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Media violence: Fact and fiction

Urban India witnesses intermittent public outbursts around the impact of TV violence on children. This construction of children as copycats and passive victims of media violence displaces any complicated analysis of how they actually engage with television, says Shohini Ghosh

Urban India of the late-20th century and early-21st centuries has witnessed intermittent public outbursts around the impact of TV violence on audiences, particularly children. Much like the debates on obscenity and vulgarity, uncomplicated responses to 'television violence' failed to take cognizance of the media's diverse and increasingly complex engagement with violence. Through the 1990s the popular press was replete with articles, opinions and views that unproblemmatically linked media violence to real violence. Writing about what he calls the 'cult of violence', Krishna Kumar, a noted educationist stated:

"Cinema and television have made a substantial contribution to the creation of an unkind, volatile ethos. Bombay films have glamorised certain kinds of violence; certain other kinds of violence have been trivialised. Television has enabled cinema to reach our living spaces, making horror and brutality a homely affair. Watching scenes of cold-blooded murder and rape since an early age allows children to develop a kind of derangement which lets them cope with the deep anxieties they carry."

Commonly expressed opinions such as these fail to address the intricacies of spectatorial positioning and issues of affect, desires, and apprehensions. Instead they concentrate almost entirely on 'negative effects', repeatedly recalling 'direct impact' and 'copycat' theories. Two highly publicised documents, the Media Advocacy Group (MAG) report titled People's Perceptions: Obscenity and Violence on the Small Screen (1994); and the Unicef-Delhi report Killing Screen: Violence on Television and its Impact on Children (1999) carry the fallacies of effects-studies that have now been substantively challenged by serious research. Methodologically elusive, both studies indict a wide range of screen activities as 'acts of violence' and assume that exposure must necessarily result in violent or aggressive behaviour. Certain shifts between the studies are noteworthy. The MAG report was concerned about the impact of violence on both adults, particularly 'lower income group males' and children, while the other report concentrated exclusively on children.

Similar arguments are made in the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) 'findings' of a 'Five City Study' titled Media Violence and its Impact on Children (2001). All three reports dispense with any literature review or description of the methodologies used. Instead, the report lists a series of observations that are not backed by any evidence. For instance, the CFAR study states that 'Recent tragic events in the USA have only emphasised the nexus between reel and real violence', without providing any details about the veracity of such a claim. Similarly, the report goes on to state that "there is enough scientific evidence based on scientific research in the West to indicate a linkage between media violence and impact on children" or that "since 1998, there is a growing body of data in India, which has, to some extent quantified the concerns and raised qualitative concerns".

Reading between the lines, one could conclude that the growing body of data since 1998 refers to the Delhi UNESCO report on media violence (1999), and its highly publicised dubious parent the UNESCO Global Study on Media Violence (1998). Inspired by direct impact and social learning theories, the supposedly 'unique' methodology of the UNESCO study had 5,000 12-year-olds in 23 countries respond to "exactly the same standardised 60-items questionnaire" translated into languages as diverse as "Japanese, English, Russian, French, Arabian [sic], etc". The report declares that the questions were not "culture bound, as otherwise a direct compilation of the data would have been impossible" but related to the respondents' "media behaviour, their habits, preferences and social environment". It is indeed curious that UN agencies with their cross-cultural mandate should believe that media habits, behaviour, preferences and social environment should be free from mediation by 'culture'. The study proceeds to elicit responses from countries as culturally diverse as Angola, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Croatia, Egypt, Fiji, Germany, India, Japan, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, South Africa, Spain, Tajikistan, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, and Ukraine. Predictably, the conclusion pronounces that "Media violence is universal".

Two underlying propositions in the methodologically-suspect UNESCO study are worth considering. First, by evacuating culture and social relations, the study suggests that viewer-text relations are universal and media is the primary influence in a child's life. Such an idea is echoed in a CFAR publication where the editorial states:

"Children represent the most vulnerable TV audience segment, given their youth and inexperience... Our findings indicate that media influences every aspect of children's lives...Their hopes and aspirations for the future, their attitudes to relationships - familial, parental, romantic, sexual, etc, are all inextricably linked with what they see, hear and learn from TV." ('A Child Centered Module', Viewer's Voices, Occasional Publication, February 2003.)

