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.
Michelle Rafferty: You’re renowned for your work on how media—like video games, film, and television—affects us. I’m wondering if you give us your take on why people have been so vehemently offended by the character Hit-Girl in the film Kick-Ass.
Karen Dill: Well, the first time I heard of the film, it was a mother at a university talking to me about her nine year old daughter, and saying she just found it very offensive, I think, from a parenting perspective. When you see a child using really crass language, vulgar language, like the “c word,” or the “f word,” and doing some really brutal violence, that parents especially probably find that offensive. And I think that’s part of the appeal of the character Hit-Girl too, that she breaks the boundaries. People like edgy media, things that we haven’t seen a lot of before, and it’s that whole juxtaposition of the sweet, beautiful, innocent little girl and this coarse language and violence. It’s a twisted story, so I think it gets a lot of attention for that reason.
Rafferty: A lot of your work encompasses how media normalizes violence and misogynistic behavior towards women. Do you see the film Kick-Ass as doing this? Or do you think the character Hit-Girl could be seen as empowering figure for young girls and women? Is she subversive in a good way?
Dill: Well I think that she could be seen as subversive in a good way. The thing that disappoints me about a character like this, is that we are really in need of some genuinely empowering characters for girls and women. It’s a common thing really for women and girl characters to be portrayed with a mix of sex and violence nowadays. I do some research on video game portrayals, and that’s become a common portrayal. I really prefer as a parent and as an educator, a character that you can feel good about 100% rather just with just some aspects of power or dominance. And you know, the power of this character is the degree to which she’s willing to break boundaries just by using language or attitudes, and to be the perpetrator of very extreme, violent acts.
Rafferty: You just mentioned some of your work on video games. Could you talk about that a little bit more and give us an overview of what you found in your research?
Dill: Yeah, I’ve talked to so many people, especially everyday people—parents, educators, students in classes—who think that media are quote on quote “just entertainment,” and means they don’t change us at all. That’s one of things that encouraged me to write How Fantasy Becomes Reality, just trying to figure out why it is that we’re so influenced, but yet we feel that we’re not. And so an example of that from my own research would be that I did a study where I took typical video game women, who are sexually objectified, attractive, and sexual poses, things like that. And I showed those typical images in a slideshow to males and females. And then I also showed non-objectified professional mean and women in a slideshow to male and female students, and then I had them read another whole study, a real life case of sexual harassment and ask them to make some judgments about it: Is this a problem? Do you feel sorry for the victim? Should the perpetrator be punished? Is this really sexual harassment or should we not worry about it too much? And basically what I found was that the men who had seen these video game characters who were sexually objectified, they were more tolerant towards sexual harassment than any of the other participants in the study. Everyone else had less tolerance for sexual harassment— they thought it was a problem, they thought the perpetrator should be punished, they felt sorry for the victim. But not the guys who had just seen these objectified women.
A lot of the times I think it’s a myth that media violence researchers believe that if you are exposed to media violence you will immediately shoot people, or go postal on people. That’s really not a good way of describing it. I think that it’s aggression is harm, and demeaning someone opens the door for harming that group of people. It doesn’t matter if it’s women, if it’s black men, who I’ve also studied in video games and also found that if you demean a person, and you demean that person’s group, you are going to open the door for harm against that group. Whether in this case it’s being tolerant of someone sexually harassing them. In other research that I’ve done I’ve showed similarly in the same type of design, I’ve showed demeaned African American men who were seen as street thugs, criminals, versus powerful dominant successful African American men. And what I found was the reversal. In that case, as contrasted with the sexual harassment study, if you show positive images of African American males, you get positive treatment of other African American males. If you show bad images of African American males, you get bad treatment of people of the same group. In that study I used political imagery, and so I used a black candidate. And if you had seen the street criminal African American stereotype you are less likely to want to vote for a black candidate, to think he’s a good candidate to think he’s got excellent credentials. But if you had just seen a professional African American you were more likely to vote for him than the white person. So, things really do make a difference. People think that media are “quote on quote” just harmless entertainment, and actually they can have a lot of power either for positive or for negative changes like those studies showed.