Brutal Bond restarts debate
Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Skyfall.
A recent university study on increasing violence in James Bond films has revived a series of familiar concerns about the effects of on-screen aggression.
Bob Hancox, one of the co-authors of the study, has concluded Agent 007 uses his licence to kill far more frequently than he used to.
''There's a huge amount of information that exposure to a lot of media violence encourages aggressive and anti-social behaviour, particularly in children,'' he said. ''There is concern and research to back it up that violent imagery in the media may lead to behavioural problems.''
There is evidence that on-screen violence is associated with real world aggression. However, there are three important qualifications to this observation.
First, researchers who provide this evidence - those who look at what actually happens when people see the images that worry Hancox - argue that there are a range of limitations to their studies.
Second, they argue that other conditions need to be in place before a kids act out what they've seen on screen.
Third, there's compelling evidence that the most important effect of media violence is that it makes people do nothing.
The strongest evidence that media violence makes kids aggressive comes from experiments. Audience samples - usually university students - are divided into two groups. One is shown a violent movie. The other sees something non-violent. Both groups are then tested for aggression.
These tests often take peculiar forms; you might, for example, be asked to administer a quiz to one of your classmates, with instructions to dip their hand into a bucket of freezing water every time they give a wrong answer. If those exposed to the violence systematically dip the hands for longer, researchers conclude that the movie has made people angry, insensitive or sadistic.
The problem, of course, is that this scenario, and the form of aggression, is nothing like the real world. These sorts of studies have inherent validity problems, and the people who do them acknowledge that, although they've found effects of violence time and time again, the issue of how far these effects carry over into society has not been settled.
On this question, academics have also pointed out the effects of media violence frequently appear among groups of people whose social circumstances make them vulnerable.
Famed psychologist Albert Bandura cautions that children need to have the motivation and opportunity to repeat media violence, and these determining factors do not have anything to do with the media.
One compelling argument, made by a Hungarian war hero turned media researcher, George Gerbner, is that the main effect of media violence is to make people afraid. What if watching James Bond over and over again teaches its fans that the world is a scary place, where we need people to do nasty things that we never hear about, to keep us safe? Hence the idea that media violence matters because it makes us do nothing; keep quiet, and let the powers that be do their thing.
The problem with these debates is that they tend to polarise people into the same camps whenever they occur. They always take the same shape. A new study comes out. Some claim it proves that media violence is harmful. Others counter that the case is based on flawed research methods and point to the many other studies that do not find associations between on-screen aggression and the real thing. And in the end, we never really move on.
Sure, it's silly to think that Skyfall will make kids violent all by itself. But that isn't what Hancox is saying. It's just as silly to think that a movie franchise that has been enormously popular for half a century has no impact on the people who love it. In fact, other academics have been writing about Bond for 20 years or so. Many are fascinated by what 007 teaches his audiences about gender, race, nationality and politics. The question, of course, is how his particular take on these issues combines with messages that audiences get from other parts of the media universe.
The lesson is, perhaps one way of getting beyond the familiar mud-slinging that always accompanies the media violence debate is to accept that this violence matters because of what it makes us think.
For 50 years, James Bond has been telling us what the world is like; who's good, who's bad, and how women should be treated. Arguably, Daniel Craig has revived the series by portraying a man who is less sure on these issues than he used to be. At any rate, it's worth thinking about what Bond violence means. Once you do this, you realise the media violence issue is much bigger than most imagine it to be.
>> Dr Andy Ruddock is a senior lecturer for the school of English, communications and performance studies in the faculty of arts at Monash University.