David Morley in his study titled The Nationwide Audience (1980) introduced the importance of social relations of television watching, marking a critical shift by proposing a more complex model of the interaction between text and spectator, dependent on a discursive context of reading. Decoding texts was therefore a struggle over meaning in which the viewer/reader actively participated. The complexities of viewer-text-context relationships and the methodology required to study the same had been debated extensively by the Surgeon General's Workshop on Pornography in 1986 (Office of the Surgeon General 1986). Listed among the methodological limitations was the inability to isolate specific effects of the variable being considered (that is, exposing to pornography) from other potentially influential variables. It was also observed that clinical studies of convicted sex offenders cannot separate their use of pornography from other highly significant factors that promote violence, such as drug or alcohol abuse, poverty and abusive childhood. Against the backdrop of the enormous volume of work done on spectatorship, it is curious that CFAR publications should make the unproblematic claim that "children imitate things without realising their impact. A seven-year-old boy after watching Tom and Jerry would trip others in a school bus" (Cartoons on TV-What Parents Think', Viewer's Voices, April 2002, p. 1).

The UNESCO study, while prioritising the influence of the media over every other experience in everyday life, also targets some people to be more vulnerable to 'negative effects' than others. The study states, for instance, that "one-third of the children in our sample live in a high aggression environment or problematic neighbourhood [sic]. This ranks from high crime areas over recent war zones and (refugee) camps to economically poor environments [where] more than twice as many people seem to die of being killed by others than in the low problem areas". The study then claims that violent content catalyses a new frame of reference for children whereby chances of 'problematic predispositions' getting 'channeled' into destructive behaviour increases tremendously.

There are at least two problems with this assumption. First, it assumes that everybody living in a violent environment is likely to behave violently. Second, it reiterates the elitist fantasy that the disprivileged and deprived are more vulnerable to media effects than those who are not. Therefore, it is the 'great unwashed', not the educated elite, who are more likely to be 'impacted' by violence (or sex) in the media.

Morley's study reiterates that the "television zombies" of the effects model of audience analysis are always "other people". Graham Murdoch (1997) suggests that "the dominant effects of tradition have proved so resilient partly because it chimes with a deeply rooted formation of social fear which presents the vulnerable, suggestible, and dangerous as living outside the stockade of maturity and reasonableness that the 'rest of us' take for granted. 'They' are the 'others', the ones 'we' must shield or protect ourselves against."

Further, the study problematically asserts that TV violence provides boys with a "frame [sic] of reference for attractive role models". Apart from validating the essentialist position that sex determines gender, which, in turn, determines ways of looking, it fails to understand the complexities of identity and identification or the role that fantasy plays in viewers' engagement with images.

Between the early- and the late-1990s the public debates on media and violence in India shifted largely to an exclusive concern around children. In June 2000, Common Cause, a popular consumers' forum, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court asking the government to develop a strict code around the depiction of violence on TV. The PIL drew heavily from the UNESCO report, which in turn addressed the anxieties raised by the controversy around the popular TV series Shaktimaan.

Inspired by the Superman series, Shaktimaan (The Powerful), played by Mukesh Khanna, revolves around the heroic antics of a man who, having been brought up by seven yogic sages, is endowed with superhuman powers. Shaktimaan has a Clarke Kent counterpart in Gangadhar, who is a teacher. Mukesh Khanna talks about the importance of the "self-confidence of the body". Shaktimaan and Gangadhar impart education around "useful" issues like environmental protection and healthcare.

