Why Sport? Because It's Funny! - Mania.com


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Why Sport? Because It's Funny!

Once again, moralists take aim at violence in movies and television and miss the target.

By Steve Biodrowski     October 05, 2000

If you weren't too busy watching the Olympics a couple weeks ago, you probably noticed that violence in movies and on television has become a hot button issue again. As a matter of fact, even if you were watching the Olympics, you're probably aware of this, as one of the lightening rods in the current storm was Nike's clever 'Horror' TV spot, the first of their 'Why Sport?' campaign. In case you didn't get a chance to see it (the ad was pulled from NBC after a negative outcry from the usual gang of misguided moralists), the spot is a dead-on parody of slasher movie clichés. In it, athlete Suzy Hamilton encounters a mask-wearing, chainsaw-wielding homicidal psycho; fortunately, her speed and stamina enable her to easily outrun her would-be attacker, who collapses in exhaustion. 'Why Sport?' the commercial asks, then provides the answer: 'Because you'll live longer.'

It's pretty funny stuffand far more clever than the films it spoofs. In one brief moment, it completely overturns the helpless female victim clichés of the slasher genreand does it better than the supposedly hip, post-modern Scream franchise could ever manage. (Sure, the those films had the female victims fight and struggleeven hit and kick the masked killer several timesbut still, they all died on cue, exactly as in any standard stalk-and-kill flick.) In the Nike 'Horror' ad, on the other hand, there is no victim; the ad plays less on suspense than on a sense of exhilarating triumph. You enjoy watching the inversion of the usual stereotypes, and if there is any complaint with the spot, it's that the masked psycho merely runs out of breath; it would have been even better if he'd collapsed with a cardiac arrest.

Strangely, all of this is lost on the commercial's detractors, who see the spot as another example of excessive violence in the media; some have even gone so far as to suggest that the Nike spot promotes violence against women. The debate about how much violence in media is too much is a long-standing one that I won't pretend to resolve here; so is the debate about what, if any, are the harmful effects of violence in entertainment. But with the on-going debate focused for the moment on this particular cultural artifact, I do want to be the one to stand up and say: 'But waitthere is no real violence in this!'

That's right. Unless we define 'violence' in vague, metaphoric terms (i.e., powerful and potentially destructive, as in 'the violence of the storm'), then there is none in this commercial; that is, there is no physical force causing harm to a person. This may seem to be splitting hairs, but keep in mind: Much of the debate about violence focuses on whether it is explicitly iportrayed or subtly suggested. But in this case, the point is mute: you can't argue about how much to show when there is nothing to show.

In a press release on Nike.Com, Suzy Hamilton had this to say about the negative reactions: 'I was definitely surprised when I heard NBC [and ESPN] had decided not to run the ad. Personally, I thought it was incredibly funny. I have received wonderful feedback from teenagers and younger kids. We didn't want to make people uncomfortable. We wanted to make people laugh. I'd do the ad again in a second.'

The point that all this is leading up to should may be a bit obvious by now: most of the people who jump on these bandwagons do so because they have an ax to grind (you should pardon the expression), and they don't much care whether their target is an appropriate one, as long as it's high-profile. These people must lead dreadfully humorless lives if they can't spot the joke in the Nike ad. From their venomous descriptions of it, you would have think that NBC aired an unedited portion of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not a humorous send-up of the very thing they hate so much. Try to see it, and decide for yourself. NBC may have pulled it, but the WB Network is still airing it, and it can be found on the Internet. As a matter of fact, why not boycott NBC for capitulating to a bunch of crybabies. And support WB Network; after all, don't they air most of your favorite shows, anyway?

The Nike ad serves as a nice segue to our next related topic of interest, the selling of R-rated violent movies to teenagers below the age of 17. Both of these issues were addressed in a rather fuzzyheaded piece of commentary in this Sunday's Los Angeles Times Calendar section, written by Dennis Prager, a radio talk show host, author, and lecturer. (That's right: it's not just politicians trying to score political points and bored citizens with nothing better to do than complain; there are also people with 'credentials' weighing in on the subject.)

I won't bother to give Prager's article a point-by-point refutation (it doesn't really merit one). Suffice to say, he perpetuates the myth that the Nike ad was 'violent' and therefore 'harmful,' particularly to children. The theme of Prager's editorial is that images of sex and violence in the media are robbing children of their innocence; that is, whether or not watching violence causes violence, it is nevertheless harmful to the soul on some profound level. Hence the need for even more vigilance to prevent young teen from being exposed to the twin Hollywood horrors of sex and violence.

It's a fairly easy argument to advance. After all, how many people are going to stand up and say, 'No, I think little kids should see even more graphic sex and violence.' Unfortunately, it's also a fairly meaningless argument, evoking emotions rather than clear thought. For the article to carry any real weight, Prager would have to define 'innocence' in such a way that we could understand why it is so precious and what harm there is in abandoning it. Instead, he just takes for granted that it is a precious commodity (as, no doubt, do many of his intended readersthis is called 'preaching to the converted').

