Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant
Thanks to early screenings and leaked footage, the much-anticipated movie Kick-Ass gained massive buzz among fanboys, bloggers (and pretty much everyone else under the age of 30) months before it hit movie theaters, poising itself to possibly be the best superhero move ever made. But when the feature finally released last month–replete with glorified violence and a young girl with the dirtiest mouth since Bob Saget–it was met with formidable resistance from parents and critics alike. Although Roger Ebert called the film “morally reprehensible”, publications such as New York Magazine and the Los Angeles Times recognized Kick-Ass as a guilty pleasure. Yes, it’s shockingly violent and raises the question of child abuse—but gosh it’s fun, and that 11-year-old really kills with some gumption, don’t she?
The strong reactions this film elicited recalled for me a recent book by media psychologist Karen Dill, titled How Fantasy Becomes Reality. Dill is well known for her research on the effects of media violence, which actually earned her a “character” in Grand Theft Auto IV, the car “Karin Dilettante.” Dill was at a conference the majority of last week, but enthusiastically agreed to take a break in between panels for a quick phone interview on the film. Here Dill continues her discussion of media’s influence on our realities. For Part 1 click here.
Michelle Rafferty: Have you only found that it’s mainly imagery that influences people and their behaviors, or have you also looked at the way text influences people? Or what do you find to be the most influential when it comes to media?
Karen Dill: I’m very interested in studying the image in media, and I believe that imagery is really powerful, because in part it evokes an immediate emotional response. It’s not really that we think through something, it’s just that we’re moved by it. For instance, I was just at a conference where someone was talking about the political power of showing a photo of a polar bear on a melting ice cap versus showing data about climate change. So when we see this polar bear our heart goes out to it, we feel so bad, it’s one polar bear, versus all this scientific data that explains this same type of thing, but not with the picture. So I do think pictures move us emotionally, maybe unconsciously in a way that we don’t have to process cognitively. On the other hand, another thing that I would focus on as moving people is simply story. It could be a movie, a narrative, it could be a book, or a textual narrative. But there’s some really fascinating research coming out of Florida by a man named Norman Holland who is a psychologist and he has a book called Literature and the Brain, and what he is finding is that the reason we are taught lessons by media is because when we engage with a story we don’t think critically, we don’t test the reality, we don’t counter-argue. We immerse ourselves in that environment and we basically say, what if this were true? And it has to do with the way that the brain works, when we’re really in a face to face situation versus when we’re engaging with a storyline. And so story is very powerful, and we don’t realize that we turn off that reality testing and that makes us more vulnerable to whatever messaging is going on.
There’s a whole theory also called transportation theory that Melanie C. Green at UNC Chapel Hill has worked on, and that says a similar thing, that whenever we’re very engaged with the story we’re transported there and we don’t argue back against things that seem unrealistic. Dr. Holland talks about how we accept that say for instance Spider-Man—we don’t counter-argue against the idea that he exists or that he can use his webs or different things that are in the story because for the very reason that we know it’s fictional and so our brains approach it in a different way. And because of that ironically we are more vulnerable to the messaging that is inserted in movies or stories.
Michelle Rafferty: So basically you’re saying our brains kind of trick us into thinking that fictional media is real in a way?
Karen Dill: Right, even though we’re completely aware, we can tell you intellectually that it’s not real, that it’s just a story, media are very meaningful to us. That’s why we love movies and songs and video games and things, we’re enthusiastic about them. We get involved in them, we get transported and we want to be transported, we want to escape from the every day, we want to be entertained. But just as another for instance, there was a study where people were engaged with a fictional narrative, it was a German story. And into the story they inserted false information about health. So that they said, exercise is bad for your heart for instance. And they found that people actually were more convinced by that because it was inserted in the story. If I just told you that exercise is bad for your heart for instance. And they found that people actually were more convinced by that because it was inserted in the story. If I just told you, “Exercise is bad for your heart,” you’d say, “Well, no it’s not, I’ve heard lots of different things all my life.” But when you’re swept away in a story, again you just don’t test your reality, you don’t counter-argue, and that makes you open to the messages that are in the narrative. And it’s things like this that I think if we were more aware of, we could be critical about it, and after we saw a film, we’d say, “Wait is this really true the way they portrayed that? Should I find that convincing?” Or it’s something that as a parent you can talk to your child about, “Wait a minute in this film they seem to be sending this message, do I really think that’s true?” You could be critical about it. Or you could make the choice to not expose yourself to certain forms of media just because you know it’s going to have that problem.
Michelle: There’s a lot of media out there to choose from, and social media has enhanced that. And social media is actually a big part of the movie Kick-Ass—YouTube and MySpace are a reoccurring theme in the film, they essentially launch Kick-Ass into superhero fandom. That said, what do think of film and television’s commentary on social media? This sort of media within the media device?
Dill: Well I think that was a very interesting part of the film Kick-Ass, and to me one aspect of it is that it probably appeals to a young male fan base, and other fan bases, but that’s probably a target audience. And that’s a group of people for whom social media are important. Actually young females use social media a lot too, and young males tend to use video sharing sites and other things, like YouTube for instance. So I think that for me, that made the film a little bit more realistic, in that we have this main character who is a teenage boy and he comes on the scene telling us that he’s invisible to girls and that he has only a few friends on MySpace, and then he wants to make himself into a superhero, and of course that’s a fantasy that many young guys his age would have. And he does this, and accomplishes this, and then he gets the pay-off in the film. He gets the beautiful girlfriend, he gets tons of friends on MySpace, he gets viral videos of himself being discussed on the nightly news, and I think that is a fantasy that’s instep with young guys’ realities, that they can imagine, “What if I could just go from zero to hero? What if I could just make myself into this superhero and have people admire me?”
And one of the lines that struck me, because I write about fantasy and reality, is that the first time he’s going to appear as this superhero, he says, “It’s like serial killers, the fantasy only works for so long. You have to make it a reality.” And he felt that way about his fantasy of becoming a superhero, that he needed to make that a reality. And it just made me wonder, because of the realism in there, how much would that encourage other guys to try something different, or to try something edgy? It could be a lot of things, I don’t know, but that’s the thing that occurred to me while I was watching the film.