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Mystifying the Villain: How Our Media Turns the Villain Into a Star, Essay Example

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Essay

The purpose of media is to inform, to connect and to entertain, but the way it chooses to do it reflects a clear and simple goal: to sale as much as possible. Even more sadly but equally true is that evil sales much more than goodness does. The society’s fascination with evil did not start with the media. The media merely reflects it, like a wicked mirror. It shows the public not only the things they  want to see but also how they want to see it: as detailed as possible. The society does not love its villains, its criminals, and its perverts –what it loves is to hate them. It tries to understand them, to understand how or why a human being is capable of so much cruelness, or perhaps, to figure how a human can feel so much disregard for death.  Our monsters are therefore brought forward in the news, in movies and on the internet.   We are fascinated with them, we try our best to find out as much as possible about them, and the media gives us what we ask for. We however got more than we bargained for. A movie such as “The Dark Knight” (Nolan, 2008) inspired James Holmes to shoot 71 in a theater the night that “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) premiered and to declare that he is the Joker.  News reports subsequently transformed him into a celebrity. As the media transforms killers into stars, many more are inspired to kill.

Why do the media portray the world so dark?  What constitutes news apparently needs to be negative in order to be important enough to make the evening headlines. In a study, Attila Szabo and Katey Hopkinson found that the majority of the news is negatively biased and that people are affected psychologically because of it (57). According to them, only 22% of the news broadcasted in the United States, on TV, on a period of 3 months could be considered good news. The ‘bad news’ included all sorts of violence, tragedies and human sufferance. Whereas national news focused more on wars and other negative events of some major importance, local news stations were more concerned to report crimes. Szabo and Hopkins discovered that watching bad news on television impacted viewers psychologically, making them depressed, anxious  or sad (60). However, people do watch these programs, and seem to be ever thirsty of hearing bad news. Humans’ fascination with death comes from our deep fear of it. This fear first turned people to religion in an attempt to find the promise of a sort of continuity after death. When religion became less convincing, people invented monsters such as zombies, and vampires, with the same purpose of answering our fear of death and promising an existence beyond life’s end. When monsters too became difficult to believe in, some people found comfort in the idea of continuing to live in the people’s collective memory. Some found no other means of reaching immortality than by transforming into the monsters which had populated their nightmares.

We tried to hide death in order to forget about it, and for a while, it seemed to have disappeared from sight. Unfortunately, we became even more interested in death as it disappeared from public eyes.  With it, our interest went to those who caused it. Not only did mass killings became more habitual as the problems in our society grew, but they became frequent as our means of communicating the incidents grew and diversified. Today, hours after a crime, the incident is all over the media, from the television to the internet. Video footage of the crimes and audio recordings, if available, are able to place the public onto the scene of the murders.  Newspapers display large pictures of the murderers, they receive nicknames, the shootings with the most numbers of victims seem to beat some sort of community records, and the most ‘interesting’ cases are included in books and movies. Not one of the victims or of the heroes of such shootings ever reach the same fame as the shooters.  Decided to end with their lives, and scared of anonymity, these shooters chose to be remembered by their cruelty and cold blood.

The media contributes to the mystification of the villains in two ways: by inventing them and by making them famous. By inventing fictional villains that may seem admirable in one way or another, and which reach fame to the same extent as the hero, the moviemakers and comic book writers respond to the society’s fascination with evil and inspire others to follow their example. By focusing on the killers, on the details of the shootings, and on the cruelty of the killings, instead of focusing on the victims, and on the actions of the police, the media transforms killers into stars. What is more, by keeping statistics on death toll and by ranking shootings media challenges other deranged individuals to do even worse.

Movies and comic books influence the society much more than books do nowadays. They reach more people and are easier to digest than books, and of course, they represent light entertainment. Beyond that however, they reflect our world, our values and our culture.  They show us how our world is and demonstrate us how we would like it to be.   A movie like “The Dark Knight” (2008), which is based on a comic book, has a double impact on the viewers. It reflects both the values of the community, through the comic book roots, and it shows us the world as it is. In Batman’s world, in Gotham City, the line between good and bad is very thin. While Batman is –of course- a restless fighter for justice, his methods are debatable, and he is often situated on the other side of the law. While politicians and police officers are portrayed as corrupt and evil, villains are romanticized by making them dependent not on the financial aspects of the crime, but on their personal gratification. In their article on the representation of crime and justice in comic books, Scott Vollum and Cary Adkinson see Gothm City a “state of conflict in which good and evil spring from the same place and where what is right and wrong is not always agreed upon” (100).   In Gotham City, what is good and what is bad is a matter of perception. The Joker, Batman’s eternal enemy, is never actually punished for his crimes, which contradicts the good vs. evil ideology in which good always win in the end. But does it, in Batman?  No, one might answer, since with each movie, and with each new comic book series, a shadow of darkness always remains.  And what does this mean, apart from the fact that it leaves room for continuation? It means that, in Batman, being a bad guy actually pays off.

In the 2008 movie, Batman fights against the Joker, one of the best bad guys of all time. Leaving the oxymoron aside, the movie maintains the ambiguity of the two characters and the morally doubtful tone of the story.  The Joker plants explosives on two ferries of which one is filled with citizens and one is filled with convicts. Threatened with death, the citizens want to kill the others, which makes them no better than the convicted criminals. Instead, one of the convicts throws the detonator on the window. This upside down sense of justice is further suggested by the fact that the Joker dresses hostages as his own men, and by the fact that Batman fights against the SWAT Team, although they were supposed to be on the same side. In the movie, Joker’s justification for murder and madness is his traumatic childhood, the kind of childhood Batman also had. However, in this movie, Batman’s own memories are not mentioned. Instead, Nolan focuses on the Joker and on his own experiences. As famous critic Roger Ebert remarks, “we realize that this conflict is between two adults who were twisted by childhood cruelty — one compensating by trying to do good the other by trying to do evil. Perhaps they instinctively understand that themselves”.

