogate penis in his hand, points it at his adversary, fires a projectile, and kills him dead. His phallus is not only the tool of justice in this scenario, it is also the implement of death. The Freudian significance of this act cannot be minimized as Joseph Campbell reminds us. Heroes right wrongs and bring destruction upon the wicked. The gunslinger twist to this myth narrative reveals that the good hero identified by his white hat rights wrongs and dispenses justice as instant death with his penis-gun. The two objects are visually conflated. The organ of male sexuality and human procreation is simultaneously revealed to be the weapon of justice and the procurer of death.
In the western gunfight, typically the protagonists represent good and evil. On screen we see two men face off in a gun duel on a deserted Main street. They simultaneously quick draw to shoot the other dead. The Freudian subtext which is at the heart of American gun lust reveals the subconscious script where rival males compete to determine who is capable of extracting his clothed penis with his hand, masturbating and ejaculating with the greatest accuracy and speed to kill his adversary. Even if there exist comparable battle narratives from earlier cultures, what remarkable suppressed pornography is all this? Guns have also grown enormous in size and technical proficiency over time which adds another kink.
An allegorical take on this staple of the gunfight occurs in John Ford’s, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. James Stewart portrays the righteous but less than alpha hero, Ransom Stoddard, up against the wanton outlaw, Liberty Valance, played electrifyingly by Lee Marvin. There is no doubt as to the probable outcome of this gun fight, yet remarkably Ransom guns down Valance. Only later is it revealed that rancher Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne, is the one who actually shoots Valance with a rifle from a dark alley. This is outright murder, though Doniphon explains to Ransom that he killed Valance to prevent him from murdering the ineffectual hero. To complicate the plot, Doniphon and Ransom are rivals in a love triangle. Doniphon becomes the surrogate fallen hero who recognizes and saves the real hero through his action. Cosmic gun justice has prevailed, but there is a bitter price to pay for this loyalty. Doniphon’s punishment is to lose in love, and to die years later alone and drunk. But nevertheless, Doniphon, a cold-blooded murderer, is redeemed in death for his sacrifice in the triumph of good over evil with an eulogy from Ransom, his hero beneficiary.
A popular Hollywood gun genre from the 1930’s and 1940’s featured armed gangsters. Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney were the actors who most personified this subject. Both actors were adept at portraying anti-heroes driven by ruthless ambition. Robinson with his Romanian Jewish roots was typecast as swarthy and mafiosi typical of Hollywood racial stereotyping, while Cagney, the blond Irish boy turned thug, elicits sympathy for his underclass roots. The role of the anti-hero in Hollywood cinema is to personify the dark force of chaos. The anti-hero drives the ordered world to the brink of the abyss only to fail. With Cagney’s gangsters, a good deed or a kind word from a humble past is frequently his undoing. The violence of the anti-hero is eventually overcome by the anti-hero’s own failure to be completely evil. The anti-hero dies or is carted off to prison, order is restored thus providing a moral tale and redemption to the survivors.
While there is arguably a somewhat higher degree of social consciousness in the gangster gun narrative in contrast to the gunslinger western, it is largely undone by the titillation of graphic and gratuitous gun violence. In one of his last gangster roles in White Heat, Cagney’s character, Cody Jarret, descends into complete psychotic mania. Jarret brutalizes all about him including other gang members while simultaneously fixating upon his cruel, manipulative mother. In the final scene, Jarret is trapped in a chemical plant surround by G-men shooting at him. Returning fire with a submachine gun, Jarret makes his way to the top of a domed storage tank where he rages, “Made it Ma! Top of the world!” Spewing machine gun bullets everywhere he blows himself and the tank up in a great ball of fire.
The anti-hero has succeeded in becoming completely evil through self-immolation. In this version, redemption for the survivors as a safely restored order follows the violent climax in which the anti-hero reveals himself to be pathologically insane. The mass murderer, the bomb thrower, the psychopathic killer, the slasher, the suicidal maniac with innocent hostages— these cold-hearted killers who regularly populate Hollywood cinema and television to wreak violence upon innocent lambs can only be understood visually and emotionally in the Hollywood cannon as psychopathic monsters. They must be insane! This is the collective American ideological wisdom regarding the mental state of those who would do us harm through extreme violence. The unchallenged assumption by politicians and the general public alike is that anybody who violently attacks America must be insane. This is a fabricated ideological truth manufactured in Hollywood which is remarkable only in its shallowness. How then are we to deal with jihadist and suicide bombers in an intelligent way if our dominant ideological explanation for their cataclysmic behavior is insanity?