Ironically, this children's TV show was telecast not only on any satellite channel but on the state-owned network, Doordarshan. Launched in September 1997, Shaktimaan had an uninterrupted and successful run till March 1998, when, responding to a public controversy, Doordarshan discontinued its telecast. The controversy followed the publication of reports filed by the United News of India (UNI) alleging that the serial was responsible for the death and injury of several children who tried either to imitate the superhero or endangered themselves in order to be rescued by him. In February 1999, Doordarshan took the serial off the air, following which producer and actor Mukesh Khanna challenged the order in the Delhi High Court and filed a civil suit against UNI for filing unverified reports. UNI eventually admitted to a "bonafide mistake" and tendered an "apology". The Delhi High Court also appointed a committee that urged the resumption of the telecast of Shaktimaan. The committee report while advocating freedom of speech and expression and dismissing allegations of "direct impact", interestingly spends a great deal of time endorsing the serial's attempts to inculcate yogic values in children.

The Shaktimaan controversy provides useful insights into how 'image-blaming' gets popular currency through anecdotal evidence, which in this particular case turns out to be totally unverified. Consider, for instance, the following commentary by S Bajpai in the Indian Express (1999):

"Shaktimaan is not universally injurious to children's health; but it is influencing them. At the end of each episode, Khanna would hector (that's the word for it) the audience: do this, don't do that. Children were listening; he has the letters to prove it. But children are copycats: they not only do as he says but as he does, too. Hence the imitation of his stunts, his acts. Khanna, appearing as Khanna on TV, has at length explained that the stunts are computer-generated animation; but they do create the illusion of life. So children will imitate Shaktimaan."

The construction of children as copycats and passive victims of media violence displaces any complicated analysis of how they might actually engage with television. Having assumed that all children are 'copycats', image-blamers need only establish the quantity of exposure, both in terms of duration and the range of expressions that can be seen to constitute 'acts of violence'. Perhaps what is most instructive in the entire debate is how the image-blaming position discursively negotiates reality and representation. To end this, I will return to another section of the above commentary:

"This is the story of man and superman. Of double roles. Of the thin line which was supposed to separate fantasy from reality but which all too frequently strays from one into the other. In other words, Shaktimaan alias Mukesh Khanna. In the public mind the two are inseparable. Indeed, wherever he goes, Khanna is greeted as Shaktimaan; so much so that when he was interviewed on STAR Newshour last week, the bemused anchor addressed him as Mr Shaktimaan! This confusion of identities lies at the root and heart of Mr Khanna's current difficulties; more critically, it has focused attention on the inability of many children to distinguish between fact and fiction and the need to do something about it. The difference between the American superhero and Shaktimaan is that Superman began as a comic book whereas Shaktimaan was first a 'real' man on the TV screen and only subsequently transformed into a comic book character. It's a critical difference: because children see Shaktimaan not as an animated being but a blood and guts human being - just like them. If he can fly, why can't they? Ay, that's the confusion."

According to this account 'copy cat' children are unable to differentiate between 'fact and fiction'. Clearly, this is an untenable argument, as both popular film and TV are replete with instances of superhuman antics by various protagonists. This contention is particularly absurd in the context of India, where male protagonists of popular films have been performing seemingly superhuman stunts for many decades now. The committee report reiterates this point stating that the two most successful teleserials, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were "replete" with "extraordinary physical and psychic powers". The public debate on Shaktimaan shows how common-sense notions around 'media effects' can oversimplify text-spectator interactions and spectator-fantasy negotiations. Who has the power to determine meaning? Is it the viewer who makes of the image what s/he will or is it the image that determines certain readings from the viewer? The ability of children to have a complicated relationship to the world of representation and that of loved experience was amply demonstrated on the live show titled Hello DD, which featured a phone-in interview with Mukesh Khanna. The phone calls by children provided interesting insights into the diverse and complex ways they perceived the persona of Shaktimaan. During a particularly insightful moment, one child caller said: "Shaktimaan uncle, I want to be like you when I grow up. I wan to be an actor."

(This article is an abridged and modified version of the essay titled Looking in Horror and Fascination: Sex, Violence and Spectatorship in India, Sexuality, Gender and Rights: Exploring Theory and Practice in South and South East Asia, (ed.) Gitanjali Mishra and Radhika Chandiramani, Sage Publications (New Delhi-London-Thousand Oaks), 2005.)
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