One should give Prager credit for one thing: unlike most misguided moralists, he actually makes some distinctions about the kind and quality of violence seen in movies. Instead of a blanket condemnation, he does suggest that some forms of violent entertainment may be relatively harmless for younger viewers, if it is of the make-believe variety and if it is perpetrated on the bad guys in the story, who deserve it. This isn't too far from the arguments advanced by Bruno Bettleheim in The Uses of Enchantment: The Importance and Meaning of Fairy Tales, but in Prager's hands, it's a little too simple, a little too easy. Sure, it sounds good, but then, don't all perpetrators of violence think that their victims are 'bad guys' who 'deserve it'? Isn't that the kind of thinking that leads to the police beating of Rodney King? Maybe we're better off with a more disturbing portrayal of violence in the media, one that doesn't' make it seem like something you would actually want to do.

This last point is fairly important. Remember, the last time Washington D.C. took aim at Hollywood over violent movies, we had presidential candidate Bob Dole mysteriously exempting the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. Well, not so mysteriously: Dole made up some kind of excuse, but the bottom line was that the two stars are high-profile Republican supporters. In other words, the people making these pronouncements wag like the tail of a dog when it comes to deciding what is harmful and what is not, and there's every chance that the stuff getting the seal of approval is at least as bad asif not worse thanthe stuff being condemned.

This should be of interest to fans of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. As genres that deal with imaginationwith fantasy characters and situations, often in other worlds that do not really existthey tend to be a step removed from reality; therefore, the violence they contain should be perceived as less relevant to the real world, less likely to inspire imitation or produce psychological harm. Yet, at the same time, these genres are held in generally low regard by mainstream media, thus making them easier targets. In particular, this is true of the horror genre.

Case in point: an 'easy target: that mostly missed the mark. Amidst the brouhaha over Hollywood's targeting of teen viewers, the Los Angeles Time ran an article based on a memo from MGM regarding their promotional efforts on behalf of the teen terror movie, Disturbing Behavior. The overall premise of the article was that the memo proved decisively what had so far been only alleged: that Hollywood studios intentionally marketed R-rated movies to viewers too young to see them.

Now, I don't want to pretend that Hollywood moguls are any less immoral than their counterparts in other industries; like cigarette companies, I'm sure they'll do anything to make a buck. However, a close reading of the Time article reveals several flaws. The most important is the whole concept of what constitutes 'underage teen,' a phrase used to imply that the studio was intentionally going after children psychologically ill-equipped to handle the alleged onslaught of sex and violence. (Personally, for me, the only onslaught from this particular movie was boredom).

At any rate, among MGM's list of sins was focusing promotional efforts in hangouts frequented by 'underage' viewers. However, a look at this list of locations and establishment revealed that the term was used to mean any place that had no age limit. Thus, even the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California (a place that attracts tourists of all ages) was deemed inappropriate for promoting Disturbing Behavior, even thought the area has three multiplexes, any one of which could have been playing the movie. If we follow this train of thought to its logical conclusion, the only place where R-rated movies should be advertised is in bars.

So, exactly who were these 'underage' teens mixed in with the rest of the general population? If we're talking about voting rights, 'underage' means less than eighteen years old; if we mean drinking alcohol, the word can apply, in some states, to anyone under twenty-one. In reference to movies, on the other hand, there isn't such a clear definition. Presumably, 'underage' means too young to get into the film, but let's not forget one very important fact: no one is too young to get into an R-rated film. As the rating itself states, 'No one under 17 admitted without parent or guardian.' In other words, teens 17, 18, or 19 can get into the movie on their own (a distinction never made in the article), and those under 17 can get in if their parents take them.

Admittedly, there probably aren't many parents who want to sit through Disturbing Behavior, let alone bring their teenagers to see it. But it's important to recall that, built into the rating itself, is the assumption that some children under seventeen will be able to see the movie. If it's okay with the MPAA, can we jump to the conclusion that it is wrong for MGM to pitch the film to these same kids?

Maybe it is wrong. After all, younger teens are more likely to sneak into the film with their friends than to ask their parents to take them. But it's important to remember that there is at least some room for debate here. Unfortunately, reasoned debate is not what you get out of these controversies, which are mostly built around finger-pointing, accusations, and political propaganda.

The issue of violence in media is a big one that probably won't go away any time soon. But it's also a relatively unimportant one, when compared with the issue of violence in real life. Just as movies afford an escape from real life for their audiences, so they afford a similar escape for politicians seeking to avoid real-life issues. (Fatal shootings at Columbine? Let's not blame assault weapons; let's blame The Matrix instead.) It's easy, and it plays well in Peoria. Maybe, in some cases, there even is some validity to it. But for the most part it's blown way out of any reasonable proportion. As viewers who enjoy so-called 'violent' entertainment ranging from Pokemon to The Exorcist (with James Bond and Buffy the Vampire Slayer landing somewhere in between), we at Fandom should make a point to let the rest of the world know that we have turned out as psychologically well-adjusted as anyone else on the planet.


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