The movie therefore highlighted Joker, rather than Batman, and justified his crimes as being the result of a traumatic childhood. The movie portrayed him as a confident, extremely intelligent and charismatic individual who kills not for money, but for pleasure. He is a psychopath, yes, and he is concerned with spreading chaos into the world, but he has enough charisma to appeal to youngsters who may identify with him, and other super-villains like him, who seem to have everyone, including the hero, wrapped around their little fingers. The Joker seems to always be in control of the situation. Even when Batman throws him on the window, he falls laughing as if it were the funniest thing he ever experienced. He is of course saved in the last minute by Batman, whose sense of ethics does not allow him to kill his worst enemy. It is win-win situation for the Joker.  Last but not least, the character is played in this movie by the regretted Heath Ledger, who brought not only his talent, but also his fame unto the screen, and bestowed it upon the Joker. Some might even say that the Joker did not need this added fame, as the character is in itself a pop culture icon, but the way in which Ledger portrayed him, certainly added to the magnetism of the character. Either way, unlike other media fictional villains, the Joker is sure to have inspired at least one mass shooting, therefore confirming the negative effect of transforming villains into stars.

On July 20, 2012, 71 people were shot in a mass attack in a Colorado movie theater where the latest move from the Batman series, “The Dark Knight Rises” premiered. The shooting followed the pattern of other similar incidents. The killer was a young man in his 20s named James Holmes, who entered the theater armed with several guns and started shooting at everybody, adults, children and even a four-month-baby. What is different in this man’s case is that he did not commit suicide at the end, and had the occasion of making one explanatory statement, “I am the Joker”, and of laughing at the cops the same way as Batman’s enemy does (Riley and Margolin).  He later confessed having set bombs in his apartment and chemical devices, as a preparation for police officers who would try to enter. This also resembles the Joker who blew up a hospital in the movie as if he were lighting a match.  What determined the man to murder so brutally his victims remains unknown except for the obvious fact the he is a mentally deranged individual.  The fact that he organized the killings in this particular way suggests that he was most of all interested in making a statement, and of producing some impact. The man tried to become a star, much like his fictional alter-ego, and he succeeded.

Immediately after the shootings, a large and clear picture of the killer, with his name and details of his life could be seen on the internet, on TV, and in the newspapers.  People were thirsty for information on the shootings, on details regarding the shooter, and on how the killings occurred. Victims were merely a group of unfortunate individuals, whose statements were only important to the extent to which they gave information on the killer, and on the deaths of those around them. Who they were, how they escaped, how people helped each other, these details faded in the avalanche of information on the shooter. In other shootings, in which the video recording was also available, people were not interested in the victims, but in the killer. It is the killer whom they wanted to see, and it was the killings that they were after. If nothing ‘exciting’ happened in the footage, it was no fun. In “The Joker shootings”, an audio recording of the police department response to the shooting was released to the public.

So, the media make people like Holes feel like celebrities, and also provide the reasons for other madmen out there who are morally capable of taking a  person’s life, and even that of a child, or of a baby, to actually do it. In her seminal book on this topic, Loren Colman clearly indicates the media as the most important factors that determines a man like Holmes to plan a mass killing. She says that, “the media’s graphic coverage of rampage shootings, celebrity suicides, bridge jumpers, school shootings, and the like is triggering vulnerable and angry people to take their own lives and that of others (251).  She therefore clearly indicates the media as responsible for the series of copycat murders that affects the American society. She also claims that, by pointing the finger at other possible explanations, such as the guns availability, parents, schools, or drugs, the media avoids taking the blame as “the major socially reinforcing element in the mix: the media itself” (ibid.). Of course, Coleman’s own theory is that the media’s guilt is of offering detailed descriptions to the public, thus inspiring copy-cat killings to take place.

She shows that killings became routine in such a short period of time that they are obviously inspired by one another. What I propose instead is that media’s implication is of another nature.  The problem is not that it offers detailed description of the murders- media always did that, long before the apparition of television and the internet. The guilt of the media is that of making celebrities out of the killers, while putting the victims and their saviors in a cone of shadow. Instead of describing the police action, and investigation, instead of honoring the victims, news reports show a half page or full-screen picture of the killer, often looking like your average teenager or next-door neighbor.  They also announce the death toll and rank the shooting as “the deadliest since” or as “the most important”, or “cruelest”, which only sets forward a challenge for others to break the horrible record, to commit more horrible crimes, to kill younger children.

Unfortunately, we can only assist passively to this parade of the killers, as it unfolds under our eyes. We may acclaim Batman with our conscience clean, but we all know that Joker is simply more awesome. When it comes to real killers, our own fascination with death betrays us: while we shout our indignation for the murder of an entire class of 6-year-olds, or curse out loud the killer, we look feverishly at shooting footages, trying to identify the murderer, or to catch a glimpse of the victims’ terror. Maybe, if we will learn to look upon death as we did centuries ago, and to perceive it once again as a natural event which is part of our everyday lives and not an extraordinary phenomenon we may never get to experience with our own eyes, then the shootings will lose their purpose. Now, when we are so much afraid of dying, these killers have power over us the same way that the Joker does: by allowing us to become part of the spectacle of death. But if we learn to accept death as part of our lives again, then the interest for shootings will suddenly drop, and the killers will stop being celebrities. It is only then that we will defeat our monsters.

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