Another important staple of Hollywood gun carnage is the role of the innocent White victim who typically gets slaughtered first just to illustrate the evilness of the “other.” In the western narrative, White settlers hurriedly circle the wagons as they are set upon by renegade Indians. At the eleventh hour when all is apparently lost, the cavalry miraculously arrive to kill the Indians. In this narrative, Red Indians dressed in feathers and war paint are deserving of retributive gun justice. Their violent aggression and primitive appearance makes them less than human and deserving of annihilation. Dehumanization of the adversary is a prerequisite to his extermination. This tactic is the treadmill of Hollywood gun carnage. The other must be visually stigmatized as a subhuman aggressor whether in the role of Japs, Nazis, gooks, zombies, perverts, junkies, mercenaries, orks, robots, vampires, Klingons, insects, bikers, mobsters, monsters, or Morlocks. Their aggression and subhuman otherness makes them deserving of extermination. The formula applies both to the evil group and the individual evil character. Innocents such as bystanders are the first victims which then provoke retributive gun justice. Slaughtering the evil other is thus presented as an heroic and justifiable act of self-defense, and legitimate civic protection.
This formula simplifies the deed of retributive gun justice. We do not need to understand the other nor consider any rationale they might have for attacking us. We can ignore our own provocations as well. We can dismiss the other as subhuman and get on about the business of killing with a clear conscious. Ronald Reagan famously used this script device to dehumanize the Soviet Union by calling it the “Evil Empire.” Today we see politicians engaging the same kind of ideological rhetoric labeling the newest Islamic threat, ISIS, as the “terrorist caliphate.” This is a made-for-Hollywood label, conjuring up myriad back lot sets of the camel caravan, the kasbah, the harem, of the decadent and immoral palace of Sardanapalus. Surely it is a den of evil and an appropriate new focus of our gun lust.
War movies became the blockbuster genre following World War II. The glorification of heroic warfare as the means of resolving conflict between competing global empires ushered in a post-war ideological shift to the right in film industry ownership. Paternalistic studios became corporate entities answerable to Wall St. shareholders. Patriotism, jingoism, fear of communism, and the pyrotechnic spectacle became the new subject matter, while leftists writers, directors, actors, and social causes were blacklisted. The growth of pyrotechnics in film continues today unabated accompanied by increasingly graphic blood, gore, sex and savage violence to human bodies under the aegis of entertainment. The visual marriage of sex with violence has become mundane.
This discussion barely scratches the surface of Hollywood gun lust, but it does open the door for further investigation of the crucial role of the Hollywood film industry in constructing American-Judeo-Christian visual ideology. Hollywood is a well-oiled business machine which pretends to be politically liberal. However, the construction of ideological narratives for mass cultural consumption is never an innocent task. It is the deliberate manipulation of the “herd mentality of the masses” as Wilfred Trotter defined it. Edward Bernays preferred the phrase, “the manufacturing of public consent” which he demonstrated for his corporate clients through highly successful advertising campaigns with psychologically controlling subtexts of fear, sex, and spectacle.
Manufactured ideology is propaganda, and propaganda for domestic consumption is a weapon of class warfare. The saturation of America with ever more consumer guns in the past five decades is as much the accomplishment of Hollywood gun lust propaganda as it is of the gun manufacturer’s trade association. The massive dumping of firearms into the civic arena has a long-term destabilizing effect on a community, not a stabilizing one as gun proponents argue. Gun violence in America disproportionately impacts poor and working-class communities. When guns are used in crime and domestic disputes, it is only the beginning of an even greater violence which is the American criminal justice system. Beyond the initial carnage and shock, no family is spared long-term grief when they are visited by gun violence, and no family is spared grief when one of its members is locked in prison. The wholesale distribution of guns in America makes gun accidents, gun suicides, gun crimes, gun tragedies, gun predation on poor neighborhoods, gun violence in total, that much more prevalent. Dumping guns into the body politic should be considered by all as an act of class warfare. Pandering gun lust through visual propaganda is likewise class warfare.
The United States has an exceedingly violent and brutal history of gun fixation hidden beneath its glory and its accomplishments. At what point do we want to get off the treadmill of gun lust? The Hollywood film and television industry needs to own up to its historic role as propaganda capitol of gun violence. Where are the plot narratives that show the true story of gun carnage and the long term impacts on perpetrators, on victims, on their families, and their communities? Where are the heroic narratives that do not conflate sex with violence? Where are the dramatic conflicts that overcome gun violence peaceably? Is there a responsible Hollywood beyond gun lust?
Thomas Powell is a sculptor who lives in Northern California and writes on issues of aesthetics and politics.
"Dog Eat Dog" by Zsolt Gyarmati (http://www.zsoltgyarmati.com)
Image from Hollywood Prop exhibition catalog, See http://www.originalprop.com/blog
"Rambo with Jesus (instead of a machine gun)"by Richard Barrett-Small (Flickr: Kunst-Werke Gallery and Café for Trendies)
Painting "Gunmen & Girls' School" © Mike Mosher 1982, 2015.